One of my goals for 2017 was to lead a yoga retreat. There is nothing that makes me feel more alive than traveling and I'm comfortable as a group leader (just ask my mom about how I used to organize teams at the bus stop and make everyone play games in elementary school). My husband and I have done a lot of traveling over the last few years; sometimes it's just the two of us, but often it's group trips with friends. The truth is, it's hard to find balance when you're in a new, exciting place with old friends you haven't seen in awhile. We stay up way too late catching up on everything we've missed since we last saw each other with celebratory cocktails. We dine out eating all the heavy foods and despite my valiant efforts, yoga and working out usually get pushed down to the bottom of the activities list.
When I got home from our last trip to St. John for my best friend's wedding, let me tell you - I was absolutely exhausted and needed a vacation from my vacation! The crew I was with isn't really into hiking or yoga, so I was on my own for waking up before the scheduled activities to sweat. I thought a lot about how it would be fun to host a yoga retreat that isn't super serious (because I'm a bad yogi) but instead, more like a group vacation where we wake up (not too early), meditate, practice yoga, then go on adventures together - learn to surf, go on boat trips, or chill at the pool and drink margaritas; then head to bed at a reasonable hour so we can do it all over again the next day.
So I started doing research and after contacting easily 30-40 retreat centers all over Mexico and Central America, we landed on Hulakai Hotel and Ecological Resort in Playa Maderas, Nicaragua. We felt like the vibe fit our vision and after a Skype call with Tyler, the owner, we were sold. Honestly, there was a great deal of fear involved with hosting my first retreat, because the thought looming in the back (ok, maybe front and center) of my mind was: What if no one signs up? It's scary to put yourself out there but TRUST was the theme of 2017, so we decided to go for it. The Universe definitely had my back because not only did people start signing up, the most fun-loving, lighthearted group of humans signed up. So no matter what, I just knew we were going to have a blast.
Brendan and I flew down a day early with our friends Zack and Christine (aka Tine) who was a driving force behind this retreat - every time we got together over the last two years she'd ask when I was going to host a retreat. Her husband Zack practices yoga sometimes but isn't a big yogi (same story with Brendan) so her reasoning was that if Brendan was going on a yoga retreat, Zack would be down to go, too. They're two of my favorite people on the planet so it was perfect.
We found crazy cheap flights out of Baltimore for $400 so we ended up driving up to Virginia from Charlotte to drop Shanti off with my parents and then met up with Zack and Tine to take a redeye to Managua, then from Managua, it's a 2.5 hour car ride to Playa Maderas. Admittedly, I wasn't crazy about the idea of a long car ride after all that travel (I get really carsick) but let me tell you - it was absolutely worth it. Playa Maderas is quaint, pristine, and when you arrive, you realize why you had to take those last 30 minutes of the ride on dirt roads. It's absolutely breathtaking.
Hulakai began as a "surf/party hostel" that Tyler and his wife opened, but after they started having kids, they decided to take the same casual concept behind hostels and build an eco-resort. He's passionate about group trips and retreats, so it was clear he was thrilled to have us there. He and the entire staff treated us like old friends they were welcoming into their home. We had the entire place to ourselves, which ended up being one of my favorite things about our trip. It's a pretty big compound with a gorgeous pool (and grotto with a pool bar, might I add) and a beautiful upstairs deck (all with ocean views) that we used for practice. Each room is unique - some are more like hotel rooms that connect to one another, and some are private eco-pods that stand alone. There were 16 people in our group including Jenny and I, so it felt like we had lots of space. They have full-time Nicaraguan employees as well as a work-exchange program, so the mixologist and a few of the chefs were staying for a few months and working in exchange for free housing in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Me obsessed with the monkeys hanging out outside of our eco-pod.
The rest of the group arrived in the evening with no big travel disasters, so everyone settled into their rooms and came out to the pool to have cocktails and watch the sunset. We had our first of many family-style meals where everyone, including the staff, comes together to sit at one big long table. Every dining experience at the hotel was absolutely incredible - not only was the food fresh, healthy and delicious, it was family-style so you could eat as much as you want - which meant we were all eating the locally caught, fresh-off-the-boat (THAT DAY) mahi-mahi like it was our last meal on earth. One night we had wood-fired pizza (they have an oven on site and the manager of the hotel/pizza chef spent the day making dough and prepping for every kind of specialized pizza you could imagine), we had a sushi feast (one of the chefs here for the work exchange program is a world-class sushi chef from Japan), and meals that we couldn't stop raving about from another chef from Portugal. I could honestly go on about the food for days, but back to the party.
