Jan Norman recently returned from her third trip to Cuba and her second one as a yoga instructor. Last year she took a group of yoga students from Port Alberni to a retreat in the country while it was under the Communist regime. Despite the lifted embargo, she saw little change as an outsider, and noticed the daily life of locals is still unsettled. Immersed in the culture of yoga herself, Norman considers the government’s decision to include yoga in the country’s health care system a benefit, both mentally and physically.
Three years ago, Norman went to Cuba as a student and practiced under the country’s first yoga instructor, Eduardo Pimentel. He travels all over the country to train other instructors but initially was put in prison for his work.
“The government was afraid of it at first, but now they endorse it,” Norman said. “It is part of the health system so doctors will recommend patients to him.”
Yoga has become and important part of the lifestyle in Cuba because of the unrest. Locals are used to “going without” because it is a part of life. If a grocery staple or piece of machinery for farming is not available, there is no easy access so it is a matter of waiting for items to be shipped across the border.
The Cuban government has embraced the practice so much that yoga instructors are one of the few American professions that are allowed to travel on their own in the country.
“Once the embargo was lifted, I thought maybe more people from the U.S. would want to come on my retreat,” Norman said. “I looked into it and the rules had not changed. It is still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba and only journalists and yoga teachers can travel freely. They must see them as a benefit.”
Norman said the only way other American citizens can enter Cuba is by being a part of a group that is there for a reason, like a conference or trade show, but are still indoctrinated with a two to three hour lecture by the government.
As a tourist, she noticed there was more free time among locals who were spending more time on the beaches.
“I was very encouraged that it looked like people were vacationing more, however, I asked Eduardo about it and he said that nothing had changed. They are still on rations. You can’t just go to a store because there are none and they are still running out of things. There are more entrepreneurs opening restaurants and bars so it feels like there is something going on but the supply is remaining the same while there is more demand.”
Along with yoga classes, Norman planned workshops for the group and had to cancel one on aromatherapy because there was no coconut oil available.
“There were no beach towels, either,” Norman said. “It was story after story like that. I just ended up adopting the phrase, ‘It’s complicated’ to explain why we didn’t have easy access to things we are used to. That is the Communist way.”
After her training in Cuba, Norman offered to teach the first retreat. Now the there is one run each week by different instructors and locals often attend.
“It has really grown and has brought a lot of economy to Cuba,” Norman said.
The group, which included 13 participants from Port Alberni and three from Lethbridge, Edmonton and Gold River, arrived with suitcases full of supplies to leave behind, including yoga mats and donations for children.
“They can’t buy anything from the U.S. so many people use cardboard boxes for yoga mats,” Norman said. “Eduardo goes all over by bus to bring mats to other provinces. He has also hooked up with schools and a children’s cancer centre and dispersed our school supplies, toiletries and clothing.”
When they returned home in mid-November, Norman received a gift from a member of the group.
“I wondered why she would give me a gift when she paid for this retreat, but I realized what she was saying,” Norman said. “She was saying ‘Thank you for making this available.’. I knew it was life changing for her and anyone can get such a spiritual and cultural aspect out of it if they want to. When I see people coming out of a private lesson with a look of ‘I can’t believe what I just learned.’, that is why I do all of this work. It is really cool to see people’s lives changed.”