About a month ago I noticed a contest that AcroYoga was running on their Facebook page. They were giving away a free pass to the Caribbean Yoga Conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The prize would go to whoever gained the most “likes” on a post with a photograph and one sentence describing why they want to go. The contest seemed easy enough and I had nothing to lose, so I posted a photo of me flying this cool permaculture activist girl I met on the beach in Adelaide, South Australia last June. The caption I wrote came directly from my heart said:
“I should join AcroYoga in Jamaica because my life’s purpose is to travel the world, connect with others through yoga and healing arts, and contribute to the building of a global community of empowered, loving people on Earth!”
WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU FREEBIES…
With 60 likes, I won the second place prize, a pass to the main CYC conference. I was notified just two weeks before the event and had to make a quick decision about going. The prize included only a pass to the conference, so I knew I’d have to pay for my flight, accommodation and food. I was hesitant, as I am currently saving every penny towards traveling long-term starting this July. Somewhere between the excitement of winning something, having never been to a yoga conference before, and knowing a tropical vacation would be the perfect antidote to my bad winter blues, I got online, and bought a JetBlue flight to Montego Bay for $400 USD.
The conference was to be held at the Hilton and participants were encouraged to stay there, but unsurprisingly rooms were a whopping $200 a night. I checked Couchsurfing.com first and sent out a couple requests, but after a few days of not hearing back I started searching for budget hostels on Hostel World. I ended up booking three nights in a 4-bed dorm room at The Bird’s Nest Hostel in Ironshore, Montego Bay for $23 USD a night.
FLYING AWAY AGAIN
Late Thursday morning I arrived in Montego Bay. The adrenaline of arriving in a foreign country rushed over me immediately, even knowing it would only be a short trip. Julia, the manager of The Bird’s Nest picked me up. We chatted on the drive and I quickly identified her as a familiar character of my past travels– a beautiful young woman who had ditched Europe’s snowy winters for ex-pat life in a sunny, developing country. She had moved to Jamaica ten years ago and opened the hostel two years back. “I love it here. It’s my home,” she told me, with a mysterious smile.
When we arrived at The Bird’s Nest– a cozy house-turned-hostel with a swimming pool, hammocks, and humble view of the ocean– I met Gurusant, a woman attending the Caribbean Yoga Conference (CYC) as a vendor. I knew from having previously connected with her through CYC’s Facebook group that Gurusant was a Kundalini yoga teacher and gong sound healer. What I didn’t know but quickly learned was that she has been traveling the world continuously for five years. Even more amazing about her was that for most of those years she’s been carrying with her 26 kilograms of gongs, stands and mallets, in addition to her personal luggage.
Gurusant and I connected instantly and headed straight to the Hilton for the yoga conference. When we arrived we met Jason, a young Jamaican man attending the conference. Like many other Jamaican residents, Jason had received a full scholarship to attend the conference. These scholarships were part of the conference’s mission to spread the message of yoga across the Caribbean. While much of the CYC community was older than me, Jason was about my same age and we bonded right away. Jason, Gurusant and I became a family for the weekend.
We checked in and received bracelets with the words “Sun, Seva, Sangha.” I quickly learned that “Seva” means “selfless service” and “Sangha” means “spiritual community.” These words alluded to exactly what I would experience that weekend; a deep discovery of the connection between yoga and service, and a strong sense of connectedness to the festival community.
RASTA AND YOGA
The conference events began Thursday evening on the starry beach with a performance by a group of Rastafarian Nyabinghi Drummers. Later I befriended two of them and learned that they lived nearby on an organic farm and eco-cultural visitor center.
A Jamaican man named Shashi then gave the opening keynote speech. He discussed the connection between Rasta and Yoga. I’d never considered this cultural paralell, but I quickly understood it.
