Yoga and Meditation in Guatemala

by Bianca Valentini   

Sudha Allit: Meditation for Life — Service Learning Essay    

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing” (Henry Miller).

And then suddenly I was immersed into a different country that speaks a different language, about to teach yoga and meditation to a group of children who don’t understand where I came from and why my Spanish isn’t so great…

I have to be honest here, I never had expectations. I had hopes and a couple of visions of what I may experience, but for me there’s a difference between hopes and expectations. I feel like expecting things is always a trap; things are never as they seem. I went to Guatemala with an open and pure heart full of hopes and knowledge that anything can change and anything is possible. Guatemala is an amazing country but it isn’t the safest place and there was a lot to get used to for me, but that comes with any new space and place. What I found at Vida (life in Spanish) is not only my own heart, but a love for all of the hearts involved.

Asociacion de Vida is a very special school that takes care of the children in their city, San Miguel Duenas. It isn’t just a school. It is a program of educational and life tools that keep children craving life and wanting to come back. And they do. School is optional for the children, and they always come back. The most amazing thing is that they don’t turn anyone away. Special needs or not, everyone is in the same program sharing different experiences together. San Miguel Duenas is a very poor and under-privileged town and another thing that the school does is go into the homes of the children and assess their living situation and needs. Once they do this, they go into the home and provide space for proper living to accommodate the needs of each family. Vida is a safe place and a place of hope for those who don’t have much.

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When I first walked in, my eyes filled with tears for the love and sadness I felt all at once. Sadness because these kids don’t have much, but happiness and love because they do have a love of life and that’s something many people in the States don’t have. They call it “sindrom de amor” (love syndrome) and they said I caught it early, within the first few seconds. They don’t have a cure and I don’t ever want or need one. My hopes never touched these feelings and what I thought I wanted to experience. This is something far bigger than all of us and it’s so amazing because it’s happening and it’s real and we are all doing it. I knew this work would be tough for me because my Spanish is not the best and it certainly was tough. It was frustrating because I wanted the children to experience a class full of adventure and wild animals and noises and music and fun and instead they had quieter animals and fun but were in a more tranquil environment of hearing me and mimicking me and each other. And the teachers were a great help for me; I am so thankful for them. This is especially powerful because there was a communication there that had to be so specific and challenging and it’s yoga. It’s all yoga and they got it, no matter what type of class it was.

Teaching yoga to children has never been more of a challenge and an honor to me. I thought I’d just teach and show students that they have access to a part of themselves that they may not have known existed. I didn’t think I’d show them that there’s something more for them or that they have access to the peace they need to stay off the streets. And I certainly didn’t think I’d never want to leave. It’s a beautiful thing. Most of us probably know the Jimi Hendrix quote “When the power of love overcomes the love of power,  the world will know peace.” I don’t know how many of us have had the privilege to see such a powerful saying in action but I do know I have and wow. Anything is possible.

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When I got to Guatemala, I knew a small amount of Spanish. I was shaking in my shoes trying to figure out how I was going to share yoga with children who don’t understand that I don’t speak their language. Children are interesting in that way, they only know what they have and only believe that exists, and for them it is true. For all of us, really. So, coming into a new space looking like I came from another planet (I saw about 5 other people with blonde hair the entire time I was there. Gringa doesn’t even begin to define what I was there. Ha-ha!) And attempting to teach this thing called yoga had me praying and meditating more times than I ever had. My classes in the U.S.A are full of music and stories and adventure and animals. In Guatemala, I just had to present in a basic way but still make it appealing. When I released my fear and allowed myself to come from the purest space in my heart, the classes just flowed and came out and were fun and became creative in their own way.

One example: The kids like their egos and find fun in knowing that they know the poses so I loved to shout out random poses and see that they knew them, and they did. It was fun to see them quickly change poses and laugh about it staring at me to call the next. I have found little ways and roads to take to make it interesting and keep it interesting. I went to Guatemala with lesson plans ready to translate and ideas ready to explode with potential. When I entered the school, I froze. There were 15+ kids in the first class and I forgot everything I wanted to do. I started in a huge circle and we shook all of our sillies out. I then had all of the children run into the center of the circle and yell “VIDA!”

We transitioned to the ground and stretched out. I demonstrated some animals and repeated time after time to breathe through our noses and out through our noses. Upon losing focus, given that it was a huge group, I would bang my hands on the ground and we would start a rainstorm which was followed by deep breathing. I always stressed the breath and to keep the attention, we moved from the ground to standing often. We danced and sung and squeezed our hands really tight to yell “NO!” and then opened our hands and yelled “SI!” They loved this, and loved to laugh. All of my lesson plans didn’t follow through completely because the energy each day was different so I mostly went with my intuition with what each child needed and what we could benefit from as a group.

Many of the classes were similar but different order and different games at the end. There were days when the kids were crazy and there were just too many, and there were days when we split them up into smaller groups and I would teach twice in one day. Each class ended with the children lying on their backs and looking at the sky, saying what animals and images they saw. They then closed their eyes and I would go around and swing their feet and press their third eye. They loved this and always giggled. The most amazing thing to me was that no matter how much crazy energy they had, they always quieted down for Savasana. For a couple of minutes every single day, the children were able to lie down and breathe without worrying. When we gently awoke from our brief meditations we would Om, then shake it out and play a game- Duck, Duck Goose and Indian Chief were always the favorites. After the game we would Namaste and class would be over.

