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4 Travel Destinations Unexpectedly Packing Deep Yogic Lessons

When it comes to planning a yoga vacation, most of us think retreats in the tropics or taking the ultimate pilgrimage to India. Yet there are so many other destinations that can inspire a deeper understanding this ancient practice. Here, YJ contributors share their experiences in some far-off places that have transformed their practices and their lives.

Zambia

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Our open-sided Land Rover inched closer to a clearing in the thick bush, and our guide, Fannuel Banda, whispered urgently to us to stay seated—and quiet. A couple hours earlier, the enormous red sun had sunk into a vast horizon, which meant that in the pitch-black darkness, Banda had to point his large flashlight toward what he wanted us to see: a lion, devouring its fresh kill.

Despite the fact that we’d been hoping for a lion sighting all week, my initial instinct was to look away. I was mere feet from this brutal feast and could practically smell the blood. I caught a glimpse of the poor warthog’s face, an expression of fear still present in its eyes, and wondered if it was the same little guy I’d spotted earlier that day, innocently digging his big snout into the ground in search of his own dinner. But I didn’t look away. None of us on this game drive through South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Africa, did. Instead, we stayed seated and quiet, observing this death in its perfect, if gruesome, unfolding.

It’s admittedly strange to go on safari, practice yoga and meditation in the blissfully quiet and Wi-Fi–free bush, and have this zen-like reaction to a scene so filled with harm. Yet what I learned almost immediately, here and on guided walks under that beautiful African sky, is that being on safari is a lesson in being a witness—a true observer.

The Sanskrit word for this is sakshi, and its meaning is derived from the word’s two roots: sa, which means “with” and aksha, which means “senses,” “eyes,” or “spiritual wisdom.” We embody sakshi when we can witness the world without getting involved in, or being affected by, worldly things; when we can look at our thoughts without getting attached to them; when our awareness can distance itself from our ever-changing breath and bodies, allowing us to rest fully in our true nature.

Until this trip, I’d thought of sakshi as a beautiful concept worthy of working toward, yet impossible for mere mortals like myself to achieve—at least in this lifetime. In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia, the thoughts that surfaced in my mantra-based meditation sessions were anything but unimpassioned. I’d been dating a man I was falling in love with, but who was about to embark on a year of travel. And as my mind inevitably drifted toward what might happen between us—It will never work! Why can’t the timing be right with this one?—I found myself reacting as usual, rather than softening and staying calm. Other anxieties regularly came up around my writing (Am I challenging myself enough with the assignments I’m taking? When am I going to finally start that book?), as well as the bleak state of the world—from natural disasters to political decisions that filled me with resentment and rage. And instead of watching these unsettling thoughts surface with some manner of detachment, I clung to them with a fervent urgency.

See also Yoga For Anxiety: How to Let Go and Ease Your Mind

This didn’t change when I arrived at the Bushcamp Company’s Mfuwe Lodge, where I meditated before dawn each morning to the sounds of hippos stomping outside my chalet and hyenas howling in the distance. It’s funny how the patterns of your mind will follow you to even the most remote reaches of the world.

Yet an interesting thing happened as I sank comfortably into the busy-yet-peaceful pace of this safari: I started truly observing everything around me. In just a few days, this would shift how I started observing the thoughts scurrying around my own mind.

On morning game drives, we sat quietly in the Land Rover as Banda drove us through the bush, African antelope leaping beside us while monkeys scrambled up trees. We stopped so Banda could point out the most colorful birds I’d ever seen, some with black-and-white, polka-dotted wings and red breasts and others—called lovebirds because of how they care for each other—a kaleidoscope of blues, pinks, and yellows.

We spotted wild African dogs, zebras, giraffes, elephants, African buffalo, a leopard, and on our last game drive, the lion. Being so immersed in this kingdom all week, with no contact with the outside world and no agenda other than to observe these beautiful animals in their untouched-by-man habitat, offered a surprising gift. By watching the rhythms and cycles of these creatures’ lives from a place of pure awe, I wondered if I could approach the wilds of my mind’s wanderings with the same detached self-observation. If I could become less involved in my emotions, would I then become more attuned to the world around me, and more present in surprising ways?

On my last morning on safari, I sat in the pre-dawn stillness from what felt like a much different seat. My new romance may fade or flourish. My writing will undoubtedly ebb and flow. The hurricanes, fires, and political storms will surge and pass. And my practice is to nudge my awareness to observe it all as I did that hungry lion, from a place of seated, quiet awe.

See also Practice Detachment to Live Happy and Worry-Free

By Meghan Rabbitt

Chile

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“Give me your hand, and close your eyes,” urges my guide, Mario. I turn and look at him dubiously. We’re barely an hour into a six-hour hike in Chile’s Huerquehue National Park. I had taken the lead on the well-marked Los Lagos trail, keeping my gaze down to ensure that I wouldn’t trip on a tree root at my speedy pace. Hiking, for me, has always been one part moving meditation, one part high-intensity workout. I get lost in my own head and connect with my breath as I climb, my heart rate rising.

