Tulum Yoga Retreat
“Travel changes you.” The truest statement there ever was. When travel coincides with a spiritual experience like a yoga retreat, you do more than just change, you transform.
With a fear of traveling solo but a deep seeded need to do just that, I nervously made a last minute decision to book a yoga retreat for my 30th birthday (four days before to be exact). After toying with locations for months and months, while having a conversation with my hypnotherapist, I mentioned missing Tulum and it’s magic. She said she knew someone that ran retreats there, connected us, and it just so happened that she had a retreat coming up the following week. Feeling the good vibes from the yoga instructor, I booked the retreat and a one way flight to Tulum. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was scared shitless to do this alone, but my year of pushing past fear and anxiety has been so fruitful I knew I needed to keep moving and take the leap. With a love for retreats, (my first one being a year and a half prior, article here), I wanted the next one I attended to be a lighter experience; one that was still introspective and healing, yet lighthearted and fun. And my experience with Yoga Adventures Worldwide provided all of the above, and so much more.
Entering Cancun after 7.5 hours of airtime, I step outside the airport sliding doors and walk right into the sweltering heat of good ol’ Mexico. Dripping sweat, I strip down to shorts and a tank top in the bathroom of Margaritaville, and head out to meet my lovely shuttle driver Hector.
“Tienes nova?” (aka: “do you have a boyfriend?”) I blush, though he probably couldn’t tell as I was already beat red from the heat. I think, “C’mon man, we’ve known each other for thirty seconds,” but my mouth politely replies, “nope.” Oh boy, here we go, welcome to Mexicoooo.
We hop into the shuttle and as I sink into the surprisingly comfortable seat, I am thrilled and proud that I am 1. still alive despite my recent fear of traveling (explanation here) 2. I conquered my first solo flight sans Xanax 3. That I managed to get hit on after that long flight, sweating bullets and looking like this. (just kidding, kind of). and 4. I am on my way to freaking Tulum again!!!
Fast forward 1.5 hours; I open my eyes upon entering Tulum. Soaking in all the beauty, I remember from my previous work trip here, a reel of memories replaying in my mind. Hector drops me off at Zamas, “adios hermosa.” Thanks Hector.
Arriving at the retreat casa, I fall deeply in love with the architecture and style. I pause and thank my creative mind for allowing me to fall in love everyday with the simplest of things or the most extravagant of things, gracias colorful soul. Mirroring what is quite close to my dream home, the open and airy rustic casa is filled with blue, pink and green distressed walls, large wooden antique doors and unique tiled bathrooms. Floor to ceiling arched windows let in a cool breeze and the sound of crashing waves, the pool is surrounded by palm trees and lounge chairs, and quirky art pieces add even more charm around the home. Boasting 3 stories high, with 6 stylized bedrooms, beach in the front, jungle in the back; this casa serves all the feels, particularly a strong impression of freedom and love.
With just enough time to set down my bags and rinse off, my heart aflutter from a combination of excitement, nerves and rushing; I sit to join the opening circle. Settling in, my heart rate slows as the tension drops, the smell of sage soothes me, and I look around the circle at the beautiful women joining me on this retreat. We share our intentions, laughter, smiles and tears within the first twenty minutes, I feel connected and calm already. Christina, the creator of Yoga Adventures Worldwide, with the warmest, most authentic spirit, and the enchanting Nina, our evangelic yoga instructor, give us the low down on the schedule and what’s to come; yoga, massages, authentic Mexican food, more yoga, sweat lodge (what!?), river float, mud meditation…oh and did I mention, lots and lotsa yoga?! Knowing about all the fun to come, my overly excited and stimulated inner being sends through a mental picture of Will Ferrel in Step Brothers, jumping and screaming “so many activities! It’s making my head spin how many activities we can do!” HAH. Smirking, I come back to earth. Closing out the circle, I am more than ready to participate in what I sense will be a life changing 5 days, with a knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and that this is going to be a deeply transformative experience.
