This year, the year of my 50th birthday, I decided to go on a yoga retreat to Aruba with 49 other women hosted by Rachel Brathen, more famously known as @yoga_girl. Rachel is a yoga teacher and entrepreneur that I have been following on Instagram for quite some time. I listen to her podcast, From the Heart: Conversations with Yoga Girl, every Friday and always feel motivated and inspired afterward. I have her book, aptly named Yoga Girl, on my coffee table. She often speaks about how she has gone through pain and loss, such as the sudden death of her best friend and her mother attempting suicide twice. Rachel has that je ne sais quoi, which is why she has over 2 million followers on Instagram and why several women of all ages flock to Aruba to attend her sold out retreats, take a class at her studio, or become a certified yoga teacher at her three-week teacher training. As one Aruban cab driver told me, she has a "good heart," raising money for her animal adoption organization, Sgt Pepper's Friends and creating an inexpensive online community platform consisting of classes and meditation on oneoeight.com, for example. She is known for being authentic, honest, and for throwing out a "forking"curse or two (or three) on her podcast all while discussing a range of topics like #MeToo in the yoga world, body image, moving through pain, the fears and wonders of motherhood to @loving.lealuna, and of course her enviable island life with husband @dennisfromsalad.
In person, she and her family are larger than life. When Rachel walks into a room with her genuine smile, long flowing hair, and kimono swaying, the retreaters cannot help but fangirl. And when Lea Luna comes trailing behind or the family's beloved dog Ringo nudges his way near you, everyone lights up as if it's a family member's beloved baby or puppy that we are seeing - because, if you follow Rachel, you see pictures of her family on her Instagram story as often as you would your own. And that's why we love her. It's a little crazy and a little surreal. As I heard many women on the retreat say, "It's like finally meeting your best friend who doesn't know you!" But, Rachel is warm, caring, and giving...it must be exhausting for her, being "on" constantly. Yet she has something here. On this retreat, she brought together 50 mostly separate women who were drained or hurting or just wanted to do a little yoga, and we came away as a more fulfilled and renewed group, changed for the better, with cups a little fuller and with new friends that you feel like you've known forever.
Here is what you can expect, from my viewpoint. I am blogging about this also for myself so I can remember. However, I may have forgotten some things as well!
Day 1 (Arrival)
Bonbini! I arrived alone at Queen Beatrix International Airport and easily made my way out to our driver, who held an Island Yoga sign. I had to wait about 10 minutes, as there were buses picking up attendees every hour. No worries, as I got to meet and chat with some of the other retreaters. We got on a bus and drove about 20 minutes to Costa Esmeralda, our villa for the week. This was a very cute place with two pools. The rooms were clean and spacious. Well, I can only speak for the single. I highly recommend the single! Several of the girls had to sleep on cots or a double bed in the shared rooms. I landed at 2:30pm which gave me an hour to shower, change into something dressy, go through a small gift bag (note: the salve is NOT lipgloss!), unpack, and meet at the pool at 5pm for a 3-minute walk to Island Yoga. Here, we were greeted with a mojito, and we chatted with our new friends in the beautiful backyard of the studio. This area is surrounded by cacti and the walls have gorgeous mandalas painted on them (more about that later).
Rachel, Dennis, Lea Luna, and Rachel's mother Shama arrived, and we all fangirled. I can't lie about that. Everyone on the trip, I think, is there because of Rachel, so to see her family in person, after seeing several pictures a day on Instagram, was a bit surreal. Rachel hugged and spoke to each of us. Dennis is TALL (and so handsome) and was super friendly to everyone. And Lea Luna had an audience of her own. The Island Yoga Team was incredible and accommodating, even giving us a WhatsApp number in case we had any questions...which I have to say, was always responded to within minutes, sometimes even seconds!
After our meet and greet, we walked inside to Luna Shala, which is where we practiced yoga each day. This gorgeous room with a beautiful wooden ceiling and lights that dim to a low red was set up with comfortable floor chairs in a tight circle. We all introduced ourselves. I believe the question Rachel asked us to answer was, "Why are you here?" Many people shared emotional reasons, others just wanted to do yoga. There were four, I believe, mother-daughter pairs as well as a few pairs of best friends. Most, like me, traveled alone.
After an hour or so, we knew most people's stories and had a lot to talk about during dinner outside. We were served a delicious (and included in the cost of the retreat) vegan dinner and could purchase wine for $7 a glass. A tab was kept for you for the week at the cafe, which made it very convenient. We did not do yoga this day, and we returned to our room to get a good night's sleep. Recommendation: if you come from a different time zone, such as California, I would arrive a day or two early to get used to the time change. Morning yoga is at 7:30am!
