How did something I once loved turn into one more stressful item on my to-do list?
By Stacey Closser
First, I loved yoga. Now, yoga is like my old dog that stares at me from the corner wondering when I’m going to take her for a walk. I practice it as much as I can but rarely without wanting to beat myself up a bit. I have lukewarm interest in yoga retreats—even ones held at exotic locations with celebrity chefs—always assuming they’re reserved for super-yogis who can’t get enough challenge from a regular class. Even if I could convince myself that I’m good enough, I’m not sure I could withstand the mental toll it would take to extract myself from my life for a period of days.
So you can imagine the surprise at myself when I signed up for one.
“Hey, guess what I found out today? There’s a two-day yoga retreat at Alta in a few weeks. I think I’d like to go,” I blurt out one night at dinner. My husband and kids turn to look at me. My heart flip-flops. What the heck am I doing? I just floated the idea past my husband without first calculating how much marital currency I’d have to spend. What if he counters with a two-week fishing trip? He says it’s a great idea, which makes me think I just handed him a big IOU. I’d thought it’d be a fun getaway with some girlfriends, but each of them declined for various reasons. Still, their enthusiasm for the idea (and need for a guinea pig) was enough to get me to go solo.
Frankly, the idea of a yoga retreat scared me. Once, I had a brutal teacher who would make the class hold chair pose for an entire song while she taunted, “You think this is hard? At a retreat, I had to hold chair pose for 32 minutes straight! Go lower!” Her thighs looked great, sure, but I’m certain that if I found myself in that situation, I would erupt in an explosion of profanity just before passing out. Maybe that’s why I chose a retreat that was only 15 minutes from home. If I couldn’t handle it, I could abandon it altogether.
I was hoping to get back the kind of yoga experience I’d had when I first started practicing, at age 24, in a small, sun-filled studio with gleaming hardwood floors and whitewashed concrete walls. The space was serene and mirror-less, and the other students were able-bodied people who didn’t say much but smiled an awful lot. I would leave those classes in a bendy daze, so relaxed that sometimes I worried I’d cause a car crash, after which I would offer a sincere, “Oooommmmm sorry.”
Fast forward a dozen years and two kids later. My life has sped up and so has my yoga routine—complete with blaring music, demanding instructors, and competitive classmates. I get an amazing workout, revving my core into a state of almost-tautness, but I generally leave feeling anything but serene. Usually, I’m irritable for not being anywhere near as good as I should be. And I’m not sure what is worse—that I’m not improving or that I’ve somehow added yoga to my list of life stressors.
It was when a fellow student, who easily could have been Santa Claus’s body double, managed to perform a perfect headstand while I crouched shamefully in a quivering crow pose, that I decided it was time to take it up a notch. Time to commit to a retreat and finally master at least one godforsaken inversion. And when I received the confirmation e-mail from the instructor with a list of optional things to bring—a journal, a book of poetry, musical instruments, and a bottle of wine—I even began to get excited. Maybe I’d be surrounded by sinewy, stretchy women in head-to-toe Lululemon. Maybe the teacher would be devious. Maybe I’d have a breakdown. But just being around a group of people who enjoyed those things promised unending gratification. Plus, did I mention there would be wine?
The retreat started on a Friday morning at Alta Lodge. After checking into my room and noting that the first yoga session was scheduled to last for two-and-a-half hours (yikes!), I made my way to the cozy studio that would be our weekend sanctuary. A little tea and coffee corner offered a warm cup of hope. I placed my mat—my rectangle-shaped refuge—in a socially conservative spot: middle of the room, near the wall. Slowly, the studio filled up with women of all ages and sizes wearing all kinds of outfits. The instructor, Kim, was a pretty, soft-spoken, muscular woman with a broad smile. There was only one man—a tranquil, powerful, and chiseled man with envious hair who turned out to be the meditation teacher. They took a seat at the front of the room and Kim proceeded to reveal the eight-limb path of yoga. Like an octopus of self-discipline, they included moral restraints, spiritual devotion, mindful breathing, and physical movement. But instead of feeling preachy, the course made perfect sense for bringing joy and peace into life. As un-endingly boring as it sounds, this was actually quite sexy when spoken in Sanskrit.
Next, Kim read a passage from the book, Bringing Yoga to Life: “We shall see that yoga has less to do with standing on your head than standing on your own two feet and that the physical practices of Yoga remain mechanical gymnastics until transmuted by our intention to clarify the mind and open the heart.”
Oh. Well, that changes everything, I thought. My headstand expectations rolled off my shoulders and straight out the double doors.
