In response to a few cases of COVID in Peru, the Peruvian president closed the borders to all travel entering and leaving the country. For us, this was half way into a 200 hour YTT. 20 students were from the US, Canada, and Europe. The 4 teachers were from Peru and the US. We were in the village of Moyobamba in the Amazonica region. Moyobamba is located 3 hours from the nearest airport in Tarapoto. And, Tarapoto is about 2 hours by air from Lima.
The President’s announcement came as a surprise. We realized that our flights home were cancelled. There was no way to get to Lima. Essentially by 8 PM that day we were stranded in Peru.
The 200 YTT was at halfway point and we would be there for an indefinite period of time. I was curious to see how the group would evolve. I wanted to see if the group would maintain interest in and focus on YTT, how group dynamics would evolve, and what would happen as this YTT became an involuntary community due to an international crisis.
That night the group met. At that time the borders had been closed for the next 15 days, which would extend 11 days after YTT ended. As the news sank in, we realized that we would be where we were for the remainder of the week then would need to find alternate living arrangements.
The following morning, our thinking was widely divergent. One overarching concern was where would people live. Some began to search for ways to get home. Others were looking for housing. Some wanted to prepare for the Zombie apocalypse. The first day of the new reality found the group lacking cohesion. The teachers decided to continue the YTT. Students participated and all made an effort to focus. But many told me that they were feeling distracted. At the same time, most in the group found comfort to the consistency of daily yoga practice, meditation, and meals together. Although there was internal turbulence, the structure of the program and its communal nature created a container where folks felt cared for while continuing to study yoga. Everyone seemed to be at peace with the new reality.
There was a wide variety of emotion. One person cried nightly. A nurse felt guilty that she was not in the US helping. One who believed that the-world-as-we-knew-it was coming to an end welcomed the opportunity to start over. Several said that they did not feel stranded since it had been their intention to stay in Peru after the YTT. Several came to this YTT during periods of transition and found it comforting to know that their time for transition would be longer. Others were concerned. One woman began to worry about job security. One woman was concerned for her son (she was able to make arrangements for him to be at his father’s house). Some who did not speak Spanish were concerned about staying on their own.
A shift occurred when the owner of the hotel agreed to keep the hotel open for our group until the end of the “National State of Emergency”. Most remarked that they felt very relieved when they learned that we could stay together and at that location. This bought a palpable sense of relief.
For the remaining days of the YTT students and teachers were both engaged and distracted. Everyone completed the YTT and there are now 20 certified yoga teachers. All completed their projects, practicum assignments, classes, did their practice teaching. At the same time they were engaged in creating this new non-intentional, intentional community.
After the YTT ended, we settled into our life. We had a pool. We had yoga class every morning, sometimes led by one of the students or a teacher. Each night we had restorative yoga or a movie, a trading blanket, or ecstatic dance. We made a running trail. One participant, a chiropractor, saw everyone who wanted an appointment. A massage therapist, offered massages to one person daily. A reading group started. Some began art projects. Some studied Spanish. One woman led a daily cardio- HIIT workout. Others started AB/core workouts. The combination of being in a safe place, in a town where there was no Coronavirus, with like-minded people, fostered more the feel of a yoga retreat than being stranded in the jungle in a third world country. A community evolved. People took on roles, friendships developed. While there was plenty to do it was easy to find time alone. Except for the fact that this was caused by a terrible pandemic it seemed quite nice.
A week after the YTT ended everyone was involved in the community. No one felt anxious. Many spoke of how supportive the community had become. Everyone was using time productively. For some that meant reflecting on the next steps in their lives. For some it mean study. Several learned that they could work remotely, full or part time. Some did but continued to make time for discussions, yoga, fitness classes, journaling, etc. Several decided to read books about yoga. No one felt bored or useless.
The end happened quickly. The night before we were to leave the hotel, the Irish embassy picked up the one Irish citizen. The next day the American embassy arranged transportation for 7 Americans. Within a day the Canadian embassy picked up the Canadian citizens and transported an American to Lima. One group who had planned to stay longer did. And, three teachers and the one male student stayed in Peru.
An obvious question is: How was this experience shaped by the intensive YTT? There is no basis of comparison, but it seems that the intense focus on yoga shaped and informed the experience of being stranded together.
Several remarked that they were changed by practicing yoga twice daily, having morning and afternoon meditation class, studying asana, yoga philosophy, etc. Indeed, this is the point of an immersive experience.
Whenever a group comes into a stressful situation it would seem logical that emotions would elevate and that stress would take its toll on individuals and on the group. I did not see that happening. I expected more evidence of stress. I expected cliques to develop. I expected to hear more criticisms. But, I noticed almost none.
As I reflect on my own experience, although a leader and caring for others, I also felt supported and cared for by this forced community. I think that this happening at the end of a YTT that focused on living the yogic lifestyle dramatically impacted the group’s evolution. It gave us the opportunity to live as an intentional community built upon common values and practices. It gave us the opportunity to live as a community of yogis.
Before becoming a yoga teacher, Dr. Loren Thomas retired twice; once from being a school district superintendent and then from being a college faculty member. He began to practice yoga in 1997 and was inconsistent for years. But, upon retiring, yoga became his daily passion. He now teaches yoga and teaches in YTTs, focusing on philosophy and meditation. In addition to career and yoga, he is an avid marathon runner, rock climber, cyclist. He found that the combination of meditation and his outdoor physical activities supported him in his work as an active professional. He now works to promote healthy habits, a positive approach to aging, enjoyment of life. He encourages everyone to be active and pursue what calls to them.
Listen to Episode 9 of the Yoga Trade Podcast to hear COMMUNITY VOICES and other pandemic stories from the global yoga and wellness community.