Interview with Yoga Instructor, Dr. Baxter Bell
Baxter Bell, a San Francisco Bay Area yoga teacher and medical acupuncturist, chatted with Willka T’ika about yoga, the Andean concept of “ayni,” and what he looks for in choosing a yoga retreat location. Baxter lead yoga classes for a retreat at Willka T’ika in late March/early April 2015.
Willka T’ika: How did you first come to Willka T’ika?
Baxter Bell: I had an insight a couple years ago that I wanted to take a group of yoga practitioners to three special places over the course of three years. Peru is one of the places that it was very clear for me that I wanted to come. I had never been here before but I was called to it. I hadn’t studied a lot about the history prior to deciding I wanted to come but once I did I started reading about the country. I read “Turn Right at Machu Picchu,” a really interesting book on the history of the country.
The great thing about planning this trip was that I worked with some friends of mine in Montana. They had been bringing yoga teachers from the United States to Willka T’ika, as it turns out, very early in Willka T’ika’s career, some 20 years ago. When I told my friends that I wanted to do a trip to Peru, they quite naturally thought of Willka T’ika. In addition, I have the good fortune of knowing [the owner] Carol Cumes’ son, Terry, from the Bay Area, as he had taken classes with me. He had been talking to me about Willka T’ika as a potential place to visit. So it all came together beautifully.
I made my first trip to Willka T’ika in the fall of 2013. I brought a group of about 20 people from all over the United States to practice yoga, to experience the beauty of Willka T’ika, and also use this as our base of operations in the Sacred Valley, to explore some of the amazing Incan sites that are close by.
Willka T’ika: What brought you back to Willka T’ika?
Baxter Bell: I’m back a second time at the invitation of a good friend of mine from the Bay Area. He wanted me to teach yoga classes for the program that he was leading. And I was like, “You’re going to be at Willka T’ika? Cool, I gotta do that.” Just because it was such a great place to be when I was here the last time. It’s so comfortable, the staff is so helpful, you feel so welcome here, and it’s magical. The gardens are truly something unique in all my travels, and I’ve traveled all around the world. There aren’t many places like this that I’ve been before. It’s one of the unique places that I’ve gotten to visit.
Willka T’ika: Speaking of the gardens, if you were to identify with one of the gardens, which would it be?
Baxter Bell: I love the Pachamama Garden (the Root Chakra Garden). The first time I came to Willka T’ika I spent a little bit of time in the gardens, but I didn’t take the tour with Carol so I didn’t really have a clear sense of where everything was. This visit I had time to wander around and I did the tour with Carol and there was something about the Pachamama Garden this time that really spoke to me. I also love the Water Garden (Sacral Chakra Garden). I just love running water of any sort – streams and rivers. So I initially thought that one might call to me but I realized I liked the grounding energy of Pachamama.
Willka T’ika: As a yoga teacher, what is the philosophy that you try to instill in your students?
Baxter Bell: Something that has spoken to me recently is an idea that came to mind when reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, the doctor from Harvard. It’s quite an interesting exploration of all kinds of challenging moral issues as we get older as human beings. One of the things that I want to tell my students, especially at the end of class, is that my hope for them is that they can live a full human experience – that they can really live a full human life. Whether it’s happy or not is not the most important thing. I mean, I hope for happiness for people, but I want them to have a sense of fullness–of fully experiencing everything they can as a human being–the full range of emotions and experiences. I think even in the last month or so that’s become crystal clear–that’s really what I’m hoping to have people experience with their yoga, with their practices, with their explorations.
Willka T’ika: What makes Peru and the Sacred Valley special?
Baxter Bell: It’s a physically stunning place to be. The environment is very inviting. I find it very easy to be here. You’re at about 9,420 feet at Willka T’ika and yet it still feels like you’re closer to the ocean in a sense. You’re at a high altitude but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The Incan history here is phenomenal. I mean, we took a 20-minute hike a couple days ago across the street – we were basically by ourselves, just a group of people that had come down here – to this ancient Incan food storage that might’ve also been a burial ground. And it was just us, up there in the hills. And the fact that there are these Incan ruins all in these mountains for you to discover is really powerful. It’s an incredibly beautiful place and the local people are incredibly sweet and open and friendly. Everyone says hello. I have the feeling that I’m very safe here, very comfortable, very welcomed, and also on the edge of mystery and history and all kinds of cool stuff like that.
Willka T’ika: Has Carol told you about the concept of Ayni [the principle of reciprocity practiced by indigenous Quechua communities]?
Baxter Bell: Yes, I remember learning about it the first time I was here, and this time I’m taking it home as one of my tools for working. The concept is: “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” That sends a reciprocal support of one another in which I really look to your benefit before being so concerned about my own. It’s a beautiful philosophy.
Willka T’ika: Do you feel like Ayni fits in well with yoga culture and spirituality?
Baxter Bell: I do. Sometimes, when we look at modern yoga, we look at it as “my own personal journey,” you know, “working with my own stuff.” And yet, in all of those systems that exist, including the ancient system of yogis being able to live in the woods or up on a mountainside, somebody had to be stopping by to bring them food every day. So there’s this sense of interconnectedness that exists. When you look at the bigger picture of the support that exists in the world, just for any one of us to make it through a single day…we could say, oh, I live by myself, I work independently, but the truth is you work independently but someone is buying your service or whatever. There is an undeniable web of support that surrounds all of us. So I love that Quechua concept and I think it absolutely can apply to the yoga work that I do and yoga practices in general.
Willka T’ika: You lead yoga tours around the world. When you evaluate a location for a yoga retreat, what are the things you look for?
Baxter Bell: The facility itself is important. Do they have a lovely space for us to practice in together? Are the rooms really comfortable? They don’t have to be opulent, but are they comfortable and well appointed so that folks can feel comfortable after traveling half a day or a day to get to their destination through several time zones. I also look to the welcoming and helpful quality of the staff. And then – because a lot of the folks that I work with are into eating well and eating in a healthful way – do they provide local fresh produce? Do they give vegetarian options? If they do offer fish and fowl and meat, do they source it locally? Those sorts of things are very important as well.
Willka T’ika: Do most of the retreat centers that you go to meet those standards?
Baxter Bell: Because I travel to a lot of different places, some places do better at meeting those standards than others. The great thing about Willka T’ika is they nail it on all levels. They really do. There are no deficiencies here. They always seem to be improving. I was here a year and a half ago and just in that short time away I’m seeing things that are changing and being upgraded. They are continually refining what they do here. Even the gardens continue to grow and blossom – it’s really beautiful to see.
Willka T’ika: Besides yoga groups, what other types of groups do you think would be interested in Willka T’ika?
Baxter Bell: This place has so many amazing places to meet. There’s the small yoga space, there’s the small library, the meditation and music room, the big yoga room, the dining space – anyone who leads groups and who does group processes would, I think, feel so comfortable here and find that it would facilitate whatever kind of exploration they’re into. Groups of psychologists, people that are doing trainings for bodywork…I think you name it, people could find themselves really super happy that they came to Willka T’ika for an adventure. And the fact that you can get out into nature and explore and hike and walk into town and do all these things right from here, and that Carol has great guides that can take us on little jaunts that are half-hour/45-minutes away to some of these other places – I just think it’s conducive to anyone who is doing work that goes beyond the superficial.