Slowly blinking my eyes open, my vision and surroundings feel a bit cloudy and I feel disoriented. Sitting up, I realize that it’s just the view through the mosquito net that is making things look a bit fuzzy. I rub my eyes and readjust my vision, ahhh there we go. Slumping back into the lush pillows, I throw my arms behind my head and let out a loud sigh. I take in the colorful walls in my incredibly large bedroom, softly gaze at the palm trees blowing outside the floor to ceiling windows and feel the stickiness already accumulated on my skin from the humidity and lack of air conditioning. (Eventually, I get used to the never ending heat and humidity and come to appreciate the lack of AC for it’s eco friendly purposes, and the au naturel, air dried waves it provides of course). Checking my phone, it’s 8:15 AM: time to get my yoga on! I pop out of bed and throw on my yoga clothes, excited and ready to get this body moving. Since coming to Tulum the year prior, I have found that there is no yoga more enjoyable than outdoor yoga; so I was delighted to learn that all classes were held on our casa’s outdoor patio, allowing us to flow with the ocean breeze and relaxing sounds of the waves, with views of the pool and greenery. Our lovely yoga instructor, Nina, greeted us and opened the class with soulful words reflecting on the tarot card she had pulled for our session. To soothe us from our travel day and energize us for the week ahead, we were led into a grounding yet energizing class. Throughout the trip, I came to genuinely admire Nina’s gift for teaching yoga. Her ability to loosely plan a sequence and adjust according to the energy of the room in the moment, truly going with the flow, in my opinion is pure talent. With two sessions a day for five straight days, each class was different. She provided fire when we needed more energy, gentleness when we needed more restoration and never-ending flow for more ease in each day.
As our first class ends, I feel revived and balanced. Nina asks us a question relating to the theme of the retreat: healing in layers. We’re given time to have a think, write in our journals and pull tarot cards. I see my previous entry answering one of the questions Nina had sent us before the retreat. “What makes you feel safe?” I remembered having trouble answering this question, each idea that came up was something external that didn’t feel quite right. When my soul had screamed “YOGA! MEDITATION,” I knew that was the right answer for me. I read the words I had written about these practices: “having the ability to meditate, close my eyes and breath to come back home, to feel held by my mat and process how I am feeling, both allowing me to let go and grow; these are the things that make me feel safe. These are the things that feel like home to me.” As if sunshine begins radiating from my heart center, I feel immense gratitude that I took the leap to come to this magical place to practice two of my favorite things; the things that make me feel safe no matter where I am.
Each day went on like this, two yoga sessions with time to journal and pull tarot cards. Nina asked very powerful questions, thus filling my journal with very powerful words and insights. I found myself continuously having “aha” moments throughout these 5 days. Each and every tarot card rang true for me, and it was incredible to watch the cards get lighter and lighter, more and more positive as the days went on. Themes that seemed to appear in all the cards I pulled were: letting go of trying to figure everything out and trying to make things happen, and connecting to my power, strength and creative expression; all very much resonating with me and very relevant to my personality and this particular chapter in my journey.
