This is a guest post by our retreat leader, Alyson Simms who has just returned from leading another Chiang Mai adventure and seva retreat to the Elephant Nature Park.
In 1999, I drive through Tampa on my way from Miami to Austin. I stopped at an amusement park and wanted to get on some of those fun roller coaster rides. I didn’t know they also had animals there, so I went straight to see the elephant! I watched this elephant sway back and forth, moving its head in circles. I thought “I kinda dance that way, so it must be having fun…moving like that”! I didn’t think anything of it.
A year later, I was driving through Tampa and and stopped at the amusement park again. The first thing I wanted to do was go see the elephant, of course. I felt very different this time. I started walking towards the cage and saw her swaying back and forth, moving its head in circles again and I stopped in my tracks. I knew then this wasn’t normal. I thought this poor baby has been moving like that since I saw her last. She’s moving back and forth because she’s very disturbed. It’s not made to be standing in a cage only a few sizes bigger than her. She has gone mad from the life she’s forced to be in. I left and never went back.
Fast forward many years, I’m at Elephant Nature Park, leading a seva yoga retreat for One Yoga Global. 2017 was a trip of a lifetime that changed mine and so many lives. But we did it again in 2018 and now again 2023!
After this last retreat (Feb 2023), our closing circle was for each participant to share: Paint us a picture of a moment that you were fully immersed in the park, your experience, share with us a snapshot of your trip. Here was mine….
I’m laying upstairs in the open-air massage area, receiving one of the best Thai massages I’ve ever had. I can hear the dogs barking in the distance, elephants trumpeting here and there all over the park. I can also hear people on bicycles and motorbikes around the property, doing their work. There were fellow guests and workers laughing, talking, enjoying dinner around the dining areas.
I was thinking of every person on the trip and running my memories of each day. My mind said “to stop the thinking and just enjoy my massage”, but I was enjoying the reminiscing! I started my meditation that helps one to stay present to what is going on immediately inside you, but also be able to stay present and connected to the larger world around you. It’s pretty expansive and relaxing. I started that meditation and it was a moment I will never forget. I was enjoying my massage, the entire park, each guest, and each memory as they came all at once. I was smiling and tearing up all at once. What a beautiful moment. And what a beautiful trip we had!
This was the third time leading the Seva Retreat in Thailand with One Yoga Global
It just keeps getting better each time! We started out with 4 nights in Chiang Mai, the northern hub of all things Northern Thai culture. With 2 daily yoga classes, excursions to the Temples, cooking class, and massages…there is plenty to do and see these four days. We spent lunches and dinners together between shopping at the night markets and exploring the old town.
And just when we thought we had seen it all, we were winding down our time in Chiang Mai to not go home, but to have a second leg of our retreat! We all agreed that it wasn’t so sad leaving the city because we have a whole 7 days at Elephant Nature Park.
One thing I have loved about this park is that I learn something new each time! And being there after the country opened back up after Covid, it was very apparent they were in big need over the last 3 years. We not only worked with the rescued elephants, but also the cats and dogs. I even saw the bunny area for the first time, where they rescue them from testing facilities (mostly for make up). It was heart warming and heart breaking to see all the rescued animals that were casualties of the tourist industry, but also covid.
Volunteering At Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Our daily schedule starts with a breakfast at 7 am, watching the elephants get taken on walks by their mahouts (caretakers) nearby our table! We start work at 8 for a few hours. We go where things are needed that day, which includes making special food for the elephants who are sick and need special diets. Most elephants come to ENP sick and need special care. We also go to their pins, where they sleep and clean up grass and poop. That’s always a fun time because when do you ever scoop elephant poop and we get to walk around the whole park. Sometimes we are cleaning up trash from the river bed or helping the fire breaks stay clear in the mountains. We meet for lunch, take a rest and meet back up at 1 for our afternoon work. The schedule can change depending on what they need help with. But most days, we are done by 4 and can rest, watch the eles, or go help in other areas.
This year I got to walk the new sky bridge one morning after work. It was so amazing to be above the elephants in their natural habitat and just watch them be without the interaction of humans. The more hands off they have become, the more we get to observe the elephants really being elephants! On the last day, I had the privilege of seeing 2 baby eles with their moms and aunts playing in the mud, with no training of them to try to get food from humans. Being able to see them naturally behave was more satisfying to me than being able to feed or touch them. They all were HAPPY!
One of my favorite days (I call it Arms Day!) is when we unload food off the truck and put into the kitchen. We form a line and work as a team to get the watermelon, pumpkin, sugar cane off the truck. Seeing people work together is always a moment of goodness….and for such a sweet cause…there is nothing like it.
There is plenty of time for Rest and Relaxation on this Chiang Mai Retreat
Our free times are spent walking the dogs, petting the cats, or having special talks by the founders of the park. We spent an afternoon making an Elephant Cake, which was so fun to see them gobble it up like we do our cakes! One afternoon as well, is spent visiting the local school ENP started.
The school invites us all over to see what they have created. This school is for the kids of the workers at ENP and also open to refugees…mostly from Myanmar. Every year, I make a bracelet with some of the students and speak English with them. I used to teach English as a Second Language so it’s super fun to use some of those skills. This year, I happen to sit next to one of the four English teachers. She was so cute and super shy. I pulled out those teaching techniques and more than that, made a new friend. We’ve been messaging about any English questions she has.
What I love about this retreat is seeing how slow moving everyone becomes by the end of the week. With the Gentle Giant energy surrounding us at all time, it’s easy to be inspired to slow down. And once we slow down, that’s where the magic happens. I witnessed tension leaving bodies, minds becoming clear, hearts opening to ourselves and each other. I see resets, inspiration, the ability to say Yes to life, deep friendships formed, and above all, big smiles seeing abused animals living more free and happy than they once knew.
Retreat Participants After They Return Home From Elephant Nature Park
When people say it’s a life changing experience, it’s easy to think they are just doing some marketing verbiage that catches your attention. So I won’t say that, but I’ll say this: After these 3 retreats with OYG, I have seen the participants adopt dogs from the park, get elephant tattoos in Thailand, and we had 3 participants open up their own animal rescue center! These are proof that this is one of the best experiences you can have….people are moved. I get moved each time.
Hope you enjoyed a little blip into these experiences at Elephant Nature Park with One Yoga Global. We are hoping to return soon, so the best way to find out about it is to get on the One Yoga Global Newsletter list here.
Many blessing to you all and happy elephant smiles from me! ~Alyson