QUARANTINED IN CLOUD FOREST
Lessons Learned During Lockdown
Walking across the tarmac, I felt the heavy air wrap around me like a sweltering hug. I had just quit my corporate job, packed a carry-on bag, and flew to the Amazon Jungle for a 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. I looked back to make sure Denise was still following behind. In her late 60’s, Denise made for an irreplaceable traveling companion. With her sunglasses slightly askew, she was dancing across the pavement to La Bamba by Los Lobos.
Even though we’d already been traveling for 24 hours, we still had another bus ride before arriving in the small city of Moyobamba, meaning "circular plain" in Quechuan and known for 3,500 species of orchids they call home. Moyobamba is part of the high jungle with mountains, rivers, and a sub-climate that locals call dry but can rain at any time.
Denise and I arrived at Puerto Mirador in the afternoon of March 7, 2020. I could see why they named it “lookout point.” Rolling hills spanned the landscape, avocado, orange, banana, and mango trees scattered the four-acre property, and at least a dozen different types of the native orchids decorated the view.
After dinner, we began the immersive experience with a cacao ceremony around a bonfire. We drank warm local cacao, slowly savoring the sweetness in our mouths and the warming
sensation created in our core. We mindfully ate a cacao bean, bitter and crackling on the tongue. Vincent brushed each of us with a Condor feather, the spiritual animal of the Incas to connect with the divine. He wafted the healing smoke of palo santo and asked us to set our intention for the coming weeks. My intention, which hadn’t been clear to me yet, revealed itself as: “to change. To understand the change, embrace it, and further it.”
For the first week we had limited contact with the outside world and I enjoyed living in a yoga bubble. Every day, we started before the sunrise with mist still hanging over the jungle landscape. We took an hour and a half for cleansing techniques, pranayama, and meditation before
starting our first asana practice of the day. Breakfast was at 9 with just enough time for a quick shower before philosophy class. The rest of the day filled in with anatomy presentations, asana clinics, yoga humanities, more meditation, and another asana practice. After dinner, we learned more relaxing things, like massage techniques, yoga Nidra, or sound therapy.
On the 9th day of training, we were coming out of a dream-like state induced by the Tibetan singing bowls and chanting monks of the sound therapy session when I saw all three of our instructors lined up, preventing us from going to bed before they could make the announcement. I knew my yoga bubble would pop as reality breached the previously impervious Puerto Mirador. President Martin Vizcarra had given only hours’ notice before closing Peru’s borders. COVID-19, the intangible, incomprehensible, unprecedented virus, had made its way to South America.
Collective panic started to seep in. The tranquility of the singing bowls was replaced by the frequency of fear. We were stuck in a foreign country during a global pandemic. The reality of what this meant didn’t sink in until the days to come and lessons started unfolding. Here is an account of my experience.
Integrative Learning has a Whole New Meaning
As a typical philosophy instructor, Loren said in the opening ceremony that the “curriculum” is not just in the structured classes we would be taking, but in all the moments in between too – in the corridors that connect the classes. In our conversation at mealtimes, during the excursions, even in our limited social interactions back home. I never expected a quarantine to be part of my curriculum to become a yoga teacher. And I certainly never thought it would be part of my curriculum for how to live a good life.
We practiced yoga outdoors, with the police on the megaphone warning people to stay on their properties. We practiced on uneven stones with grass growing between the cracks and ants crawling all over our mats. We practiced yoga in tears, worried about loved ones back home
I thought the immersive experience would completely integrate us into the yogic lifestyle. But instead of being isolated in a studio with fancy props, a soothing yoga voice leading me through a sequence, and a tidy theme to tie it together, we were able to fully integrate yoga with everyday life and scenes from a pandemic.
We don't practice yoga to get better at yoga.
We practice yoga to get better at life."
The Power of Now is Powered by Now
Yoga is rooted in the present, living in the now and not getting consumed with the past or future. This is difficult under normal circumstances but it seemed nearly impossible with so much uncertainty. When I said I was ready for a change, I never dreamed it would be like this. The 15-day COVID quarantine kept getting extended, and with it, the growing unknown of when I could leave this confinement.
