EMPOWER: My SEA Journey in Koh Samui, Thailand

Friday, January 13, 2017

With little sleep since I was so excited, I was up at 3am to make it to the Bangkok airport. When planning my trip, I knew I wanted to relax afterwards but not take a total *vacation* since I really didn’t desire an escape, per se. I researched some yoga retreats, and I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone and try one. My yoga practice has really developed this year, and it would be a great way to unwind, unplug, and rejuvenate myself. Going with my passions/themes, a yoga retreat worked perfectly to Empower myself. Originally I considered Bali (because of Pinterest, duh), but it’s a little more difficult to navigate. Instead, I chose Vikasa in Koh Samui, a small island off the Southeastern coast of Thailand. A quick flight from Bangkok, I was at the retreat by 8am. Although I couldn’t check-in to my room until later, I knew I wanted to get the most out of my trip and start the day as early as possible.

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My goals for the yoga retreat were to calibrate and center myself after a few weeks of chaotic traveling and to embody my 2017 intention — to embrace. I wanted to be nothing but present as I concluded one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I wanted to reflect on everything that had happened and think about where I want to go in the future, especially since graduation is rapidly approaching. I wanted to live in the moment while challenging myself to dedicate more of my mind and body to my yoga practice.

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After being greeted with watermelon juice (Airbnb does not offer free juice, so I do like that about all the hotels I’ve visited on this trip), I explored the area, which is actually really spread out between two different wellness resorts. Lots of stairs and hills might not be desirable for some, but, it is a yoga retreat, and basically everyone is super active anyway. Vikasa caters to brief travelers like me, extended traveling yogis and yoginis, actual yoga retreaters (silent, detox, etc.), and also yoga teacher training candidates. Everyone has a different story, but basically it’s another #fitfam, with mostly Russians, German, Australians, but also Americans, British, and French. The views are gorgeously serene and I instantly fell in love. I took a 9am yoga flow class and realized how tight I had become in the last couple of weeks. I only regularly take yoga classes once or twice a week in Chicago and do my own quick flow everyday, but I felt such a drastic difference in my muscles — from traveling, running, and not doing the same range of motion in my workouts.

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There is a daily breakfast buffet. All healthy, I rejoiced when I found so many vegetables for breakfast. Finally some fresh greens! Most food is raw/vegan/overly healthy — I’m talking beet ginger carrot juice, gluten-free vegan crepes, tomatoes with cashew cheese (I don’t know either?!), and a salad bar. So refreshing. After a leisurely breakfast, I found the nearby beanbag lounge and wrote some blogs and took a quick catnap. Unfortunately, my stomach had been upset since all of the Thai food in Bangkok, and it continued to get worse. I still tried going full-force, but I had to do so carefully.

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Next, I decided to try to find the beach. Apparently, the 10-minute walk does not mean along the water but on the street. Still, I ended up hiking/rock-climbing giant rocks for about an hour, and it was a blast. Some slips, some scrapes, some splashes, some lizards, a giant tarantula (okay some giant spider — I have no idea what), and lots of sweat later, I got an unreal view of the Gulf of Thailand all to myself.

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I finally checked into my Beach Bungalow, which was a super cute, private building with a bedroom, bathroom, and porch. Very minimalistic, it’s perfect for what I wanted, and it’s still air-conditioned, unlike many others here. No TV, no loaded mini bar, and the bathroom was basically behind a screen without a door. At the resort, you also couldn’t flush toilet paper, which was a hard habit to kick. My bungalow was centrally located between the yoga salas and the food, so it was pretty perfect. Instead of laying out as I had hoped, I spent my afternoon texting my mom, contemplating why I was so sick (do NOT look up any symptoms including “in Thailand”, and catching up on my blogs. Not ideal, especially since I had set the goal of doing a tech detox. My goal was to not scroll through social media (but still post, because this place is so Insta-worthy, ya know), and I was pretty good, but I was still much more mindful the entire day.

