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Scrapbook - Mississippi Yoga Retreat

Ronni Mott
May 27, 2008

As the canoe entered the shadowy willow grove, we dipped our paddles silently into the dark water. To splash or even speak would disturb the sanctity of this open-air cathedral. The breeze moved gently through the soft green canopy shading us from the late May sunshine, lightly rustling the leaves, and dozens, hundreds of unseen birds cried out. An oriole flew from its perch as we approached, flashes of orange on his breast and tipping his jet black wings.

It was Monday on the Mississippi, the final paddle of our three day retreat into the wilderness on the banks of the great river. The Saturday before, we had put in at Friars Point, a tiny settlement near Clarksdale, and paddled to Island 63, about three hours downstream, an uninhabited white-sand island dotted with trees, "blue holes" of clear water, wildlife and poison ivy. With three guides and nine paying participants, we had loaded the three canoes with far too many items we would never use. Even most of our clothing became optional by Sunday's searing mid-day heat, and what little we wore went with us to be drenched in the cooling river. More sunscreen would've been advisable, and fewer T-shirts.

Billed as a yoga and meditation retreat, the long weekend would become a testament to our endurance and better natures, as well as a test of balance and yoga postures. The weather: 90 degrees and Mississippi humid. The yoga: on shifting sands. Meditation: at sunrise. Accommodations: well, let's just say "primitive" and leave it to your imagination.

John Ruskey, owner of the Quapaw Canoe Company and our fearless leader in all things river-related, is an unassuming man of few words. His call to his team of "mighty Quapaws," to the scattered group for dinner or for a wake-up is the same: an owl's hoot that carries effortlessly through the air. Quapaws, the "down-stream people," were once a large population of Native Americans inhabiting in the area, with remnants of the tribe relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government in their infinite wisdom.

Ruskey was born in the Colorado Rockies, and with his grizzled beard, long hair and eagle-feathered hat, he would almost fit into any picture your mind could conjure of a 16th century explorer. Almost, if you don't consider his red, white and black, skin-tight water wear. Along with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mississippi river, the native people of the area, the stars and local wildlife, this quietly efficient man is also a talented artist and musician, who once worked as the curator of the Delta Blues Museum. But he's not one to brag, not even about the feature written about him in National Geographic Explorer last year. And not about the Ladybug, the largest of the three canoes at about 450 pounds, which he hand-carved out of a single tree trunk and has lovingly lavished with over 200 coats of lacquer. Ruskey never missed a chance to plunge headlong into the river or take a canoe for a paddle around the island.

Covered with fine-grained, multi-colored sand that appeared starkly white in the noon-day sun, Island 63 could be an ocean beach were it not for the opposite shoreline in clear view across the water. I kept expecting the water to be salty, but of course it wasn't. Ruskey told us how the water in this stretch of the Mississippi comes from as far as Yellowstone Park and the Tetons, Canada, and the Adirondacks, and I imagined where and how far the grains in my hand had traveled.

Each day, we discovered new tracks in the wet sand by the water: deer, turkey and terns, a lizard's track with the tail clearly dragged behind, paw prints from a dog or dog-like creature, probably a coyote. The animals themselves were elusive, except for the birds that chattered endlessly over our heads and a frog or two angling for mosquitoes on the river bank. On Saturday night the coyotes treated us to their wild symphony, barking and howling at the brilliant full moon, and I heard a low, soft owl's hoot—a real one this time—toward day break on Sunday. There were other noises, too: mosquitoes whining, the soft lap of the water on the shore, the mechanical drone of barges moving up and down the river, the intermittent strum of a woodpecker, the ubiquitous frog songs and a few unidentifiable scratches and whines in the night.

The dew-covered mornings brought freshening breezes from the river and bird songs from every direction as we trudged sleepily across the sand to our meditation spot. There, focused on our breath, our third-eye, crown chakra or simply the sounds, scents and touch of the divine all around, we sat quietly facing the rising sun, reddish orange as it scaled the Eastern horizon. The birds seemed to be talking about us as they flew over our heads, chattering to one another about these funny humans, just sitting.

At breakfast (fresh fruit, granola, yogurt and coffee) we compared how we'd slept, each describing different night sounds, a few aches from sleeping on the ground, watching the stars and moonrise, comparing our sunburned spots. I told how the moon shone so brightly into my tent I awoke confused, certain it couldn't be sunrise already and someone else had had the same experience.

Morning yoga followed breakfast, while it was still cool. Even with a mat, yoga on the sand is challenging. Once, as I rose to Warrior II, I lost my balance and landed on my bum. With nothing hurt but my pride, I picked myself up and went on, remembering to widen my stance next time. I managed a headstand on the last morning, while a few others even did handstands with the help of partners. Jackson's owner of Butterfly Yoga, Scotta Brady, who led our yoga sessions and with whom I had traveled to the Delta on Saturday morning, not only rose effortlessly into a handstand, she managed a beautiful Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance pose) in the river shallows. One of the most challenging of the one-legged balancing asanas, or poses, she said later that her foot sank into the sand up to her ankle.

During the hottest part of the day, we found refuge in the cool river water and ever-shifting shady spots as we split up into small groups of two or three or four, or ventured off on our own in search of a good photo, a cool breeze or a spot to bathe in private. Conversations varied from personal stories, to recitations of various spiritual practices, to politics, to recipes and family matters. It was too hot to read for some of us, too hot to write, too hot to listen until we finally got wet again, the temperature of the water quickly lowering our body thermostats. I couldn't help but wonder how woman bore the heat in days gone by with corsets and bustles, dresses laced and petticoated, much less the slaves in the fields who worked without rest under the relentless sun. During the hottest part of the day, just standing up too quickly made me feel momentarily faint and dizzy.

But the evening again quickened the breezes and broadened the shade, allowing us to fit in a second yoga practice, and then eat roasted ears of corn one evening and boiled greens and rice another, always with a variety of raw vegetables and warm bread from New York City, sliced on the spot. The food was plentiful and, we all agreed, more appetizing because we cooked and ate it outdoors. We'd stay and sit around the campfire engaged in conversation until the mosquitoes drove us into our tents. Not even the strongest repellent seemed to make much impact in their onslaught.

All of us will have tales to tell of this trip, whether it be of new friends or new foods—the stinky cheeses, brie, stilton, limburger and others, produced a few wrinkled noses and few wide-eyed smiles—or new ways to do yoga poses.

As for me, I have a new appreciation of the world's third largest river. I'm in awe of its power, its wildness and its majesty. I've grown closer to a few people, and have a new friend or two. I've met a real river man who requested Eagle pose, Garudasana, in honor of the bald eagles who live near the Mississippi river. I bathed in the nude in the cool river water and laughed with a new friend as we dared ourselves to plunge in past our hips. I paddled ferociously across the river's expanse, using my whole body to move the canoe along, and soundlessly through a church more magnificent than man had ever built. And with a bit of a sunburn and sand in places sand should never be, the joy of creation infused every part of me.

"Om Namah Shivaya Gurave" begins the Anusara yoga opening invocation: "I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious Lord, Who is the true teacher, within and without."

Amen and namaste.

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