Some people would hear “yoga” and “Mexico” and imagine morning asana in open-air palapas, meditation under shady palms, frolicking in the surf, and being lulled to sleep by the hypnotic sound of ocean breaks.
My Mexican yoga retreat came with mountain vistas, nights where you could see your breath, organic farm tours, and Ashtanga classes that kicked my unfocused habits right off the mat.
In February I attended a yoga retreat at Rancho La Puerta, the famed health resort nestled in the northern foothills of the Baja Peninsula across the border from San Diego. This historic center is renown for its invigorating mountain air, its rigorous exercise programming, and its seriously delicious food. In addition, the resort, which has a long history with yoga—Indra Devi opened a yoga center on the adjacent property and regularly taught at the ranch—hosts regular yoga weeks featuring guest teachers. I chose the Ashtanga week, with San Diego teacher and Tim Miller protégé Jenny Barrett-Bouwer.
Ashtanga isn’t my regular style, but I deeply respect the discipline of the practice. As my own practice was feeling rather flabby, this seemed like just the kind of yogic bootcamp I could use.
While billed as an intermediate-level program, the daily classes were extremely accessible due in part to the mixed level of the group—something I was quite grateful for. Some attendees were serious Ashtangis, and as is the tradition, they practiced at their own pace. For the rest of us, Barrett-Bouwer led us through the primary series again and again, focusing one pose or set of postures each day, and interspersing the asana with pranayama and philosophical discussion.
By the third day, I was noticeably stronger, and the breath work and meditation had already worked their magic in clearing my mind and deepening my awareness of everything around me. By week’s end, I felt more grounded and yet more expansive than I’d felt in a long time. Something had definitely loosened within me.
Coming to this yoga week in particular, I knew my practice would improve—but it also gave me some needed insight. Truth be told, the repetitive aspect of Ashtanga Yoga had never really appealed to me. While my home practice is a set sequence leading to meditation, when I go to yoga classes, I choose those that will inspire or challenge me each and every time. African dance and yoga? I’m in. Esoteric philosophy? Bring it on. Flowy, groovy yoga with teachers tossing out life aphorisms? Love it. If it’s new and fresh and different, always different, I’ll take it.
I even feel frustrated when a teacher offers the same sequence or playlist more than two times in a row. (I don’t like driving the same route to common destinations either. Surprise, surprise.)
Repetition, alignment, the same instruction over and over again, without even so much as an interesting rhythm for distraction? Not so appealing.
But as my week progressed, I realized that repetition is the point of Ashtanga Yoga. That in doing the same poses every time in exactly the same order, you actually go deeper. The effects are stronger. You tune into your body more. The meditative qualities are easier to achieve because there are no distractions—no sequencing surprises, musical accompaniment, or experimental hybrid postures—to keep you from going within.
I don’t have to spell out the life lesson there was in this for me. The mat as a mirror and all that—we hear it all the time. And it’s true. I guess some of us just need to keep realizing it, again and again ... and again.
While I was getting a yogatude adjustment during Ashtanga week, I was also getting healthier and fitter just from being at the ranch. This 3,000-acre chaparral-studded property flanks Mount Kuchumaa, which to the original Kumeyaay Indians meant “the exalted place.” It’s a fitting sentiment for a health resort designed to change the way people think about their bodies and their lives.
When it started in 1940, the ranch was the vanguard for a radical brand of healthful lifestyle based on vegetarian diet, organic farming, healthy doses of Vitamin D via the strong Mexican sun, and, always, plenty of exercise. There was also a good deal of esoteric and metaphysical-seeking. To wary outsiders, the ranch and its patrons were viewed as cultish and bizarre, but for health seekers, the place was inspired. “Health nuts” from around the world, including the rich and famous like Burt Lancaster and author Aldous Huxley, flocked there.
Today, although spruced up and with lots of amenities to ensure that modern “ranch life” is as comfortable as possible, the philosophy is largely the same: Eat healthful, natural foods; move your body often; get out into the fresh air.
Most of the produce is still grown on-site on the ranch’s own organic farm, and the menu often reflects what vegetables and herbs looked best to the chef that day. And the primarily vegetarian meals (some fish is served) are the subject of endless adulation. In fact, one of the most common questions you hear among ranch guests is, “Do you know what’s for lunch/dinner today?”
Mexican-inspired dishes and already-healthful California cuisine are reworked with lowered fat, sodium, and calorie counts, and infused with tons of flavor via herbs, fruit, and other ranch secrets. (To my delight, many of those secrets are included in the beautiful Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta cookbook that came home with me. )
In addition, each week features a guest chef who offers cooking classes at the gorgeous on-site cooking school La Cucina Que Canta.
(Hiking to the farm and my visits to the cooking school were one of the highlights of my week. I could have lived in that kitchen.)
Besides eating ridiculously well, movement is the name of the game at Rancho La Puerta. Each day presents at least two-dozen options for hiking, fitness classes, sports, dance, and other ways to move your body. When I wasn't doing yoga, I learned to play tennis, took Body Bar and dance classes, and hiked up and down mountain trails like a Billy goat.
There are separate men’s and women’s health centers (i.e., spas) to ease sore muscles from all that exercise, and afternoon and evening programming to feed your mind and soul.
Each night by 10pm, I barely made it through a few pages in my book before falling into a heavy sleep, and I woke totally refreshed and sans alarm by 6am. I didn’t even want caffeine when I got up.
I had come into balance.
My "ranch glow" lasted for weeks after returning home. And when I felt it starting to fade, I just opened my cookbook and felt inspired all over again. But I've been truly impressed by the lasting effects of this retreat on my yoga practice. I'm much stronger in my poses, particularly Chaturanga, and some of the Ashtanga variations of other poses that I learned have become useful tools. And I've come to value even more the repetition of my own simple home practice, and know that when the world outside starts to spin too fast, a silent "samasthiti, inhale up" will bring me right back to center.
Learn more about Rancho La Puerta and its yoga programs here.
Check out a photo video of the ranch by photographer Lynne Harty.
Kelle Walsh is the Executive Online Editor at Yoga Journal.