Exactly where We are Meant to Be
by Guest Blogger: Sara A.
I never even knew yoga retreats were a “thing” until I started attending Aprill Puciata’s yoga classes at Epic DC. She’d mention a retreat she was planning to somewhere exotic before class and I’d give it a second’s worth of attention, never seriously considering signing up. I just assumed one had to be one of those "Instagrammable" yogis to go on a yoga retreat. Plus, I don’t usually travel in groups, or with a daily travel itinerary, and anything that costs more than a decent pair of jeans gives me serious financial anxiety. Then one day April announced that she was putting together a yoga retreat to Cuba to which my immediate reaction was, “I’M GOING WITH YOU, APRIL. How do I register?”
It didn’t take me long to realize how little I actually knew about Cuba. This was an especially troubling realization for me considering that I AM HALF CUBAN. My dad left Cuba and came to the United States in 1960 at the age of twelve, ended up in the deep south where he grew up, married a southern lady, and raised two southern kids. I lived a typical suburban life in the American south - too far removed from the Cuban-American communities of south Florida (where we were obligated to visit relatives once a year or so) to care about what was going on (or had been going on) in Cuba. I knew some funny anecdotes from my dad’s childhood, but not much else. I didn’t even know Spanish! I had never shown much interest in learning about Cuba or my family’s history, so when I told my dad that I had signed up for a yoga retreat to Cuba, his reaction was: A what? (I guess he didn’t know yoga retreats were a “thing” either.) To where?!?
I began a self-guided study of everything I wanted to know and understand about Cuba. I listened to Cuban music and studied maps of Havana. I read memoirs of exiles and expats and had sensitive conversations with family members. I even read some Cuban history books - and I hate reading history books. I knew that in Cuba I would experience a staged version of reality, so I wanted to arm myself with history and truth. I wanted to see things for myself and to know the questions that I needed to ask, to get the uncensored answers. Flash forward about a year, and I was ready to go. I was outfitted with knowledge and a few new pairs of yoga pants. I knew more about Cuban history than I knew about American history (or at least it was much fresher in my mind).
...But I was completely unprepared for what I would actually learn and see once I got there. Not about history or politics but about people - Cubans, Americans, my dad, and myself.
My dad has never met a stranger. As an introvert and a skeptic, I’ve always been simultaneously terrified and intrigued by this characteristic of his. I thought maybe this was unique to his own individual personality, but as it turns out, he’s just like every other Cuban I met in Havana. Small talk does not exist in Cuba. Right out of the gate, Cubans want to know everything about you and speak with you like you’re an old friend: what kind of music you like, where you grew up, how the heck you got to Havana. One night, a fellow yogista and I met a young woman in Havana and immediately hit it off. In less than five minutes, we were talking iPhones, Obama, music, and graphic design. The next day, we met her at the shop where she works and continued the conversation with restaurant recommendations, a behind-the-scenes look at their blossoming small business, and a plan to meet up later that evening for drinks and music. She was not an anomaly. So many of us on the retreat shared stories of being invited into homes (perhaps to see an artist’s work or even offering a meal!) and striking up random conversations on the sidewalk. It didn’t even matter that there was a language barrier for many of us. If a Cuban wanted to have a conversation with you and you didn’t speak Spanish, they would find a way to communicate. Even if all it amounted to was a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek.
Cubans are great dancers and not just because they know some steps or can move their hips in ways of which Americans only dream. It’s because they just do it. They don’t care what it looks like or who is watching or that they don’t know the steps or the song. In America, we hang mass-produced art with inspirational quotes about dancing on our walls, but we don’t dance. In Cuba, you hear a beat and you get up and dance. It’s just what you do. On our last night, a group of us ended up at the neighborhood bar drinking beers and sitting around the edge of a drained swimming pool. After a while, the Cuban staff from the retreat center showed up, took one look at all of the Americans sitting around, and immediately put the party right with some music and dancing. Maybe it was the cerveza, maybe it was the cover of night, maybe it was the Salsa for Dummies class we had at the beginning of the week, but before long, we were all down in that empty swimming pool dancing the night away.
Reflecting back to that night, and to all of the other times throughout the week that I saw Cubans simply enjoying themselves through dance and music, makes me wonder why Cubans, who have experienced a lifetime of challenges, need absolutely no reason at all to stop what they are doing and just dance a while. I’ve often teased my dad about his “Cuban Shuffle” - the discreet little salsa dance he does whenever a beat or a melody strikes him. It’s silly, a little uncoordinated, but I realize now that it comes from somewhere deep in his bones and represents so much more than simply the joy he gets in using it to embarrass his teenage daughters.
When you hear that Cubans are passionate and creative, do not interpret this as flowery cliche. Eduardo Pimentel, our Cuban yoga teacher at the retreat center, is a beautiful example of this. We experienced his passion and creativity through the style of his teaching (he’s a stickler for proper alignment), his playful attitude between asanas, and in learning of his relentless pursuit of bringing yoga to the Cuban people. Eduardo’s passion for the practice of yoga is reflected in the way he treats each posture, the way he treats each person with a twinkle in his eye, and most importantly, the way he treats himself.
For me, this experience to Cuba was not just a yoga retreat or just a “licensed people-to-people trip to Cuba.” This was an entire week of knowing with absolute clarity that I was in the exact right place at the exact right time in my life. I knew it the minute I unrolled my mat for our first afternoon yoga practice. I knew it sitting on the front porch of my dad’s childhood house in Havana. I knew it at 2:30 a.m. on the malecon listening to a trio of musicians under the glow of the Hotel Nacional. I knew it on quiet afternoons sitting next to the sea, looking out over the crystal clear water. The stars were aligned for me that week - the people who came into my life, the connections I made to my family, and the awakenings I experienced in my own mind - and in the weeks since our return from Cuba, I’ve continued to feel inspired and humbled by this experience.
Sara began practicing yoga with April in 2014 at Epic Yoga DC looking for a way to ease anxiety and stress during the work week. When she isn't at Epic, you can find Sara exploring DC's neighborhoods, enjoying some new restaurants or planning her next big escape.