edited: Sabrina TOPPA
“Treehouse is a living environment where the entire yogic philosophy can be put into practice,” Paul explained as we stood with him at the top of the main tower at the yoga center. A statue of Ganesh watched over us. “Of course, we practice postures—asana—each day, but that is just a fraction of the yogic path, which includes how we live in harmony with all around us and each other."
I was at Treehouse with Rohini, an Indian-born photographer who I met when I had arrived at the Kenyan coastal city of Kilifi, and we had hitchhiked a ride directly to Plot 31—the Watamu Treehouse. Outside of the city reaches, our ride had turned off the tarred road and driven into the bush, following the dirt road that led to a tall, white structure rising up above the canopy of the surrounding trees. We had immediately felt the tranquility of the place. The energy levels are good here, my gut had told me.
Yoga is the last thing synonymous with Africa, but it’s been in Africa longer than it has in the Western world. I used to do yoga down in Mossel Bay in South Africa, and I had also practiced yoga daily when I worked at the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge in Namibia’s northeast—I’d look at my knee beside my head and think, How’d that get there? That was the last time that I had contorted my body into baffling positions.
My first attempt at yoga had been during a drama course when I was still chasing my acting dream. The next time I found yoga would be the torture-filled Bikram Yoga in a room heated to the point of feeling like I was inhaling intoxicating fumes of sweat and body odor. Still, combined with surfing, I felt pretty placid. Then, in Thailand, I had spent three weeks at a Vikasa Yoga Retreat on the island of Koh Samui. Twice a day, I had twisted my body into challenging positions, but right after each ninety-minute session, I felt as though I were walking on clouds.
At Treehouse, Josiphet welcomed us in the morning with a warm smile and showed us all the rooms in the building, which was inspired by Spanish Catalan architect Gaudi. Pieces of bright, colorful glass were cemented into the white walls, which had been designed to spiral up in large curves, following the staircase up the maze-like tower. A mosaic bridge stretched across a pool, and we sucked the open, fresh air into our lungs.
“It’s a play-tower,” Rohini had exclaimed with child-like wonder.
Later, we were introduced to Paul, the American owner. “Every time I rented a house in my life, I planted trees,” he told us. “One of my main motivations to own land is to plant trees and watch them grow over a lifetime or through the generations.” When Paul and his father, Eric, had bought Treehouse in the early '90s, the plot was one of the few remaining in Watamu with the original forest intact. The previous owner, Pat Donnelly, had seen to it that the forest was preserved.
“My father’s wife, Nani Croze, is a conservationist," said Paul, "and she suggested using the small area that had previously been cleared for burning rubbish for making the ‘footprint’ of a few towers and building upwards instead of outwards.” Burning rubbish was a common practice in Africa.
Lunch was a home-cooked meal made and served by Jackson, the mzee, a term of respect for the elders that managed the house.
“Do you practice yoga?” Rohini had asked the 73-year-old.
“Yes,” he said, grinning. “It has helped my knee problem. Before yoga, I struggled to climb all the stairs here. Now I do it easily. I practice every day with the rest of the staff.”
For me, as a surfer, yoga was a great combination of balancing my mind, body, and soul in preparation for balancing on a wave. When I'm facing the most powerful element on our blue rock, I want to be attentive to the surroundings but also relaxed enough to enjoy the wonders of nature without having to fight for survival. (And I've wipeout-ed enough times to develop the swimming abilities of Michael Phelps.)
That very night, Rohini and I found ourselves stood on the rooftop of the tower. A canopy of stars shone overhead; the Milky Way was out in full-screen mode.
“[W]e use yoga and meditation techniques and also let nature be our teacher to balance out the effects in our bodies and minds,” Paul said to us. "It's how we direct our senses to the highest there is; how we make our life a living meditation; how we find our purpose and meaning in life; and how we connect and experience oneness with the whole of creation—this is yoga.”
We looked up and caught a shooting star that streaked across the night sky.