This past summer, I taught yoga in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. To say that the experience changed me wouldn’t do it justice. To say that I learned more from my students than they did from me just sounds trite. To say that I was (and am) in awe of the Haitian yogis that I met is a profound understatement. The experience quite simply rocked my tie dyed socks off.
Port-au-Prince is simultaneously everything that you hear and yet nothing like what the media frequently portrays. It is hot, crowded, polluted, and desperately poor, yet full of incredibly industrious and kind people. It is soulful and artistic. A place in need of so much that I wondered before I left if teaching yoga was the best use of my time in the country. What I quickly discovered is that nourishing the soul is just as important as nourishing the body. Granted, our basic needs must be met and thankfully there are a lot of NGO’s in Haiti working hard to meet the many needs. It’s not quite enough, but good people are working hard to help. My Haitian yogis wanted to learn how to support their clients mentally, release emotions with poses and foster a community of mindfulness.
Every day 30 students would gather for our two-hour class. We discussed asanas (poses), pranayama (breath work), meditation and a bit of yoga history just for kicks. We reviewed Warrior 1, 2 and 3 and spent a lot of time in corpse pose. My students came from all over Port-au-Prince, sometimes travelling up to 2 hours on crazy and unreliable public transportation to make it to class. Ironically, because I regularly teach hot vinyasa classes, our daily sessions were about the same temperature as my home studio but without heaters (I did mention that it was July in Haiti, right?). The students were like sponges, always seeking more information. They came early and stayed late to practice their sun salutations in the courtyard. They asked deep and thought provoking questions. We practiced together on the cool tile of a house and laughed our way through many a wild thing. Their mission was simple- to learn as much as possible so they could, in turn, provide their people an opportunity to breathe and a chance to relax. Yoga does that. It allows us to step outside of the world we inhabit, be it Port-au-Prince or Portland, and step inside our own inner world. Powerful stuff.
Yoga doesn’t need to be practiced in a pristine studio to be effective. You don’t need brand name clothing to get into a proper Triangle Pose; you don’t even need a mat. In Haiti, I came to realize the true meaning of that commonly thrown around phrase, Namaste. It was during Savasana and I looked up to see radiant smiles on the student’s faces. The light in me truly honored and held witness to their light, shining oh so brightly. In the end, I taught a little and learned so much.