Filtered in between all the yoga, tarot cards and journaling we participated in unforgettable adventures, and had lots of time to do our own thing. We ate authentic Mexican food (the shrimp at Zamas so fresh that you could literally watch it being pulled out of the water on the boat beside the restaurant). When we didn’t have meals together, the retreat owner, Christina had all the best recommendations and all the hook ups (let’s just say getting into Hartwood was a breeze). I went salsa dancing in town, imagine me being the only non-Spanish speaking “white girl” in a sweatbox room full of locals, trying to keep up and stepping on toes- yeah it was like that (insert eye covering monkey emoji here). I finished my new favorite book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, while lying on the beach, hugging it close to my chest, treasuring it’s content and thankful for this gift. I chatted with strangers and at times felt like a local. I stayed 5 extra days on my own and made deep connections and had beautiful conversations, and experienced a whole lot of synchronicity and manifestations…
As much as each experience deserves it’s own story or chapter, in order to not make this the longest novel known to man, I have shortened some of my highlighted experiences into a short story format below. I will be adding more stories periodically, so be sure to stay tuned. <3
Walking into the relaxation station, excited to get my massage on and eager to bring my body more ease, I meet Elvira. At first glance, she appears small and sweet; dressed in all white, a stylish off the shoulder top and knee length white skirt. As I continue to evaluate her, I notice how the ethereal white is a stark contrast to her dark skin tone and uber tight body. As our eyes meet, I feel the power in her gaze and almost begin to feel more nervous than excited; it was as if she was looking straight into my soul and reading my mind… “oh shit, this woman is legit.” Having been told that Elvira was a true Mayan healer from a lineage of healers in Tulum, I could tell from this initial greeting and from her presence, that this was the truth. I strip down to my birthday suit and hop onto the table, shyly smiling, unsure of what to expect. She asks me where I am from and suggests that I participate in the massage for the most benefit; to breathe with her movements and to let go. Alright, will do. The massage begins as she uses oils and performs the usual massage strokes; nothing new here. I relax. Checking back in, Elvira asks me to breathe deeper with the strokes of her hands. I do my best. She begins to softly mutter in Spanish, almost sounding like she’s chanting and the pace of her hands picks up. She begins to cup her hands together and make a “schoo, schoo” sound when cupping certain points of my body (unbeknownst to her, where I feel the most pain.) “Express yourself, breathe, breathe,” she repeats over and over. I participate more (you only get as much as you put in?) and find myself grunting, moaning and coughing. It begins to feel like energy is dropping through painful areas of my body, and with each drop I feel like I am slipping deeper and deeper into a state of meditation. This goes on for an hour and a half, and I am remain in another world mentally, an alternate Universe. When Elvira gently awakens me from my meditative nap, my hands, my feet, my back, my brain; everything is buzzing, vibrations reverberating through every energy channel. Whoa. Standing up in a haze, unsure of what had just happened, I try to find my center and come back to reality. Focusing in on Elvira, I notice her softly smiling and looking directly into my eyes again. “You need to express yourself more, you are holding sadness, you need to let go, you need to release, you need to cry” she says as points to the left side of my stomach. (On this healing journey I have learned through Eastern medicine that the pancreas, on the left side of the stomach is where the emotion of sadness is held, and for ten years I have been experiencing pain here). A bit surprised, I feel defensive and upset. I have done so much healing work on this journey, I have finally allowed myself to feel so much sadness, how could there possibly be more? But as I look into Elvira’s sincere eyes, a wall breaks down, my ego dissolves, and tears begin cascading down my face; deep down I know this is the truth. “We’ve got more work to do,” I think to myself.
As I lay on a lounge chair on the beach post massage, I think about the spiritual journey I have been on thus far, how far I have come, how much I have allowed myself to feel and all that I have endured. I think of Elvira’s words and how difficult it can be to experience the sadness; I feel grateful for her powerful hands, truthful eyes and ancient wisdom that helped me unlock more repressed emotions. I remind myself that it has gotten a lot easier and a hell of a lot lighter. “Trust the process, enjoy the unfolding and remember: we are healing in layers here, Jess.” With ease, more tears flow and I close my eyes, allowing the sun to slowly dry up the waterworks. A lightening bolt thought appears and I experience a surge of energy, my vibration raises and I grin from ear to ear… “how lucky are we to experience the power of touch and for the healers that bring forth our hidden emotions… for in the end, isn’t this how we heal?”
