Tidal Basin

Germination Detail Part III, by Leslie Shellow

contemplations about what stays in the net

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Yoga in Cuba

A Cuban’s day hangs in a constant state of flux. Will the bus arrive? If it does, will it stop in the same place it did yesterday? Abel gets out of his rocking chair and assumes the position of a baseball catcher with a mitt. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, looking furtively in both directions. “This is me, waiting for the bus,” he laughs.

Any number of things can go wrong in a given day. Perhaps there are no tomatoes in the city, or the bank has closed unexpectedly, or the line to pay a bill is well over two hours long, a bill for which the average salary does not cover, making forays into the black market a daily necessity. 

Yoga doesn’t purport to solve the problems; rather, it provides a lens through which to see differently and deepen our capacity to be present with what does appear. The wrinkles in a day become a landscape to traverse, reflective somehow of our own inner struggles. Doing yoga with Cubans is a lesson in how to survive, how to connect with each other, and how to find joy despite unreliable outer circumstances. And all of this is possible because of a particular brand of humor that becomes the warp and weft of the culture, binding people to each other and carrying them beyond the crisis of the moment.


What can we learn from people isolated by politics and circumstance for so long? What have they developed inside their already existing culture of Cubanismo that helps them not only survive but thrive in an ever-changing, unpredictable world? What works when outer things do not function? What inner resources do they draw upon in order to flush acceptance, love and joy to the surface? These are lessons available to learn in Cuba from Cubans.

Eligio and I walk down a busy street in Centro Havana. It is Valentine’s Day, and the entire nation, it seems, has stopped short to celebrate. We have just come from wishing his son, and the shoe maker, and the lady next door a happy Dia de Valentin. We have hugged and kissed them and shouted and reveled in the street. Valentine’s Day, they tell me when I look confused, is about loving life. “If you can’t love life, you can’t love someone else.” This, by far, is my favorite Valentine’s Day to date. To top it off, we have hot chocolate at a café because everyone else does.

And because everyone is shopping for each other on this day, we decide to buy tea cups, and this is when the day collapses and we need to find a way to repair it. Tea cups are $1.75 in Cuban convertible pesos which is about the equivalent in U.S. dollars. Eligio, like most professors, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, taxi drivers, and teachers, earns $20 a month. He is outraged at the price even though I have offered to pay for the cups; it was my idea to begin with. His were cracked and leaking. The rate at which most Cubans consume coffee combined with the sheer number of people who casually drop by his apartment to talk each day and drink coffee, made the purchase logical. His grumbling is heard by all the customers and by the cashier, who rolls her eyes in agreement and packs up the cups in a makeshift box she creates by taping bits of cardboard together. “Do you have a bag?” he asks. She burrows around for quite some time before producing one. This seems a small victory for him as bags are hard to come by and he will use it later at the vegetable market.

We leave, deflated a bit from our Valentine’s high, though outside on the street, horns are still honking and people are still hugging. As we cross onto the sidewalk, an enormous bus, a medieval caterpillar, creeps up behind us, one wheel lifting the heavy beast onto the edge of the sidewalk. Instinctively, we move over, thinking it an accident, but the bus drifts into our space, the back wheel now fully rolling where our feet should be. “No, no, no, no, no, no!” cries Eligio, edging out of the way. I can’t help but laugh. There is so much to complain about. Yet, I propose – and he listens – that we try to create a different reality by not complaining.

“If we put a different energy out there, do you think we might experience something else?” I ask. But maybe these laws of attraction don’t work in Cuba and like does not produce like, and no matter how much positive energy we put into the world, a bus will still climb onto the sidewalk and push us to our edge.

Eligio pauses and considers my query. He knows I’m talking yoga and he wants to agree.
“Okay, we choose our lens and change our experience.” he says. I nod. We keep walking, our sliver of sidewalk eclipsed almost completely by the still-moving vehicle. Just as Eligio passes the door of the bus, the bus stops, sighs loudly, and the door opens, hitting him squarely on the shoulder. “NO, no, no, no, no!” he yells, his mountain of “no’s” a peaking, troughing wave of frustration. He looks at me and there is a held moment between us and I have no idea where it will take us.

All at once, we burst out laughing.

“You know that’s because you complained,” I say when I catch my breath. He’s nodding, laughing, smiling, crying, and for the rest of the day, el dia de Valentin, he does not complain. There are moments we are both tempted for sure, but each time we think of the bus, we dissolve into fits of laughter, our Cuba now one of our own creation, and all I know is that we feel better laughing.

Eligio speaks of his idea of experience. “These are vivencias, Sarah. Lived moments. There is no such thing as experience.” Eligio explains that the word experience locks you into a samskaric etching of sensation, feeling, and response, and often a fear that things will be relived in exactly the same way. Vivencia is a more freeing concept. It connotes the possibility of newness. Each lived moment is just that, a moment. One can never really live that time again exactly the way it was; so, by definition, each moment carries the potential for a completely novel understanding. 