The yoga sessions were far removed from the power classes I was used to. Each pose was a familiar friend who didn’t overstay her welcome. But on the second day, when the dreaded dolphin pose reared it’s ugly head, I had to ask to teacher, “Why exactly do I want to be good that this pose? I need some motivation.” Dolphin pose is the obnoxious brother of downward-facing dog. You fold at the waist with your feet and your forearms on the ground. At first it’s not so bad, but then you realize it’s one of the most unpleasant ways to spend a minute of your life.
“Well, by strengthening your shoulders, it will prepare you for the full inversion forearm balance. Go ahead, get into dolphin, and I’ll show you,” Kim said, immediately getting up and walking toward me.
Great, I asked a question and now I have to demonstrate forearm balance? I bent over and saw her slate-gray pedicure waiting. I put my full weight on my forearms and kicked my legs up into her hands. Shaky, shaky, then stable.
“Okay, now just squeeze my arm between your knees,” she said, leaving me to my own balance. Just then, my shirt slunk down and my entire gut was on display. CRAP! Could this be any more embarrassing? Except I instantly decided I didn’t care. I was doing a forearm balance for the first time! Someone across the room gasped, and then murmured, “That’s beautiful.”
I sat back on my heels red-faced—not from embarrassment but pure exhilaration—and realized I was stronger than I’d thought.
“Okay, moving on,” said Kim. She took her place at the front of the class with a smile pointed in my direction.
I wasn’t the only one to rise above my own low expectations. There were a few women in the class who were hesitant about the partner poses that required them to put their weight on someone else. “I don’t want to crush anyone,” said Jennifer. The two instructors waved her off, folded over in down dog, hands touching so their bodies formed the letter M, while two other students helped Jennifer into her own down dog with her hands and feet on their hips in a human pyramid. The room fell into a stunned silence. The moment held. Then she jumped off, hair and eyes wild, exclaiming, “Yes! I did it!” All twenty of us applauded and cheered.
On the third morning, I sat on the couch in front of a fire and watched a woman named Jody clomp into the lobby from her hike. She was dressed for the cold with ski pants and huge boots. She talked as she pulled up her noisy pant leg. “Yeah, I hiked to that ridge up there, farther than I planned. Whew!” She kept talking as she unlaced her boot and pulled off not one, but two pairs of long socks, and flung them into a heap on the floor of the lobby. “Sorry I missed meditation, but I like to meditate while I walk outside.”
Then, she pushed down her pants revealing her gray sweatpants underneath. In that moment, this chatty, quirky lady made her way into my heart. I had hardly spoken to her during the retreat, but her outrageous openness was like a magnet. It was a refreshing example of self-awareness.
We formed a circle after our last yoga practice to rehash our experience of the weekend. The first couple of women who spoke were timid.
“What a pleasant way to spend my birthday.”
“I’m leaving light-hearted.”
Then it was Jody’s turn. She hung her head, “I came with nothing. And I realized I have so many gifts.” She was silent for a moment, covered her face with her hands and, quiet and then stronger, she sang: “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won’t cry, no, I won’t shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” We were her silent audience; her kindred spirits.
After that, we each had a chance to weep, laugh, and marvel at what we had accomplished. When it was my turn, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. “I’ve realized how happy and content I am, and I’m so grateful to have yoga and meditation to explore that.”
I felt like my brain had been switched on. Suddenly, I could retrieve elusive words, concentrate on tasks at hand, and function on a different level. The yoga and meditation were part of that. But so was the time away and the richness of the food and company, the majestic mountains eclipsing the sun, the dusting of snow, the low-slung clouds and even the missing of my people–which made me appreciate them all the more. I was alone in the world for the first time in a long while and I was okay.
Against my expectations, I arrived home to a house free of people, with beds made, dishes away, floor clean of glitter/lunchboxes/dog barf. I floated around empty-headed, as if someone had siphoned out all the busy thoughts that typically wrestle for space and left it quiet and tidy. Kind of like coming home after the cleaning lady visits and discovering that even the backs of the toilets have been scrubbed–only better.
My family returned, and the world around me became loud and large. When the kids asked for juice, I’d respond, “Shhhh, darling. We don’t need to yell. Come, let’s walk slowly and purposefully to the refrigerator to see if we have any juice. There, there, now.” In the afternoon, I lounged on the couch with an arm draped across the back, simply observing. I’m certain my husband thought I’d had some sort of stroke.
I’ve slowly reconnected with my to-do list and hit the gym for loud power yoga, but have maintained a sense of calm that I didn’t have before. I’m attempting to see my life for what it truly is–not a series of chaotic events I’m forced to endure, but rather situations that I can choose to yield to, to learn from, to experience.
Most of all, I’m focusing on my true home–myself. Upside down or right side up, I am simply me—not the sum of my responsibilities or the shape of my body. I still aspire to do an unassisted headstand, but when it happens, it will happen. Maybe at my next yoga retreat.