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Once I was feeling a little better, I tried out the Pilates class. The teacher was an older man in unusually tight pants and a tiger shirt, and I was sure he had to be a former European ballet dancer, but I asked after class, and he was not unfortunately. He was a little intimidating and it was one of the harder Pilates class I’ve taken, but it was so fun. Who knew bouncing on exercise balls could be such a core workout if you focus on Pilates method of breathing?

At one point, I was having trouble balancing, so he actually kneeled and told me to hold onto his head for balance. Holding an old man’s soft head of hair while doing a Bulgarian split squat on an exercise ball is the last thing I expected to do that day. He was a great teacher with lots of good feedback and corrections that I often don’t get from group fitness classes.

After reapplying bug spray, I took the following yoga class, which was pretty challenging for a level 2 class. I always love a sunset yoga, especially with a view like this. Opening your eyes after savasana to find it totally dark is the coolest thing, and today we even had a full, red moon. Pictures don’t do it justice.

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I learned a new chant in practice today, which is shanti, meaning peace. Most yoga classes I’ve been to in Chicago don’t chant, but I loved when we did in all of the classes at Vikasa. It’s kinda like in church when everyone sings and somehow it magically harmonizes. I also learned about alternate nostril breathing. Definitely a tool I’m storing in my backpocket for whenever I need some instant calmness.

Dinner buffet that night was all Thai food, unfortunately. I ate the fresh veggies, some rice, and fruit before resorting to my room with the comfort of my protein bars. I continued to catch up on my blogging in bed. Despite not following the tech detox, I wasn’t on my phone anywhere near as much as normal, and I was hopeful for a new day to stay off my phone as much as possible.

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I began my morning with a cup of black tea on my porch, soaking in the gorgeous weather. Sunny and 75, but not too humid yet. At 8am, I went to a 2-hour yoga class that combined physical practice and mental meditation as well as pranayama (breathing exercises). My instructor is Matthew McConaughey’s doppelgänger, but his name is Jason and his accent is different, unfortunately. This holistic yoga class was probably one of my favorite of all-time, except for the fact that most of it was done with my eyes closed. The view was beautiful — I wanted to soak it all up! I went to the water and took some pictures because how could I not?

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The breakfast buffet was great again. Salad, carrots, fried eggs (served with tomato, onions, and mustard which was a nice taste of home), porridge, muesli, fresh pineapple and mango with chia seed pudding, and a banana blueberry smoothie. Heavenly.

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I swam some and relaxed by the infinity pool for a couple hours, listening to my Tropical Morning Spotify playlist and reading The Responsible Company. I took some more pictures because again, how can I not? The funniest part was that I almost slipped and fell twice. I had many close calls on this trip, so I should probably work on my balance more in yoga to reduce my clumsiness!

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While there is a beach at the resort, it is very small since the coast is mostly rocky. I set out to find the nearest beach, which I was told was 10 minutes away. It was actually like 20, and they failed to tell me that there’s no sidewalk so I would literally be walking on the highway. So safe.

The beach was gorgeous and worth the walk. Like my resort, it was packed with Russians and Germans. They’re easy to pick out because of their language, of course, but you can find the children naked or topless and the obese men in speedos. House music was bumping and the water was very shallow, so I was able to sit on a rock in the middle and pretend I was a mermaid.

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I walked back and changed real quick for Acro Yoga. I’ve never tried this before and I’ve never been anything close to an acrobat. Despite being a dancer, I’ve never been super flexible or a tumbler. When in Koh Samui! My favorite instructor, Serge, taught again and it was so fun. The class got nice and personal with each other, and it was extremely challenging. Although I was better at being a base, I still wasn’t able to do everything. As Serge ended the class in a circle with a communal “om” prayer, I realized I learned more in this yoga class than any other before.