Every morning, we started out with smoothies at 7am (optional) and yoga practice at 7:30am. Yoga usually lasted about 2 hours (sometimes 3, but not all of it was practice), and then we would have an included vegan breakfast consisting of delicious oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, breads, and something different each day: scrambled tofu, spinach arepa or breakfast burrito. There were lots of choices to sprinkle on the oatmeal or yogurt. Coffee or tea was also included with almond or soy milk, but if you wanted a latte or cappuccino, you could order one on your tab. Then we walked back to our rooms to get ready for our excursion of the day. After the excursion, there would be time to change and shower, and then smoothies were available at 4:30pm with a second yoga practice at 5pm. I loved that every smoothie throughout the entire week was different! These were all optional and included. After practice, we were on our own for dinner other than the first and last nights of the retreat, however, you could sign up to eat at Island Yoga's Nourish Cafe. Each day, you could examine the "Super Awesome Board" in front of Luna Shala to see which two meals were offered for dinner that night. If you chose to eat there, it was $15, and Rachel would be eating there as well.
Day 2 (First Actual Day of Yoga)
We were shown to our own little cubbies for the week, so we did not have to bring our yoga mats and journals back and forth - so convenient! We could borrow blocks, straps, and blankets. Some people did borrow mats, but I was happy to have my own mat for the eight practices over the week. There were tape marks on the floor so that we could see where to put our 50 mats, as they were right next to one another. There was a little bit of room between, but I preferred the side wall, where there was extra space for blocks. We practiced a great flow, but what was really amazing, other than having Rachel teach us and having Dennis practice with us, was the music. Rachel has many gifts, and DJing is definitely one of them. Follow her on Spotify - she shares a new playlist each month. I believe we started our eye gazing and sharing during this first practice. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I am glad I did it, mainly because over the course of the five days, I got to speak truths and listen to the stories of six of the 50 women. I don't want to ruin it for anyone who is going to go on this retreat, so I will briefly talk about it. Usually, toward the end of the flow, Rachel asks us to turn to face a partner we did not come with or know well. We had to sit very close, knees about touching, and just stare into each other's eyes for what seemed like an eternity. This was very hard for me. I looked away a lot that first time. But you do get used to it. She prompted us with a question, which could be the same one she asked us to write about in our journals before class or could be something else. Then only one of us could answer the prompt and the other could not speak at all until the sound was made to stop and switch. The idea behind this was to "make space for others." So often we cut people off in conversation and make a comment or talk about ourselves, but here, we could not. After both turns, we had to say thank you however we wanted to, which was often a hug, and then we would finish our practice. Out of the six eye gazes (all over the course of the week), there were tears in at least three of them for me and/or my partner. It was very intimate and meaningful, and I will never forget it.
After yoga, we had a huge (well I had a huge) breakfast at Island Yoga's beautiful outdoor space. Then we walked back to the hotel to get ready for the beach excursion. I should say that during many breaks, we shopped at the Island Yoga Boutique. Each day I found something I didn't see. By week's end, I purchased a ginormous water bottle with a fun saying, an Island Yoga long sleeve shirt, and a cute moon necklace, though I did want to buy more!
We went to the Ritz-Carlton beach by bus, which was beautiful. They offered us 15% off any service, but I'm not sure anyone took them up on that. We just spent the day on luxurious lounge chairs and in the water. If you go, bring lots and lots of sunscreen! Here is where we started to find our groups and connect. Though really, it was easy to connect with anyone. The ages ranged from twenties to sixties, I would think, though most were probably in their twenties and thirties. There was also a wide range of ability. Only a few, I think, were actual teachers. Most were not.
Rachel and her family stayed on the beach with us, so Lea Luna was a huge source of joy, as she could not wait to play in the water. She is so used to being around all of these women; I heard many say over the course of the week, "She is going to be such a strong woman when she gets older!"
We ordered food - the hummus was great; I did not love my fish tacos. Some people ordered drinks. A highlight was the waiter who balanced drinks without spilling while riding fast on his segway! Some of us grabbed a delicious ice coffee from the coffee shop inside and no one complained when we looked in stores in our bathing suits, though we were not allowed to peek in the casino that way! We stayed on the beach for a few hours and could have done local shopping, but we chose to go back to the hotel. We showered and took a quick excursion to Super Food for necessities like wine, La Croix, trail mix, cookies, coffee, cream, etc. We shared a cab which was about $12 each way, including tip.
