Most yogis are gnawed by nature to explore. We feel compelled to take steps, even leaps, into the unknown, just to see what we’re made of. We flip upside down, methodically, with fully focused breath, attempting to tangle and untangle our legs, spines, guts, not knowing where we’ll land, just steeped with desire to discover something new. We’re a compassionate bunch too. Especially the two women I went to Haiti with this year. They’re equal parts kindness and sincerity coupled with knowledge and strength. They will listen intently to your stories, understand your plights, and use every emotional tool in their arsenal to support you through highs and lows. They are the essence of humanity, they wish only for good, and you feel that deep within your bones. They make me better.
Veronica Rottman, Diana Oppenheim and I continued the effort we started last year: teaching Yoga to oncology patients and staff at Partners in Health in Mirebalais (Cange, last year), Haiti. This year, we expanded that project. All three of us spent the better part of a year teaching fundraising classes and workshops, hosting events, and spreading awareness about Yogis Can Help, our philanthropic effort to spread Yoga to those underserved. Haiti is our passion project, after a successful and rewarding first trip, we were all extremely jazzed to return and build upon the foundation we laid down.
There were nerves in planning the trip back. We had no Jessie Stoop this year, our angel oncology nurse who was pivotal in making our first trip happen, let alone making it joyous, informative and exceedingly fun. No Jesse. No Cange. No clue what to expect, just like the first year. We knew we had to strap in and adapt, be ready for anything. The beauty of most travel experiences arrives through the unpredictability, the surprises. We were in for it and couldn’t wait.
Veronica got busy learning Creole from an amazing student of hers, Paul Karner, a man who’d spent much of his childhood visiting Haiti, and has since established a nonprofit in Jacmel recording Haitian musicians. Not only did he teach Veronica how to teach Yoga in Creole, he connected us with his friend, Alland, arranged for safe transport from Port au Prince to Jacmel and back, paid a local Haitian woman, Dede, in Jacmel to cook for us, ensured we had a Haitian phone and stayed in constant communication with us throughout our trip. He is, and was, a godsend.
From the Jacmel Music School
For some reason Diana and I each decided to leave Chicago (for men, of course, and we only sort of regret it), so in the midst of transition, we stayed organized with each other, Veronica communicating with our beloved social worker, Oldine, along with the elegant and lovely, Lazenya, to nail down the logistics of our return trip. As V and I finished up a few fundraisers at our home studios, Diana worked tirelessly on a stellar teacher training manual for the few Haitian locals we’d be leading this time around.
We learned our mat and equipment donations were nowhere to be found this year so we collected what we could, packed our bags, gathered a slew of snack foods and embarked on our second trip to the Caribbean. V couldn’t wait to be warm again. We all couldn’t wait to be together, to share what we love with such deserving people, and to do what we love together. It is a gift to collaborate with such intelligent and thoughtful people. I cannot imagine a better learning and loving experience than that.
Veronica and I arrived first. It felt nice to commemorate our first trip together by teaching our patients (some who’d returned from the previous year) again. We both felt even more at ease this time around, something about the familiarity of Haiti, these kind and resilient people made us feel right at home. And again, they were so grateful and receptive to Yoga. They breathed like they were taking in nectar, transitioned from pose to pose with presence and a keen sense of humor. Five minutes in and we were reminded exactly why we could not wait to come back.
Diana joined us later that evening for our first staff class. It’s an incredible juxtaposition teaching patients in Creole and staff in English. The energy is vastly different but the thread-lines are the same. The personnel in Marebalais work so hard, often without breaks, and despite them being in the medical and health profession, they spend so much energy taking care of others that they frequently forget about themselves. So to provide an opportunity where they can put themselves on the list, move their bodies in a way that feels soothing, invigorating, relaxing, and even playful, breathe in a way that’s therapeutic, and be responsible for nothing but their own bliss, was a tremendous gift to give.