Mario’s request to play this game irks me, as I’m starting to feel a chill. But as I walk back toward him, I can’t help but smile. Mario is dressed like an old-school Patagonian explorer, down to his wraparound Sherpa sunglasses and oversized pack. He isn’t more than 30, but I can tell he’s wise beyond his years—with a patience and calm I envy. Mario reaches out one mitten-covered hand to grab hold of mine.

“Now close your eyes,” he coaxes. This seems like a dangerous game, as the trail is about to slope steeply downhill. “I won’t be able to see anything,” I counter.

“You aren’t seeing anything other than your boots at the pace you’re hiking,” he scolds. “You don’t need to see to be present. You need to slow down so you can appreciate the forest.”

Like many travelers, I had come to Pucón, Chile’s adventure-sports capital, seeking adrenaline-fueled fun to complement my morning yoga classes at Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira, where I was staying. Located in Chile’s Lake District, this vast wilderness is considered a mecca for kayaking, hiking, and skiing with its crystal lakes, ancient forests, and snow-crowned volcanoes. Yet here I was, in one of the region’s most famous parks, walking at a snail’s pace with my eyes closed.

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I’ve known Mario less than 48 hours, and already I’m at his mercy. “In the wilderness, trust is instinctual,” he says with such conviction that the tension in my jaw and body are released as I give in and trust him. In my self-imposed darkness, every sense becomes heightened. I feel the squish of the earth, damp with snowmelt, beneath my gaiter-covered boots. Instead of the thumping of my own heartbeat, I hear a different hammering. I yank on Mario’s mitten to pause. “Magellan woodpecker,” he tells me. “Nature’s jackhammer.”

After 20 minutes of blindly navigating river crossings and slick downhill slopes, I’m instructed to open my eyes. The scenery seems twice as vibrant as it was when we’d started. As I take it in, Mario pulls out a thermos of espresso.

“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to be back by dinner,” I tease.

“But what is the rush?” he questions, and I know he is right. Why not relax and be in the moment?

And so I find myself, over the next few days, applying the mindfulness I practice each morning on my yoga mat to my adventures with Mario. I scrap my original plan to skin up to the snowy summit of Volcano Villarrica, an all-day endeavor, and compromise with a two-hour ascent a quarter-way up by snowshoe. When I pick up the pace, Mario teases that my competitiveness has once again kicked in, but I promise I’m only moving so fast because of the cold. Later that day, Mario surprises me with a stop at some local hot springs, where we spend hours soaking in steamy waters and gazing at the surrounding forest canyon.

“And you wanted to freeze your butt off skiing all the way to the top of an active volcano?” he teases me.

The truth is, I skinned up that mountain the following day. Yet with each grueling breath on my way up and each exhilarating turn on my way down, I had a newfound ability to appreciate what was happening in each moment. Rather than indulging my mind in its endless chatter, I breathed in the crisp air, admired the way the snow shimmered in the sunlight, and shared a frozen smile with other skiers schussing by. And more than a few times, I even closed my eyes. 

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By Jen Murphy

Cambodia

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It took me until my third day in Cambodia to realize what was different. I’d traveled to Southeast Asia before. The first day always feels the same, no matter what the country: I’m overwhelmed by the combination of jet lag, thick humid air, and the utter chaos of moped traffic; distracted by the strange smells; and startled by the vivid contrast of rich and poor. The third day is usually when I desensitize enough to start noticing the details, like an ancient statue hidden by jungle vines or the hawkers selling sticky rice and sandwiches.

On my third evening in Phnom Penh, I was about to dig into a dish of croaker fish tossed in coconut broth with wild mushrooms and candle yam when it hit me: no one here is old, and everyone is smiling.

When I arrived in Cambodia, my knowledge of the country extended to the famous temple of Angkor Wat and the fact that Angelina Jolie had fallen hard for the place while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The country’s mix of Buddhist religion, archaeological wonders, and French architecture prompted me to read up on its history when I got to my room at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, an oasis of calm in the heart of this bustling capital.

I felt a wave of guilt when I learned that during the Vietnam War, the U.S. undertook a covert, four-year bombing campaign in Cambodia, devastating the countryside and causing sociopolitical upheaval that led to a Communist takeover. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist party, drove anyone perceived a class enemy, or a threat, to the regime out of Phnom Penh and into rural areas. Between 1975 and 1979, this dramatic attempt at social engineering meant nearly two million people—a quarter of the population—died. As a result, about 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30 today, which explains why I noticed so few elderly Cambodians.

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To try to understand more of this country’s painful past, I hired a driver to take me 20 minutes outside of the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek—a mass grave where more than 17,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge are buried. An enormous glass stupa containing more than 5,000 human skulls acts as a shrine acknowledging, rather than hiding, the truth of Cambodia’s grim past. The $6 entry fee included an audio tour with devastating stories from survivors. My eyes welled with tears as I listened to unthinkable horrors. 

