After months of planning and preparing, I am happy to say that the first ever Wellness Retreat: A Week of Yoga, Art + Adventure was an amazing success! I have been digesting and processing the whole experience and really relishing in achieving a long sought after dream. And now I am back and excited to share with all of the different aspects contributed to making this the best retreat ever!
Having only assisted retreats in the past, this was the first time ever Sebastian and I planned anything like this. Since we aimed to find someplace we had never been before, we did a lot of research on different places and locations. When a friend suggested Prana del Mar, as soon as I visited the website, I knew this was the place! We toyed with the idea of doing a site visit first just to make sure it was clean and conscious but after reading all the reviews, we trusted it was going to work out perfectly.
And WOW, did it ever. Upon arriving, Sebastian and I were blown away by the pristine and pure grounds. Located in Baja, Mexico on the desert but directly next to the ocean, Prana del Mar was like walking into the heavens. There was a main building which was airy and accessible, used for group gatherings, art classes and meal times. There were balconies overlooking the long vertical salt water, solar heated pool as well as others that provided views of the expansive land. It also had a peaceful meditation room, a small living room composed of comfy couches and yoga books and an incredible roof deck perfect for watching the sunrise or gazing at the cosmic skies.
The Baja skies
The property at Prana del Mar
Aside from the main hall, there were two incredible yoga studios: the sun studio, perched high enough to see the ocean with a bamboo thatched roof and the moon studio, a quieter space with hanging paper globes ideal for meditation and restorative yoga. Both were equipped with high quality blocks, straps and bolsters as well as an overall serene and special vibe.
The Sun Studio
Inside the Moon Studio
The individual rooms for guests were located in two separate buildings closer to the ocean. When we walked into ours, we were floored. It was literally double the size of our NYC apartment. It had a gorgeous kitchen with brand new appliances and granite countertops, a living room overlooking the thunderous Pacific ocean, a massive closest for all of our retreat supplies plus a huge bedroom with another balcony. Definitely not what we expected. The decor was beach-inspired, simple but clean and elegant with neutral colors of beiges, ivories and browns. Upon waking up the first day, we watched the bright organic sun peak over the mountains and rise up through the rainbow sky without even leaving our bed!
The two guest houses
Aside from the off white buildings, the sand that covered the property was meticulously manicured. There was a wide range of desert plants, all kinds of cacti, a few crocheted hammocks, yogic statues and even a stone labyrinth! Pathways were outlined with large round stones and native wildlife shared the land in a cooperative and non-intrusive way. Sometimes bats would come flying into the dining room or a salamander would cross our path, mostly to our utter delight and silly shrieks. Large black beetles crawled around and exotic birds perched their proud chests on top of trees, quite a fascinating ecosystem to observe.
Standing in the stone labyrinth
To our surprise, the best part of the grounds was the pool. It served as the central meeting point giving us the space to chill, relax and indulge. It certainly felt like not just a yoga retreat but also a vacation. The water was the perfect temperature – cooler than a bathtub but perfectly refreshing from the hot Mexican sun. We had impromptu photo shoots, jumping games, lap races and late night hangouts. The hot tub was also a favorite spot among students especially after a long day of practice and adventures. Plus, the staff delivered ice teas, beers and other cocktails directly to our lounge chairs!
The insanely delicious pool
We love life!
More than anything, the best part of Prana del Mar was their environmental awareness. They were totally off-grid so the whole place ran on solar panels. Because of that, we had to be extra mindful to shut off lights and fans whenever leaving our rooms. It also meant no air conditioning or TVs! They used bamboo to make their floors, provided organic sheets, bath mats and towels and grew their own food in an organic veggie garden without pesticides or herbicides. All of their cleaning products were green, their waste water was treated on-site and reused to irrigate the gardens and light fixtures were energy efficient. In addition, they composted excess food and used it as fertilizer, stocked each room with organic personal care products and offered purified water with refillable water bottles. We really appreciated how visiting this place taught us how to do the least amount of harm to the earth while still enjoying life’s luxuries.
Aside from the most beautiful grounds, the staff at Prana del Mar was top notch. The owner, Erik, was present and often checked in but he also gave us total freedom and control over the property. (We brought enough students to take over the whole place!) It was comforting to know he was around and able to help if necessary but also really empowering that he was so open and generous with the space, studios and lodge. In addition, the entire staff, from waiters to grounds keepers, were receptive, engaged, supportive and thoughtfully accommodating. We all sensed how much they loved their jobs and how selfless they gave of themselves. It made the whole experience so much better to be supported by a loving, kind and amazing group of people.
Overall, the food was mind-blowing. Included in the retreat was three meals per day plus a pre-practice snack. This small meal consisted of locally grown fruits, fresh coffee and tea and a different smoothie every day. Most of them contained a mixtures of berries and bananas blended with homemade almond milk. Just enough energy to make it through the sweaty, two hour practice! Breakfast was definitely everyone’s favorite meal. Aside from a daily unique juice, there were egg dishes ranging from scrambled to omelettes, chia seed pudding, fruit salad, freshly made bread with jams, spreads and butter. Most students ate outside on the balcony to enjoy the ocean views and Baja breeze.