“The ultimate goal of both Rasta and Yoga is spiritual transformation. Both exemplify attunedness with cosmic order.” -Shashi
The evening proceeded with Kirtan with Dave Stringer, John de Kadt, Sezi and Jason Worton. If you’re unfamiliar with Kirtan, it is a practice of repetitively chanting sacred mantras through call and response. Before beginning, Dave explained “The point is to sing repetitively until you feel like your head will spin off.” I’d practiced Kirtan before, but never quite like we did that evening and throughout the weekend. From the stage, Dave led it soulfully and playfully, creating an atmosphere that had the magic of a rock concert and intimacy of a drum circle with your best friends.
A WILD RIDE
That night Jason, Gurusant and I waved down a ride back to our hostels. By staying off-site of the conference, I learned a lot about the “taxi” transportation system in Jamaica. Most tourists only use charter shuttle buses with uniformed drivers, which charge outrageous prices. However, any car seen by day with a red license plate is more or less a taxi service and can be as cheap as 100 Jamaican Dollars (about $1USD) for a ten-minute drive. At night, the rules are redefined and many drivers without red license plates run illegal taxi businesses and charge a bit extra. The driver we waved down was not only illegal but in a terrible rush. I thought he might kill us right then, and I began to judge Jamaican people’s driving skills, but Jason assured me it was unusual.
THIS S@#T IS BANANAS
After a few hours of sleep at The Bird’s Nest, Gurusant and I got up and headed back to the conference. On our way, we stopped at a local fruit stand. We ordered some bananas, pineapple and mango. The man charged us $7USD and insisted that mangoes were very expensive. Gurusant, a highly confident traveler, was appalled by the price and eagerly tried to haggle him down to a “local” price. I, however, being timid and forgiving in these situations accepted the price and handed him the money. When we piled into a red-plate taxi beside Mobay locals, Gurusant checked the price with them and they told us it shouldn’t have been more than $5USD. “I knew it!” she exclaimed, turning bright red, “That bastard owes me four bananas!” Everyone in the cab burst into laughter.
1.”Getting High: Yoga, Meditation and the Infinite Pharmacy Within” with Tommy Rosen.
As someone with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who is now on a constant search for natural highs, I was obviously drawn to this workshop by it’s title. Tommy led a talk, yoga, and breathing exercises. He also described the following model of four effective antidotes to four self-harming behaviors:
1. Self Doubt = Self Love
2. Negative Thinking = Positive thinking
3.Procrastination = Responsibility
4. Resentment = Love/Communication
I left Tommy’s workshop beginning to feel the natural high he promised and headed to the lawn by the beach for my next session.
2. “The Yoga Entrepreneur Workshop” with Chris Roy, founder of Namaste Interactive.
With my vision for this blog involving much more yoga-related content and my yoga teacher training beginning in two weeks, I felt sure that Chris’s “Yoga Enrepreneur” workshop would have something to offer me. It turned out to exceed my expectations greatly and was perhaps my favorite workshop of the weekend.
We gathered in a circle close enough that I could feel the energy of the morning’s workshops vibrating between our hearts. Chris began by presenting three powerful questions to reflect on:
‘If money were no object…’
- What would you be doing on a day-to-day basis?
- What work would you do?
- What causes would you support?
The most memorable message of his workshop was “As I get, I give.” He encouraged tying a social response and fundraiser to whatever it is that you are selling or offering. He has inspired me to start fundraising for social causes on this blog, which I plan to put into action soon.
I left Chris’s workshop feeling so inspired that I needed some down time to let it settle in, so I ditched my next workshop and spent some time laying on the beach.
WELCOME TO JAMROCK
That evening, Jason and I left the resort in search of cheap food. We hitched a ride to Scotchie’s, a small jerk-chicken chain. We got some chicken, fish and rice and Jason made me try Malta, a carbonated malt soft drink. I was repulsed by the taste but Jason persisted to coerce me to take bigger and bigger gulps, insisting that I wouldn’t get the ‘real taste’ with a small sip.
I then tagged along with Jason to his accommodation in the city of Montego Bay, wanting to see some “real” Jamaica. As we walked through the busy streets I noticed that I had officially departed touristy Jamaica and was the only white person for miles. The locals mostly shrugged off my presence but a few gave me weird looks, as if I wondering which wrong turn I took. One man selling sunhats shouted “Hey whitey, buy a hat, will look great on the beach, mon!” I felt uncomfortably self aware and exposed, but was grateful for this brief experience of culture shock. I felt a sense of empathy and mutuality with every African American man or woman in the U.S. who has ever been the only person of color in a room, which even in a city as diverse as New York happens on a daily basis. Had I stayed on the resort like many visitors to Jamaica do, I’d have never the opportunity to experience these profound feelings.