By the time we got back, it was time for smoothies and another yoga practice. What was truly amazing is that no yoga practice was the same. I believe that it was during this evening practice when Rachel broke down handstand for us. Though I still can't do one, I did really understand how to do one (core, core, core!) and I also learned how to assist, which is important for when I teach. We broke into pairs for this, and Rachel's right-hand girl Jess and Dennis demonstrated. I truly learned a lot, and hope one day to be able to do a handstand. One thing I really liked is that Rachel does not say "standing leg split," but rather, "standing L-shape," which makes much more sense! Again, the music was amazing. Her savasanas are incredible; people cry. After one full song in savasana, she also lets us lay in silence a bit before asking us to move. Her voice is extremely soothing, and it's easy to be in the present moment during class.
That night, I found my tribe: Yali, Kelley, Mary, and Jen, and we walked to Papiamento for dinner, which is a must. It's a beautiful and quaint little place, with seating around the pool. I'm not sure how it happened, but we ended up at a special covered table - best seat in the house. I got the fish with almonds and it was delicious, but I would order the shrimp on the stone if I went back, as that looked amazing. Meeting and getting to know these women were the highlight of my trip. We ranged in age from 30s to 50, and we laughed all night, just getting to know one another and hear each other's stories. I am so, so grateful for meeting them.
Papiamento's is steps away from the hotel. Those who had roommates headed back to their rooms. The two of us in our single rooms sat on the patio and had another glass of wine by the pool, enjoying our time.
We left for smoothies and 7:30am practice again. I believe this was the practice where Rachel broke down vinyasa. Again, we worked in partners after she and Jess demonstrated. This is really important because so many people don't know how to properly do one - I didn't learn how to effectively do chaturanga until I attended to Lara Heimann's class in Princeton...one class and I mastered chaturanga for the first time in 19 years...and Rachel helped with that as well. So much of it is muscle memory, so we really have to forget what it is we have been doing wrong for so many years to learn the proper way. This will help us to avoid injury from doing it wrong as well. As an aside, I first discovered Lara from Rachel's podcast. She is an amazing yoga instructor and anatomy guru, so if you are ever in Princeton, you must take her class at Yogastream! She also teaches the anatomy portion at Island Yoga's 200-hour YTT.
After breakfast, we left for a hike. I'm not sure where it was, but I'm pretty sure the beach we ended up at was on the North Shore. The buses to the hiking location were super fun, as they were colorful and did not have windows so we could feel the Aruban breeze. The hike was not difficult, but the terrain was uneven, so sneakers were a must (no flip-flops). After the hike, we hung out at a beautiful spot on the beach where there were waves hitting the rocks, but there were also shallow places to stand and swim in the water. Some practiced their newly found headstands. Rachel's sister was sick so Rachel did not join us, but Dennis and their friend (who also sews Tangerine brand items right there in the Island Yoga Boutique) escorted us, along with some members of the Island Yoga team. We were supposed to go to the Natural Pools, but Dennis said the waves were too strong, and that sometimes groups cannot go due to this. So we stayed at the beach for an hour and a half. Snacks and sunscreen are a must! The Turkish towel in our goodie bags were great as a wrap as well. Hiking the way back felt harder going up the hill to the buses, but it also felt great.
I believe this is the day that Kelley and I ventured out to the area near the Renaissance Hotel. This area has a lot of upscale shopping as well as kiosk-style souvenir shops. This hotel is not on the beach so they have their own private island where you are taken by boat to swim in the ocean with flamingos nearby. If you stay at the hotel, you can go to the island for free, but otherwise, it's a $125 fee. We went to Starbucks, where Kelley bought an Aruba mug, and we walked around the shops. A highlight for me was eating a spaghetti taco in one of the markets...unbelievably good! There was not all that much to do, but it was fun just walking around and seeing the outdoor shops. We went to a cool local artist shop called Cosecha and took our picture by the huge "I Love Aruba" sign. If you take the cab back from the Renaissance, it was a bit more money.
We got back, changed, and got ready for 6:30pm yoga. Rachel knew how tired we would be and taught a yin class that night. We came into the shala all set up with mats, bolsters, blocks, and blankets. I actually fell asleep for a bit during class, and I think some others did, too. This was the hardest practice of all for me: to sit in a pose for so long. In two hours, I think we only did six or seven poses! But it was awesome to see how every yoga class that Rachel taught was different.
This night, as it was much later, a few of us ordered the Nourish meals to go (staffers boxed it up for you) while some of the others got a massage or cupping treatment from Stephanie Moore. Stephanie was flown out to offer massages, cupping, or Reiki to any of us during our free time for about $70 (plus tip.) More about that later! We ate our meals on the patio with the wine we bought from Super Food, debriefing about the day and learning more about each other.