A temezcal (or sweat lodge) is a traditional Mayan cleansing ritual, where you enter the “womb of Mother Earth,” aka a circular dome filled with heated volcanic rock, to come out “reborn.” If you would have told me about this ritual two years ago I would have looked you square in the eye and called you bat shit crazy for putting yourself through that… but hey, a lot can change in two years, and one thing that has certainly changed, is me, and my perspective. I have become far more open to all the spiritual shenanigans, and the more and more I try things in this realm; whether it be healing work, rituals or practices, the more I feel the effects of their healing and experience the shifts; my belief deepens. So when I was presented with the opportunity to try my first temezcal on the fourth day of the retreat, with no hesitation, I was all in…
There it is, the dome-like structure where we are supposed to spend 2 hours sweating and experiencing some kind of “rebirth.” My imaginative mind magnetizes a mental picture of myself, mouth wide open, wheezing, dripping sweat, shriveled skin and crawling out of the dome wailing in desperation for air. Shit, no bad thoughts Jess, positive vibes, positive vibes. We strip down to our ‘kinis, I set my emerald earrings on the altar for charging, and we gather on a bench to gear up for the main event. Our totally bad ass shaman, Margarita, gives us some background on this tradition. Her words flow with ease and there’s a tenacity in her voice that is captivating. Can I just like, be her? This woman is FIRE. She mentions that we will be honoring the four directions: North, South, East and West, that the fire outside the dome is known as the grandfather…something about the stars, something about the moon, something about the earth… at this point my mind starts wandering and worrying (sorryMargarita). “What the hell is going to happen in there? Am I going to faint from the heat? …STOP, we’ll just see what happens, go with the flow! You got this” As I check back in, I watch as one by one, each woman gets smudged with sage, and then one by one, they crawl on their hands and knees and disappear into the small black hole (of doom, jk jk). It’s down to Christina and I, and she looks me in the eyes, smiles a weary yet excited smile, and gives me the tightest hug I’ve received in a long time. A “holy shit here we go,” look is exchanged and tears begin welling up in both of our eyes. I stand and am smudged, waiting for the shaman’s cue, I say my full name “Jessica Terry Zanotti,” and then am sent off to crawl on my hands and knees into the stone oven. Finally, Christina and Margarita enter, more hot stones are thrown into the pit in the center, and the wool flap is closed.
Darkness. Sheer, pitch black darkness.
A surge of panic runs through my body, I feel claustrophobic and unsure what to focus my attention on. When my mind begins to spiral,Margarita begins to sing. Passing around mariachis, we are encouraged to sing along as well. The improv style sing-a-long intention setting commences; I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth, but I am too hot to care. Herbs are passed around to toss in the pit, the aroma is invigorating.
An hour of chanting, singing, and sweating profusely passes. At this point I discern I have reached an altered state of consciousness; in the pitch black I see a projected image of us dancing around a fire in the woods, as if we are a Native American tribe. My hand lazily shaking the mariachi, my body hazily swaying to the beat of its own rhythm; all with a crooked, drunken looking smile on my face. Yeah, definitely on another planet right now. One by one, some of the women begin to lay down; panting and groaning. Oh no, they’re fading fast, dropping like flies! Periodically, the door opens and closes, adding even more hot stones, increasing the heat; increasing the intensity of the experience. Each time the door opens, I imagine myself reaching out screaming a slow-mo “nooooo,”but instead, I stay put and continue swaying in place on the dirt beneath me. “You can do this guuurl.” Margarita continues sing-song chanting ancient wisdom and eventually one of the women cracks: wheezing and panting and shuffling around in the dirt, she screams, “I have to get out, I have to get out, I can’t breath, I can’t breath!” My eyes widen, trying to see what is happening (as if I believe my night vision will magically turn on?) Margarita fiercely thrashes water on “the one attempting to escape,” and with a soothing yet stern voice, urges her to “just breaaathe, just breaaaathe. stay calm, stay calm.”
Whoa, shit’s getting intense right now.
The moment passes and we all come back to calm, just trying to “stay woke” (aka not faint) in this extreme heat. My widened eyes go back to half opened slits, as if I’m stoned, and I almost find this moment comical (sorry P).
Two hours pass, seven doors are opened and closed, and we are upon the finality of the ceremony. One by one, single file, we wearily crawl on hands and knees out of the womb-like heated darkness of the temezcal. As I exit, head hanging low, breathing heavily; I bow and kiss the earth. Margarita, standing by my side, whispers a soft prayer and pours a bowl of water over the top of my head; washing me clean. I join her in thanking the stars, the moon, mother nature, our ancestors, for all it’s beauty, support and glory. As I open my eyes and take one giant breath, I feel spiritually euphoric and truly like I had just experienced a rebirth.