From the first day on, patients and staff were game. And that felt so good, to help people feel better than they did before. The three of us collaborated really well, each of our personalities and skill-sets complimenting the other’s. It became increasingly more fun and natural to teach in Creole, so much so that switching back to English felt odd. What a massage for the brain and heart, sharing our passions with a new culture of people, in their environment and in their language. It was such a pure exchange. I felt nothing but love.
We were amped to discover we had 5 teacher trainees that we’d spend a few hours a day teaching between our patient and staff classes. The social work goddess that is Oldine was one of our shining students, amongst the sweet and young, Monise, the father and husband, Petie, friend and PiH staffer, Viarjella, and handsome Latin dancer, Sam. We discovered quickly the unique challenge of not only leading a condensed Yoga teacher training in one week to those who speak another language, but the all encompassing task of teaching them Yoga in general.
Words cannot express, they can only cheapen and minimize how rewarding that week was in the northern mountains of Haiti. Each class with the patients got progressively better, more fluid, more playful, more loving. Same can be said for the staff classes, which we ended epically, on a rooftop overlooking sunset, with three adorable kiddos added to our student mix. But somehow even that didn’t compare to the teacher training experience.
Each day we returned to our ward to find Petie reading over his manual and often practice teaching with Oldine. We were so pleasantly surprised how game they each were to get up and practice teach from even the first day. Oldine’s personality, her superb language skills, and her graceful body showcased her natural teaching talents. Sam had exquisite body awareness and a cheeky eye, even in Creole we could tell when he was being funny. What really uplifted us and brought out the proud momma tears were Monise and Petie.
Monise is young, 22 at most, tall, narrow, stylish, big white smile, stunning dark skin. She’s soft spoken, much of our encouragement involved owning her voice and natural talents, which improved exponentially as the days went on. Through our friends in the staff, Megan, Jonah, Jo and many others, we learned Monise’s life had been difficult to say the least. To have even this small opportunity to learn with us made Monise beam from ear to ear, head to toe, she was a beautiful bright light.
Toward the end of the week Monise assisted, on her own volition, our patient classes. With confidence and grace she lovingly placed her hands on their bodies and guided them into better alignment, supported them in deeper breaths. Hugging Monise goodbye was very difficult, I didn’t want that joy in her eyes to go away. All we can hope is Yoga has inspired her to find solace in everyday living, in helping others, in the simplicity of being.
Petie is a social worker in Mirebalais as well, in his 40’s, very strong, buff even, with puppy dog eyes and a very sincere smile. While in Haiti we learn to relax and go with Haitian time. That means if class starts at 10, don’t expect to truly start until 1030. Let people matriculate in as they can. It’s the perfect setting for Yoga where we attempt to embrace timelessness and dissolve into the moment. Petie somehow was very aware of time, showing up early for training each day, asking questions and reviewing what we’d already learned. Him and Monise were certainly most improved and we, as their teachers, are thrilled to hear how they progress in the future.
After a tearful goodbye to the beauties in Mirebalais, we then journeyed back down to Port au Prince to meet Alland for a ride to Jacmel. We’d visited Jacmel the year prior, although the experience was very sheltered, almost specifically designed for 1st world westerners to feel safe and comfortable. We were grateful for the experience, of course, and Jacmel is exquisitely beautiful, but we certainly didn’t experience the same “slice of life” normalcy as we did staying in and exploring Port au Prince and Cange.
This year was very nearly the opposite. We got the eye-opening, challenging life experience we didn’t even realize we needed as we stayed three days in home right smack in the middle of Jacmel. It was humbling. Heartbreaking. Difficult. We are not high maintenance women. It doesn’t take much to please us. We love camping, relish showering in bodies of natural water, and have no qualms about squatting to do our business. But this was more than that.
We were confronted with the true reality of how 92% of Haitians live, day in and day out, in dilapidated structures with no real protection from the elements. It is exceedingly hot, incredibly loud, and unclean to a worrisome level. What’s worse, the situation for an even bigger population of Haitians in Port au Prince is even more dire. Most are still stuck in tents, surrounded by garbage (a governmental issue), unclean water, and thousands upon thousands of people.
