By Mike Schoeffel
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 hectic-ness 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 grew up in Waynesville, but she currently lives in Asheville, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”