“My balance was improving by the day, which was a revelation because I was now able to stand on one leg comfortably. As a result, it was not just the balancing act, but being able to move while still holding the pose. This was the first time I have ever felt confident & stable enough, where before it would not have been a possibility.”
Mhai Yoga, Havana, Cuba
When I was on a fitness & yoga retreat in the Dominican Republic (DR) I met Kathy, running a retreat operating in parallel to the programme I was on. We instantly hit it off & she told me about her next overseas event in April, in Cuba. As anyone who has read anything I’ve written on Cuba will know, I love the country! I had nowhere better to be in April, so I decided to go & join her. It was one of the best decisions I made during my 5 months away, regenerating me in so many ways. To see more on the best & worst of how I spent this time see my blog post 5 Month Self Tour of the Caribbean.
What do you need to know?
Mhai Yoga is a unique place, on the beach in the residential area of Tarará, 15 minutes’ drive from Havana. The shala (the platform where we practised yoga) is outside overlooking the sea, the food is mainly vegetarian & totally delicious & the people are amazing. I was looking forward to going back to Cuba & I was looking forward to practising yoga with my friend Kathy from Retreat Insider (I didn’t get a chance in DR). The yoga was also complemented by a new class for me – Pop Physique which was run by Jodi, based on ballet and so far predominantly available in the USA (& Toronto, Canada by Jodi).
For each day Mhai Yoga has a word to represent the daily focus & this is a great structure to recount my journey.
Day 1 – ACCEPT
Our first yoga session with Kathy was a chance to introduce ourselves to her, to each other and share our goals & thoughts about our time together.
For me, I understood the benefits & enjoyed the way yoga made me feel. I had been on retreats before & I always enjoyed the rejuvenating qualities of yoga but would never describe myself as a yogi.
“By this, I mean that I didn’t know the names of most of the poses (I generally need a description of what to do with each body part before I can start to manipulate myself into the correct posture!), my balance wasn’t very good & I had never really been exposed to or had any great interest in the theories behind yoga.”
Also, I get confused by the link with breath & need a constant reminder of when I need to breath in & out… & sometimes just to breath! I had never really understood the idea that yoga is “practice” as opposed to a class which I take as an isolated experience within my fitness regime.
Kathy introduced herself too & described her form of yoga as Vinyasa Flow, focussing on strength & breath. She links each practice to the chakras with a different theme every day, each building on the last. She also develops a new playlist for each practice which made the experience different each time & unique to the yoga I had experienced before.
Today was a yin & restorative yoga (holding poses for an extended time & more about relaxing & stretching). Kathy linked us to the first chakra, ROOT:
“Nourish and nurture myself, be grounded, stable, and feel connected to the oneness of life/universe.” – Sounded good to me & felt good too!
We ended the day meeting Coco who ran the retreat & talked to us about Cuba & the reason why today is all about ACCEPT. Cuba is a unique place, with challenges that we are not used to facing which can be incredibly frustrating. Once you know this & learn to ACCEPT Cuba as it is, is when you fall in love with the country, and I have! Here, there are a lot of restrictions & complications with things that we find straightforward, but ACCEPT & you will be rewarded.
To read more about my Cuban experiences, see my post – A First Timer’s Guide to Cuba.
Day 2 – CONNECT
We were encouraged (optional) to go & sit on the beach for Sunrise Meditation each morning. We were asked not to speak until afterwards & take the time to CONNECT with ourselves & our surroundings before we started the day. I did this most mornings & especially on this first one. There was something very spiritual about watching the sun come up on a new day & seeing my fellow retreaters sitting at intervals in front of me scattered on the beach engrossed in their own thoughts.
At 7.30am we started our 2nd yoga session of the week. Today was focussed on the chakra of SENSUALITY:
“Be at home and at ease in my body and find balance in relationships between myself and others”.
This resonated with me as I was starting to discover the benefits of living for the last 3 weeks on a yacht. In previous yoga classes, I have struggled as soon as the instructor says “Balance”. My Tree Pose (when you raise one foot off the ground & place it on the side of your other leg) has never been very impressive. Where others seem to have no problem in getting their foot right up near their crotch, I have issues with it even leaving the floor. After 3 weeks living on a yacht, I saw a transformation which I wasn’t expecting. As a result, to say I felt more at ease with my body was an understatement!
Today was also the day when we really started to CONNECT & build relationships among the group. Overall we consisted of 10 & our 2 instructors. As Kathy & Jodi are from Toronto this included 5 Canadians, 2 from the US, 2 French & 1 of each German, Polish & me, representing the UK.
“I discovered that I was honoured to be at the retreat with an amazing & interesting group of supportive, strong & independent women (& one man!).”
As the group progressed, our connection & recognition of our luck to all be there together grew along with our yoga. It was amazing to see the support & pride we all felt for each other as our practice became better & we really gelled as a cohesive team.
In the afternoon Kathy ran a Chataranga Workshop, giving us the opportunity to better understand the Chataranga Flow & build it into our practice. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what Chataranga meant but I was up for getting involved in anything & everything that was offered during the week. It ended up being a turning point for my practice for the rest of the week.
In my novice description, Chaturanga to me means practically how you move between poses during a Sun Salutation Flow. It’s the difference between using the ground to push your body off & using your strength to suspend yourself above the ground while you transition from one pose to another. What I learnt was how to engage fully in the movement.