My mind wraps around this concept. How liberating it would be to simply not expect things to be the same as they’ve been in the past, even if they look like they’re heading in the same direction. Is this concept uniquely Cuban or does it come from Eligio’s thirty years of yoga practice, a place he’s arrived out of the necessity to believe in the possibility of change? And then there is the bus, and his loud, forceful lament in the face of inequity: No, this can’t be, again!

Without the constant bombardment of information from television, cell phones, and computers, there is space and time to arrive in each moment. There is no lack of connection nor a sense of loss for not having access to devices; rather, devices become words, gestures, shared circumstances, and, of course, coffee.


Maria is a microbiologist. She spends long hours gazing through a microscope lens. She is young. She is healthy. But for two years, she struggled with neck and back pain. Now, as we talk outside of Eduardo’s class as she waits for her boyfriend to finish his practice, she tells me yoga saved her life, emotionally and physically. “I even believe now that there is a spiritual part to it but I can’t explain what that means yet.” She says it has been a year now and she is pain free. Before practicing yoga, she did not understand how to hold herself. “I go to work and I feel fine. I sit differently. I am always aware of my posture and I’m stronger now, too. I think everyone should try yoga, no matter what field they are in.”

Abel Duran, too, has also been bitten by the yoga bug. He hopes to become a teacher some day. I first meet Abel on the MHAI yoga retreat, a collaboration between Canadian yoga instructor, Natalie O’Connell, organizer, Christine Dahdouh, her Cuban partner, Alex and Cuban yoga instructor, Eduardo Pimentel. A group of Eduardo’s students have arrived at the beach in Tarara to share in a yoga experience directed by Natalie and Eduardo. Abel is glowing. His infectious smile makes everyone giggle. Though he humbly claims he has tight muscles and is just a beginner, the next moment he spontaneously slides through the sand in bare feet into rajakapotasana, his front leg extended and his back foot cradled in the crook of his elbow. I rush to take a photo before the sea dissolves his pose, dousing him with tongues of water. Before long, he is on his back again, lifting Maykel into the air, his feet on her sacrum, as she arcs backwards and catches her ankles with her hands, forming a perfect circle. Then, he is running down the beach with Yariley on his back, spinning her around until they both collapse in laughter. Some of these yogis have never met before, but I don’t find that out until later. For now, they all seem like very old friends.

When he slows down to rest, I ask him how he became involved with yoga. “I got into yoga because my girlfriend at the time was really into it. I mean she was vegetarian and got up at five a.m. to meditate and do pranayama. Her whole life revolved around yoga. But I wasn’t ready for her. No, not at all,” he laughs. “She was zipping past me on the highway and I was just chugging along. But I will always appreciate that she opened that door for me.”

Abel works as a free-lance gardener. His job requires him to do a lot of physical labor. Yoga has helped him stay flexible and strong, but beyond its physical benefits, yoga has given Abel a sense of seva, service in the world. “I used to be really self-absorbed. It’s embarrassing to think of. I went to school for history and I thought I knew everything,” he smiles wryly, remembering a past he has trouble relating to now. “I do yoga every day, and I’ve even got my new girlfriend into it! I’ve passed along the gift I received.” He grows quiet, gazing across the sea, and I wonder where he places himself on this lineage of self-study. “There is so much need for yoga here in Cuba. Every couple of months, we collect clothing and toys and art supplies from our friends and we go to a remote village in Pinar del Rio. I love teaching the children yoga poses!” he laughs conspiratorially, “ but I don’t tell them they are doing yoga. I tell them it’s a game. “ He pauses. “It is, isn’t it, though? Making our bodies into different shapes.”

Later, I invite him and his girlfriend, Claudia, over to Eligio’s house for tea. He wants to show me a DVD he has made of photos and videos of the village in Pinar del Rio. “Show this to Christine,” he tells me. “She has extra art supplies she's giving us, and I want her to know where they are going.”

I ask him more about his service work. Half way through the conversation, I inquire how they get to the village. He casually mentions that they take a bus for four hours and then hike into the wilderness for another four hours, carrying the items in with backpacks. I stare in awe of this man and his thin, bright girlfriend who smiles at me with what I take to be shyness; but as it turns out, she has a lot to say, she just uses few words, as if content with simply being. Abel, on the other hand, fills the space with multiple stories, which he constructs like tightly-knit buildings in a busy city, each overlapping and relying on one another for support. He does not focus on the arduous journey into the village; rather, he delights in telling me about the waterfalls and the hot springs along the way.

Once they arrive in the village, he tells me, they stay with families in small wooden and cement houses with dirt floors. The entire family sleeps in the same room, Abel and Claudia included, and they stay up well past midnight playing dominoes and teaching the children new concepts with the toys they’ve brought. “We take in things like plastic dinosaurs and different kinds of animals and we makes games with the children, asking them what they know about these creatures and how they survived. Everything is about learning something new because they are so isolated.”

