Breathing Lessons

Retreat viewJust over a week ago, I had a little adventure from which I am still recovering. I spontaneously registered for a private retreat at a yoga center. My husband had weekend plans, so I decided to allow myself to live out something I had fantasized about for awhile: a yoga retreat.

Finally back in the unsteady rhythm of a home practice, I have been becoming more centered in my asanas, more peaceful in meditation, and feeling more insightful overall. I’ve also been experiencing the joy of new freedom and little bubbles of adventurousness are popping up. So I did it! I registered, and when the time came, I hopped in the car, turned on the audiobooks and the folk music and rocked my way up the coast.

It was a glorious drive. The further north and west I drove, the greener and more fully alive I felt – sort of matching the terrain. Spring in full bloom. Lush, almost fluorescent green, fields, trees, grasses. Splashes of orange and yellow wildflowers and poppies overwhelmed my color-deprived senses.

I got closer, and my GPS indicated that we were almost there. One last wild and unnerving drive up the mountain to my destination. Do you think I should have sensed foreshadow in the dark, narrow, curving and steep gravel road upon which I suddenly found myself? If I had met another vehicle coming from the opposite direction, I have no idea what I would have done. (I discovered later that the directions I had been emailed clearly stated NOT to follow GPS directions to this destination.) Anyway, shaken but excited, at last I was on campus.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I had arrived with a boatload of expectations until I got there. One expectation was that I’d feel confident and outgoing as I had in recent days (while doing my comfortable routine). Another expectation was that there would be a core group of kindred spirits up on this hill – open to conversation or at least friendly interaction. But instead of open groups of friendly people, I found closed groups, and people turned inward. Instead of joyful exuberance, I witnessed burnout and depression in various staff members. There was little welcome – more of a “figure it out as you go” attitude.

Am I used to the red carpet treatment? No. Do I have an expectation of some privileges and amenities? Yes. Definitely yes. After figuring out that I should have left my shoes at the door and going back and doing that, I waited 10 minutes for the one staff person in the office (on crutches due to a surfing injury) to check me in. I got my key card after being told I was in a dorm rather than the cabin I had been told to expect. Okay, I could adjust. There would be the comfort of community instead of solitude this way, right? I could adapt.

I could make this a five-page short story and describe the full experience in disappointing detail. But it would probably just reveal my insecurities and sound strangely like whining.  Here’s a summary of observations:

– Sometimes “open” communities can be cold and closed
– Freedom of spiritual exploration and openness to the universe can morph into a rather rigid, rule-driven and somewhat creepy environment
– A beautiful setting and set of principles aren’t always reflected in the spirit of the people who inhabit such a place.

Okay, so I couldn’t take tea and snacks to my dorm room at night – I had to remember my key card and various policies and procedures each time I got up to pee in the shared restroom down the hall. I got hungry. My head ached from the cloyingly sweet smell of various fragrant blossoms outside my non-air-conditioned window. I missed my comfortable bed and pillow. But the clincher was not really any of that, I think. The real upset was ME.

Instead of perking up and “being the change I’d like to see” in the place – introducing myself at meals, being friendly (except for smiling) – I cocooned in my little room. I went for solitary walks, ate meals, went to classes, and zoomed back to my bed to hibernate.

During asana classes, I had vowed that I would listen to my beginner level body and only do what I was able. I would do my practice from the peaceful center I had recently discovered at home. Somehow I was thrown off tilt. I found myself in a class of three students – a group of three willowy experts plus me – so I forgot my inner pledges and instead tried to do the simplest level of each posture presented in 90 minutes. Never mind that my class at home is at least 2/3 people 60 and over (including the instructor) and this class was three women under 35 and me. Never mind that this (super model) instructor encouraged me to listen to my body and return to child’s pose whenever I needed.

I felt completely out of place with my funky t-shirt, my generously curvy body, and my gray hair sticking up every which way due to logistical problems with my haircut and the mirror in my room. Instead of peacefully sticking with my center and being gentle with myself, the little voice inside me FREAKED OUT. I think the peaceful, mature part of me may have actually left the room as I continued with only the help of my most wobbly and insecure personality parts. The voice in my head carried on a steady barrage of criticism and low self-esteem while my inner child threw a tantrum and asked to go home. By the time we got to Savasana, my legs and arms were like vibrating noodles.

I could blame it all on the environment and the setting, but unfortunately, I have been here (to this nutty place) before. It is only by some miracle that I ever found my current teacher and class – where I feel safe and secure and I only freak out about two to three times per session.

As of today, it is about a week and a third later. I’ve had the opportunity to complain, seek the support of loved ones, friends and trusted counselors, and review the experience. I now know that some things that weekend went well. It was truly an adventure, it took me out of my comfort zone. I had a multifaceted Ayurvedic massage and was able to turn down the volume of the freaking voices in my head, relax and enjoy it. I survived even climbing into the coffin-like steam box as I was shut in with a heavy lid while the temperature was cranked up. The end result of that experience was very positive as was the restorative class the night before. Even though I hiked in pitch darkness through the woods to an empty classroom for pranayama (a couple of fellow students showed up, but no instructor) and was disappointed about the missed experience, I got the opportunity to rescue two nice women without a flashlight and to walk in the moonlight under redwood trees. And I know that even though I had been completely thrown off-tilt by the asana class, a mere two and half hours later I was again game to try something new.

As I told my Yoga Tribe, the final benefit of the experience was the Dorothy Gale realization. The steady mantra on my drive home (after a brief stopover for Starbucks and Panera Bread) was “There’s no place like home…click, click…There’s no place like home…click, click….” I don’t need to go seeking enlightenment off in some exotic corner of the universe. I have Eckhart Tolle in my earbuds, Pema and Lao Tzu on my nightstand and my little yoga mat with beginner home practice sequence in the corner of my living room. And those kindred spirits are upstairs watching TV, up the hill at my Tribe, or just an email or a phone call away.

There’s no place like home.


The yoga horse
off which I fell (again)
is a big deal
shaken and bruised
My ego sulks
my energy sluggish and pessimistic
but the rant has run its course.
With a sigh
I unroll my mat
and begin


4 thoughts on “Breathing Lessons

  1. Karie: I find your stories fascinating. I can so picture the drive, the music, the road getting worse. And, the people giving the retreat! I have so been there and done that, but couldn’t put it into storyland prose. Nancy

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