Mahalo and Aloha! With Love From Tokyo and Los Angeles

Our glorious and spirited  7-day retreat was winding down. On May 23 our sixth and last full day, a unanimous decision was made to spend the remaining time at the center: practicing yoga, swimming, strolling the property, eating, and resting. However, there was an exception to make a last-minute trip to nearby Hawi town for souvenirs! David led a tension releasing “Yin Yoga” workshop in the afternoon to encourage the final sense of “letting go.”

An orchestra of crowing roosters woke me up at sunrise, so I decided to walk the grounds before meditation class, taking in the freshness of the garden in the cool damp morning and glint of sunrise lighting up the center with dazzling rays.

After the morning practice and breakfast, the group of us hiked down to the center’s private beach.  An enormous steer emerged out of the pines and accompanied us for a while as wild hogs darted in and out of the brush. Finally arriving at the beach, we paused for a moment to look out onto the shore, and then took yoga shots on the rocks.

The afternoon was free time and many of us swam in the glassy saltwater pool, lounged, or started packing. IMG_3383Later that evening Mo made a special celebratory gourmet vegetarian dinner  including a special gluten-free chocolate cake. We dressed up in our finest tropical wear (some items purchased in Hawi or Hilo) to commemorate our adventurous week together. Friday morning, May 24 was spent squeezing in a final meditation practice and then checking out. Joyful goodbyes were exchanged and after shuttling people back and forth to the airport throughout the afternoon, a handful of us traveled down to Kona to take in a few more sights before departing later that evening.

This was my first international yoga retreat, daring and elaborate to organize, it was hard to imagine such an incredibly successful outcome. Yet, the results seemed effortless thank to David Kim my colleague, who was a seasoned pro at organizing such feats. I would learn so much from him that ultimately boosted my confidence as a teacher and retreat leader, but most of all, I learned how to appear gracious under pressure and how to be the greatest host. As yoga teachers, we not only guide and inspire people to learn, but in situations like this, we are leaders and guardians who can create a magical experience that touches people in a significant way.

Overall, our 5-day retreat—was a real Hawaiian Odyssey. We were able to merge diverse cultures from two great cities, Tokyo and Los Angeles, and share a broad range of exciting sights, delicious cuisine, myths, stories and many other cultural pleasures offered by the Big Island of Hawaii. It was also great to have the participation of the growing Japanese yoga community that David and I are part of, including our energetic translator, Yuri Nakamura Hayashi and Yoga Plus Manager, Keiko Tanaka who coordinated important details back in Tokyo.

I felt as if we had truly immersed ourselves in a healthy, balanced program of daily yoga practice, mediation, healthy food, sight-seeing excursions, to benefit tremendously from an amazing transformative experience. Yoga retreats can range from intense, challenging to relaxing and restorative, thus allowing people to create a special bond. We weren’t just traveling tourists residing at a commercial resort–our splendid and generous host, Jeannie and the HIRC provided a marvelous setting to offer something rare and exclusive.

I would later hear how many of the participants on our retreat were inspired to continue to develop their practice, pursue teacher training, or even make healthy improvements in their diet. David and I were also very pleased that lasting friendships were formed among us.

This story is dedicated to Alaric Phillips

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Big Island Day Trip: Volcanoes National Park and Big Island Candies

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Volcanoes National Park, 30 miles south of Hilo, is the location of two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Maunalua. This approximately 300,000 acre park, features a diverse environment of terrain– from dense rain forest to dry, arid desert dotted with strange flora that is uniquely distinctive to this natural habit. It has been classified as both, a “Biosphere Site” and “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO.

We started with a quick trip though the 500 year-old Thurston Lava Tube, walking down a narrow wooden bridge into a dimly lit tunnel of hardened lava, then exiting out into a dense, moist rainforest of ohia and colossal and fantastic Hapu’u ferns  which I had never seen before.

Later we went to the area surrounding the Kilauea Caldera, the home of the volcano Goddess Pele who lives on the site. She “governs the flows of lava” and is the “goddess of fire, lightning, dance, volcanoes and violence” (1)  and figures prominently in Hawaiin mythology. I really admired the enchanting murals narrating the history of the Islands and the goddess Pele on view at the Kilauea Overlook center.

