Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cuban Connection - Iyengar Yoga in Cuba

A few years ago I had a whim to “cruise the net” for Iyengar yoga in Cuba, to my delight the name Eduardo Pimentel and the Cuban Yoga Association popped up. I found an email address for Eduardo and sent him a friendly inquiry in English regarding Iyengar yoga in Cuba. I soon heard back from Eduardo, also in English, and we continued to correspond. I was very interested in travelling to Cuba and thought it would be wonderful if we could meet and if I could offer something useful to his community, we discussed my teaching my Anatomy and Yogasana course to his teachers and how we might do this in English and Spanish (and Sanskrit and Latin). I was living in the United States at the time so this vision remained in the realm of fancy for more than two years. On returning to Canada this trip became reality.

My husband John and I recently returned from 14 days in Cuba (pronounced Cooba). I made all our plans myself, mostly on-line booking our hotels through a British agency and finding our Havana casa particular (a sort of Cuban B&B) on a Cuban website. We began our trip flying into Varadero and heading first for four days at the perfectly sandy beaches of Varadero. I booked us at the Internacional Hotel, with a fifties mob history and past hang out of Frank Sinatra and Lucky Luciano’s crowd, a lobby built with Italian white marble and a glamorous showroom who needs aqua caliente! I chose this hotel for its small capacity, history and positioning directly on a beautiful beach. And yes we did not have hot water for two days but we loved this quaint old somewhat run down establishment. Blissfully my email did not work in Cuba so resigned to recline I opened my book and, listening to the ocean swells breaking on the white sandy beach, drifted off into a novel.

On our second day I visited a massage shack and introduced myself in Spanish to the woman masseuse, explaining that I am a professora of massage therapy in North America. I enjoyed a massage and offered to instruct Anna and her colleague in some more advanced techniques and two days later I met with two massage therapists ready to learn. I brought my picture of a person with Spanish labels for major body parts and gave them a two hour neuromuscular therapy lesson. It was great fun sharing with these Cuban women.

Day five we headed to Havana (pronounced Abana) for eight nights. We took a public bus from the town of Varadero into the city and from here our prearranged taxi met us. Edilzon was our driver, he is a Havana English professoro turned cabbie for the better income it provides. On another day he gave us a two hour city tour filled with stories and history, everything revolves around the Spanish American war, the 1959 Cuban revolution and The Special Period. There are many monuments to war heroes from these landmark events. Surprisingly Gandhi and John Lennon also each have a park dedicated to them.

Edilzon dropped us at my prearranged casa particular where we found the owner had already rented it to another and we were suddenly without accommodation. I made (I was very cross) the owner drive us and our luggage the few kilometers into Old Havana (Havana Viejo) as in my research I learned of many small hotels and knew we could find something at least for that night while we worked out our housing dilemma. The hotel Valencia concierge found us another casa right in Havana Viejo up many stairs… It was lovely but would last only two days as it was already rented to someone coming from Greece and we would have to move again.

Havana is an astonishing city, full of music and dance and noise and colour with brightly painted old buildings abundant flowering trees and the ubiquitous classic cars Havana is known for. We walked forever daily never ceasing to find interesting lane ways, intricate cast iron work, artist’s private galleries and museums. In the Viejo district the streets are narrow, many cobbled and the buildings are beautiful, many decrepit though many now being caringly restored. Most buildings are 3 to 6 stories tall and above the street level most are residential. There are numerous old mansions now in possession of the government and turned into government owned hotels, banks, offices and museums. There are many inexpensive restaurants; dinner for 5 CUC pesos or less (or more if you wish) and all have live Cuban music performed by house bands. Hotels can be costly averaging $160 CUC per night with a casa particular more likely $30 to $50 per night. One CUC also known as a tourist peso costs $1.12 CD. It takes over 24 Cuban local pesos to buy one CUC tourist peso. Cubans mostly use local pesos but some Cubans also use CUC’s, if they can get them, for certain purchases. It is a complex tiered economy.

Our second day in Havana Eduardo came to visit us and we had the most wonderful meeting, after two years finally we came together. I brought him copies of yoga books and a picture of Guruji Iyengar.