My Saturday morning began with some gentle yoga and a deep discussion led by HawaH. He asked us to list things we personally do that perpetuate violence. We then explored different levels of violence in the world from interpersonal to institutionalized. “How do you heal thousands of years of trauma?” was a heavy question presented.
“How do you heal thousands of years of trauma?” -HawaH
2. One Love: Thai Massage, Partner Yoga & Flying with AcroYoga‘s Jason Nemer and Katie Capano.
My day quickly transitioned from heavy and cerebral to playful and bodily as I moved on to this next workshop. Jason and Katie lead us in singing Bob Marley’s “One Love,” accompanied by guitar and drums. They then taught some Thai massage and AcroYoga. Some was familiar to me and some new, but either way it was exciting to learn from some of the first and most experienced AcroYogis. I was excited to have the opportunity to “fly” with Jason, the co-founder of AcroYoga.
“You cannot be in a bad mood when you’re in a backbend” -Jason Nemer
My positive vibes were escalating, and little-did-I-know would soon peak in an explosion of emotion.
3. “Connecting to Community,” led by Karma Krew’s Scott Feinberg & Amy Lombardo.
Karma Krew played a vital role at the CYC in connecting the conference attendees to Montego Bay’s locals with a karma yoga community-service project.
About 15 of us yogis and yoginis piled into a bus and were driven to the place where a Jamaican woman named Sister Jackie and 20-30 children from infants to teenagers call home. Sister Jackie houses and provides for all these children, many of which are HIV positive, have physical and developmental disabilities, and are either orphaned or neglected by their biological parents.
We spent two hours in a circle with these children doing yoga (which in this case meant a lot of playful movement and impersonating animals), singing songs, dancing, and making art. While one woman had the children meditating with their eyes closed and Gurusant performing gong healing on them, another volunteer placed blank canvases and art supplies behind each child. “We have a surprise for you,” another volunteer said when the children opened their yes, “Look behind you,” I thought my heart would burst when I saw the looks on their faces upon receiving a blank canvas. They looked as if nobody had given them a gift in their life. We then asked the kids to describe what yoga meant to them in one word and draw a picture illustrating that.
“Yoga is food to me,” one boy of about nine years wrote. He drew chicken. I couldn’t decide if he was being cheeky or sincere, but either way, he had composed a poetic metaphor for my exact sentiment toward yoga in that moment. Yoga is food to me. Like food, it nourishes my body. It nourishes my soul. Like food, it fuels my life. It gives me energy. It gives me love. It is something I want to feed to others and nourish their bodies and souls with. It is something with which I can give love.
We reluctantly hugged the children goodbye and boarded the bus back to the conference. As we sang songs and I gazed out the window at the sunset, I observed my energy of bottomless gratitude and connection.
GRATITUDE, PEACE, LOVE
The rest of the conference proceeded with more yoga and celebration and ended on Sunday afternoon with a healing circle. I laid in the grass in shavasana (corpse pose) beside others, surrounded by the remaining community seated hand-in-hand around us, singing a healing song. I cried, releasing a huge apotheosis of emotions– gratefulness, peacefulness, and love only begin to summarize what I felt.
Traveling to Jamaica for the Caribbean Yoga Conference was the perfect opportunity to celebrate my two greatest loves in life: travel and yoga. Writing about it celebrates my third greatest love. I’m definitely planning to attend more yoga conferences and festivals soon and will write about them, so if you enjoyed this post please follow, share, and visit often 🙂
Thank you to the Caribbean Yoga Conference and AcroYoga for sponsoring my attendance. Thank you Jason, Gurusant, Melissa, Julia, Shashi, Faith, Tommy, Chris, HawaH, Scott, Mary and Amy for making my weekend special.