We felt uncomfortable but, more than that, we felt guilty as hell that this was merely a temporary experience for us, and a permanent circumstance for many others. We felt so helpless, so overwhelmed. We respected the Haitian people more than to pity them but we could not help but feel they deserved so much better. And it was within those complex emotions that we rediscovered the beauty of this amazing country.
Most are acutely aware of their endemic poverty, of their limited choices, and of their challenges inherent in being born in their country, but they waste little time on complaining. They get on with it, they hustle, they smile, they survive. Makes me disgusted by any complaints over first world problems. Never again.
During those three days we had the fortune of riding motorcycles through the busy streets of Jacmel, into and out of shallow streams, around winding mountain roads, and deep into the jungle to Basin Blu, where the giant rocks and streaming waterfalls awaited our playfulness. On our second trip back, we were guided intelligently by a few helpful locals, who held our hands as we traversed slippery rocks and climbed up and down the mountain side until we reached the water.
We jumped in with enthusiasm, swam like children, climbed and fell off of slippery rocks, and smiled until our cheeks almost went numb. After, we took a brisk 40 minute ride to Kabik, our favorite beach from the previous year. We stopped for some delicious seafood, rum cocktails and Haiti’s own Prestige, and enjoyed our treats in the sand, listening to waves crash just feet away. We lounged, walked, collected shells, bought straw hats, played with kiddos, stood on our hands, and talked endlessly with each other throughout that beautiful day.
V, D & Me
Haitian men. Kind. Handsome. Helpful.
We endured some very challenging experiences together that trip, many positive, a few negative. In the interest of privacy and keeping our hearts and conversations light, I’ll keep those negative experiences to ourselves. They simply reiterated my love and appreciation for yogis, especially the two I had by my side. We had each other’s backs, uplifted each others hearts, and helped care for each other’s bodies (in that sweet, homeopathic way only yogis know how to care).
We returned to Port au Prince to find Paul had set us up with one of the nicest hotels we’d seen in a long time, anywhere. It wasn’t particularly fancy or opulent, but simply so different than anything we’d experienced in Haiti before. We were nestled up in the hills, able to take our first real warm shower in 10 days, rest on a comfortable bed in a clean room, and surf the internet by the pool. I felt spoiled. In exploring the grounds I discovered that within feet of our luxurious stay were thousands of tents full of everyday people and everyday living. I couldn’t help but feel guilty, yet again.
This gave us time to pause and reflect on our trip. And that space gave us the clarity we’d only barely understood the first time around. Haiti doesn’t need our guilt, our sympathy, our pity, even simple handouts. They need a helping hand, human compassion, eye to eye contact and a voice that says with sincerity, “We can help you climb out of this.” They need upward mobility, options, a future. They need people who sincerely give a shit.
We don’t delude ourselves into thinking we’ve drastically changed the landscape of Haiti, nor can we ignore the onslaught of “privileged white people” taking trips to help the impoverished in a third world country. We went because we love people. Yoga has connected us deeper into being human beings and that only inspires us to connect with more beings, especially those vastly different than us.
We know we get even more out of our trips to Haiti than we aim to give but we try our damn best. We give our hearts, our energy, our skills, our dollars and donations combined with the support from many other kind-hearted souls who believe in our cause, and we try to leave a positive impact on the people we encounter. And I believe we have.
Couldn't imagine two better people to experience this with, we have a good time;)
I’ll never forget the hugs, the smiles, the tears, the smells, the sunsets, the lessons, and most importantly, the love. This experience, just like Haiti, is a gift. We cannot wait to return. And I cannot wait to share more with these beautiful women whom I’m honored to call fellow yogis. They’ve helped me fall deeper in love with others and with the gift of being alive. Thank you, Veronica and Diana. Thank you, students and supporters. Thank you, patients and staff in Mirebalais. Thank you, Paul, Alland and Jacmel. Thank you, Haiti <3