My eyes flutter open as the sound of my phone’s alarm grows louder and louder. 6 am.
The sun hasn’t yet poked its head from above the rocky horizon, and the air feels cold as I wriggle out of my sleeping bag.
I work to cover myself up in a few more layers before making my way to the door of our tent. Long sleeves. An extra layer of pants. A beanie for good measure.
It’s day one of our yoga retreat in Joshua Tree National Park, and it’s almost time for our sunrise yoga session.
I certainly consider myself a morning person, but this is early even for me.
On the bright side, I know morning yoga in the desert is exactly what my sore muscles need. My whole body aches from the two days we’ve just spent in the car, driving to this remote part of Southern California from our home base in Washington state.
I can only sit still for so long before my body begins to protest. “Use me!” my muscles seem to scream. Stiff, sleepy, and underutilized–they need some mat time, stat.
The rest of our little group is beginning to mobilize as well. One by one, my fellow retreat-goers emerge from their tents, kneading the sleep out of their eyes. We congregate around the breakfast table, taking in a quick bite and some coffee before we head to our yoga spot for the morning.
Our yoga instructor Bree had carefully chosen a flat spot not far from our Hidden Valley Campground; we walk along the dusty pathways until we’re on the far side of a rock feature named Cyclops, which we’d all soon become intimately familiar with during the rock climbing portion of the retreat.
But this morning, this moment, is all about yoga.
We unroll our mats on the gravelly terrain and take a comfortable seated position facing east. The warmth of the sun never graces us due to a thick covering of clouds, and a light breeze causes goosebumps to ripple across my exposed skin.
Our instructor, Bree Dillon, begins our morning yoga slowly, easing us into the practice with some light stretching to wake up our tired bodies.
She’s the Founder of Motive Yoga Co. in Seattle, and one half of the dynamic duo hosting this retreat. I’ve not yet taken a yoga class with her at this point (we’d become friends earlier that summer during a weekend trip to Winthrop, WA where she resides) and feel excited to get to know her teaching style.
Given her laid-back, friendly demeanor, I’m already certain I’m going to love it.
But the truth is, I haven’t taken many yoga classes at all in recent years.
Since rediscovering a love for yoga in the summer of 2016, my practice has grown slowly, and primarily in the privacy of my own home.
Prior to this retreat, I felt myself reaching a juncture where my practice could benefit from firsthand instruction, which is largely what had attracted me to the idea of a yoga retreat in the first place.
This was a chance to deepen my practice through real-time feedback on my postures as well as a chance to familiarize myself with different styles of teaching.
A chance to evolve as a yogi and gain new insights into yoga’s broad applications off the mat.
The opportunity to travel to this otherworldly national park was simply icing on the cake.
Throughout our first class, which lasts roughly an hour, Bree tests our stamina by prompting us to use muscles we didn’t yet know existed.
Those in-between muscles; the oft-forgotten muscles; the support muscles. The muscles that would reinforce our rock climbing efforts without fatiguing the ones we’d need for the task.
It’s the most nuanced yoga class I’ve ever taken–set in the most surprising and picturesque destination I could imagine.
A giant stack of boulders sits just behind me, the unusual Joshua Trees dot the landscape in front of me, rocky hills make their presence known in the distance.
We walk away from our first morning yoga class feeling energized and fully awake. I already can’t wait for the next one, which is scheduled to be a sunset session after a full day of rock climbing.
Back at camp, we sit down to eat a full breakfast and begin really getting to know each other. Our group is comprised of eight people on day one but will grow in size as more people arrive.
Our yoga experience ranges from minimal to extensive. We’re an eclectic bunch, but as tends to be the case with people who love the outdoors, everyone is pretty chill and easy to talk to. Open-minded, welcoming. Kindred spirits.
It’s immediately clear that we won’t have any trouble getting along over the next four days.
As breakfast winds down, the day starts to heat up. The sun breaks through the clouds and gives us some much-needed heat, but combined with the cool breeze, it doesn’t feel overpowering.
We part ways to head off on our first rock climbing adventures.
I’ll spare you the details of that first day of climbing for now, but suffice it to say, it’s a doozy.
Battered, bruised, and a little bit shaken (not stirred), Hans and I end the day having completed three challenging climbs (which is three more than I’d expected of myself, being the novice climber that I am).
Arriving back at camp around 4:45 pm–right as the sun goes down–yoga is the last thing on my mind. Thankfully, with most of the others still out climbing, there’s no rush to get back on our mats for round two.