Plumes of steam wafted up from the wide, increasingly large crater which contents glow at night. The most recent eruption was in March of 2008 and since then periodic lava flows have streamed down Kilauea’s southeastern shore, covering acres of land with slag and destroying many structures and roads in its path.

After walking among the peculiar landscape taking pictures and amusing ourselves in the chilly wind, we raced off—making it to Big Island Candies just before they closed! This heavenly fragrant chocolate factory creates thousands of delicacies in countless varieties: chocolate macadamia nut cookies, brownies, chocolates made with locally grown macadamia nuts, Hawaiian Ginger, guava and Kona coffee. Everything comes wrapped in cheerfully colored boxes.  Each and everyone of us left with huge bags filled with gifts that would soon be ravished by friends and family back home.

Treats from Big Island Candies

Just in time, Big Island Candies

(1)http://www.mythicalrealm.com/legends/pele.html

Day 3: An Afternoon Hike in the Pololu Valley

IMG_3084After our morning program, we decided to stay on the North Kohalo Coast and spend the afternoon hiking in the spectacular Pololu Valley. After driving north of the center on Hwy 270 through Kapa’a, we parked our vans and began our descent on the trail, taking a moment to gaze at the vista from the Pololu Overlook and take in the dramatic coastline of black sand contrasted by a lush and serene terrain.

I found out that some scenes from the movie Jurassic Park were filmed here, I can see why–the sweeping landscape, with steep sloped emerald-green valleys with misty clouds hovering above, appeared surreal: like a lost forbidden land that would most certainly reveal spectacular surprises, such as, prehistoric dinosaurs, if you were to venture into it. We continued down and lingered around the coast, walking along the rocky beach. Rough surf swept in and literally knocked Julie from her feet!

Afterwards heading back up, we made a short visit to another nearby town—Kapa’au and took a picture with the great Hawaiian Chief Kamehameha I who was born in the nearby Waipio Valley and was courageously responsible for uniting the Hawaiian Islands in 1810.   A brief time was spent walking around the few shops in tiny  and charming town of Kapa’au –but we made a unanimous decision to swing by Hawi for ice cream at Tropical Dreams.

Later on that day, I led a backbend workshop, which was followed by wonderfully delicious dinner.

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The Retreat Day 2: Hawi Town and the Mauna Kea Observatory

David and I kept on schedule to offer a balance of daily asana practice, workshops, and sight-seeing excursions. The North Kohala Coast is surprisingly remote and commercially undeveloped so the quiet, miniscule town of Hawi became our favorite place to visit during breaks throughout the week. Hawi, just a few miles down the road from the retreat center on Highway 270, consisted of a cluster of historic buildings dating back to the 1800s when there was a prominence of sugar plantations and trade in the area. The Kohala Sugar Co. founded in 1863 by Reverend Elias Bond, was in operation until 1973. Still to this day, Hawi town seems untouched and frozen in time, with just the right amount of necessities: an ice cream parlor, Kona Coffee, a couple of boutiques, galleries with goods made by local artisans and a handful of restaurants. By the time I had left the Big Island, I had brought three hand- blocked pareros in a local shop and all of us had eaten our generous share of delicious and exotic flavored ice cream at “Tropical Dreams.”

David Kim's Inversion Workshop

David Kim’s Inversion Workshop

On Highway 200 towards Mauna Kea

On Highway 200 Towards Mauna Kea

On the second day or the retreat after a full day of: morning class, a visit to Hawi, and an afternoon Inversion workshop led by David, we headed off to the Mauna Kea Observatory around 4:30 p.m. Mo packed some snacks in our coolers and we bundled up in layers in preparation for the frigid temperature at high altitude.

We drove off on a scenic Highway, 200, which cuts across the middle of the island, inching higher and higher to the top of the Big Island as darkness fell. Ascending slowly to Mauna Kea, which is 13, 796 ft. above sea level, the landscape noticeably changed to vast desolate acres of lava, stark, lunar like and barren.