Lunch and dinner were also always delicious, conscious and healthy. They never repeated a single dish, astounding us with the interesting mix of ingredients and flavors. The chefs were exceptionally creative in making all kinds of salads and soups as well as main dishes that accommodated all kinds of diets, from vegans to diabetics. Fresh seafood was served that was local and sustainably caught, often with a spicy Mexican flair. Each dinner meal was made complete with a decadent sweet treat. We has everything from homemade chocolate truffles to raw cheesecake!
Sebastian and I had no idea how it would be to bring a group of strangers together to the middle of the desert and give them powerful yoga, inspiring art and courageous adventures. How a group will gel and bond is one of the biggest unknowns when planning any retreat. But we were so thankful by the way this particular group came together. Everyone genuinely liked each other and enjoyed each other’s company. We all got along great – no drama, cliques, fights or negative energy. People showed up as their honest, authentic selves and were welcomed and embraced for who they are. I saw numerous occasions of people hugging, having intimate conversations, sharing deep belly laughs and most of all, playing like little kids. It was a group that ranged in age from 26-63 with varying backgrounds, abilities, interests and perspectives. We were able to transcend all of our differences and come together to form a tight knit close family. Even after being back, the students are hanging out, making plans and building on the connections made during the retreat.
Our spontaneous and glamorous photo shoot
Aside from that, what was especially powerful with this group is how each student showed up. It was amazing! I saw over and over again how people worked hard on their practice, dedicating their attention on the mat with zest and eagerness to learn. Students repeatedly overcame fears and found peace outside their comfort zones. We shared honest emotions during our welcoming and closing ceremonies and let go of their limitations during our evening bonfire – being so real, raw and vulnerable. Most of all, I witnessed people transform, change, let go and evolve, by far the best part of this whole retreat and my most favorite part about my job.
What was also super special was that my mom came on the trip. Although she does practice yoga, she was certainly not accustomed to powerful and intense classes but she nailed it. She had no idea what to except on her first yoga retreat but I saw her face many fears, like going upside down and riding a horse after 47 years! She became the heart of the group and had the beautiful ability to connect with every single person on the trip. Her presence gave me so much comfort and support. Thanks mom, I am so proud of you!
My Mom in a Headstand!
Even though The Wellness Retreat would have art and adventure, Sebastian and I agreed that yoga had to be the center focus for the week. Because of that, we started every day with a morning practice in the sun studio. I wanted to educate the students about different aspects of the science and philosophy of yoga in addition to an alignment-based, strengthening and powerful practice. One day we explored fundamental poses intertwined with the 8 Limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga System. Another morning, we focused on preparing the body to go upside into inversions as a way to overcome fear and self-limiting beliefs. We experimented with the 7 chakras while opening the hips and heart and spent time lengthening hamstrings and spines. During the week, we held two afternoon practices, one restorative and the other meditation class taught by Sebastian. Both were great ways to unwind and unravel, complimenting the stronger, physical morning practices.
Morning Practice in the Sun Studio
In addition, this was the first time EVER Sebastian was the assistant in my class where he adjusted students and helped with props. It was super helpful to have an extra set of eyes and hands providing the students with additional attention. Everyone appreciated his level of care and helpfulness, which made us all feel more comfortable and confident.
Sebs helping in downward dog
Aside from the physical practice, we tried to implement yogic principles during our other activities. For example, something I learned from my teacher and try to practice is to leave a space better than how I found it. So we incorporated this by making sure whenever we left an area, we took great care to ensure it was neat and organized. We practiced being conscious about our use of energy and electricity, created a space for honest and open dialogues and lead with kindness and love in all of our actions.
Assisting a deep forward fold
After our last retreat to Brazil and how much participants enjoyed making art, we knew we had to bring in a powerful creative element. Just like how we aimed to expose students to different yogic themes and principles, we also wanted to give students a range of artistic activities and mediums. Sebastian started with acrylics on canvas and had each student create their own unique version of lotus pose based on his Art of the Asana series. It was so interesting to witness everyone’s unique interpretation, ranging from their use of space, shapes and colors.
Paint Your Asana
Next, he taught ZenTangle, a meditative pen and ink exploration using repeating shapes to create one of a kind patterns. This style of art is meant to be calm and focus the mind and many students enjoyed its intricate simplicity.
For a final project, Sebastian used watercolors and taught everyone how to paint their own chakra. Some students chose one chakra while others picked two or three that best resonated with them. A perfect compliment to my chakra yoga class!
