This is What Peace Feels Like

Rafting and Yoga Retreat on the Yampa River with OARS

Yoga retreat on the Yampa: Happy tears on day three

I learned about OARS through Jon, a friend who went on a Grand Canyon rafting trip in 2020. He met Mariah Hibarger, rafting guide and yoga instructor, and learned that she was planning a rafting and yoga retreat for OARS.

“I think you would dig both the trip and Mariah,” he wrote in an email. “She’s a cool lady.”

I hadn’t been rafting for at least 20 years, but I have a somewhat regular yoga practice and have traveled to Mexico and Hawaii for yoga retreats. I found these retreats rejuvenating and thought: wow, this trip would be even more special being on the water every day.

The trip description also drew me in, with its talk of the river being “a powerful teacher which asks us to look at our own internal geology and flow, to be gentle with ourselves, and to be open to the changes taking place within us.”

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Before the trip, I was not being very gentle with myself. I developed a very short fuse, quick to anger and impatience. I’ve always been impatient, but the pandemic seemed to increase some of my not-better qualities. I was ready for a reset, and I signed up for the trip after connecting with Mariah by phone.

I dutifully followed the packing list, bringing only two (okay, three) t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, etc. I ended up with the smallest bag of personal items, which made me smile when people started comparing yellow dry bags. I’m a rule follower; what can I say?

On the evening before our trip, I met Doug and Tania, father and daughter from Portland, Oregon. They’d been on several OARS trips previously, including two Grand Canyon trips for Doug.

Zach Williams, our trip leader, walked us through logistics and provided an overview of what the next five days would bring. He introduced us to our other guides, including Stuart Griffin, who I would later learn speaks fluent Spanish, waterskied competitively as a teen, and works winters on the ski patrol unit at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

We put the rafts in the water the next morning and began our journey down the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument. The day was pretty mellow, and I was in a raft with Patrick and Donna. We were solo travelers and ended up bonding over that on the trip.

Yoga and rafting trip on the Yampa River

Patrick lives in Salt Lake City and is originally from the UK. Donna is from Spokane and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, where I’d worked before moving to Colorado.

Mariah gave us an assignment to do the six movements of the spine every day, starting out on the boat. The movements include a forward fold, side bend (left and right), rotation (twisting left and right) and a backbend. This was an interesting approach to yoga and also showed us how easy it is to get up and move every day, even when you’re rafting.

We arrived at our campsite that first day in the early evening and the winds really picked up as the guides prepared appetizers and dinner on the beach, and we put up our tents. I had to ask Lou, who was nearby, to help show me how to do that. I am not a camper though I want to be. And from the next day on, I put up my tent by myself every night.

Dinner included a tasty spinach salad that night as a side dish. The winds were blowing so hard that we stood up with our backs to the beach and I ate the slightly sandy spinach salad before it blew away.

On the second day, we camped and spent the night at a beautiful site that had a soaring canyon wall as an amphitheater. Sounds from the beach would echo throughout the campsite, creating the illusion that people were above or all around us.

Zach led some of the group on a short hike before dinner, but I decided to stay behind. Mariah suggested that we head toward the beach, suggesting that we bring our journals and meditate. The cool sand felt good on my hands and feet as they came off my yoga mat. This is what peaceful feels like, with no cell service and no emails. We took in all the textures, sounds and smells, with coaching from Mariah.

Yampa River rafting and yoga retreat with OARS

The next morning, yoga class was scheduled for 6 a.m. I’m not a morning person but we all went to sleep early and… yoga is what brought me on this trip. Mariah’s words about remaining present and not doing anything that hurts your body resonated.

Yoga poses helped me stretch out my legs that were sore from hauling my camping gear up and down a steep hill on that first night. The cool sand, again, felt soothing and different on my hands and feet. My soul felt light and my spirits felt even lighter.

As I left class that day, I took a deep breath and felt a rush of peacefulness. I almost started crying, happy tears, and did cry, later, when I spoke with Mariah about what I felt. She talked about the three-day effect and the science behind the emotional and physiological changes that take place when you immerse yourself in nature.

I was set free from the stress that had been building up for at least a year and offered the reset I craved, thanks to the river and yoga practice.

On the second to last day, I decided to be brave and go solo in the kayak. Mady Russell, one of our guides, said the day should be pretty mellow, with the quieter part taking place in the morning.

After lunch, I decided to stay in the kayak, navigating several Class II+ rapids with guidance from Mady and Julie, an experienced whitewater kayaker on the trip. I ended up doing something I never thought would be possible: paddling 15 miles on the river. More fodder for that reset.

On our final day, Mariah had us get into smaller groups to explore what we took away from the trip. I shared my kayaking victory with Lou and Kelly, who was brought to tears by my comments on pushing my limits successfully.

We had a remarkable group – physicians, a lawyer, forester, writers, educators, a BLM manager and outfitter, a legislative aide – and we were all open to the flow of the river and related changes that took place within us, just as the trip had been described.

Our group is already exchanging emails, just days after we are all back in our respective cities.

One person wrote: I am already missing the incredible group of individuals on our trip. Hugs to all of you.

What a treat to make such powerful connections in an unexpected way, on the river.

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Photos by –  Yampa River rafting and yoga retreat with OARS & Mariah Hibarger