That first night, we made it clear to everyone that it was their holiday, their vacation so they can do whatever the fuck they want. We had a schedule, yes - but absolutely everything on that schedule is optional. If you want to sleep in and skip meditation, sleep in! If you want to chill at the pool and drink cocktails instead of taking surf lessons, do your thing! Above all else, we wanted people to know they didn't have to answer to anyone and they had the freedom to do (or not do) whatever they wanted without any judgement. Jenny and I have both been on retreat-style trips before where the schedule was so packed it felt like we didn't have any downtime, so we felt passionate about making sure that didn't happen.
The view at sunset from Hulakai - no filter needed.
I woke up with the sun every morning around 5:30am, so most days I would throw on clothes and head down to the beach by myself to practice in the sand or go for a run before we started our day together. The beaches were completely empty other than a few surfers and it was nice to explore on my own in the soft light of early morning. We kicked things off as a group with coffee and smoothies at 7:30am, followed by guided meditation at 8:30am and yoga practice from 9:00-10:15am.
Leading morning meditation from our practice space.
Our shala had a clear view of the ocean and a magnificent breeze so it was incredibly comfortable. Right around the time we'd make our way into pigeon pose, the smell of breakfast would start to make its way upstairs and I may or may not have caught myself drooling a few times. We'd head down for family-style breakfast and go to town on the cheesy eggs with salsa (still hands down the best salsa I've ever had in my life), mini-burritos, fresh squeezed juices, yogurt bowls with chia seeds and fresh fruit, pancakes, bacon...(oops, I just started drooling again)...everything was fresh and insanely delicious.
Yogurt bowl with fresh fruit, chia seeds and granola.
After breakfast on the second day we headed down to the beach (a quick five minute walk down - but it's a pretty steep hill so the way back up wasn't quite as pleasant) for surf lessons. Playa Maderas is known for it's legendary surfing, and some days the waves were out of our league, but on the day of our lesson, the conditions were perfect for beginners. And let me tell you - we had the best teachers! These guys are world-champion surfers so they definitely knew what they were doing, but more than that, it was how much fun they seemed to be having teaching us. You could tell they really wanted everyone to get up on the board, so they stayed out there with us for hours. Most people in our group had never surfed before but they all ended up getting up which was so fun to watch. I've surfed before but it's been a few years so it was a blast getting back out there.
We made our way to one of only two little open-air beach bars for post-surf cocktails as a group before heading back to the hotel. Some people landed at the pool and others got massages - they were included in the retreat so each day, three local massage therapists came out to the hotel and set up on an outdoor patio.
Then we ended up back down at the beach for sunset, which was breathtaking.
Day three was an optional trip to the nearest town, San Juan Del Sur, which is about 30 minutes away. Jenny went with half the group and I stayed with the other half so we could lounge at the pool. We ended up back down at the beach again for sunset and to choose our word for the year before our wood-fire pizza extravaganza for dinner.
Chasing the sun with the most amazing group of humans and our favorite pup.
On day four, we went on an epic catamaran trip with Nica Sail and Surf. We sailed around, dropped anchor at a beautiful beach and sipped on Toña and Mai Tais in the water for a few hours. We cruised back at sunset, had an epic dance party on the boat and everything about that day was absolutely perfect. We had so much fun that my face hurt from laughing and smiling. It was a special group of humans: some are old, dear friends that I haven't been able to spend time with like this in a long time; some are students from our teacher trainings or students I've meet through classes that I got to know on a much more personal level; and we even had two women we'd never met join us who I felt like I'd known forever.
The next day was spent on the beach and ended with a pool party at our hotel where we drank rum punch out of passion fruits and piña coladas out of pineapples.
Queen City Living Yogi/Island Girls
Another highlight of the trip was Jeff and Lyndsey's engagement. Jeff took our 200-hour teacher training a few years ago, and we've since become friends. He shared with me back in August that he was going to propose and it was such an honor to be there for this big moment in their lives. They've been through a lot together and I love them both dearly, so knowing they've made this commitment to each other brings me so much joy. Ahhhhh, I love you guys!
Congratulations to Jeff & Lyndsey!
Part of the magic of traveling to beautiful places lies in being surrounded by beauty. It makes us feel. It makes us soften. It's like holding up a mirror so we can see the beauty within ourselves and in those around us. When you're in a magical place far away from the chaos, stress and busyness of your daily life, you feel like its okay to let your guard down. There is a sense of freedom - to really drop into your experience and see yourself as you truly are when all that craziness is stripped away.
Yoga Holidays are about freedom: freedom to be who you are and do what makes you happy in the moment. They're about connecting to the highest version of yourself and to everyone around you; feeling connected to the power and fluidity of the ocean and the tiny grains of sand between your toes. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are connected to the source, and there is no better way than a week of sunshine and yoga by the ocean.
I hope you can join us on the next one, we missed you.
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