First pilot retreat I hosted in the Amazon Jungle: January 17-26th
This was the one of my biggest career milestones this year, launching my own group program and running my own retreat for the very first time. I got inspired when I attended a Women's Fearless workshop in Buenos Aires led by coach Kat Hargraves from LA. I knew for some time before then that I wanted to impact more people at once but I didn’t know exactly in what format. When I attended Kat's workshop it confirmed that idea, but intuitively I knew that I wanted to create a more intimate experience over a longer period of time, because I believe full immersion for a short period of time is what is necessary for real transformation. In addition, I also believe continued follow up after the full immersion is necessary to reinforce and solidify the learning.
The two months after that workshop in Buenos Aires is when I accelerated my design for my potential workshop. The wine tasting event that one of my friends Joanna from Remote Year Ohana encouraged me to do in Cordoba, Argentina was instrumental in helping me realize my strengths, passion, and what I can offer that may be unique from others. I realized that I know a lot about many areas – with my business background I know how a business runs and what’s important to business leaders, at the same time I have knowledge in psychology and personal development, I also have interests in many areas such as travel, meditation, yoga, exercise, food, and wine. When I looked at it all together, it makes for a perfect and holistic way of living and learning. It was also through this range of modalities that I became the person that I am today. I believed by using such an integrated approach I could help others as well.
That’s when I came up with the idea of doing a holistic life transformation program. I presented this idea in a mastermind session in Lima and got valuable feedback from four people from the Ohana group. When I later went to the Jungle and experienced plant and animal medicine I realized that these were the missing pieces I'd been looking for and I needed to incorporate them in my program. That was when the idea of the transformation program with the kick off retreat in the Jungle was born.
The few weeks leading up to the retreat I was very nervous. Marketing was what I was concentrating on up until then, after that it was execution and making sure that I would deliver a good product for those who have signed up for the program. As I was preparing for the workshop booklet, I realized how much material I had accumulated over the years. I got inspiration from Tony Robbins's Date with Destiny and structured it in the format of a combination of presentations, texts, and questions and fill-in the blanks. When I printed the booklet on the day before I left for Peru I was relieved, although still nervous, but also felt very proud and accomplished for the output I was able to produce.
The trip getting to Iquitos from Bogota was quite the adventure. Many things went wrong during the travel that the old me would have thought it was all a sign that the event itself won't go well. Instead I didn't allow myself to dwell on the negative thoughts. I attributed the bumps to my nervousness, saw them as tests of my mental strength, and continued to move forward. Once the participants arrived on the morning of January 17th I felt like I was in my element and all the stress was left behind.
Day 1: After picking up the participants from the airport we went to Karma Cafe before heading to the retreat location in Santa Maria.
Once we were all settled into the lodge and had lunch we had the opening for the workshop where I got the participants to talk about their expectations. We also went through the first couple of concepts in the self-discovery part of the workshop – the Wheel of Life and the 6 Human Needs.
We even continued the sessions into the night after dinner. It was so amazing to see the open-mindedness and eagerness to learn from the participants. In just one short day, I already felt like all the effort and stress that I had leading up to the event was all worth it.
Day 2: We started the next morning bright and early with a work out led by one of the participants and I continued it with some yoga and meditation. It was a fantastic way to start the day.
The meals on the retreat are always delicious and a source of happy times.
After breakfast we had a full day of workshops on self-discovery, going through other concepts such as Values, Captain, Saboteurs, Primary Questions, and Life Purpose. We frequently changed up the location and the format of the sessions, using a combination of self-reflection, writing, visualization, and discussions.
After dinner, there was more time to reflect on the learning from the day and even some tarot card reading by our guide Natasha.
Day 3: The third was by far the biggest day we had. It started from a Kambo session early in the morning, which you can see the full documentation in this video.
After some rest and breakfast we continued the workshop with topics about Health, Money, and Career.
In the evening we had the event that all participants had been anticipating the most - the Ayahuasca ceremony.
