Namaste, amigo

30 Jun

The Cuban Richard Simmons of yoga

June 17, 2012

Our group of students with Eduardo.

As a good self-respecting white girl, I love me some coconut water and yoga. Naturally, I found both of these things in Cuba. Hello, electrolytes and inner peace are indispensable, and can’t be overlooked just because you’re in what’s considered a third world country.

Finding the coconut water was just a lucky chance. My friend Virginia and I were walking around our neighborhood, running whatever errands we needed to that day. Note that by “errand” I mean a trip to La Casa de Fatima and by “need” I mean our need to pound a batido or two. On our way to Fatima’s, we noticed a tipo across the street, a wiry sun-browned man (think a raisin that was trying to masquerade as a pretzel stick), hauling a huge, yellowed burlap sack of something lumpy. Our first guess was that he was carrying coconuts, but we immediately dismissed that idea because there was no way a man that tiny could be carrying three times his body weight in coconuts. Was it full of dead cats? Beer cans? Mangoes?

We gave up on trying to guess what that asere was up to and went on our merry way. On the return, we saw the same raisin wannabe moseying along a few feet in front of us towards the bus stop. I politely tapped him on the shoulder, and inquired in my best Spanish what he was carrying. Yes, they were coconuts. And they were 10 national pesos each (so approximately $0.40). I handed him the cash and he pulled out a rusty machete the size of his torso, plopped the coconut on the middle of the side walk, and hacked a hole in it so we could get our fill of the nourishing innards.

Virginia and I had a tendency to find (what we consider) adventure at all turns. One of our earliest adventures was finding Cuba’s most prominent yoga teacher and organizing a semi-private class with him for most of the members of our group in Cuba. Before leaving for Cuba, I had looked up yoga in Havana and found Eduardo Pimentel Vasquez, who has a studio in Cuba and is largely responsible for spreading yoga in Cuba thanks to his former national T.V. program. I was intimidated—would he be the Richard Simmons of Cuban yoga?—but e-mailed him and got his phone number and address.

Virginia, an avid yogi like myself, was excited that we might have a place to regularly keep up our practice (since the floor in our tiny shared bedroom was not exactly adequate).  We found the studio, met Eduardo and promised we’d call to set up a class as soon as we knew our school schedule. A week or two later, we called back, arranged a time and date, saying it’d probably be the two of us and just one or two others taking the class.

We invited everyone in our 12-person group and had six more takers. Eight people strong, we piled into maquinas one afternoon, a tangle of pale skin and spandex, and took our crew to Eduardo’s.  The yoga studio was not a yoga studio, but the large tiled foyer of a house in the Vedado neighborhood, a beautiful, but slightly decrepit, large white home that Eduardo and his wife, Elsa, had traded their old apartment for.

Eduardo warmly welcomed us, barefoot and bespectacled, wearing a t-shirt from a yoga studio in San Francisco and with his shaggy gray hair fanning out around his face. He raised his eyebrows at the whole crew, a little surprised that we had twice as many people as we had told him, but like a good guru, took a deep breath and kept it all in stride. We grabbed dusty mats from a basket in the corner of the room and laid them out on the checkered floor, wondering if Clorox wipes were a thing in Cuba and praying that MRSA isn’t spread through yoga mats.

A few people in our group had never done yoga, others, only once or twice, and still others, dozens of times. Eduardo kept the class simple, leading us through a few standing poses and a few seated poses, nothing too loco. But Eduardo was damned if he wasn’t going to make us do every single pose perfectly.

He was like a slightly less megalomanic yoga teacher version of my ballet teacher Daniel (though I later learned that Daniel took classes with Eduardo fairly regularly). Cubans have absolutely no concept of personal space or boundaries, and this naturally extends to yoga class. At one point Eduardo was leading us through triangle pose, and he borrowed one of the guys, Levi, to demonstrate how to do it. Eduardo ran his hand all the way up Levi’s inner thigh, demonstrating where the flow of energy should go while Levi got progressively redder and redder.

What’s different between this picture and the one at that top…?

For every pose, Eduardo came around and corrected each one of us, pushing us into the right position. I think as Americans we’re too used to everyone being so appropriate and tiptoeing around lawsuits that when people actually touch us we don’t know what to think. Eduardo was making sure that we didn’t get lazy and complacent in our poses, which I realized I had been when I was doing a seated twist. He came up to me, told me to use my stomach, and pushed my whole body into the best twist I’ve ever done (and the hardest, but my liver and kidneys thanked me I’m sure).

Unfortunately, that day was the only time we took Eduardo’s class, but not because we didn’t want to go back (Levi in particular was dying to get back to see Eduardo). Life, as it inevitably does, gets in the way of your best plans, and we found ourselves busy with excursions and explorations. But hey, at least I can say I took a class with the Cuban Richard Simmons of yoga…

*Again, the pictures don’t really match up with the content. It’s a two-for-one: a story AND unrelated pictures of Cuba!

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