I have a washing machine. I have a hot shower. I have a toilet you don’t have to put sawdust in. I live an amazing life.” – Hanna Mathis
Hanna Mathis found herself in the fetal position at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, overwhelmed by fluorescent lights, televisions, cell phones and the general hecticness of contemporary life.
“I don’t know if it was the frequencies in the air or if I just wasn’t used to all the flashing and movement,” she said. “But it was one of the most intense feelings I’ve ever experienced.”
Mathis isn’t a shut-in with social anxiety. Nor is she an agoraphobic who spends her time holed up in a basement playing computer games. Nor is she a vampire, unless she’s just really good at hiding it.
Mathis lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and is very much accustomed to the modern world and its technological brightness. She majored in Spanish at UNC-Asheville and works part-time as a bartender at 131 MAIN Restaurant in Biltmore Park Town Square.
How, then, did she find herself so immensely overwhelmed by simply sitting in an airport?
“I spent 24 days on the Mystical Yoga Farm,” she said. “We lived off the grid. Solar power, compost toilets, 5:30 a.m. meditations, the whole shebang. I was totally cut off from society. It was incredibly life-changing.”
Mathis took the trip to the Mystical Yoga Farm to undergo her RYT-200 training, which, once completed, made her a certified yoga teacher. Since returning to the States, she’s started teaching at Waynesville Yoga, Town and Mountain Training Center and Inspired Change Yoga, plus she’s set to join Primal Studios, which is slated to open in Asheville this summer. Her boyfriend, Tyler Walden, a local DJ who goes by WiZ0, provides music for some of her classes.
There are plenty of RYT-200 training opportunities in the states – including several in Asheville alone – but Mathis was looking for something more immersive. She was searching for an experience that would not only prepare her to teach yoga, but one that would also alter her perspective and open the door for a personal spiritual awakening, of sorts.
Well, that’s exactly what she got.
“The first week was pretty much nothing but crying”
Mathis had just met Steve – a 60-something “macho man from Canada,” as she put it – when the instructor told everyone in the room to stare into a classmate’s eyes for 10 minutes straight.
“It was giggles for the first few moments,” said Mathis. “But by the end of 10 minutes, everybody in the room was in tears. It was extremely powerful to communicate with somebody like that. With [Steve] being so much older than me, I felt like I was feeling all the things he’d felt over his life. It was intense.”
The staring exercise was part of the first cycle – otherwise known as the “serpent” cycle – of the Peruvian Medicine Wheel. The purpose of the serpent cycle is to “shed anything that no longer serves you,” as Mathis put it. Much of the time during this portion of the training was spent coming to grips with difficult memories and learning to patch up deep emotional wounds.
“The first week was pretty much nothing but crying,” said Mathis. “I was like ‘I thought I was here for yoga training!’ It was a hardcore spiritual approach that was very unique.”
Mathis and her classmates eventually worked all the way through the medicine wheel, which included jaguar (“being fierce, finding your strength,” said Mathis), hummingbird (“being content with where you are in life”) and eagle (“spreading your wings and flying away…it’s deeper than that, but you get the idea”).
Another transcendent moment from the journey – and there were many – involved sound healing.
One of the instructors used a crystal singing bowl to lead Mathis and her classmates through a deep meditation. Before Mathis knew it, she was hovering over her body.
Looking down on herself – from a imaginary perch above – she began analyzing past identities, revisiting her most difficult memories and telling herself that “It’s OK, you’re going to be stronger because of it.”
“I came out of it absolutely hysterical,” she said.
Drum Circles, Cacao Ceremonies and Scorpions
Mathis still remembers the day she and her classmates were sitting around, doing their typical daily training – which included six hours of yoga – when a local man came walking along a trail that runs through the middle of the farm.
He had a refrigerator strapped to his back.
“We were like ‘He’s carrying a fridge with his neck muscles,’” said Mathis. “It put things in perspective. If you needed to keep food cold for your family, you’d probably do that, too. It made me appreciate my life.”
The farm is located in a rural part of southwest Guatemala. It isn’t a tourist destination or wealthy by any means. The farm rests on the shore of Lake Atitlan, which is renowned as the deepest lake in Central America. The closest major city is Quetzaltenango, an two hours and 45 minutes northwest. Panajachel, a town of 11,000, is a 45-minute boat ride across the lake.
Mathis admits it’s “genuinely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.” Giant volcanoes abound. Lake Atitlan itself was reportedly formed by a volcano that collapsed thousands of years ago and formed a caldera. The locals consider it a sacred place because apparently no one has found the bottom, said Mathis.
Lake Atitlan serves as the charming backdrop for the Mystical Yoga Farm, which – as Mathis pointed out – is entirely off-the-grid and eco-friendly. The menu is strictly vegan. Solar power is the only power, and on rainy days, she wouldn’t have lights at night in her cabin, which she shared with four other women. She slept on an “uncomfortable cot,” and there were no chairs or couches anywhere on the property.
Everything that circled down the sink flowed directly into Lake Atitlan, so all of her products had to be organic and biodegradable. She bought a $25 toothbrush made from tree bark. The showers, too, were solar-powered, but with 20-30 people showering at the same time, hot water didn’t last long.
“I don’t think I had a hot shower the whole time I was there,” she said.
There were drum circles and cacao ceremonies, too.
The drum circles were like something from a music festival – albeit it much more serious. She and her classmates sat with one another and, in at least one instance, chanted wildly to a snake god. She acknowledged it may have looked nuts from an outside perspective, but noted that it “made you feel good, if just for the camaraderie.”