That evening, on a flight to Siem Reap, I tried to shake the haunting images from my mind. After my sobering history lesson and new understanding of America’s role in the atrocities, I felt the urge to apologize to every local I met. Yet no one seemed to share my heavy heart. When I visited the floating fishing village at Lake Tonlé Sap, a young woman waved to me with a gap-toothed grin. The teenagers selling fish pedicures near my hotel danced and sang to K-pop tunes.

The next morning, Aki, a gangly guide with Hulk-like strength, pedaled me by tuk-tuk to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, cracking jokes the entire bumpy ride. With some prying, I learned that he had lost his mother, two sisters, and a brother during the genocide; his father lost both legs to a land mine. As the sky turned a soft golden hue, we sat side by side on a crumbling stone and I asked Aki if he felt any resentment toward Americans for bombing his country, or toward those who had killed his family. He smiled as he looked at me.

“Anger will not bring back my family,” he said softly. “I am here, watching the sunrise, in a beautiful place with a new friend. Life is full of promise.”

What a beautiful lesson on the yogic concept of dukha (suffering), I thought. While we can’t undo loss or heartache, we can change the way we react to the hard times we face. The people of Cambodia haven’t forgotten their past, but they’re also not letting it define them.

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By Jen Murphy

Malta

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I sat in an uncomfortable wooden pew with my hands crossed in my lap and started repeating Hail Marys out of habit. It’s practically impossible to go to Malta, a tiny island country just 50 miles south of Sicily, without visiting more than a few of its 359 churches. And, apparently for me, it was also impossible to sit in one of the country’s most beautiful cathedrals and not pray, despite it having been more than 20 years since I’d gone to church regularly.

It did feel a little weird to pray, in a church, to a Catholic God while on a yoga retreat. But in fairness, this wasn’t a typical yoga retreat. I’d traveled to Malta with Perillo’s Learning Journeys—a company that specializes in spiritual travel—on a weeklong trip focused on wellness, gastronomy, and culture. Rather than the typical twice-daily yoga and meditation sessions offered on most retreats, we were encouraged to practice on our own—and then experience the kind of oneness with Source that happens off the mat: the divinity you feel when wandering around cobblestone streets, say, or eating just-baked bread drenched in exquisitely fresh olive oil.

To get to know Malta is to learn about the country’s history, which dates back to the dawn of civilization. The country went through a golden Neolithic period, the remains of which are evident in the 50 prehistoric temples scattered around the country—all built between 3600 BC and 700 BC, making them older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Particularly interesting to our group of yogis was learning about the statues of female figures found in many of these Maltese temples, collectively known as the “Fat Ladies” of Malta. Their generous thighs and bellies have led some archaeologists to hypothesize that they were fertility deities—signs of a goddess religion that the highly regarded mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell once called an expression of “that primordial attempt on humanity’s part to understand and live in harmony with the beauty and wonder of Creation.”

As we walked through the Ggantija Temples on the small Maltese island of Gozo—known for some of the best swimming, snorkeling, and diving in the Mediterranean—I couldn’t help but think about the vast array of world religions and how, historically, they’ve all served to help us seek greater meaning and feel a connection to something larger than ourselves.

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While strolling through Hagar Qim, a prehistoric temple on a hilltop overlooking
the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, I was schooled in primitive design: This stone structure, like all of the temples I visited, had a central corridor that cut through two (or sometimes more) chambers, ultimately reaching a small altar at the far end. Carved into the stone walls were elaborate designs, likely markings denoting the passage of time. Stone furnishings, figurines, and other artifacts found in these temples, now on display in the country’s national museums, indicate that early Maltese society was likely a powerful matriarchy dominated by priestesses, female leaders, and mother goddesses. My heart was full.

After exploring Hagar Qim and another nearby temple, Mnajdra, I found a grassy perch overlooking the sea so I could meditate. As I closed my eyes, I felt an invigorating vibration wash over me—the same kind of charge I feel when I visit the Buddhist enclave in Crestone, Colorado, or when I hiked to Gomukh, the headwaters of the sacred Ganges River, in India. And as I really leaned into that vibration, sitting there with my eyes closed beside those ancient temples and silently repeating my given mantra, I realized what I was experiencing was not far from what I’d experienced in that wooden pew in the cathedral just a few days earlier—where I had found myself instinctively repeating Hail Marys silently like an old, familiar mantra.

In that moment, it was clear that one of the reasons I practice yoga and meditation—arguably the ultimate reason I practice—is to experience shakti, the divine, cosmic energy that moves through all of us. As a kid growing up Catholic, I was taught to find that energy through prayer. As yoga classes came to replace Sunday mass, I began looking to shakti’s many forms in the Hindu pantheon, such as Parvati, Durga, and Kali—powerful goddesses whom I could call into my practice to help me tap the universal source of energy, power, and creativity.

Here in Malta, these megalithic structures seemed to offer proof that we’ve been doing this forever. No matter the structure, whether a stone temple, church, or yoga studio, humans have sat—together, or alone, with the Source—in harmony with, and in awe of, the divinity running through our hearts, bodies, and minds. It is how we feel connected: to ourselves, to each other, to the place we live, and ultimately, to the beauty and wonder of the Universe.

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By Meghan Rabbitt

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