I am not sure which practice it was, morning or afternoon, but it was the best flow yet if that was even possible. I think Rachel put in every asana. And the music!! I know if I hear a song from any of the flows, I will be brought right back to Luna Shala. I think this was the day that Rachel broke down crow pose for us. It's hard to remember, as the days were hard to separate. During breakfast, Sgtpeppersfriends.com came to visit us! This is Rachel's non-profit animal rescue organization founded and located in Aruba. They brought several puppies for us to play with! One of the dogs was taken home by Kait, a woman on our retreat. Sgt Peppers Friends pays the $250 to fly the animals to a loving home. If you are traveling from Aruba and want to transport a rescue dog or cat back to the USA, Canada, the Netherlands or Sweden, you can fill out this form.
This excursion day was the best, as we set sail on the Pelican with Rachel. The crew provided fruit skewers and tofu and tomato snacks (I normally HATE tofu, but every time I had it in Aruba, it was delicious.) and drinks at no charge. We climbed out to the bow of the ship and sat on nets and saw the beautiful ocean below us. We stopped twice to snorkel, once at a shipwreck. Rachel was generous with allowing anyone who wanted to snap selfies with her. She also chatted with anyone eager to ask questions. Dennis and Lea Luna swam out to meet us, and "Luni" did downward dog for us a few times, to much applause. It was a happy, happy day. I could not tell groups that day; everyone talked with everyone. The music was loud, the sun was bright, the ocean was inviting, and we all just really felt relaxed!
Some of us opted to stay at the beach for a bite near the hotels after the excursion. It was nothing special, but the view and the company were perfect. We did a little shopping, though much was closed due to it being Sunday. There were plenty of kiosks to buy souvenirs. We got a coffee at Starbucks and hailed a cab to go back to the hotel in time to change and grab a smoothie before practice. I will never forget the barista writing "Wala" for Yali's name, and that nickname has stuck :)
I was nervous for yoga at 5pm that night, given that I'd had an Aruba Arriba on the boat, a beer at lunch, and that it was our third day of sun. But Rachel started off slow and got us moving to the music. I forgot I was tired. In fact, I forgot everything except for the in the moment flow. It was the best.
For dinner, we made reservations at Barefoot after three of us separately heard how good it was. It did not disappoint. The staff was incredibly nice. (I should also say that the cab driver was so funny and in general the cab drivers are great - also, Arubans speak at least four languages!) We sat at a table on the beach and took our shoes off and dug our toes in the sand. There were wine specials, and I believe we all ordered fish of some sort. It was delicious. We laughed a lot. And we couldn't decide on one dessert, so instead we ordered the top three desserts on the menu, which were all fabulous!
This day, instead of practicing in the Shala, we all did SUP yoga (Stand Up Paddleboard) by the Ritz. Buses took about 13 of us each hour to do an entire yoga class on the paddleboards. If you have not done this, you really are in for a treat. If you fall in, you fall in...the water is only about waist deep. The wind made the boards bang into each other now and then, which is half the fun when you are balancing in a pose. And the teacher (not Rachel this time, since there were about four different groups) explained how to adjust your pose so that you could find your center of balance. Savasana on the water is something that just can't be explained. It's beautiful and pure to hear the ocean after a full practice. The trip honestly kept getting better and better. We could have breakfast before or after, and I LOVED the hanuman smoothie: peanut butter and chocolate protein...oh how I want one right now!!
This day, we had a little time to ourselves. I have been to Aruba before, and since we did go into town a few times already, I decided to book a Reiki session with Stephanie. I had absolutely no idea what to expect - the only reason I decided to try Reiki was that I get regular massages and had tried cupping before, so I thought I'd try something new.
I stepped into the room and got up on the table. You don't need to undress for Reiki (I didn't know this.) Stephanie stood over me and was extremely tender and warm. She asked me why I was here and what I was feeling. I told her I was sad that my best friend had died in April. She handed me tissues and we talked a bit about that. She then touched my heart and made me go deeper. Literally and figuratively she touched my heart. She helped me with some private issues, and I came away with a deeper understanding of what I needed to do to be happier. As my friend said, Reiki was like "therapy and acupuncture at the same time," and at this point, I had definitely felt the therapy.