Under the pure blue night sky, glowing moon, and breezy palms, we all have a seat on the bench beside the fire. We happily indulge in fresh fruit and water, and towel off, looking as if we had all just ran a marathon (or 20). We share some of our experiences and “aha” moments, and Margarita closes the ceremony with more powerful and graceful words.
The day after the “sweat lodge”, I feel the best I have felt in a long time. I reflect on the intensity of the ceremony, and how the claustrophobia of the dome, the harsh heat, and the unknown would have typically triggered an anxiety attack or meltdown for me. I thought about how well I handled the discomfort, and how I allowed myself to let go and fall into the process, even though I had no idea what was to come of it. I was proud of my ability to talk myself down, stay calm, and even have fun with it (cut to the image of me shaking the mariachi, swaying and smiling like a goon). The experience for me served as yet another example of my progress on this journey; of how far I have come from being the one that was always “too scared” to try new things, from medicating myself to be sure I never had to deal with uncomfortable emotions and sensations, and ultimately, from withholding my spirit from expansion. Bravo, Jess.
Excitedly, I think…“what shall we try next?”
The Lazy River Float
After an incredibly sweaty afternoon tour of the Muyil Ruins, a solo introspective jungle walk, a climb up the observation tower and grubbin’ on some chicken and rice; it’s finally time to cool down and enjoy the Muyil River Float. Hopping on the motorboat, we head out into the crystal clear turquoise water of the Chunyaxche freshwater lagoon. Giggling about wearing our life vests like diapers, we hold hands and jump into the refreshing and slow moving water of the Muyil. Floating slowly down the canal, jokes are made about me being the first sacrificed should we be attacked by any water creatures (it appears my blood is the tastiest due to the infestation of mosquito bites I have accumulated, I seriously look like I have a disease). Ha Ha, guys. More inside jokes are made (hello Johnny Depp synchronicity), many deep conversations are had, and I feel a connection with my fellow retreat attendees that I’ve known for only 2 days. Suddenly, I find myself distracted from conversation and distracted from the moment; fighting to find balance with the awkwardness of the vest diaper and the undeniable pull of the tide below me. Frustrated with myself and my lack of presence, I begin kicking and waving my arms, trying my best to find balance and a relaxing position to lay back, take in the sunshine and just be. “Why is this so difficult for me? You’re in the middle of a beautiful river, with awesome people, who cares if you’re uncomfortable? Just chill!”Mid struggle, I discern that I must stop exhausting energy trying to fight the current. I take this moment as yet another lesson, and vow to stop trying to control the currents of change and life around me; instead to just let it sweep me along into the next stages of my life, sans resistance.
Choosing not to resent my lack of steady buoyancy in this moment, I laugh it off and finally succumb to the natural pull of the tide, riding along with the unsteady flow. 100% in the moment, 100% grateful, 100% happy.
One thing that truly fascinates me in life are those unexpected, deep and meaningful connections that are instantaneous; when you meet a person, are comfortable with them right away, and conversation just flows. Though it has been happening more recently, I still find these connections to be incredibly special and rare. On my second day solo after the retreat, I experienced this with a wonderful woman named Jinous.
Waking up at 8:30 AM in my new hotel, I grab my notebook and journaled about my vivid dreams. Dragging out of bed, I leisurely brush my teeth and throw on my yoga clothes. Opening the sliding door, I step directly into the yoga studio attached to my room, gaze at the ocean through the floor to ceiling windows and lightly stretch to wake up my body. Suddenly feeling a curious energy pulling on my left, I glance over and see a woman, also stretching and taking in her surroundings. Without thinking and feeling compelled to talk to her, I strike up a conversation. The woman’s name is Jinous; she is from Canada, and is also here solo. Within 5 minutes, we have plans to hang out after class.
Class ends and we devour our complimentary breakfast while discussing what we should do with our day. We decide to grab bikes from the hotel to cruise the busy streets of Tulum; hit the shops, and make appointments at Yaan Wellness Spa (well for her not for me, $$$).