Mauna Kea Summit Road, photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Kea Summit Road, photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Kea (White Mountain), which Hawaiians refer to as the “sacred realm of the Gods,” is a dormant volcano and the site of the world’s largest astronomical observatory.  It is also the highest island mountain in the world and the highest point in the Pacific Basin.  The summit of Mauna Kea is above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere. The extremely dry atmosphere is cloud free, inky dark sky, making it ideal for observing the faintest galaxies that lie at the very edge of the universe. Night viewings are held at the visitor’s center.

Towards the end of our long drive, David called me on his cell phone to tell me that his van was out of gas and running on fumes! We inched our way up to the visitors center at 9,000 ft. Luckily the camp at the top gave us enough gas that would help us make it back to Waimea!

Shivering in the bitter cold and windy night, we meandered around the visitors center to peer through a handful of telescopes that were set up and directed towards brilliant stars and planets. Apparently 85% of all stars visible from the earth can be seen here. Peering through the various telescopes I saw: Saturn encircled by rings, Venus, and the Moon, which loomed so large and close, we could almost touch it! An astronomer pointed out the many constellations in the night sky with a laser.

We made the long trek back to the retreat center, arriving there sometime after 9 p.m. 

Photo Credits:

Image of Moon: http://blog-de-phil.blogspot.com/2015/02/big-island-kona-adventure.html

Star Gazing Program at Mauna Kea: http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/visiting-mauna-kea/star-gazing-program.html

Saddle Road towards Mauna Kea: https://lovingthebigisland.wordpress.com/tag/saddle-road/

Place of Healing Stones: The Hawaii Island Retreat Center

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I had never been to the Hawaii Island Retreat Center and therefore didn’t know what to expect.  With just a few glossy promotional images to rely on, I put my trust in David who assured me that all was good. Yet, to my surprise, the stunning, rural setting and uniqueness of the property far exceeded my expectations.  Overall, the HIRC turned out to be an exceptional contrast to the pricey, massive commercial resorts on the Big Island. Situated on the North Kohola Coast, two miles of Hwy 270 outside of Hawi, The Hawaii Island Retreat Center is owned and managed by Jeanne Sunderland and Robert Watkins who spent years building this impressive oasis with the help of their two children. Jeanne said that she and her husband purchased the 50 acres with a vision of creating a sustainable farm and retreat center. It then took over 10 years to draw up plans, acquire permits and then start construction. The center is powered by its own windmills, solar panels and water provided by natural springs. Jeanne and Robert have a congenial staff of talented people who keep up the vast facility, gardens and animals.

Mo, Yuri and the baby goat

Mo, Yuri and a rambunctious baby goat!

All of the food that is eaten at the center is grown on the property. Free roaming goats and chickens provide fresh goat milk, cheese and eggs. In addition, large steer, cattle and wild pigs scampering about, however since meat is not served, I think they are just guest who love living on the land!  Jeanne also said that she is hosting a program that supports organic gardening. An abundant variety of fruits and vegetables are served daily–including, mangos, papayas, lychee nuts, bananas, pineapples, avocados, eggplants, lettuce and other greens. Exotic flowers were growing everywhere, from plumeria to flora I’d never seen. The main house has a “Colonial Plantation” feel, with open verandas, dining and living rooms. Even “Yurt Village” was stylish and equipped with bathrooms. I really enjoyed staying in my yurt in a remote location near the pool and hearing the natural wonders in the darkness of night–rain, birds and other wild animals. A resounding chorus of chirping birds and crowing roosters would wake me up at sunrise.