I tried to remember the wisdom from Pabbie in Frozen 2 that I watched on the flight down. He says, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” When we get stuck in Peru with no known date of return, all we can do is finish our yoga teacher training. When we finish our training and are still stuck in Peru with no known date of return, all we can do is continue to practice our yoga – on the mat and off.
Of course, we couldn’t actually practice yoga all day every day. There were plenty of moments in between in which I didn’t know what to do. I found myself scrolling through news feeds and getting more anxious about coronavirus. I longed for the comfort of my home, the proximity to people I knew and cared about, and the reassurance of anything resembling normal. I wanted to be in control of something, anything.
Just when I thought it was too much to bear, I was brought back to the moment and heard the birds singing. I stepped outside and watched the leaf-cutter ants march in line with their contributions to their home. I smelled the jasmine-like fragrance of mirabilis jalapa. I tasted the fresh mangoes, passion fruit, and avocados that grew on the property. I heard the monkeys jumping from tree to tree. When I focused on my senses and being truly present, the overbearing coronavirus became slightly more bearable. Nothing in my immediate surroundings changed. It was only in my mind.
All problems are illusions of the mind."
― Eckhart Tolle
Equanimity is Staying Calm through Extreme Emotions, not Numbing them
Equanimity is the ability to maintain a calm and collected state of mind, even during the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. If there ever was a time for a rollercoaster of emotions, it was during a global pandemic, with countless people sick and dying, livelihoods and economies stalled or tanking, uncertain of when we could see loved ones again, and all ideas of normal completely turned upside-down.
Some days I was terrified. I considered the possibility of being stuck for months, or even years, unable to see family or friends or have access to reliable health care if needed. I freaked out when I couldn’t transfer money to my ATM card and my poor brother bailed out a hysterical version of myself by providing tech support some 3000 miles away.
Some days I was almost giddy. I was “stuck” at a hotel with a pool, meals prepared for me, access to clean water. My group was full of resourceful and interesting people and we hosted workshops for anything from jewelry making to boxing practice and ecstatic dancing, all while maintaining two daily asana practices.
Other days I was numb. There were constant shots of dopamine when we heard of a possible way home, only to be counteracted with a shot of cortisol when we realized it wasn’t a possibility after all and we were still stuck.
Equanimity isn’t about depriving yourself of these emotions; it’s about not letting them own you, define you, or be you. I could experience the terror, giddiness, and numbness, but I also knew that those were just moments, and moments pass.
Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final."
― Rainer Maria Rilke (Jojo Rabbit)
When Nothing is in My Control, Everything is Still Under Control
Due to government orders, I was not able to leave the property, enforced by armed police at the gates. I did not have any say in where I could go, when I could leave, or even what I could eat. I had no choice but to give up all agency and surrender to the situation.
I realized the things I wanted to control were all related to the outcome of my situation. The idea of non-attachment is another important principle we were learning about in yoga training. It stems from the philosophy of karma yoga – acting in service to others but not being attached to the outcome. If I accepted that all things are impermanent, including the uncertainty of my quarantine, then I could remove myself from the desire to know what will happen next.
Even through all of the uncertainty, I noticed things in my body were better than ever before. My resting heart rate dropped 8 points from when I was back home. I was growing stronger physically and felt muscles I never had before. Visualizations I had during meditation became sharper and clearer. A common phrase we repeated during training: do the practice and the rest will come.
You cannot always control what goes on outside, but
you can always control what goes on inside."
― Wayne Dyer
Nothing Matters, Which is Why It's Important To Do It
Before the training, I valued productivity and liked to make the most of my time. But that was when time was limited. I began to see that doing nothing was okay, healthy even. Equal parts work and rest make for the most progress. When I let go of the idea that I needed to be doing something, I could witness what happens in those moments of nothingness. I stared at a flame for 30 minutes in candle meditation and eye cleanse. Did you know there is supposed to be white at the center of the flame? It still looks grey to me.
Little moments became cherished. Without access to a washing machine, I cleaned my laundry in the bathroom sink. Before I hung it to dry, I pretended to have a lightsaber battle, swinging it around using centripetal force to make sure it wasn’t still dripping. I made a deal with the giant spider in my bathroom: I wouldn’t kill him if he didn’t bite me. Because I dropped the pretense of being too busy, I was open to the laughter that ensued from these small moments.
Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something."
We Are Born Into Abundance, But Scarcity Mindset is Real
Just like Americans were hoarding toilet paper, the yoga students began to stampede for eggs in the morning. Judging by the stomping and quickness in everyone’s step when they set out the eggs, it was like they weren’t feeding us at all.
Only a week before in teaching methodology class, Niki was giving a passionate lecture about how everything is possible with yoga. How, if we raise our vibrations, things will come to us. As if on cue, a groundskeeper came in with fresh coconuts for us to enjoy. We were living in an abundant world.
During the quarantine, when the price of some foods started doubling, then tripling, it was hard to remember that abundance feeling. The morning after we found out we were stuck, some people in our group were planning on buying chickens and securing enough propane to be able to boil water for a year. While this mentality did not put blind faith into an abundant universe, I realized that scarcity is what makes our resources more precious.
To respond to the scarcity of a pandemic, we began to pay more attention to the natural resources around us. We planted seeds for quick-growing veggies, started a compost on the property, learned about permaculture, and prioritized consuming less. Instead of hoarding the eggs in the morning, I tried to mindfully appreciate having them at all.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you."
― Lao Tzu
We Are in This Together
Throughout the training and following days in quarantine, I became increasingly grateful for the people around me. If you’re going to get stranded with a group of people for an undetermined amount of time, I would have handpicked each and every one of this group of yogis. Denise referred to us as “a good can of mixed nuts.”
I was having a particularly difficult moment when my roommate, Kenzie, a graphic designer from Seattle, put her arm around me on a tuk-tuk and just let me cry. She played with my hair and simply her presence let me know I was not alone. Since we were already together for two weeks, we didn’t have to worry about social distancing.
Before the quarantine was in place, my training class went to the Cave of Palestina for an experiential learning excursion. Besides seeing the stalactites, stalagmites, and a few bats, we sat in the cave and meditated for an hour of stillness and silence. At the end of the meditation, we closed with three times OM chanting.
OM is the primordial sound of the universe. The frequency is 432 Hz, which is the mathematical vibration found throughout nature. I had chanted OM in many yoga classes before but it wasn’t until I was in the cave, with 23 other voices, that I truly felt connected to something bigger. I lost my own voice in the chorus of universal vibration and realized that I am never alone.
Do not feel lonely. The entire universe is inside of you."
Home Meets Where You Are
I spent a lot of time thinking about home when it suddenly became a place I couldn’t go. I wanted the comfort and security of a space I had created for myself. It seemed safer to be home than to be in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. In Peru, the health care system may not have supported me if I were to get sick, the food supply could become unstable, and there was potential for civil unrest
I craved the comfort and security of being home. Yet I knew that when I eventually got home, it wouldn’t actually feel like home because the entire world was changing every hour of every day.
So, I considered, what really is security and comfort? A few of the answers surprised me. A soul connection with my tribe. Doing laundry in a washing machine. Creating art. An embrace from someone I love. A drive-through burger. Clean tap water. A cozy bed. A compelling story. Access to a computer. Meaningful work. Contributing to something bigger than myself.
Some of these things I could have where I was. Some I couldn’t. Some of them I sacrificed so I could come home. And some of them can only come from within.
Yoga is the study of balance, and balance is the
aim of all living creatures; it is our home."
― Rolf Gates
After many days and countless hours of coordination with the US Embassy and Peruvian government, we began the process of repatriation. It took a village and two countries, but we arranged safe passage through endless police barricades, medical screening checkpoints, private USAF hangers, and a charter flight to Washington DC. We flew back to the United States on April 1st. Ironically, before the quarantine, Denise said she was going to play an April Fool’s prank on her son who was now in his thirties and, as she assured us, could handle a joke. She wanted to tell him that she fell in love with an instructor and decided to stay in Peru to teach yoga and drive a motor-taxi around. Denise was convinced this prank would go down in history. But after 13 days of an unplanned, forced, extended stay, the tables were turned and I could practically hear the Universe exclaiming “gotcha!” as we landed.