I had had three Ayahuasca ceremonies previously (which you can read about here), but this was by far the most intense and profound I had ever had. The first 20 minutes or so after the medicine took effect I felt intense suffering, as if I was dying. The whole time I felt that I was going through what I saw my mom go through when she was dying in the hospital of cancer 13 years ago. Once I got over this intense suffering however, it was as if I came over to the other side and felt intense euphoria. I had voices come out of me that I couldn't control or even recognize. I remembered feeling like I was singing like the shaman which I had no idea where that came from or what I was trying to do. Then I kept saying how amazing and fun everything was. The guide, Natasha, kept coming to me to tell me to breathe and that I needed to be quiet because there were other people in ceremony and I shouldn't disturb their process. I knew very well in theory what I should do but for some reason I couldn't control myself at all. On one hand I felt really bad but on the other I didn't, as if I wanted to rebel and have careless fun. I even spoke in Spanish and said non-stop that everything was "so so so bueno" (so amazing) and "muy muy muy divertido" (so fun), and I really really "quiero" to be quiet "pero no puedeo" (I want to but I can't). It was as if I was being a naughty and mischievous kid, either that or a psychotic person completely having lost touch with reality.
During the ceremony, another participant next to me was also moving a lot and at one point leaped from his mat to the middle of the room and then moved to another side at a speed that didn't look human (Later we found out that he thought he had turned into a jaguar.) At one point in the middle of the ceremony when he had just leaped to the middle of the room, I was being loud, the shaman was singing at the highest pitch, and another participant started puking loudly into his bucket. To me that was the climax and the epitome of the whole ceremony, lots of sound and lots of action, and that made me even more ecstatic. I felt like the whole place was a big happy playground and I felt an intense connection with everyone else. Everything was so amazing to me, beyond what words can describe which was probably why I couldn't contain my voice and needed to express my feelings of joy and bewilderment continuously.
I felt this feeling for another long while, then Natasha came to me again for probably the sixth time, but this time with a glass. That's when reality hit. She handed me the glass and said in a very serious tone, or so I thought, "the shaman wants you to drink this." Immediately I woke up, as if the naughty kid has finally realized the seriousness of her wrong-doing. I asked Natasha what it was and sure enough it was lemonade. Reality sunk in a bit more. I remembered her saying before the ceremony that if the shaman gives anyone lemonade to drink it means they have gone too far and needs to be brought back. The feeling I had in that moment was indescribable. It was a mix of guilt, embarrassment, failure, self-blame and more. I couldn't believe how I had let myself gone so far. Did I really think that my naughtiness was going to have no consequences? I couldn't believe how I had screwed up so badly, and I was supposed to be the leader of the retreat! I thought the shaman must have thought that I had gone crazy and needed to reel me back. But what if I had already gone crazy and even with the lemonade I couldn't come back? In fact, I didn't want to drink the lemonade at first perhaps thinking that if I didn't drink it then it meant that I hadn't been so bad or I hadn't gone too crazy. I look over and saw that Natasha also gave the other participant a lemonade. He took it with no resistance as if it was no big deal at all.
Now when I reflect back on why drinking the lemonade was such a big deal for me it was because it triggered something so deep in me that goes all the way back to my earliest childhood. It represents everything that I was the most afraid of - doing something wrong, not being good enough, embarrassing myself in front of others, and ultimately these mean I am worthless and not worthy of love. I had been working on rewiring these deep-seeded unhelpful beliefs for a number of years from reading books, to studying psychology, to vipassana meditation, to coaching, to Tony Robbins seminars, all of which I thought have moved me a long way. But when I was put under a stressful and unfamiliar situation, the amygdala completely took over and the old beliefs dominated with no regard for any new learning, and they would consume for the next 18 hours.
When the ceremony ended everyone else got up and looked fine. They even went out to look at the full moon and asked me to go. It was a beautiful full moon but I couldn't notice any of it. I was completely self-absorbed in my guilt and self-blame. I remember apologizing to everyone because of how loud I was. One of the participants said, "Thank you so much for the work that you do Kristina. You don't understand how important it is." I thought he was just being nice because he saw how destroyed I was and how guilty I felt. I couldn't concentrate on the moon. I couldn't concentrate on anything that was happening. I could barely stand. All I wanted to do was to hole up in my room and never get out again. Which is what I did in the next 18 hours. I curled up on the other bunk bed in my room, wanting to disappear, feeling like I had just made the biggest mistake of my life, and didn't know how I would live with myself going forward.
