Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I Learned On My Winter Vacation: Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat: Proper Exercise, Breathing, Diet, Positive Thinking, and Meditation. 

These are the words that greeted me on the welcome sign when I arrived at the ashram in the little boat taxi in the Bahamas a few weeks ago on my solo vacation journey.  Even though it only lasted five days, I still call it a journey because it pushed my boundaries and asked me to grow in ways that longer, month-long trips to Greece or Italy haven’t. 
The last time I was in the Bahamas I was twenty years old, on Spring Break with a bunch of women from college and our primary objectives were to get tan and get drunk.  We alternated our bikinis, along with the beer and rum drinks, but remained devoted to the brilliant sunshine and the college boys on the beach.  On my boat taxi ride in to the ashram, the driver asked if I’d ever been to the Bahamas before, and while I said “yes,” I might have well said, “no,” because I remembered nothing of the island.  On my previous trip, my twenty-four hour buzz obscured the landscape, kept me confined to the designated Spring Break hotels and nightclubs, locked me inside the tunnel vision of alcohol. 

This time?  The ashram forbade alcohol so that made it easy.  And I was almost three years sober which made it even better.  And miraculous.  Because I would not have been able to go on this journey three years previous.  I mean, this was the Caribbean.  And just down the beach from the ashram was The Atlantis where they served all kinds of kitschy alcoholic drinks in coconut shells with umbrellas and swirly straws.  But who needs The Atlantis?  I could have had drinks on the plane.  Or in the airport.  Or back at home when my husband was out walking the dogs.  I could have been drinking all along. 
But I wasn’t.  And I didn’t want to.  Which was why I was in that little boat taxi all by myself in front of the Welcome Sign.  In fact, the ashram’s welcome sign seemed to be the Anti-Spring Break Welcome Sign.  The exact thing to ward off the debauched, the over-inflated, the drunkards, the carousers, and the degenerates.  In fact, it seemed to be a welcome sign that was meant to target all of my own struggles, past and present: over-exercise, anorexia, depression, self-recrimination, and mania.

And had I been inside the dark cocoon of depression and crippling self-doubt, I couldn’t have done this, wouldn’t have stepped off the boat.  But I was ready for adventure, ready to feel uncomfortable, to feel out of place—no that’s no it—to feel out of my place. 
So I walked down the dock, holding my tiny carry-on suitcase, not wanting to drag it, to make any rattling, undue noise.  The ashram full with people—Krishna Das, the Yoga Chant Rock Star was in residence for the weekend—so it felt overwhelming.  I knew, if I wanted to, I could disappear—what IT was telling me to do—“Nobody will want to know you.  You’re just a pretender.  You don’t belong here.”  All my insecurities surfaced.  Funny how even at 41, I could feel like I was 12 again. 

Which meant I had to fight twice as hard to remember it wasn’t the 6th grade anymore, and that I had the power to shape my experience and that I was free of all that old baggage.  I didn’t pack any of that shit in my carry-on—I only packed what was truthful and loving.  Oh yeah, and my yoga mat, too. 

I was ready to do this on my own.  Four hours of chanting every day, starting with a 5:30 am wake up gong; four hours of yoga every day, plus my bonus Meditation Course I’d signed up for because I’d been trying to work meditation into my life unsuccessfully on my own for the past few years and only wound up irritated by my inability to sit still for more than three minutes, at my mind’s seemingly inability to stop cataloguing all the things it would rather be doing than to empty itself and find a quiet spot of NOW, at my body’s inability to stop twitching and itching and yearning to break free from easy pose.  I wanted to find out if it was possible to be taught—in the five days—to move one inch closer to a meditation practice or if I was just a hopeless case of manic monotony.

This is what I discovered on my journey:
Proper Exercise:

Yoga = Asana ≠ Power Yoga: At home, my yoga practice is certainly not power yoga, but it is more closely allied with exercise.  I tend to do yoga on my days in between running as a form of cross training.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the spiritual benefits associated with breathing between the poses, with the symbolism of the poses—reaching for sun, being grounded in the earth, giving myself over in savasana—with the mindfulness that I reap in the practice of yoga.  But if all I did in a class was, say, tree pose and savasana?  I’m not sure I’d continue.  So it came as great surprise to me when the instructors at the ashram kept emphasizing that the yoga/asana classes were one of the primary paths towards a meditation practice.  In fact, the asanas (poses) selected were building blocks for meditation.  Each two hour class was structured in almost exactly the same way, with the same sequence of poses, emphasizing not the more physically aerobic standing sequences (the warriors and lunges) that I’m used to, but more devoted to shoulder stand, fish, bow, wheel, and headstand (my nemesis). 
Initially, I found myself getting frustrated over the quieter pace.  Heck!  I wasn’t even sweating in the Caribbean heat!  But then I realized this was exactly what happened when I sat down in my previous attempts to meditate: I wanted time to speed up; I wanted to be up and moving.  I mean really?  What was the point in sitting down wasting valuable energy when I could be doing something more productive?  So these yoga classes were invaluable.  In a matter of days, I’d return to my more “energetic,” diverse classes, but for the moment, I needed to yield to the NOW and to the mat of the moment.

Outside of the Pranayama (breathing) structured exercises we did at the beginning of the yoga classes, I found myself giving my whole breathing being over during the long formal singing chants we did at dawn and at night that would often last for an hour of longer.  The chanting became almost a regulated heartbeat with a call and response feel, and I would often close my eyes and without really caring whether or not I was getting the words right, I would breathe deeply and sing my part, and feel swept up in the rhythmic tide of it all.  Every now and them, self-consciousness would fall away.

Once, I skipped dawn Satsang (chanting), and went, instead, for a solo walk down the beach.  I was alone in the best way with myself, breathing in the blue waters and the just risen sun.  There was nobody on the beach to see me—so I was nobody—except who I was to myself.  At the moment, I was happy—I didn’t really miss anyone or need anyone or want anyone.  I was content simply as is for the now, breathing in the sun and sea.

The basic?  The meals at the ashram were lacto-vegetarian (no meat or eggs), and were delicious and abundant.  Homemade granola, fresh fruit, soups, bean lasagna, zuccinni layer cake, sautéed beets, homemade breads. 
No caffeine.  There was a Starbucks down the beach at The Atlantis that some participants would sneak off to for their morning and afternoon fix (even though we all had to sign an agreement not to imbibe in caffeine, alcohol, or illegal drugs while at the ashram).  It would have been so easy to have followed suit, given my obsession with Lattés.  And perhaps, the me of a few years ago—the me who liked to lie and sneak around, filching drinks of other kinds--would have snuck up the back jungle path to Starbucks rationalizing that it was only coffee.  But now?  I’m an all-in kind of gal, these days.  And one coffee would have ruined my karma.  I would have been a liar, the great pretender, if only to myself.  So fennel tea and water for the five days.

And speaking of diet, I ate like I was ravenous, something I wouldn’t have done on my own a few years ago.  Just three years ago, I was in an Eating Disorders inpatient hospital, refusing to eat, having to have every bite I took monitored.  And now?  Here I was wearing a bikini, not really worrying about how I looked in it, and eating to my stomach and heart’s content.  Which speaks to the next category…
Positive Thinking:

In my meditation Course, we had to come up with a personal mantra that we could use if we got restless (me!) while sitting in meditation.  So I thought about one of the most beautiful things that we bring back with us from Greece: a sea urchin shell.  I thought about how when you’re snorkeling above on the surface and you look down, all you can see are these forbidding creatures carpeting the rocks and sea floor, glittering with their black spines.  Those spines are their best defense, keeping everyone else away.  But then, of course, when they die and those spines fall off, those beautiful round, delicate shells are beneath.  So I thought about sea urchins, when I was thinking about my mantra, and I began to whisper, “Beneath the spines are beauty.”  Because often, I feel like that—my prickly exterior gives way to something delicate and beautiful beneath.  And then as a follow up, I said, “I am joy, I am joy, I am joy.”

Everywhere and all the time.  I practiced and practiced without knowing I was.  At Satsang, yes, of course, while chanting.  But in yoga class while moving through my asanas.  And walking along the beach at dawn.  And while eating, and enjoying the food and being present for the joy of the meal with strangers.
My meditation station.  This is what I was instructed to construct at home.  A formal place to meditate—someplace to hold my gaze and energy.  So I did.  A low shelf on my nightstand that I can sit in front of, and—I do.  I’m up to ten minutes.  On the shelf?  A photo of my children to remind me of why I am part of this world; a picture of the Buddha, for his wisdom and serenity; a clay dragon my daughter made for me when I went to the hospital once—she called it my “healing dragon,” and a sea urchin shell—that thing of beauty.  





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