On July Fourth, my seven-year old son Alex and I boarded a plane for Nicaragua. This was to be Alex’s first trip abroad as well as my first trip out of the country since having children. Yet this was not your typical “first” family vacation abroad. Not only were we traveling to the second poorest country in Latin America, we were going there to spend time in service with 100 children at the SOS Orphanage as well as an elderly community outside of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. When I asked Alex earlier in the year if he wanted to go on this special journey with me in July, he didn’t hesitate to say “yes”. He did, however, inquire multiple times about the types of poisonous snakes in the rainforest.
For the third year in a row, Hearts Wide Open Yoga & Seva Retreat was led by Claudia Castro-Leverett and her husband, Thomas Leverett. Thomas and Claudia are co-owners of Del Sol Martial Arts & Fitness and Flaming Lotus Yoga in Dripping Springs, TX. Both are amazing teachers, community builders, and spiritual leaders. They have become dear friends of mine over these past few years and I consider them family.
So we did not go into this trip completely blind. We had our guides, our friends, and a great group of yogis traveling with us from the Austin community. Two other families brought their children along as well so all together we had six children in our group (ages 7 to 13).
Our journey started in the cloud rainforest at a renowned Ecolodge and Organic Coffee Farm, Selva Negra. Selva Negra is owned and run by Claudia’s relatives and sits on a pristine nature reserve consisting of over 300 acres of primary and secondary cloud forest. Pictures don’t really do it justice because the moment we arrived I felt how insignificantly small we (as humans) are to Mother Nature. There were plant leaves as big as my son and lush gardens growing on all the roofs. Water flowed around us everywhere. The sea of trees could’ve easily swallowed us whole but instead provided us with the purest oxygen I’ve ever breathed. Practicing yoga up there in the mountains was exceptional. We were situated smack dab in the center of the “Lungs” of the Earth – the rainforest. It was mystical, magical and enlightening.
On Day 2 we packed up all of the school supplies and gifts we brought from the US and headed to the SOS Orphanage in Matagalpa to spend the entire day with the children. From the moment we arrived, I knew it was going to be a great day. The communication started off a little slow (as to be expected – not all of us spoke Spanish nor did many of the children speak English) but the kids quickly warmed up to us. We sang a beautiful song written by the Dalai Lama in community together. Claudia led everyone through a short yoga class and then “Carnival Day” at the orphanage officially began. We painted faces, made jewelry, played soccer and other games together and concluded the festivities with an epic water balloon fight.
For many of us, the most memorable and impactful experience of the entire trip was sharing a meal and spending quality time with the children in their homes. At the SOS Orphanage in Matagalpa there are 10 children per house. Each house has a “mom”, a female teacher that has dedicated her life to raising these children as her own. This was the apex moment for me, the moment my heart burst open and I realized why we are all here…….
TO LOVE. TO CONNECT. TO HEAL. TO GROW. TO TRANSFORM.
You see – without love there is no life. Love is the oxygen of life. When we love we feel completely alive and we are happy. The need to be loved is characteristic of all beings. Connection is also a basic human need required for survival and growth. When we give we receive and that is how we connect. We give our time, our love, and even material things to contribute to the greater good. As a result, humanity grows stronger. There is a great prophecy a Mayan Elder shares and that is “humanity will one day realize its oneness and together bring an end to war, pollution and to the exploitation of Mother Earth.” This is a project called “The Shift of the Ages.” However, until we realize our oneness with nature, with each other, and with the Universe, this transformation will not take place.
That afternoon, we left the orphanage empty-handed yet our hearts were full. I’ve never cried so much from experiencing so much joy. I was bursting with love and gratitude for the opportunity to connect and to give back. I asked Alex on the bus if he had a good time. He replied in his sweet gentle voice, “Today I made a new friend. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish but we connected. We learned from each other and took care of each other.”
On Day 3, after a beautiful morning and yoga practice up in the Chapel at Selva Negra – we headed down the mountain again, this time to spend the afternoon in service at an elderly community run by Catholic nuns. This was quite the opposite end of the spectrum after spending the previous day with the vivacious children at the SOS Orphanage. Do you remember the 1990’s movie “Awakenings” with Robin Williams? Well this is how it felt when we first arrived to visit with the elders – many of the men and women seemed unresponsive and immobile. But this all changed the moment we turned up the music and started to dance! That’s all it took, was some music, movement and smiles to cause an awakening. This brought pure joy into my heart and many others. I later learned that many family members do not even come to visit these elders any more. I’m happy we had the opportunity to give them our love and energy even for the short period of time that we did.
After three emotionally charged days, we packed our bags (filled with WET everything from the rainforest) and headed to the Pacific Coast. For the next five days and remainder of the trip, we nestled into our luxury tree houses at the Aqua Wellness Resort & Spa. Aqua Wellness is a luxury eco-resort situated in a lush tropical forest and private beach cove just north of Costa Rica. We had the most amazing views of the ocean from our suspended yoga platform as well as from our tree house. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the waves and feel the ocean breeze. The food was delicious at Aqua Wellness. We especially loved “pizza night” after eating so healthy for the majority of the trip. Alex and I spent our days swimming in the ocean and exploring all of the nature surrounding us. The rainforest and beach was literally crawling with nature! In one afternoon/evening we saw hundreds of crabs, a baby turtle, a snake, monkeys, a scorpion, a praying mantis and a baby octopus. Alex was in heaven!
On the second to last day of our trip, I took Alex on a private zip-line canopy tour in San Juan Del Sur. It was an epic adventure and according to Alex – THE most fun part of the entire trip. “The orphanage was the most special part of the trip”, Alex said “but the zip-line tour was the most FUN!” We conquered our fear of heights that day and managed not to get peed on by the howler monkeys. According to our tour guide, the monkeys make a game out of trying to pee on us humans who come up into their territory. I was just happy I survived the zip-line.
Did I mention I made it to every yoga practice the entire 8 days? An extra big thanks to Claudia for hiring sitters (family members) to watch the kids at Selva Negra and to her father, step-mother and sister who also helped keep the kids while we were practicing at the beach. This enabled me a little personal time to process all that we had experienced and shared along the way as well as to dive deeper into my yoga practice.
Hearts Wide Open – Yoga & Service Retreat was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. I highly recommend this retreat to anyone who loves yoga, and wants to spend time in community with amazing people in a beautiful and natural setting. I felt the entire trip I was right where I was supposed to be.
Hearts Wide Open was also a truly sustainable event. Why? We traveled lightly, stayed in eco-resorts, ate vegan meals (local, organic and sustainably sourced) gave back to the local communities, and spent time in connection and service with those in need. It doesn’t get much more “sustainable” than this if you ask me. One of the many definitions of an event is, “bringing people together for a purpose.” I can think of no greater purpose than the opportunity TO LOVE, TO CONNECT, TO HEAL, TO GROW, and TO TRANSFORM.