Maneuvering through the sweltering heat and the busy street, conversation flows as we glide in to ride next to each other, continuing sharing our stories, and out to avoid being run over by the abundance of Tulum taxi drivers. With a certain je ne sais quoi; a free spirited warmth, a natural ease and an air of confidence; I am eager to learn about, and from Jinous.
Getting down to the nitty gritty quite instantaneously; our dialogue encompasses stories about our lives, families, work and relationships. Eventually we dive into the mystical; discussing the Universe, Quantum Theory and our experiences with spirituality and spirit. I marvel at the fact that she really gets what I am talking about, on a deeper level; a level that only a person that has had her own spiritual journey would be able to grasp. Her understanding of my journey and receptiveness of my stories has me feeling truly heard, and it feels as if we have known each other our whole lives.
Talking about the things that set my soul ablaze has me on cloud nine, and just as the hunger pangs start to kick in we take our story telling to the beach restaurant at Be Tulum (where I eat one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had, might I add).
Diving deeper into our stories, with no reservation or fear of sharing in the moment; I open up about the darker parts of my journey; the pain, the mishaps, the sadness. Tears well up in her eyes and she grabs me and hugs me tight. “I am so proud of you, and I hope you are proud of yourself as well.” Crying myself, I am surprised at the amount of comfort I feel from someone I have only known for 4 hours. I find myself wondering if becoming a mother allows you to cultivate the ability to truly listen, and to grow a heart that big and full of compassion (Jinous being a mother of two), or if it’s just something that comes with life experience. Either way, I feel truly heard and like I have found a soul sister in Jinous. Telling me more about her own journey, I find myself inspired and admiring her for being a deeply intuitive, wild and wise woman; a bold dreamer and a fearless adventurer.
The next morning rolls along; it’s my 30th birthday, and I am contentedly sun bathing solo. Reading all the texts, instagrams, and emails wishing me “the best birthday everrrr,” I softly sob tears of gratitude for the wonderful people in my life that make me feel so special and loved. After devouring the love fest via iPhone screen, I gather myself and begin to wonder what I should do with my day. As the Universe would have it, I look up and spot Jinous; splashing in the Caribbean sea in all her Peruvian glory. Meeting at the shoreline, she wraps her arms around me and announces “Happy Birthday sista, I’m taking you out for tacos.” Changing into our best Tulum ensembles, we head out to walk along the beach and hunt for the perfect taco joint. As we stumble upon Taqueria La Eufemia, we know we are at just the right spot. Feeling the hip, boho, “no fucks given” vibe, I break my “no corn” rule and indulge in all the tacos (you only turn 30 once, right?) People watching, I find myself wanting to know everyone’s stories: who they are, where they came from, what makes their hearts sing; this curiosity rousing within me wherever I go. We sway to the reggae music, more wonderful convo is had, and plans to manifest trips to visit all the positive energy vortexes are made.
Exiting the taco joint, we lazily glide straight into the ocean in order to cool down from the heat (and the salsa). With a spa day planned and a flight leaving at 8am the following morning; I send Jinous off with a tight embrace, my what’s app info, and an expression of my sincere gratitude for her amazing energy, sisterhood and two lovely days spent exploring and sharing with one another.
It’s a simple story really, one with flow and ease, just how my days with Jinous felt. Meeting this woman was significant for me in this time; I had been feeling the pull to be wild, to break free and explore; but the worry of falling and failing was sitting in my mind like a heavy weight. Jinous was living proof that you can be a wild woman, but still very wise and level headed. You can adventure and travel (solo or with your family) and still have an abundant career, a husband and children; ultimately that successful Renaissance Souls do exist.
This encounter showed me how the Universe drops people (no matter their age, race, sex, occupation) into your life that can relate to you on a soul level, that are there to hear you, guide you or teach you. I realized how impactful and powerful these unexpected interactions can be and how much they can inspire your life; whether it’s a short conversation with a stranger, a two day rendezvous, or a relationship that becomes everlasting.
I’ll never forget my two days with Jinous and what it brought to my life. Until the next adventure, sista!