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photo and text by Aaron Davidman
It takes time to get to Haines from San Francisco. A flight to Seattle, then another flight to Juneau followed by an overnight stay in the capital to catch the once-daily morning ferry for a four-and-a-half hour ride up the Lynn Canal, the Inner Passage of Southeast. The snow-covered mountains that line the canal on either side seem to leap right out of the water, like the orcas that swim alongside us. The clouds that blanket the sky give pattern and dimension to the sunlight glaring through. The size and scope of nature commands attention here in Alaska.
The ferry ride slows me down.
Considering a full day of frenzied packing and preparation just to get out of town, it feels like a three-day journey to get here. I’m with Sarana Miller, who is leading a six-day yoga retreat in Haines for a dozen students flying up from the San Francisco Bay Area later this week. The retreat is being held in a 24-foot yurt built on a forested hillside overlooking the Chilkat River and the majestic Chilkat Mountain Range.
Haines is a small town, population of 2,500. Inhabited by the Tlinglit native tribes for generations before a Presbyterian minister, John Muir, and smallpox made way for Westerners. The community then attracted logging companies who employed half the town for decades before the “hippies and artists” from the Lower 48 discovered the remote location in the 70s. The timber mills all closed now, the town has become a stop for cruise ship tourists to whom the artisans sell their goods.
There is cell phone and Internet service—back in town. No ability to compulsively check email, texts, Facebook or even phone messages. While the immediate feeling is one of disconnect, after a day I can feel my nervous system beginning to calm and I know from experience on other retreats, that in a few more days the feeling of disconnect will turn, ironically, into a feeling of calm and connecting. Connecting to myself, to my environment, to those around me. The distractions of everyday city life are gone and in their absence arises the sweetness of presence. It’s why I came here.
The immersion into Alaskan life begins immediately. The past winter brought more than 30 feet of snow to Haines, the biggest snowfall on record. Outbuildings take a beating in such weather and the yoga yurt needs cleaning, the smaller yurt in which we stay needs to be readied, the outdoor kitchen scrubbed, water lines reconnected, propane tanks filled.
First thing on the morning the students arrive, I build a fire in the cast-iron stove in the zendo, a small timber frame building on the beach of the river where we will meet every morning for kirtan and meditation. For a few minutes, I enjoy the quiet of the room and the stillness of the wispy clouds that hug the beautiful mountains across the river.
The students are wide-eyed and excited upon arrival. They too have made the long journey to get here and the first morning kirtan is lively and meditation is full of active city minds. Sarana invites us to arrive in this place. In the quiet of the zendo, accompanied by the sound of the waves lapping at the shore and the breath of the wind in the trees, we settle in. Meditation is followed by a silent walk to the yoga yurt, up a steep set of wooden stairs built into the rock cliff above the beach. During our asana practice, we start on the floor with a long sequence of hip-openers to relieve the tightness from travel and then ease our way into standing poses that bring heat into the room. By the end, the practice has delivered us all into our bodies and into the moment, in this place.
We eat lunch on the beach and take an afternoon hike. We walk through a spruce and hemlock forest and emerge in a riverside meadow of wildflowers opposite the towering Rainbow Glacier. The glacier is nestled high up in the hip of the mountain and its crevices reveal a deep blue I’ve never seen in nature. A waterfall steadily pours down the rocky face of the mountain below.
We end the day with a beach barbeque, with freshly caught and grilled salmon and salad made from local gardens. We watch the sun arc slowly above the mountains as it takes its time to set over the course of 4 hours. The sky feels expansive, unwilling to let go of the sun and by 11pm its still holding onto to the faint glow of the day.
This is our pace for the week.
As a student of yoga, my practice points me toward reconnecting to the natural state of knowing. Some days, with grace, I taste it. Other days it feels remote and unreachable as the pressures of city life, career, financial success, grind away at me. What matters to me changes when my practice is strong, as my breath and body help bring my mind into the present moment. No past, no future. Just this.
Here, in Alaska, the invitation to stand in witness of the majesty of nature is present every second. It’s a knowing beyond self.
Aaron Davidman is a playwright, director and yoga enthusiast.