Day 4: I woke up the next morning with Natasha coming into my room at 8 something. My spirit was still gone. I couldn't move my body and could barely talk. She was such a life savior and asked what time I wanted her to come back. I said maybe in an hour and half. She came back at 10:30am and said we would have an integration session with the shaman. When I got up from my bed and went into the living room I saw all the participants there and thought they had all brought their bags and were going to leave the retreat. I was too embarrassed to talk to them. All I could think about was wow, you really screwed up Kristina. They are all leaving because you have completely failed them.
What happened over the next 8 hours was probably the hardest I had ever experienced. My body was completely immovable, I had no energy at all. I couldn't even get up for the integration session with the shaman which I wanted and knew how important it was. I felt like death. Not only was my body destroyed but my mind and spirit were gone as well. The shaman and Victor (the other guide) came into my room after they talked with the others. They didn't seem concerned about my situation. I thought, do they not see that I am dying? When we asked the shaman what he saw in me last night he said at the beginning of the ceremony I seemed to be weighed down by worries. He said I should let that go. He also said I should work more with this medicine in the future. I thought, what? Are you kidding me? First of all, I may not have a future at all. Second of all, is it not stupid enough of me to take it this time that I shall do it again?
When they left I continued to play everything in my head over and over again of how stupid I could have been for taking Ayahuasca this time, especially since I had retreat participants who were depending on me. Being the leader of the retreat, if I don't survive the medicine, what a failure and an embarrassment that is. Then I thought about my dad and that was when a different energy came upon me. It was no longer about me or my ego but about the need to live so that he would live. I can be a failure and an embarrassment but I can't let him down like that. If I die what would happen to him? He wouldn't survive. I would never do that to him. So I said I am going to live. In the end, when all other parts of me fail - my body, mind, and spirit - my heart is what saves me. That is the only part that knows love and ultimately love is what keeps us alive.
I don't know if that did it or I was never going to die in the first place. By about 5 something in the afternoon I started feeling better. When Natasha came into the room again she said the guys have been asking about me all day. They hope that I'm okay and that they want me to know that we are all in this together. I felt so much love and relief in that moment. I thought maybe after all they are not blaming me or judging me but rather caring about me. I also found out that none of them left or thought about leaving. They had a talk with the shaman and went on a jungle tour with Victor. One of the participants is even doing another session of Kambo to prepare for another ceremony of Ayahuasca later that night. I was shocked. What? You mean he didn't have a terrible experience last night? And he still wants to do more?
When I was able to get my body out of bed a bit later to join the rest at dinner table, what the participants said completely shocked me. They all said they had the most amazing experience last night, that they got exactly what they were looking for from the ceremony. One was able to connect with his ancestors and get clarity, another learned important lessons about ego, time, and his mind, another started resolving his long-term trauma. They said that perhaps I was carrying so much burden for everyone that it completely collapsed me. And they felt I was releasing something inside me during ceremony and that's why the uncontrollable voice. Hearing all of this, I sat there in disbelief. Once I could push aside my guilt and embarrassment I was able to speak my truth and be vulnerable and share all the feelings I had all day.
One of the participants said, "Do you remember what I told you last night?"
I said, "yes, but I thought you were just being nice."
He said, "no, I really meant it. You don't realize how important is the work that you do. Thank you!"
That was the biggest acknowledgment I could have ever received. The whole evening I was being surprised one after another. I couldn't fathom how an experience that I thought was so terrible could have been so good for the others. It made me question everything I have ever believed.
Later that night, lying in bed I had to process everything again. So many emotions but mostly gratitude. Gratitude to Ayahuasca, to god, the universe, life, to all the people who enabled this experience, for their love, understanding, forgiveness, and acknowledgment. I couldn't fathom how I could be so lucky. I felt like I was once in a lifetime chance to be reborn.
