Elephant Endeavors

If you've ever heard of Thailand and, more specifically, Chiang Mai, you've probably been made aware that one of the main tourist attractions is the opportunity to come into contact with some of Earth's most precious and holy creatures-- elephants. Among the people I talked to before venturing here, it was a highly controversial topic. Some said definitely go see the elephants because it was the best experience of life. Others said definitely do not go anywhere with elephants because they are all tortured and treated inhumanely.

All objections aside, like most tepid-hearted Americans coming to Asia for the first time, I pretty much knew that if I could find a semi-decent place where they didn't slash or prod the animals, I was going to see some elephants on this trip. I followed my friend Warren's recommendation, read as many elephant treatment reviews as I could, and set off for a day of close contact with trunk-wielding tree trimmers. I chose Into the Wild Elephant Camp, instead of the more popular and well-regarded Elephant Nature Park because I hoped for a more intimate, less crowded visit.


And it really was an unbelievable experience, and even more so because there were only 3 of us visiting 5 elephants that day. We hiked with them, bathed with them, and sort of ate lunch with them while they smartly tried to steal food from our table. I'd never touched one before, so spending hours next to them as they gracefully lumbered through the woods and covering them with mud to provide necessary sun protection offered a ton of new soul-satisfying observations.


I hope the elephants are always treated as well as I saw during the visit. Our guides seemed to genuinely care about them, and there were no bullhooks or riding baskets in sight. The elephants seemed to genuinely not care about anything other than eating, an act that they engaged in for almost all of the 5 hours we were with them. Apparently indifferent to our presence, they did, at points, threaten to chop our heads off with their superior lumberjack skills. I could certainly see why Thai Buddhists worship the elephant god, Ganesha, as the remover of obstacles. 

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Surrendering to Life: Pai Edition

I set off on this journey with the intention of leaving many details unplanned. I expected to meet people in the second week of my travels, during the yoga portion, and wanted to leave room for spontaneous adventure. However, as the flight to Thailand crept closer, my anxious planning instincts started to take the reigns. Just to be safe, I set up a hostel for a few nights after the retreat, and scheduled another one in Pai (a nature-heavy, hippie town that had been highly recommended) for later in the week. My desires for impromptu backpacking gave way to my usual urge to control what comes next.

On Sunday, the last day of the retreat, our group was scheduled to practice together in the morning, and then be dropped off back in the city around noon. I was ready for some chill solo time, and my clothes were begging to be laundered. But I soon found out that the universe was chuckling at all my advanced planning and thinking that I knew what was good for me. My new Aussie friend, Amanda, also wanted to visit Pai, but her flight was leaving on Tuesday. Could we go that day? I was reluctant. My chill time! My laundry! We wouldn't get there until 7pm and would leave to come back not 24 hours later. 


Before I knew it, we were ditching our bags (at the pre-booked hostel) and riding a red truck to the bus station. The stars must have aligned since we were permitted onto the 3 o'clock bus, despite having shown up at the booking desk at 2:58. In accordance with online and word of mouth warnings, the road to Pai was rough and winding, but we made it unscathed. We sat down at a cafe to book a hostel for the night, and were amused to find out later that our room was actually a $4 sectional family tent on what looked like a riverside thatched hut commune. PaiZen River Jam Hostel was the place for us. 


We spent the night out making traveler friends, trying to spend as long as we could in the warmth of bars and fellow nomads. But sleeping outside felt good to us (mats and fleece blankets helped), and the river provided a zen spot to further our morning meditation habits. The next day, we conquered my fears of driving a scooter. We saw canyons and waterfalls and ate at the most amazing restaurant I've ever eaten at in my life. If you are ever in Pai, please eat most, if not all, of your meals at Earth Tone so I can relive it through you!


As predicted, we didn't want to leave after only a day, but the last bus was heading out at 5pm, and our scooter skills weren't quite up to the 3-4 hour ride back under the light of the moon. Although it was short, this trip presented me with some of the joys of last-minute planning. If I'd gone to Pai on my own, I would've had more time there and probably a slower-paced visit, but I wouldn't have had the courage to rent a motorbike or the confidence to cruise through the countryside with a friend! I might have seen the river running through the town, but my scheduled hostel was no more than a bed in a dorm on the main shopping street. I would have missed the canyons, waterfalls, and most of the natural beauty that Pai has to offer.

Once again, I'm reminded that the most exciting plans often come from letting go and seeing where the circumstances take you. So thank you to Amanda for helping me surrender to life and taking this trip with me. I wouldn't have had it any other way!


What to Do on a Yoga Retreat

I'll bet there are a lot of yoga retreats that lead you to inner peace through sitting in silence and fasting, but I'm feeling almost as peaceful after making new friends and filling my belly with delicious vegan passionfruit cheesecake.

Here's what you should do on a yoga retreat, but be warned that this guidance is really only applicable for a yoga retreat in Northern Thailand which happens to be the one that I just went on.

1. Do some yoga. Pretty self-explanatory here. I didn't take many pictures of myself actually doing yoga because I was so centered and immersed, but here's a picture of that cheesecake:



2. Learn to cook. I recommend Thai green curry, Thai red curry, Thai yellow curry, or any color curry that combines delicious spices with coconut milk and some vegetables. Include many desserts, especially the delightful aforementioned cheesecake. Summon your strength and don't quit the cooking class before the mango sticky rice portion!


