Ellen and I are currently volunteering at an “eco yoga farm” in central Colombia. Included in our stay here is a daily yoga class. I had done a couple of yoga classes in Canada, but nothing serious, and Ellen had never done yoga before arriving here. I assumed the yoga here would be some hokey new age business, especially as our host told us we were “oxygenating our chakras” through the exercise. To our surprise, the afternoon yoga class is a surefire way to lift our spirits each day.

There are four of us students, all guests on the farm, none of us convinced of the lifestyle here. We face our instructor, spread out on mats on the stone floor. Cloth wall hangings embroidered with beads and sequins depict Indian gods and goddesses with monkeys, elephants, and mice at their feet. A computer plays background music of pan pipes, quiet chanting, and gurgling water sounds, which are hard to distinguish from the constant high-pitched buzz of cicadas, chirping of birds, rushing of the river, and rustling of leaves in the wind coming in through the open windows of the yoga room.

Our classes are simple, mostly low-key stretches held for a few moments and released, over and over, until our muscles are relaxed and our joints loosened. We are told to keep our eyes closed, but as the instructions are murmured in gentle Spanish, we peek at the teacher to make sure we haven’t missed anything. Most of the time, though, our eyelids droop as we hold the stretches. It’s calming and peaceful in the yoga room, and a soft warm breeze blows through the room as we exercise.

Every now and again, I spare a glance into the library next door, where a group of teenaged boys is doing homework. They are the local remedial school students, too old to study at their grade level in public school. They’ve asked to borrow my laptop to do research on the internet while I’m doing yoga. I trust they wouldn’t wander off with it, but I look their way once in a while just in case.

Our last pose is lying on our backs, with our eyes closed, thinking positive and relaxing thoughts. The instructor opens a bottle of fragrant oil and begins to massage my face, hands, arms, shoulders, and feet. I keep my eyes closed as she finishes massaging me and moves on to Ellen. I sneak a glance at her and we exchange grins. We may not be totally satisfied with our experience at the yoga farm, but we are still able to appreciate the good parts.

Suddenly I am fighting the urge to sneeze. Ellen clearly recognizes the tell-tale signs in me, because I hear her reacting to my movements. I manage to hold in the sneeze, but my body launches itself halfway off the mat in the struggle to stay silent. I peek at Ellen and her chest is shaking as she holds back a fit of giggles. We compose ourselves and continue to focus on silent relaxation.

At the end of class, over a snack of fruit pudding, I reflect on our decision to leave here after only a week rather than the two we’d originally planned. We have skills and knowledge to offer that would benefit the community, but the place lacks the climate for a free exchange of thoughts, and the joy of sharing ideas and creating solutions together is missing. Besides when she teaches the yoga class, we barely interact with our host. She doesn’t take meals with us most of the time, and she usually works on different projects than we do during the day. The yoga is amazing, and people would pay more than what we contribute for our food just for the opportunity to learn yoga in a place like this, but it isn’t enough for us. I had hoped this would be the kind of sustainable community we were looking for, but it seems we haven’t found it yet.

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