I thought, could in fact all of what I had gone through in the last 24 hours be a way for Ayahuasca to teach me one of the most important lessons of my life? That my own subjective experience is in fact not representative of what others experience? That perhaps my own imperfections and screw-ups could actually serve others? That perhaps sometimes I make up stories in my head that are completely untrue? That perhaps I could judge myself way more harshly than I deserve or than anyone else does?
Through the suffering-to-euphoria journey the night of the Ayahuasca I got to experience a death and rebirth. As a result, I felt more connected to my mom, that I understood her more. I also felt more empathy towards anyone who has a mental illness because I got to experience what that is like myself. I was in another dimension where I could've easily been considered psychotic and crazy by any "normal" standard. I was in a world where everything was bueno, so so so bueno. I was appreciating everything with 100 times more enthusiasm than a "normal" person and I couldn't contain my enthusiasm when I "should" have. But who said what is "normal" and what we "should" do? I realized how thin the line is between life and death, normal and crazy, bueno and bad. The difference is not the fact of the matter but our judgments about it.
Two months later I am still processing what I have learned from that Ayahuasca experience. I continue to be grateful to Ayahuasca for her intelligence, depth, and power to show me what I needed to see. They were lessons learned the hard way to say the least, but without the intensity it would never have made the kind of impact that it did. I also realize that Ayahuasca, just like the universe, would not have given me something I couldn't handle. My intention going into the ceremony was that I would like to see anything she wants to show me, and the plant in its infinite wisdom sure did.
From this experience I learned that it would be a good idea not drink the brew next time I have ceremony with retreat participants - I am just too inexperienced and unpredictable and I would serve others better by holding space - but I am certainly glad I did this time. I feel so lucky to have learned these profound lessons while not jeopardizing the experience for my participants.
Day 5: This was the last full day for two of the participants. We took another medicine, San Pedro, talked about the topic of Relationship and did some yoga.
After lunch we went on a boat ride
to a native tribe, the Yaguas.
San Pedro is my favorite medicine out of all the ones we do in the jungle. It's been said Ayahuasca is the mother and San Pedro is the grandfather, gentle, kind, and pleasant. That is how San Pedro has been to me. Whereas Ayahuasca brings all my fears to surface, San Pedro strips them away. I only feel love and empathy when I'm on it. It's as if I'm seeing life through rose tinted glasses, I feel loving and empathetic towards all things and all people. I feel that it really brings out my essence, and gives me a sense of peace, calm, and gratitude that is elevated from my normal day-to-day.
Day 6: This is the last day for two of the participants. We had a wrap up and goal setting session in the morning and one last breakfast with everyone.
I felt such a sense of relief and gratitude that I managed to complete my very first retreat. And to think that it went well, even thought I thought for about 18 hours that it was the biggest disaster of all time! I learned so much from this experience and I am forever grateful to Ayahuasca, the jungle, my three brave participants, the two guides, and the shamans all made it happen.
Day 7-10: The next four days was spent with one of the retreat participants and our guide Natasha enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the jungle, doing one more session of Kambo, one more ceremony of Ayahuasca, and one more session of San Pedro. Here is a video capturing our San Pedro experience.
We also went to Monkey Island on the last day which brought me immense joy.
The three of us had some very interesting conversations that opened up my eyes to topics that I hadn’t really thought about before such as other dimensions and other space and time. It was the perfect way to end this meaningful and profound trip and I felt completely rejuvenated and energized.
Here is a video documenting the whole 10-day experience.
Here is a video of the participants talking about their experience on the retreat. While they all feel they have gained a lot from the experience I provide, I feel I have learned equally as much from them and this experience.
After I came back from Iquitos I spent five days in Lima, one of my favorite places of all time.
Exercising and enjoying the beauty of the ocean front
Eating amazing Peruvian food
Checking out some cool working cafes
And even meeting up with two of the retreat participants in a bar name Ayahuasca
And having drinks with Ayahuasca in their names. How fitting to end the trip in Peru.
When I stepped onto that plane to Mexico City to meet the rest of my Ohana group from Remote Year my heart felt completely full and content.