“I was already feeling stronger, more powerful, balanced & more CONNECTED with my body. I had even started to understand why they call it yoga ‘practice’.”
With Kathy, I was also seeing a focus on our improvement across the retreat which I have never experienced before. This retreat was already shaping up to be a unique experience & perfect timing for me.
The 3rd session of the day was our first chance to sample Pop Physique. This is an exercise class derived from the principles of ballet & barre workouts and currently only available in a few places in the USA & Toronto (via Jodi). The workout is based around small movements which build strength through repetition. Basically, it looks like you’re barely moving but hurts like hell! Through 6 sessions (1 per day for the remainder of the retreat) I swear my bum lifted by about 2 inches! Good fun & definitely felt like it was working wonders for my muscle tone.
The final event of the day was a Mojito Workshop – learning how to make real (& very strong!) mojitos from the experts & a great way to further develop & CONNECT as a group!
Day 3 – DISCOVER
After our early morning Pop session & a delicious breakfast, we then had an excursion to Havana & we were in for a treat! As we gathered downstairs for our transport to the city (about a 15-minute drive) we were thrilled to see 3 beautifully restored old American cars outside waiting for us. After many photo opportunities, we over-excitedly headed to explore this intriguing, stunning & inspirational city.
We DISCOVERED the city on a walking tour of the streets, went for a mojito & a delicious traditional lunch at a famous paladar – Ivan Chef Justo. After my previous visit to the capital, I was pleased to see that Havana hasn’t really changed although it is definitely busier with tourists than when I was there in 2016.
In the evening we had another Yin & Restorative yoga session, this time focussed on the 3rd chakra, POWER:
“May I be able to honour myself, be who I am in the world, and express that power without fear“.
In the beginning, Kathy asked us to think about who our practice was dedicated to. I chose Terry, my husband who we tragically lost just before Christmas in 2014. To read more about my journey see my About Me page.
At the end of the session, as we moved towards Savasana (corpse pose & the final relaxation pose of the practice), Kathy asked us to bring into our minds the person that we were dedicating the session to.
“My “I AM” practice was for Terry & as he came into view I realised that everything I have done since the devastation of his loss has been possible because of him. I know that he would be thrilled to know that I was living life on my terms & it is all down to him. But I loved him to pieces & I miss him like hell.”
I cried all the way through Savasana.
When we finished Kathy closed up the session with tears in her eyes as she looked at me. I explained the reason for my tears & she summed things up with a simple comment “Sometimes it’s good to be vulnerable”. I thought about this for a minute & realised that I have fought a lot over the last few years – to keep a smile on my face, to keep driving my life forward, to make a new life. I fight every day against being vulnerable & it felt good to finally let it in. So, today really did turn out to be all about DISCOVERY.
Day 4 – BALANCE
After another Sunrise Meditation, we started the day proper with yoga. The fourth chakra is LOVE:
“Free to feel my true feelings, desires, and passions and be at home in my heart”.
Kathy focussed on the mantra of “I CAN” & for me this meant my Mum. I lost my Mum nearly 20 years ago & she has always been a true inspiration for me to believe I CAN do anything I put my mind to. This was embedded when I first decided to travel alone in my 20’s. She did nothing but encourage me & for this, I will always be truly grateful to her. She gave me the biggest & bravest gift anyone could ever offer & made me the person I am today. I CAN was all for her.
With today’s focus on I CAN, I made another realisation. My BALANCE was improving by the day, which was a revelation because I was now able to stand on one leg comfortably. As a result, it was not just the BALANCING act, but being able to move while still holding the pose. This was the first time I have ever felt confident & stable enough, where before it would not have been a possibility.
“As we moved to the final part of the practice I brought my Mum back into my minds focus. Again, I cried all the way through Savasana. This was becoming a habit.”
The rest of the morning some of the group had a Stand-Up Paddleboard (SUP) lesson but I opted for a couple of treatments from our visiting beauticians, a facial & long overdue pedicure. As with most things in Cuba, the brands of skincare that we are used to are not available, but instead, I had a relaxing & rejuvenating facial massage using natural, locally produced products & came away feeling refreshed, lightheaded & looking 10 years younger (at least in my eyes!).
Tarará, where the retreat was based, is a gated resort town & a fascinating location. It was built in the 1940’s when it was home to numerous US families whose houses were confiscated after the revolution. It is now an interesting mix of beautiful 1940’s restored homes & abandoned houses taken over by nature. In this second category is the theatre which I spent the afternoon exploring in an otherworldly photographic study. I can safely say it’s not like anywhere I’ve ever been & there were only 2 of us there for the whole afternoon.
That evening, after our Pop session the group decided to go to the local bar just for a couple of drinks, before being struck by a massive lightning storm & ended up staying much longer than we had planned! It was impressive & dramatic to witness the attack of nature & the girls embraced the opportunity by dancing in the rain. It was a beautiful experience!
So, the first 4 days of my retreat had already been a voyage of self-discovery but I was in for a lot more as my yoga practice developed, so did my physical & mental strength & realisation. Next time I’ll be sharing how my experience grew, culminating in my meeting with a Fortune Teller.
What do you think?
What have you experienced while travelling which has been a source of self-enlightenment?
Where are other yoga retreats would you recommend?
What other experiences would you recommend in Cuba?
To see more of my photos from Borneo please visit my Gallery page!