We held the art classes in an area where the dazzling sun filtered in and we could sporadically get a refreshing breeze off the ocean. Each class was an amazing experience and I was so impressed by everyone’s courage in exploring, playing and experimenting with their artistic sides. Some of these students hadn’t held a paintbrush in decades!!!
Aside from the yoga and art, we wanted to go on adventures so in our planning stages, we choose three unique experiences to incorporate into the retreat. Our first adventure was horseback riding on the beach. Next to Prana del Mar was a horse ranch so we strolled over, saddled up and set out to explore the terrain. Their were several students terrified of riding but I am happy to say they overcame their fears and participated in the experience. The horses traversed rocks and sand, rolling hills and grassy lands. We strolled by cacti and other desert plants and eventually made our way to the majestic beach. The sun was starting to sink and the sparkle it created on the water’s surface was magical. Sebastian fell in love with his horse and no sooner turned into a cowboy! It was a great first adventure, one that enabled us to really appreciate all the varying landscapes of Baja. This also happened to be the exact moment when I realized I was born to host retreats! It was a feeling unlike anything else I have ever experienced, a knowing that all is aligning.
Mid-week we decided to venture off the property and head to the Sea of Cortez for a snorkeling and kayaking excursion. We each chose partners, zipped up life vests and set off into the warm, crystal teal water. We kayaked for one mile before reaching a rocky bay where we had the opportunity to snorkel and explore the underwater world. We saw fishes of all shapes and sizes and well as coral reefs and jagged rocks. One of the students had an intense fear of water and yet, having never been in an ocean before, held my hand and swam like a true champion! My heart still bursts whenever I think to this special moment.
SO MUCH FUN!!!!
From there, we kayaked another two miles (this time, a much harder leg!) to another beach and spent a few hours playing in the sand, swimming with fish, laying in the sun and enjoying a packed lunch. It was an incredible day and the perfect way to explore another side of Mexico.
For our last adventure, we witnessed the release of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean. This occurs through a local conservatory group around sunset every day. There were a few hundred newly born baby sea turtles placed on sand near the water’s edge and we watched in amazement how they shimmied on their bellies towards the water. Some were slower than others, some didn’t even move but they were seriously the cutest things I have ever seen. There was a moment when everyone was enthralled and captivated that we didn’t notice a large, looming wave come in and knock almost everyone over. With it went many of the sea turtles and we scrambled to help get them back to safety. We learned that the sea turtles record the sand of this specific beach on their bellies and within 8-10 years return to this exact location!
Sebastian and I both love giving presents so we decided to incorporate them all throughout the week. As part of the welcoming tour, everyone received a wellness goodie bag complete with retreat essentials: a custom designed itinerary, incense, a journal and pen, lavender infused soap, a sweat towel donated by Lululemon, a yoga mat cleaner, yogi tea, coconut chapstick, a welcome postcard, dark chocolate and a few other treats. After most classes, we gave handouts based on whatever I was teaching, such as the 8 limbs and chakras, so students had a take-home reminder of what they learned. We tied ribbons on small paper bags full of trail mix which was perfect for excursions and travel days. We also gifted students chia seed energy bars, a book about living courageously and on the final day, a sandalwood mala bead necklace. Giving a little throughout the week was our expression of our appreciation and gratitude to our first ever retreat group.
The Wellness Goodie Bag
Aside from the place being amazing and the food, staff, students, yoga, art and adventure all being extraordinary, there was something more, something intangible about the whole experience. From my perspective, it was straight up magic. Yes, Sebastian and I prepared for months, poured over every detail, thought through logistics and worst case scenarios, carefully planned the flow of the week but ultimately when hosting a retreat, there are many variables that are unknown and out of our control. The magic happened when every single thing fell into place and perfectly aligned. From start to finish, it was definitely the best retreat ever, especially since it was the first time I lived this dream and made it real. From the bonfire to the beach, from swimming to snorkeling, from practicing to playing, my heart was exploding at the manifestation of my heart’s deepest desire – create an experience and hold a sacred space for students to transcend and transform.
Special thanks to the whole community at Prana del Mar for their unparalleled care, service and attention. A huge shoutout to all the students that showed up with enthusiasm, love, care and kindness. Thank you for investing in yourself and trusting us! You were our greatest joy.
Love to my teacher, Marco Rojas and his wife Sisa, for giving me the opportunity to learn about retreats as first an assistant and then showering me with encouragement and support to make my own retreat a reality. Thanks to my mom for being a powerful female warrior who fearlessly charts outside her comfort zone and encourages me to do the same. And of course, to my husband Sebastian, my yoga assistant, my co-creator, business partner and adventure-seeking love, I couldn’t have done it without you.
Until the next one, Love + Gratitude!!!!
PS. We are going back next year so if you want to attend the next best retreat ever, please reach out! We are also in the process of creating another Wellness Retreat for March 2016. Stay tuned for details.
Incredible photos by the talented Mike Roberts. Thank YOU for capturing the magic!