*This piece was originally published on Culture Counter, which is now shut down*
I’ve never been a flexible person. I still have memories of struggling to do the sit and reach for my elementary school health test, as my P.E teacher yelled at me to “REACH FARTHER!” The shame continued as I spent years trying my best to touch my toes and do the splits, while my limber friends contorted all around like human pretzels, yawning to themselves and flipping through a Seventeen magazine. I’ve been to yoga classes throughout my life, but never stuck with a class because you can only watch 50-year-old men absolutely destroy you in headstands so many times. The young, the old, even the handicapped, seemed to have the upper hand on me when it came to yoga and flexibility. But, what I lack in flexibility, I make up for in blind positivity and hope. So, I signed up for a beach yoga retreat on the east coast of Taiwan.
Living close to the west coast, I’d never ventured to the, popular with surfers, east coast area of Yilan. I’d heard it was gorgeous, raw beauty and I’d been waiting for a chance to check it out. Yoga seemed like a good excuse. Also, the Facebook event posted that our meals would be provided, including a catered vegetarian dinner, with food like braised lentils in red wine, sheep’s milk feta, and almond cookies. For a former Californian hippie, no more persuading was needed. Faster than you can say “walnut and mushroom pâté “, I was on a train to Waiao Beach, where our weekend retreat would commence.
Waiao is a tiny, beach community that mostly consists of one surf hostel, a surf shop connected to it, Taiwanese food vendors washing seaweed by the shore, and a life-saving café serving lattes and air conditioning. I stepped out onto the walkway above the beach, disheveled and groggy, from my sleep in the hostel dorm room, and smiled at the sun on my face. The rumors about the area were true. It was quiet, lovely, and one of the most beautiful mornings I had seen in Taiwan. After some sliced fruit and tea, it was time for our 7:30am heart opening asana class. I thought maybe this included heart to heart conversations, but it seemed it was more about the physical heart than the mental heart.
We unrolled our mats on the sand in a half-circle, facing the ocean and our instructor. She was all smiles, calm, and possessing unreasonable flexibility, just as any good yoga teacher should. For an hour and a half, our group of fifteen yogis, stretched our bodies into different asana yoga poses, like the eagle, the chair pose, and downward facing dog. Then, we did the flying squirrel, the unopened book pose, and upward swinging metronome. Or something like that. No matter the name of the pose, I looked like a chewed up donut or maybe a donkey that just fell off a building. In layman’s terms, I sucked. I would be thinking, “Damn my heart is so open right now. I look like a yoga magazine cover star”, and then I’d look to my left and see everyone was facing the other way. The poses felt good, but I could never completely get my body to where it was supposed to be or be able to hold the pose as long as everyone else. I suppose this is why it is called yoga “practice” and not yoga “dabbling”. I haven’t kept with it enough. Afterwards, with the sound of crashing waves in our ears, we laid on our backs and did thirty minutes of pranayama, the art of breathing, meditation, and trying not to fall asleep. Our instructor cooed at us to feel every part of our body, starting with our toes, and appreciate it. I fell asleep by the time we got to our thighs.
We did eight hours of yoga and meditation during the beach yoga weekend retreat and throughout much of it, the elements were against us. The first morning, the sun was so intense that sweat was pouring into my eyes and nostrils constantly and I had to run into the ocean, in the middle of a pose, because I thought I might faint. Later that evening, it rained on us and our mats, clothes, and serenity were soaked. We had to finish some of the classes in a community center, which ruined the whole “beach” idea, but was infinitely drier. By the end of the retreat, everything I’d brought with me was sandy, wet, and sweaty. My shoulders were surprisingly sore and I was lacking sleep. Beach yoga was not as glam as it had sounded. But I’d almost accomplished a lord of the dance pose (this is a REAL name) and I could hold a warrior pose longer than before. My flexibility had slightly improved. Take that, elementary school P. E teacher. I could reach farther.
(photos via https://www.flickr.com/photos/nerv333/)