After two days in our first casa we moved to a casa of questionable cleanliness, still in Havana Viejo only up five flights of steep dark stairs, this place made me cry so we went out and found another casa and moved again (twice in one day!) also in Havana Viejo up four flights of stairs. That night I had terrible food poisoning and was up the entire night graphically ill. I was up at 6:30am when my alarm went off; it was the day I teach the Anatomy to the Havana yoga teachers. I was exhausted, dehydrated and still feeling ill. I knew Eduardo had gone to a great effort to make arrangements for us to hold our lesson at a church that had an LCD projector. I needed this projector to help me teach the anatomy to Spanish speaking yogis with the aid of images. In Cuba no one owns a projector, they belong to institutions and it was the result of much work that Eduardo had found a facility with one we could use and he brought 15 teachers plus two doctors together to spend this day. Canceling was out of the question. I drew on the teachings of both Krishna guiding Arjuna on the battlefield and Geeta Iyengar “It is your duty”. I pulled myself together to go teach. I taught for four hours straight, temporarily revived by my love of teaching and my joy to be sharing this time with this dedicated group of teachers. The two physicians had been invited as they are Eduardo’s yoga students and he wished for them to learn more about this aspect of yoga. Eduardo interpreted my teaching and the many questions asked and I had my drawing of the major anatomy labeled in Spanish. I was starting to pick up a few words “levantar el pecho” and sometimes Eduardo would speak to me in Spanish by mistake. It went wonderfully well. After four hours I collapsed and we all went back to Eduardo and Else’s for a celebratory lunch. It was a wonderful gathering but I ate little that day.

We were back in our casa by three that afternoon and after such a long morning and many flights of stairs I settled in for a nap while John went back out to attend an architectural event. He had not been gone long when a knock at the door revealed our landlady come to collect our six night’s payment. She did not speak a word of English, desperate with fatigue, I sat at the table with her with my Spanish book and for almost an hour we had a delightful exchange, at least I think it was delightful and she seemed very happy but I’ve almost no idea what we spoke of.

Yoga maestro Eduardo Pimentel began his study of yoga from a book in the seventies and began teaching ten years later. He has over the past thirty years travelled to the USA and India to further his study, meeting Mr. Iyengar and receiving permission to teach his method. Eduardo has published a book on pranayama in Spanish and is currently working on a translation of the Bhagavad Gita with a fascinating commentary comparing the philosophical struggle of Arjuna to that of the 20th century Cuban. Eduardo would have been a boy of ten during the 1959 revolution. With few resources Eduardo has established present day yoga in Cuba and has even brought yoga to high security prison inmates. I spent two days with his students in Havana and more time with Eduardo. I was deeply touched by how, without a host of commercial yoga studios, locations to teach from, yoga paraphernalia, yogi celebrities, financial remuneration or recognition this earnest community thrives. A number of years ago a group of American yogis brought mats, blankets, blocks and belts to the Cuban yoga community. At home now my yoga students are contributing to a fund to help sponsor the Cuban Yoga Association 20th anniversay to be held this May in Havana.

Two days after the anatomy workshop I taught over 25 of Eduardo’s students in his small home studio. It was wall to wall students, many from the day before plus more earnest yogis eager to learn from a visiting teacher. I was able to expand on some of the work we had covered at the anatomy workshop and Eduardo and I again shared the floor with Eduardo deftly translating my teaching into Spanish. After two hours we switched and Eduardo became the teacher and I joined the group as one of his students. Eduardo teaches with firm kindness and humour. It was such an honour to spend this time with Eduardo, his wife and fellow yoga teacher Else and the Cuban yoga community.

After eight nights we reluctantly left Havana to return to Varadero for our two last days on the beach. These all-inclusive hotel scenarios neither of us had ever done before and we were a little reluctant but as our flight went through Varadero it made sense to spend time beachside. All-inclusive is an odd culture and is less like a trip to another country than it is simply a flight to a beach however we enjoyed the mix and having booked it all myself we had the adventure of arranging all of our own transfers etc. Adventure indeed, on our earlier trip from Varadero to Havana on the public bus I saved our seats while John took care of the luggage, this plan ended in John almost not getting on the over-full bus and me, under siege for the empty seat next to me, ranting mi esposo! mi esposo! loudly to a nerve racked bus driver who soon realized he was not leaving without my husband.

Cuba is an enigma, take the tourism industry; hoards of relatively wealthy foreigners enjoying the leisure time money can buy vacationing in this communist country would seem to be in conflict with Castro’s ideology. During the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1989 Cuba, during what is considered the beginning of the Special Period, lost it’s major trade partner, buyer of sugarcane exports and provider of petroleum imports. Consequently Cubans nearly starved. This necessitated a revolution in agricultural practices and the evolution of tourism. Although food supply continues to be an issue, tourism has been a huge success and a clever move as it is a huge source of foreign currency. All resorts are at least 51% government owned. Still the tourist economy is in sharp contrast to local life. Today Cuba has a strong trade relationship with Venezuela and gas in Cuba costs less than one CUC peso per liter.

At our final hotel/resort we were upgraded without charge to a peaceful beachside bungalow suite where I could easily have lapped up another week of surf, sun and salsa.

Adios for now Cuba
mucho gusto, Leigh

2012 Havana Yoga Trip register here -

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