Stephanie put an eye pillow over my eyes and told me she would not be speaking to me during the Reiki treatment, as she meditates, but that she would be moving around my body. I would know I was done when she put her hand on my shoulder,
I honestly had no idea what to expect. Suddenly, I saw an aura of blue swirling above me. I didn't know if maybe she was shining lights (she wasn't), but I couldn't get enough of it. Then, the aura turned green...I can't explain it other than it was swirling and swirling over my face. Then it turned yellow! I saw orange, kind of, after that, but it wouldn't fully come. It was teasing me. Then nothing...I did not know what any of this meant. Finally, I saw purple and white for a little while, and then nothing. When she touched my arm I opened my eyes and told her I saw colors. She was very excited and said this happens to people, but not all the time. I asked if I could see the Chakra colors (shown below), and I was "chak'd" haha shocked that they corresponded to where she was creating energy around my body! I did not know the chakras in order, nor even the colors prior to this session, but now I will never forget them.
The fact that I saw or didn't see certain colored chakras after I looked up their meanings was very telling to me. It was incredible! It felt so spiritual and magical. I didn't feel anything directly after the session other than a need to tell everyone about the colors, but by the end of the night, I definitely felt much, much lighter.
I went to Nourish Cafe for lunch and ate with a lovely aunt that I had done eye-gazing with and her equally lovely niece. Since I had shared with her intimate details of my life and vice versa, I immediately felt like I had a connection with her. It was such a nice lunch - I had a sweet potato and bean chili - and then I shopped a bit more in the boutique and packed a bit.
At 2pm, we had an optional Mandala Workshop given by @courtneybetts. Courtney is the one who painted the gorgeous mandalas on the outside of Island Yoga as well as the ones in front of Luna Shala that depicted a female in a series of Vinyasa poses. She is amazing and self-taught. The cost for this workshop was $20, and well worth it. It was truly therapeutic to learn how to create this piece of beauty. All that was required was: paper, pencil, compass, protractor, eraser, and marker. Rachel and her mother joined us here, and it was just a fun way to chill. I am definitely going to do this with my students, and I will blog a more mathy post on it when I do!
After Mandala drawing, we had our final evening smoothie, and after another amazing practice, we got in a circle and shared the answer to, "What will you take home with you?" This probably took about an hour and a half to get through everyone. There were tears and as Rachel would say, "epiphanies." I came home with #newoldfriends (thanks, Yali, for that hashtag), new physical things to work on, like bringing my foot to my hand from downward facing dog without lifting my palm off the ground, new self-improvement things to work on, such as how to be a better listener and a better partner, and I just came home "lighter." The school I work at has a mission of educating students in "mind, body, and spirit," and I feel like I was able to home in on each of these things during this retreat.
We did not have time to change (though a few people did), and we went to the outside room and picked up a yummy sangria as Rachel toasted. (Note: the night before, although we didn't go, Dennis made and served Pomegranate Margaritas.) We were served a delicious meal of tofu and some type of peanut sauce (allergies were asked about beforehand) and we ordered wine or beer and just laughed and talked with many more of the girls we had not really spoken to before. If only we had more time. We were encouraged to rip the pages out of our journal where we wrote what we wanted to "let go" and throw them into the fire pit. We got more selfies with Rachel (are there ever enough?) and finally headed back to the pool area with a large group and some wine and (more!) food. We opened up to each other once more, a final debriefing and group therapy session before heading to bed at 1am!
Yes, up again for 7:30am yoga!! I did not want to go after such a festive night, but I was glad I did. Lea Luna showed up for the last class for a few minutes (I forgot to mention that Ringo joined us one day as well.) The savasana at this class was the best yet, with the song Let It Be - Long Version. The chills that went through my legs made it feel like I was floating. Spirit Bird was another song she played on a different day during savasana that was incredible...there were so many great songs! But this gospel version of Let It Be brought out strong emotions. I watched Rachel press her hands to someone's forehead, who, for lack of a better word, lost it with the emotion of the song. Immediately, her crying calmed. Rachel is a healer. It was an incredible moment, and there were many tears to wipe after class. We made sure we all wrote our intention on the Island Yoga wall before leaving this incredible place.
We went to our last breakfast and sadly, back to pack and get ready for the staggered buses to take us to the airport. Quick note: you clear customs in Aruba, at least to the USA, but it is quite lengthy. After checking your bag, you need to grab it again through customs and then put it on a belt once more. They do have Global Entry in Aruba, so if you have it, you will skip a long line. And do not buy water until you are completely at the gate, or else you will have to throw it out when you go through security for the second time.
We left more balanced, happier, and for some, worried about returning home and back to chaos. But for a short moment in life, we experienced peaceful bliss with strong, open women who have our backs. I feel more at peace now than I ever have before. I am so thankful to Rachel and her team for providing us with this incredible opportunity. TAKE ME BACK!