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Yoga is more than an individual practice. Serge told us about a growing trend that in classes, especially in America, have become less and less social. People stay confined to their mats then leave without saying a word. I’m totally guilty, even at the yoga retreat, with reservations. I may be introverted, but most classes in Chicago are minimally social with hardly any interaction. Still, yoga focuses so much on the internal self that many classes don’t prioritize community. But, acro yoga did force us to become very intimate and literally hands-on, and as a result, we were more of a team, and I made new friends (and Facebook friends), even despite all speaking different languages. At ENRGi, we do a lot of partner work and encourage camaraderie in classes which adds to the “fitness community,” but not a lot of studios are like this, even the group fitness ones. Yoga, like almost anything else, is better when we feel supported, and we’re happier when we’re in a community. Being mindful and present by yourself is awesome, but what about when you’re with others living your life?

img_9404I was demonstrating a posture with him, and he kept telling me to relax my muscles. “Relax your legs! Relax your arms! Relax your head!” I thought I was?! I was lying belly-down on his feet airplane style and mustered out, “But, I am!” He told me I wasn’t, and it took a good minute for me to somewhat relax my body. I can make time to relax and I can even treat myself to a few nights’ stay at a yoga retreat in freakin’ Thailand, but I can’t actually relax?

At the beach, I saw a few brochures on day trips around the island. I grabbed all of them, even a couple that were in German. I saw trips to the waterfalls, to the big Buddha, to ride elephants, and to snorkel — all things that I would love to do and would have thoroughly enjoyed. However, I had been sick for 3 days at that point and still wasn’t slowing down. That’s when I realized my yoga retreat experience was not so much to empower me physically (even though I was incredibly sore), but to empower me mentally — to have the courage to say no to everything else when I needed to say yes to me.

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I survived several days of multiple yoga classes and a rigorous Thai massage while being sick from Thai food — I’m pretty sure I have proven I am capable of anything I set my mind to. But, the one thing I still struggle to do is relax. When I try to relax by the pool or even in bed, I try to occupy myself by doing something productive like writing to-do lists or choreographing or writing blogs. When I try to meditate, I can’t keep my eyes closed and I have trouble not thinking about what’s next. I don’t like doing nothing, and I don’t think I’ve been bored since 2010.

This reminded me why I practice yoga. I didn’t used to because it wasn’t always a challenging workout to me. I would have rather been lifting weights and jumping. Now, when I practice yoga, I’m not necessarily looking for a workout, or even a good stretch, but I’m practicing to let my mind be still and to focus on relaxing in the present moment. Yoga is about mindfulness for me and is a way to embrace myself — who I am right now.

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My stomach was really hurting after Acro Yoga, but I decided to push through and try to take the subsequent yoga class. 5 minutes in, I knew I had made a mistake and finally had the courage to leave, even if I felt rude or like I was missing an opportunity. Even though my new friends had invited me out that night, I knew I absolutely had to take it easy if I wanted to start feeling better. I forced myself to eat some soup and curled up in bed with my laptop, taking the night to simultaneously write and watch a movie. My body was eaten alive by mosquitoes and I had a very splotchy sunburn, so my body certainly needed some down-time.

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I thought the focus of my yoga retreat should be a tech detox, but I realize that isn’t the problem at all. I can stay off my phone and certain apps, but I like staying connected and I always have, which is why I am pursuing digital marketing. My yoga retreat is more about empowering myself to take each day, each hour, and each minute one at a time, doing what is best for me in the moment, and not what I think I can squeeze in or manage. This year, I burned myself out by being an overachiever, and it’s time to slow down. I haven’t even begun working full-time yet, so I want to create my ideal lifestyle now instead of waiting until later when I need to.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

After another rough night of sickness, I began another morning tea and another complete class with Jason. I was starting to feel better and enjoyed another awesome breakfast. It was supposed to rain, so I seized the day and headed to the beach ASAP. While Vikasa is mostly on rocky waters, there is a small private beach. I think I listened to “Are You With Me?” at least 10x while laying out. It was a gorgeous day.

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After cleaning up, I walked to the beach again for my last Thai massage. This one was definitely the best yet, and it might have been because it wasn’t on a mattress pad on the floor of a sketchy, dark room. Stilll only 300 Baht (~$8.50) for an hour, this massage overlooked the beautiful beach and I had the waves crashing in the background. I recommended Thai massages in my last post on Bangkok, but I should say I only recommend them to dancers, yogis, or anyone who is decently flexible. If you’re not flexible, you will probably ask yourself why the hell you paid for torture. It’s intense, but if you know how to breathe through the stresses, it instead feels heavenly. They gave me some of my favorite Bael tea afterwards and it was blissful.