Romy, Mo & David

Romy, Mo and David

We ate our meals in a richly painted red airy dining room decorated with beautiful antiques and paintings. The table was always set impressively with white linen table cloths for dinner. “Mo” our chef from Morocco would whip up tasteful vegetarian meals with flair. Jeanne  gave us a tour one evening  and told us about the amazing history of the site also called “Ahu Pohaku Ho’maluhia” (Place of Healing Stones) due to the culturally relevant ancient stones dotting the property: the primeval stone circle where Hawaiian Chiefs once congregated and held council;  the magical fertility rock that  women from near and far would come to sit on as part of ritual in hope of bearing a child; and the stone amphitheater for hula performances and concerts held long ago. There were also the mystery of two old massive stones that found their way down a hill to line up perfectly. These legends dated back centuries and Jeanne allows traditional Hawaiian ceremonies to be held among the revered stones. It is possible to stay at HIRC for many reasons: yoga, silent and meditation retreats, writers and artists also make extended visits to work on projects. There were even a pair of young newlyweds on their honey moon who joined us for dinner occasionally. With 50 acres of idyllic tranquility available, it is possible to lodge at the center for days and not leave–everything you need is right there.

Spring Fever in Inokoshira Park

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The final installment on the Hanami series presents the lively antics at Inokoshira Park in Kichijoji. This setting was the most playful and eclectic: packed to the rim with people, picnicking, boating, strolling, and a delightful temple dedicated to Benzaiten actually situated in the parks’ pond.

The colors of this temple, crimson red, cobalt blue with touches of gold and bright accents, gave it an enchanting, folk-like quality.  It was right at home in Kichijoji, a community known for its artistic and creative flair. I later found out that Benzaiten—is the Japanese name for the Hindu Goddess Sarasvati whom symbolizes everything that flows–water, words, speech, eloquence, music and knowledge. She is also a protector deity attributed to granting monetary fortune. Snake and dragon imagery are also associated with her.  In fact, there is dragon shaped statue Bentin in the form of a fountain, at the back of the main temple, where you can wash your coins to help bring you wealth and luck.

I loved being amongst the jubilant crowds covering every inch of the park. There literally wasn’t one spot to sit down.  People had claimed their territory with large blue tarps or make shift tables and were not budging. The pond was crowded with amusing pastel hued and duck shaped boats. I was amused by the fable that Yuri Nakumara told me–there is a common belief that couples that ride the duck boats together will break up.  It was fun to watch the boaters attempt to navigate the pond without crashing into each other!

Petals in the water

Ceremonial Hanami at Shinjuku Gyoen

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The serene setting of Shinjuku Gyoen offered a contemplative viewing of Hanami. The Imperial Gardens completed in 1906, was once the residence of the Naito family (daimyo) in the Edo period.  A very cold and cloudy day provided a dramatic backdrop as I roamed the vast park for over two hours touring approximately 145 acres of French Formal, English Landscape and Japanese Traditional gardens.   Overall, this venue had a more serious tone, as there was no alcohol allowed on the premises and bags were inspected at the gate. The crowds were small in comparison to other locales and the sounds of the city seemed to disappear as one traversed the stately grounds of vast sweeping lawns, ponds, towering trees and interesting structures–wooden bridges, the Taiwan Pavillion,  a tea house and various stone reliquary statues.  With more space to spread their roots and branches, the sakura trees were impressively grand and enormous.  Shinjuku Gyoen has over 1,500 cherry trees featuring Shidare (Weeping Cherry), Somei (Tokyo Cherry), Kanzan (Cherry).  I also liked the visual contrast of the pale blossoms against the Himalayan Cedars and other vegetation which created a painterly impressionistic effect.

I strolled contentedly taking pictures until my fingers literally froze.  Eventually, a melodic tune played signalling all visitors to leave. I joined the quiet procession of departing visitors feeling very calm and refreshed.

Hanami Extravaganza: Meguro River

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I was fortunate to be in Tokyo for  my first “Hanami” and the widespread festivities welcoming the spring season. The city was literally ablaze in a blizzard of pale pink  petals with celebrations escalating as the blossoms peaked. I was told that the short-lived, delicate “sakura” (cherry blossoms)  would be gone by the first rain. Although we were experiencing chilly, cloudy weather, I ran with camera in hand to prime spots that were suggested to me. I too got caught up in the festivities and the excitement visiting the Meguro River in Nakemeguro; Shinjuku Gyoen and Inokoshira Park–each site offering a unique Hanami experience.