This is one of the aspects of the retreat that I appreciate the most–there is enough flexibility to accommodate everyone’s needs, but enough structure to ensure that nothing gets left out.
If we need to drive into Joshua Tree (the nearby town) for a few hours, we are able to. If we need to take a break from yoga or climbing, we can do so at our leisure.
For the most part, we are free to spend our days how we wish, with the exception of a few predetermined yoga times.
And so the next few days go a little something like this:
Wake up for morning yoga, spend our days climbing as much (or as little) as we want, and then end the day with an evening yoga session and a communal dinner around the fire.
The nights are bitter cold, and the days are pleasantly warm. It’s November, and we’re in the desert, after all. Thankfully, we’ve come prepared with enough layers to combat the wild variations in temperature.
Since the sun sets so early in Joshua Tree, we typically find ourselves around the fire for some standing yoga rather than rolling out our mats.
It’s pitch black by this time, and we’ve already slipped into our puffy coats and heavy boots. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Bree manages to stretch us out given these unusual circumstances.
Fireside yoga becomes a highly-anticipated way to wind down from the day, both to stretch out our aching muscles and to warm up our bodies with some light movement.
It’s only on the final full day of the retreat that everyone finishes climbing early enough to have a true sunset yoga session.
But as I already mentioned, it’s precisely this flexibility that makes this retreat so easygoing–you can take exactly what you need from it without the pressure to do more, more, more.
And Bree’s adaptability as a yoga instructor certainly played a role in keeping things easy breezy. She has a way of reading the group and almost knowing exactly what it is we need in that moment.
When we’re tired and sore from an intense day of climbing, she targets our most used muscles with deep stretches. When our legs are looking a little too shaky, she shifts the focus to our arms, backs, or core muscles.
Her profound understanding of anatomy and physiology is also evident in her ability to explain postures in ways that make sense even to new yogis and help us target obscure muscles with a few simple commands.
And there’s just something so humbling, so grounding, about practicing yoga in a place like Joshua Tree National Park. I find myself yearning for more and more quality time with Mother Nature, and to experience her wildest, purest form helps me create that deep connection I crave.
Climbing over ancient boulders, sensing the inherent wisdom in the bark of a Joshua Tree, hearing packs of wild coyotes howl through the night, driven only by instinct.
To exist in this ecosystem requires me to rise to a new state of awareness. Mindful of every step I take, every breath I exhale. I can’t help but take notice of everything that surrounds me, from the most massive rock structures to the tiniest of details.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to get my feet and hands dirty in a place so sacred as this–to truly feel the energy of Joshua Tree and harness its power.
It’s an experience none of us will soon forget, and before the four days are over, I’m already dreaming up my next opportunity to travel for a yoga retreat.
The fourth and final day of the retreat finally arrives, and we gather for one last yoga class (this time under the beating morning sun) before packing up our things and getting ready to depart.
We’ve all got different plans from here–some are heading straight to the airport to fly home in time for Thanksgiving, and others are loading up their cars to continue on their journey.
No matter where we’re going, though, we’re traveling with lighter hearts than before.
Hans and I can’t stop smiling thinking about how much these four days meant to us, how much they changed us, and how grateful we are to know such down-to-earth people as Bree and her partner Mark (who hosted the climbing portion of the retreat).
For those new to yoga, it was a chance to explore their own practice more and see that it doesn’t have to be intimidating–no splits, handstands, or wild, twisted postures necessary to enjoy yoga and utilize it both as a tool for strengthening and as a mindfulness exercise.
For those who already practiced regularly, it was a chance to go deeper with the loving guidance of an instructor, gaining a better understanding of our favorite asanas and pushing ourselves to try new and exciting ones.
For all of us, guides included, it was a learning experience. A bonding experience. It stretched our minds and our bodies to new dimensions, priming us for even more growth in the future.
Yoga Retreats with Motive Yoga Co.
Yoga retreats with Motive Yoga Co. are held in the Pacific Northwest and other exciting destinations around the world, usually in conjunction with a complementary adventure sport such as rock climbing, skiing, or trail running.
This retreat in Joshua Tree National Park was the first of its kind, and they’re planning another one for the coming year! Details haven’t been announced yet as far as dates and itinerary, but stay tuned.
In the meantime, be sure to check out what’s currently on offer at motiveyogaco.com/retreats.
Have you ever attended a yoga retreat before? I already know this won’t be my last!
I participated in this retreat as a guest of Motive Yoga Co. All opinions expressed in this article are those of The Sweetest Way.