When Dancing Dogs Yoga owner Shelley Lowther entered a contest she came across on the “Cuba Yoga” Instagram account, she didn’t think she would win, and she never imagined how winning the trip to Cuba would change her life.
“I loved the pictures of Havana on this Instagram account I was following,” Shelley shares. “There was a post on the account that said they were looking for yoga teachers to come to Cuba for a free week. I thought What the hell?, so I entered the contest, they called me for an interview, and I won the trip.”
Fast forward to today, and Shelley is well-versed on Cuban history and how yoga overcame the stigma to Cuban authorities of being a religion or voodoo and thus taboo and illegal. Thanks to a man who has been labeled as the Godfather of Yoga in Cuba, Eduardo Pimentel, yoga is alive and well in the capital city of Havana and beyond despite the fact that there aren’t but a handful of yoga studios in the entire country.
Back in the ’70s, Eduardo came across a book about yoga and was inspired. He wrote letters to the Indian yoga guru, B.K.S. Iyengar, and the two embarked on a 15-year-long pen pal relationship. Iyengar is also the founder and namesake of a form of Hatha yoga practiced around the world. He became Eduardo’s mentor.
“Eduardo started practicing yoga, and he was changing,” Shelley says. “He started secretly teaching yoga in his living room and taught in secret for years.”
After the fall of Russia, a country that Cuba heavily relied on for aid, Cuba’s healthcare system collapsed, so Fidel Castro’s advisors became proponents of alternative medicine and brought in people to teach Tai Chi, acupuncture and yoga as forms of healthcare. “They already had Eduardo, so at that point, he was allowed to teach yoga, so he started training yoga teachers from all over the world.” But in a very different setting than most yogis are used to. At that time, there wasn’t a yoga studio in sight. There were hardly any yoga mats. Or blocks. Or any other typical gear most modern studios rely on. But that didn’t slow down the Cuban yoga explosion.
Shelley describes Cuban yoga as being very similar to the yoga Americans know, and beyond the physical benefits of the practice, she sees it as being very beneficial mentally to the people of Cuba. “There are so many physical, mental and psychological benefits to the practice of yoga and meditation,” she shares. “They need it in Cuba as much as we do. They have been so shut off to the world, and Cuba is at a point where technology is rushing in. They have WiFi now, and there is a simplicity of life in Cuba that is already gone. There was a time when Cubans didn’t know what they were missing, and now they do, and anxiety is a human condition. I think the thing they have to benefit from the most is the sense of calm and well-being that most people in the United States are also seeking. Yoga is helping Cubans be okay with whatever comes their way.”
While in Cuba on her contest-winning trip in February 2018, Shelley got to teach a class to Eduardo’s students.
“He translated as I taught,” Shelley explains. “It was so amazing to have that common thread. Some poses he didn’t have to translate. The students knew what to do. Here I am in this communist country, and we all have the same problems. The same stress. It was so striking to me that even though the circumstances are so different between the United States and Cuba, the basic human needs are all still so alike. There’s a real connection there that the practice opens up evenly and naturally.”
But traveling to Cuba as a tourist is heavily regulated. According to Cuba.com, “The visitor must adjust his trip to some tourist program through a tourist international agency that has agreements with the Cuban Minister of Tourism (MINTUR) and must show his Visa application for conduct of the tourist agency hired for the trip.”
Although regulated, travel to this beautiful Caribbean island is not impossible as it once was. In fact, Shelley is planning another excursion in early 2019, and she wants to take you with her!
Her group trip is slated for January 12-19, 2019. The group will stay at Mhai Yoga, a retreat center in a town just outside Havana. Participants will practice yoga with Shelley, Eduardo and the Cuban yoga community.
“It’s an opportunity to get out and see what life is like in Cuba,” Shelley says. “We will go into Havana and visit the ‘paladars,’ which are privately owned restaurants. We will see different parts of the island. I don’t see this as a yoga vacation, but an opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture, see something really beautiful and learn about a country most people know nothing about.”
For additional details on the Cuba trip, email [email protected]. For more information on Eduardo Pimentel, read this great story or watch him here talking about the yoga communities he has created throughout Cuba. And to learn more about Dancing Dogs Yoga, visit dancingdogsyoga.com.
This article is sponsored by Dancing Dogs Yoga.