Since the Meguro River offered the most fantastic blooms of these excursions, I thought it would be interesting to visit at night which I would find out later is referred to as “Yozakura,” night Hanami.  I was right, the sakura were just as spectacular with the heightened drama of the glowing lanterns strung along the river reflecting onto the branches and on the water below.  The walkways along the canal were teeming with an almost ritualistic procession of people. They spent continuous days and nights, strolling, taking pictures and enjoying treats from vendors who were selling food, drinks and glasses of rose champagne.

I took so many pictures that I decided to present my Hanami experience in three parts to retain the mood of each setting.

Getting to Know Kichijoji

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Traveling around Tokyo to teach is pushing my boundaries in new ways this time,  forcing me to take trains further distances and explore different neighborhoods.  On my  first day of teaching in Kichijoji, Yuri met at the Gotanda station to show me the train route.  After class, I told Yuri that I wanted to stroll around the neighborhood and could get home by myself. She asked “are you sure?”  I said absolutely, “I remember how to get back.” I ended up getting terribly lost on the subway and it took me over an hour to reach my final destination! I slightly panicked because no one spoke English and I didn’t quite know how to get back to where I needed to go.  The subway map wasn’t quite making sense. I finally got some assistiance and found out later that I somehow got on the Chou “Blue Line” instead of the Chou “Yellow” Line. Furthermore, I should have changed trains at Shinjuku for the Yamanote Line (green)!  You really have to stay focused!

I teach two classes a week in Kichijoji and I absolutely love this location, its has a great balance of the old and new, affordable goods, and is bustling with creative energy. It’s also more manageable than, lets say,  Shibuya–even with the multitude of shops, cafes, restaurants, and stores–you get a sense of being in a close-knit neighborhood. Plus there is the beautiful Inokashira Park, which features a lake surrounded by hundreds of cherry blossom trees. I was able to get a first glimpse of the budding cherry blossoms earlier this week which will be in full bloom in the days to come.

Each Tuesday after class, I spend the afternoon wandering around, trying the local cuisine and taking pictures.  I’ve explored Nakimichi Street, Sun Road, and the surrounding areas.  Each turn down an alley or road reveals a new discovery. I literally walk until I’m completly exhausted before heading back to Gotanda. There may be more on Kichijoji before I leave Tokyo!

Yoga/Meditation/Hike in Solstice Canyon

 

“Yoga/Meditation/Hike” is a program that I started years ago while teaching at Santa Monica Yoga. I’ve always loved the meditative qualities of hiking and thought it would be great to create a program that would create stronger bonds between me, my students and our local community.  Over the years, I’ve hosted at least two dozen hikes throughout the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, which features varied terrain and hiking trails.   Notable outings have included: Malibu Creek State Park, Corral Canyon, Charmlee Wilderness State Park Solstice Canyon, Pt. Mugu and Topanga State Park–all uniquely different and easily accessible from the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. The images featured in this post were from a recent hike in Solstice Canyon on February 3, 2013. Students from my classes at various Yogaworks studios throughout the Los Angeles area attended with friends.

The groups have ranged in size, age and abilities with me encouraging everyone to make it to the top where we will always certainly enjoy a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, bucolic valley or a breathtaking mountain range.  Everyone always has a great sense of accomplishment when they complete the hike. In all, it’s a good time for all who participate with lots of laughs, shared stories and the opportunity to connect socially on a personal level outside of the classroom. The hikes are followed by a session of yoga, meditation, light refreshments or lunch at the Malibu Country Mart.

Inspired by the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (“Wherever You Go There You Are”),  I will occasionally hand out a flier of his essay,  “Walking Meditation” an excerpt follows:

“Try, bringing awareness to walking, wherever you find yourself.  Slow it down a bit.  Center yourself in your body and in the present moment. Appreciate the fact that you are able to walk, which many people cannot. perceive how miraculous it is, and for a moment, don’t take for granted that your body works so wonderfully. Know that you are ambulating upright on the face of Mother Earth.  Walk with dignity and confidence, and as the Navaho saying goes, walk in beauty, wherever you are.”