3. Learn other stuff, too. Usually when you gather a group of passionate people together, you'll find that most of them have interesting things to share. It was a blessing to find time to learn a bit of Kundalini yoga from our roommate, Sam, and to partake in a mind-bending Yin class with anatomy master, Antonio. Learn as much as you can whenever you have the chance!

4. Relax in new ways. If sunning, swimming, yoga, and meditation aren't enough for you, throw in a few Thai massages, an herbal sauna, and some hot springs on top of it all. We also spent a day at a floating retreat called Om Waters which is an incredibly magical place that is existing out here in the world.


5. Visit temples high and low. This is Thailand, so there are temples on mountains, in caves, and almost anywhere you look on regular old solid ground. I'll never forget sitting around our satsung circle beneath a shining golden Buddha statue watching the sun set and wondering how I got so lucky as to wind up here.


Why I Came to Thailand, Pt. 2

Before embarking on this trip, it was hard for me to answer when my friends and family asked why I was coming to Thailand for a yoga retreat. There were many reasons that I was unable to briefly summarize into a single response. I'd never been to Asia before. I felt called here because of my prior connection with Echo. I had seen friends traveling to Thailand and Bali (and posting photos of jungles and monkeys), and I was envious of their escapades. I wanted to be around people who were living creative, non-conventional lives and learn from them. But mostly, I thought, I liked practicing yoga, and Thailand seemed like an interesting location in which to do it.


On the first night of the retreat, we meditated together, and then took a moment to write down our intentions for the remainder of our time together. Why did I come here? What was I hoping to get out of this? I thought my answer would be a little more hands-off. Yoga and Thailand. Yoga in Thailand. Did I really need to say more? Throughout my journey, I've done this kind of thing many times—set intentions for the practice, notice how my body folds into various shapes, share meditative experiences with strangers and see how in a day they become close friends. Even when people cry or reveal hopelessly frustrated dark nights of the soul, I'm not surprised because my mind has been there, too. When it comes to journaling and holding hands in circles, I'm an old pro.

But on that first night of focus, preparing for a week of what I hoped would provide clarity and a light on the path to bliss, my mind's eye revealed something more. I always like to pretend that I'm an expert at things, exceedingly nervous to show flaws in whatever I'm meant to be knowledgable about. Yoga, meditation, travel—no big deal for me! I'm a teacher! I've been to 30 countries! However, during meditation that night, after a week of flying over countries and oceans, carrying heavy backpacks, and taking in so much of the external world, it felt so welcoming to return to my mat. Even though I was a full twelve hours time difference from where I normally live, I was grounded. I was home.

As I sat there trying to settle on an intention or a reason to write on my little slip of paper, I could finally see the childlike part of me that was kneeling in the presence of these timeless teachings, patiently and earnestly hoping to see and learn. I didn't need to try to sound cool, experienced, or knowledgeable with a load of classes, workshops, and explorations under my belt. I'm here because there's so much that I haven't seen and so much that I don't know. I saw clearly the innocence in me of someone who never feels like an expert, who has found that the road to self-discovery is as challenging as it is rewarding. My intention in that moment, which remains with me as I write this now, is to hold onto that vision of myself, and to recognize it in everyone around me. I want to realize the unblemished wonder with which we are all encountering this world, and look past any disguises, fancy language, or walls that get in the way. And then, of course, to see some monkeys, too.



Why I Came to Thailand, Pt. 1

I met Echo for the first time about two years ago in Austin. I had been going through a rough week, filled with tears and uncertainty. I was unhappy in my job and experiencing some unexpected turbulence in my romantic relationship. In spite of the sizable lump in my throat that made me want to stay home and avoid talking to anyone, I kept doing the one thing that I knew would remain constant through the hard-hitting emotional crises and pains that inevitably come with growing up; I went to yoga class.

I waited at the door of Sukha Yoga, and Echo showed up right on time. The only problem was that she had forgotten her keys and wasn't sure if we'd be able to get into the studio for class. I didn't mind. I was happy to have found some people who would've practiced in a parking lot, and who didn't have any idea what was happening in my personal life. Even just sitting on the stoop outside the studio in good company beat crying alone in my car. But, as luck would have it, Echo's partner was able to drop off the keys, and we went inside to flow. Like always, being on my mat helped me set aside my perceived difficulties so I could feel into my body and, yeah, throw down a few handstands to alter my perspective. I felt a connection with the strength and style of Echo's teaching, and I think I ended up attending almost all of her classes over the next few weeks before she left on a journey to Japan.

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Flash forward two years into the future, and here I am in Thailand on a yoga retreat with the same teacher. Since we met, Echo has been living in Japan, New Zealand, Greece, and “nowhere” as she backpacks nomadically around this part of the world. It's been a treat to learn from her independent, take charge attitude—she's a global adventurer who seems prepared to take on any challenge. I carry all my teachers with me on this path, but it's been nice get to know one a little better and benefit the glow from her fiery spirit. As for me, I've kept on this long walk toward truth, and I'm certified to call myself a teacher now, too. The uncertainty and turbulence haven't changed all that much, but the girl experiencing it all sure has.

This year, Echo has started leading retreats and participating in teacher trainings around the world. I'm happy that she joined forces with Cole Chance for ours. Cole is a dreamy yoga instructor, Thai massage master, ecstatic dance enthusiast, and general positive vibe exuding being. I'm grateful that even though I never had the chance to meet her during our mutual Austin residences, I somehow ended up with her on the other side of the world. If you're looking for a yoga retreat that includes both meditation and exploration, check out both of these ladies as they plan more offerings near and far: echoflowyoga.com | colechanceyoga.com.