After the first class, I had the privilege of explaining yoga in English and the director translated for me in Spanish. He explained to the children that it is difficult to try to teach to them with little language but with their full attention and help we could make it happen. We told the children that yoga is the unification of the mind, body, spirit, breath and heart. We explained how compassion and love and breathing are the most important things and that we can use all we learn in yoga, even if it is just breath, in any given situation- especially difficult ones. I always told the children they can even use the breath before and after a test or a class. Some other classes began with a ball that I would throw to each child and say “Como te sientes?” which means how do you feel? We would go around and set the tone for the class, and I always told them that it was okay for them to not feel good or happy but it is what we do with those feelings that matters. Sometimes after class I held an exercise where I played drum music and took one child at a time and had them close their eyes and breathe. After a couple of minutes I would ask them to tell me what they see. Almost always, the response was waterfalls, butterflies, animals, trees, the sky, or flying. I was fascinated and intrigued at how quickly the children fell into meditation and how quickly they created visuals without thoughts rolling through their heads. They absolutely loved to do this meditation and I loved to hold the space for them to do it.

I ended a couple of classes with a Metta meditation during Savasana. I spoke to the children telling them to close their eyes and feel their hearts, I continued to tell them to say to themselves one at a time “may I be happy, healthy, and safe.” Then we continued one at a time with each intention to all of the people in our lives. The people we love, those we are indifferent to, and those that bother us. They enjoyed this one as well. We sang songs and danced and they loved to do the “Sa, Ta, Na, Ma” meditation with their mudras. Each day was different and each day was intuitive. It wasn’t in my plan for it to be that way, but I felt more comfortable going with the flow rather than being concerned with what I didn’t get to. Of course, I stayed within the realm of what I wanted to accomplish but it was always random and usually worked out. We practiced on cardboard and that was enough. It was a whole new world of teaching and I am forever thankful for it. I would love to return and bring yoga mats with me one day!

I made a poster for the children and the school about the 8 limbs of yoga. My original plan was to have a class on each limb, but I found that explaining before each class what the limb was and then reminding the children again at the end of the class fit better. Yoga is so new to these children and I found that the more time I spent talking, the more they wanted to practice. I left the poster at the school with a hope that they would refer to it often. I explained to the children in the best way that I could to get them to understand each one. Some were really short and simple and others were more in depth. The picture below is what I created.

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I have learned that although my Spanish has certainly improved, the language isn’t necessary to understand what is being presented. Love and laughter are the same in every language and that’s all we need. I have also learned that although I look different, I am the same. And I am welcomed and loved just the same as well. Like I said, love and laughter are the same in every language. This has been the hardest thing I’ve done thus far, but the most rewarding challenge. Because I didn’t give up and believed in the power of love, I found peace.

Teaching yoga and meditation is only as meaningful as I have presented it to be. If I came in with a sour face and no desire to teach, yoga would mean nothing. Because I came in with a smile and an excitement to share, yoga means fun and yoga means a lot to the kids. Every time they saw me, they would yell “YOGA!” I even had a class where I asked each child to be the teacher for a couple of poses. They did awesome. Because of the willingness and readiness to participate, and because of the laughter and the calm I see on their faces when they breathe, that’s all I need to know that it’s meaningful. They tell me I made a contribution they’ve never seen before. They say “Colocha (means curly– I have the curliest of heads) before you came, the children and us- we don’t know yoga- after, we know yoga. Thank you.” I feel like I shared what I know and what I feel and I am so thankful that what I have shared has resonated. I can only hope it sticks. I have created a poster which hangs in the school and taught the teachers how to continue to at least allow the children to use their breath in any moment, especially difficult ones. It is my vision that it stays with them. If it doesn’t, at least it did for a little while and that’s enough.

I have found a friend in each and every teacher and student and child in this program. I have found a lesson and I have found love and light from each being. The welcoming energy and revved up engines for their program and life and giving back is close to my own heart. I find a like mind in the mission here and even if I never see them again, I have forever friends. They don’t care so much about where I came from or that I don’t look like them. They just know there is work to be done and in the process friendship is made. There is extreme bonding in like minded people, extreme bonding in knowing our hearts are all connected and we share similar desires. There is extreme bond in having 15+ children hug and kiss you because they want to. Because they feel connected. I am thankful for them all because I am them and they are me.

I didn’t have goals. I had hopes going to Guatemala. I hoped to bring yoga and I hoped to touch some hearts and spread some light and love. Yoga has been brought to me, and my heart has been touched and I am full of the light and love of every single person I have come across. I’d say the tables have turned and I’m not the slightest bit upset about it. It’s all so bittersweet. I ate chocolate and bread and potatoes and rice and all of the things I am not used to, and allowing myself to do so has been liberating and sweet, oh so sweet. But without the bitter, the sweet isn’t as sweet and I’ve had to face some of my own bitter stuff that feels so sweet to let go of. I could have stayed in Guatemala for another year, and I hope to return, but for now I have enough memories to keep me warm through this winter and a lifetime of love to share with others.

 

 

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