Abel and Claudia have a dream. They want to buy land in Pinar del Rio and build a sustainable community. Already, they’ve installed a composting toilet in their tiny apartment in Havana and they’ve planted a vegetable garden on the patio. They show me photographs of their apartment. “Where is the bed?” I ask them. Abel points to the mat on the floor. “We sleep there. It’s easy. We just roll up the mat in the morning. We could buy a bed but we’re saving for other things, like our trips to the village and constructing our sustainable apartment. We figure, if we can do it here, we can show others how to do the same.”

Back to their dream. Abel and Claudia want to invite people from all different faiths and beliefs to come to the community and learn how to live with the land. He knows the people he’s met in the village have this knowledge. He also wants to create a space for yoga and meditation retreats. “It’s all about sharing what we all know and learning from each other,” he says. And they’ve got the village on their side.  

“But how will you get the money to do this?” I ask the question that baffles me in this place where people don’t have enough for the bare necessities let alone to fuel a dream like this.

“We’re saving every month. We live with my family as we’re renovating the apartment. And we save a little bit here and there.” I still do not understand completely how he accomplishes saving money, myself, a school teacher who had difficulty saving enough for this trip to Cuba, even as I live with my parents, too, right now. I decide it will be an inquiry for another day. I would rather know more about Abel’s yoga and how it nourishes his dream.

In Eduardo's class, we work on Warrior III for twenty minutes. It is not my favorite pose, but over time, because that is what we have in Cuba, I begin to explore it in a new way. I never paid such close attention to the pose, secretly hoping it would be a brief stop in the sequence, but we are here in Cuba and riding out the difficult spots is part of the recipe; so, somehow, Eduardo picks me out of the entire class of breathing, sweating, balancing warriors to demonstrate the complexity of the pose. I am now certain he gravitates towards my resistance, trying to smooth over the rough edges of my distaste.

“Now, Sarah, lift a little more here,” he points to my inner thigh, “and soften,” he takes two fingers and touches between my shoulder blades which miraculously release and spread apart on his gentle command. Energy I had no idea I was holding floods my body, making me feel warmer in the already warm room. “Ah, that’s it. Look,” he says to the students in the room. “You see that?” They nod. “Now, stretch, Sarah, but not with such effort – stretch with ease. Don’t try so hard.”

I had tried so hard to get into this very room – the months of saving money, the hours preparing documents, the days researching how to come, who to meet, what to write, the almost-missed flight…And Eduardo was giving me permission to release now, to sit back on the shore and be lapped by the ocean of my own consciousness, by what I had asked of the Universe: Help me get to Cuba and practice yoga with her people.

I never thought ease was possible in this previously abhorred posture, but I was flying, I was holding my own weight, and it wasn’t so heavy after all.

“Okay. Other side.” That is when I realize I have two sides to my body, and all my resistance comes flooding back. These are vivencias, I hear Eligio say in my mind, lived moments. I am determined to make this side a new lived moment. Even in February’s respite from humidity, we are sweating. We propel our arms towards one another. I sense the metaphor heavy in the air: these Cubans and this American balancing on one foot, reaching towards each other as we struggle to stay grounded, one foot on land, the other in the sky – floating, diving, expanding into the space between us through effort, but mostly through deep surrender and a modicum of faith.

“Thank you. Thank you,” I say to Eduardo after class. He hugs me. With his arm still around my shoulder, he draws me in close and kisses the top of my head. “You like our Caribbean style yoga?” he says. “It’s different, no?” I nod. I am well aware of the shuffling around me as one class leaves and is replaced by a new group, the youngest of whom appears to be about six years old. I want to linger and ask questions and take photos but another day will have to claim those activities. In the end, I will never take photos of Eduardo’s students full of beauty and grace and smiles and struggles. It doesn’t seem right to document this deeply personal act of union with a photograph. Instead, I will return on a quiet day when Eduardo has more time and I will sit in the breezy studio with Eduardo and talk for two hours while his white cat, Siva, weaves in and out of our conversation. In the end, I will take a photo only of the empty studio with the props neatly arranged in the cabinet, the blankets folded and ready for use, the blocks and belts and the chairs: “Your gift to us, Sarah!” Eduardo points at the chairs I had donated.

No, yours,” I think, remembering how he poured my body over the chair for a supported savasana. “Your gift to us, Eduardo.”

I take a photo of Eduardo with Siva. They carry the same squinty-eyed expression of delight and contentment. In the end, I lie down on the dusty tiled floor where I lay earlier in savasana. Through the arched and intricately grated window, I see a lime tree abundant with fruit and leafing out a vibrant green against an intently blue sky. A bird lands and issues a few notes before hopping into the studio through the bars. I think: No separation, only union – the outer world of Cuba coming in because it must, and there is no attempt to keep it out.

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