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When I walked back to Vikasa, I changed and headed to yin yoga for my last sunset practice. Yin yoga is comparable to most deep stretch classes I’ve taken, but a little more forceful. Each stretch or posture is held from 3-5 minutes on each side. Although we don’t do many postures throughout class, it is very challenging, especially mentally. After 2 minutes of sitting in sleeping pigeon, your mind fights you and tells you to back off the muscle instead of breathing through it and releasing deeper into the stretch. Getting out of the posture is almost harder because you don’t realize how deep you’ve stretched. It was exactly what my muscles needed.

After dinner, I decided to explore a little bit and head to one of the night markets on Lamai Street. I waited on the side of the road trying to hail a cab, but even the ones that claimed they had a taxi meter did not, and they tried to say it would cost 300 Baht for a 10-minute drive. After turning down multiple bad offers, an open bed truck taxi and I agreed on 150. Usually, these are full to save money for the drivers, but I had it all to myself and got to see how bad the flooding actually was on the island.

Walking down the street was very similar to most other street markets in the area, but I knew some specific things I still needed to shop for. Here, I saw lots more counterfeit products like Bose, Beats, Kylie, and Naked Palettes among the typically Nike and Adidas gear. These products (at least the packaging) look identical to the real deal, but they are poorly made, allowing a pair of Beats to be sold for $15 USD. It’s crazy. Before I left for Asia I had heard of this, but the ethical business student in me didn’t want to anymore. Especially if I’m watching my spending, I didn’t want to spend it on something that could potentially be worthless.

The food area was almost entirely German — Biergartens, Doners, and German writing everywhere. It’s very interesting to see what the target audiences are. It’s even weirder to see a tiny Thai woman in a dirndl.

I bought my souvenirs, my stomach turned down any foods I would have possibly wanted to try, and I headed back to the resort. Again in an open bed truck taxi, I met a couple of backpackers from Ireland. They had been charged way more than me to head back (100 Baht for me, 200 a piece for them) and they had said they had just started their journey around Southeast Asia. We talked about our favorites, and they told me the Full Moon Parties were overrated, so I was grateful I didn’t miss much. They said I looked Australian — they could have told me I looked like Kayla Itsines and I would have felt the same way.

That night, the storms finally came. I learned how thin the bungalow was when the thunder came crashing. I felt like I was in the storm scene of Aristocats. I quickly ran out to the porch to grab my shoes and the clothes I had hanging up and tried to sleep despite the noise.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I woke up extra early to view the sunset, and it was beautiful in the calm of the storm.

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After a final complete class dedicated to even more gratitude, I relaxed by the pool one last time, taking a mental photograph to remember this place any time I felt stressed or overwhelmed. My a little bit of my heart will always be in Koh Samui, and my consciousness can always take me back if I need to return to this state of calmness.

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After ditching some of my shoes and worn out clothes, I showered and packed in a speedy 20 minutes and somehow carried my suitcase and backpack up the 8 hefty flights of stairs to the reception. I enjoyed my final brunch and did some writing in the beanbag chairs before I was off to the airport.

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Before I left, I noticed a sign hidden by the entrance. “Life’s a climb, but it’s worth the view.”

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It sure is.

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Thank you, Vikasa and Koh Samui for an unforgettable weekend. I strengthened my yoga practice, physically and mentally, and I left feeling transformed as an athlete and yogini. I feel more at peace and ready to take on the world when I return to Chicago. I may not yet know what the rest of 2017 has in store, but I know that I will be my best self and therefore be able to best serve others during this helluva year.

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Here’s to embracing the highs, the lows, the relationships, the opportunities, the journey, and myself — my strength, my weaknesses, my intellect, my drive, my courage, and my passions. As my yoga instructor, Susu, said: “We know who we are and we know what we want, so now, we seek to share the light and love with others.”

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Namaste + shanti,

++ Mary K

 

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