“It sounds ridiculous, especially if you’re not from Asheville and used to insane hippies,” she said. “If anybody saw us, they would have been like ‘You are all on drugs.’ But of course we were the most sober people around.”
Sober, indeed – well, for most of the journey.
There was no coffee or alcohol, and the only sources of caffeine were a lightly-caffeinated green tea and raw cacao, the latter of which was used in a traditional cacao ceremony.
Many cultures view cacao ceremonies as sacred – a gateway, of sorts, for connecting with a higher intelligence. Said Mathis: “I think anybody could connect with anything after a month of sobriety and a bunch of chocolate.” The instructors melted down the cacao with water, distributed it and instructed everyone to begin a freestyle dance.
The lone caveat: they could only make contact with one another using their elbows, to start, then their knees. Feeling a little buzzed from the caffeine, Mathis let loose.
“It was weird at first, but it turned into this incredible artwork of dance,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was going to happen like that.”
Mathis had the option of staying an extra day and participating in a San Pedro cactus ceremony, a plant best known for the alkaloid mescaline, a hallucinogen fans of gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson – or the movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – are probably familiar with. The ceremony was not officially sanctioned by the Mystical Yoga Farm, but it was made available.
According to many-a-shaman, San Pedro – which has similar effects as ayahuasca, but apparently lasts twice as long – has the potential to reveal to ingesters what they need to change in their lives, and gives them insight into how to make those changes, through what many would call a psychedelic experience.
Mathis noted the difference in perception and general use of psychedelics in this particular ceremony as compared to the United States. Here, they’re considered, by some, the realm of Phish fans and weirdos – though legitimate research into the benefits of psilocybin and LSD are starting to gain momentum.
In other parts of the world, taking a trip has long been considered a right of passage. It’s not something you do on a whim at a Dave Matthews concert. It’s soul work.
“You’re not at a festival, you’re not going to wig out,” she said. “People who are completely sober are going to be taking care of you. There’s a ceremonial aspect to it that can open up new parts of your brain, without having yourself considered a drugged-out hippie.”
Ultimately, she chose to forego the San Pedro ceremony, because she had already booked her ticket and “I was ready to come home.”
Perhaps part of the reason she wanted to get on with her return flight was the scorpions. They were everywhere.
“There was a girl who laid down on her pillow and a scorpion got her in the head,” said Mathis. “She tried to swat it away, and it got her in the hand. That was probably the most difficult thing to get used to.”
Mathis had a crystal clear reason for wanting to journey to Guatemala for her training.
“My goal is to teach people a new language as they learn yoga,” she said. “Small words here and there, and you can bump it up as you go.”
Mathis, as previously mentioned, was a Spanish major at UNC-Asheville, and for her senior project she worked with bilingual K-6 students in immersion schools – such as Glen Arden, Vance and Emma elementaries – in and around Asheville. She was taken aback at the intelligence of these students, which she said was a result of them “using different areas of the brain.” Mathis said she noticed that bilingual students were generally more competent in their other coursework, as well.
She mentioned a concept known as “total physical response,” which, in a nutshell, posits that people are more likely to learn a new language when they’re moving their body with the words. Mathis’ ultimate goal is to combine her two areas of expertise – yoga and Spanish – to teach curious individuals (particularly children) a new language.
“A lot of public schools are cutting extracurricular activities, and Spanish and PE are some of the first to go,” she said. “Why don’t we combine them? Instead of losing them, why don’t we have the kids learn a second language while doing yoga?”
“I live an amazing life”
It was December by the time Mathis returned home from Guatemala. She remembers landing in Houston for a connecting flight and being thrown off by all of the Christmas trees. She knew it was the yuletide season, of course, but a month of 85-degrees days almost made her forget.
One of her most vivid memories after arriving in Asheville was simply lying on a couch. Said Mathis: “I hadn’t even had a chair in a month….” She welcomed the presence of her beloved cats, Salem and Baby Littles. While she admits she was ready to come home, and certainly felt happy back in the States, it took her a couple weeks to feel comfortable again in American culture.
Then a strange thing happened, or perhaps it isn’t that strange at all. Little aspects of our privileged – and often gluttonous – American lifestyle began irking her.
We use the bathroom in perfectly good water. We poison our bodies with alcohol and act generally obnoxious. We return a glass of water to the bartender because we didn’t want ice. We do yoga for just the physical benefits, totally neglecting the spiritual aspect of the practice.
“It was all a little overwhelming,” she said. “It took me a while to get my bearings again. I’m still getting adjusted.”
Mathis said her time in Guatemala feels like a dream. That transcendent experience she was searching for? She got it, and much more. In the wake of leaving Central America, all the things that were a part of her daily existence for nearly a month – the sparkling lake, the six hours of daily yoga, the cacao ceremonies, and yes, even the scorpions – have been replaced by the relatively extravagant comforts of American life.
Mathis didn’t forget the lessons she learned on the farm. Her first teaching opportunity upon her return was as a karma instructor. Every Sunday, she would hold donation-based yoga classes in which the proceeds were given to Water for the People, a non-profit based out of Denver that has a specific focus on providing H2Oto residents of Guatamela. Said Mathis: “It’s nice to give back even though I’m not able to go back at the moment.”
Our American lives are blessings, aren’t they? We can go to Home Depot and buy a refrigerator – and we don’t even have to lug the thing home on our backs. We can fall asleep without the threat of scorpions. Food and water is in abundance.
Really, what more do we need?
“I have a washing machine. I have a hot shower. I have a toilet you don’t have to put sawdust in,” said Mathis. “I live an amazing life.”
This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer.