Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.
~ B K S Iyengar
So, that’s what I’ve been working on this past month: trying to make a kind of music with body, mind, and soul. And, after nearly a week of returning, I still haven’t fully processed the experience. Has it been or will it be life-changing? Too soon to say. Yet, as with every deeply-immersive event in our lives, this one has left many impressions in the shifting sands of memory.
Also, fresh as those impressions are, it is difficult to sift through and decide which ones will endure the longest. Daily, in between the four hours of asana practice, classes on Yoga Philosophy and Anatomy, and meditation sessions, our group of 15-16 Yoga teachers-in-training also found the time to, alternately, enjoy and complain about many things: the stunning Dhauladhar mountain range that surrounded us from every angle; “sattvic” meals enjoyed over wide-ranging chatter as we ignored wall signs admonishing us to be silent; the unexpected shopping bargains we shared so victoriously; the never-ending aches, pains, illnesses we commiserated over solicitously; the mounting frustrations over things not happening as promised; the weekend local culinary discoveries that we savored as if they were royal feasts; and so on.
Several times through the month, I thought about how, if we were all doing this Yoga thing correctly, it ought to change how we see the world and our places in it. How, if we were to be successful at embracing even some levels of the eight Yogic disciplines of Patanjali, we ourselves, the seers, would be transformed too. For some of us, I believe this happened slowly and to some extent. For some others, this will be a longer, more circuitous journey, perhaps.
As I look back at my past two-week fitness retreats from the 2004-2007 period and compare to this one, certain things stand out. Of course, I’m a different person, intellectually and emotionally, today than I was back then and that certainly contributed to how I approached this particular journey.
— The longer duration this time around made a big difference in helping to establish new sleep and exercise habits. Habit formation is tricky and depends on our individual conditioning, approaches, self-discipline, and willingness. One of my main reasons for picking a month-long course with a regimented daily schedule was to be able to re-condition myself and, so far, I think that has worked out.
— A 7am to 7pm schedule for almost six days per week ensured a daily discipline that is necessary to help make those habits stick. You couldn’t say to yourself, if you missed a morning Yoga practice, that you’d make it up later in the day or week as there wouldn’t really be an opportunity to do so. And, yes, being surrounded by others who were also following the same regimen helped.
— The classroom approach made it easier to understand and remember new concepts and ideas. That said, our curriculum left a lot to be desired for — both in terms of content and delivery. And, while all of us were there because we wanted to be and not because we were being forced to be, well-designed and expertly-delivered classes would have gone a long way to creating a greater level of engagement. I found myself supplementing and filling gaps through my own reading each night after dinner — which, in fairness, I would have done regardless due to my own curiosities.
— There was no escaping the truth about our own body’s limitations and capabilities in a disciplined learning environment. When we take ad-hoc fitness/Yoga classes, it’s easy to lie to ourselves that we’re just stiff or distracted today or that we’ll manage to do better tomorrow. Practicing for four hours each day, we had to be brutally honest with ourselves as parts of our bodies screamed for attention, especially when holding poses for longer than a minute. Ensuring “Sthiram Sukham Asanam” (steady, comfortable poses) with proper Yogic breathing, symmetrical alignment and correct sequencing was nothing like what I’d experienced in the 45-60 minute Yoga classes in the US, where the focus was on getting through as many asanas/poses as possible and favoring flexibility over strength. I see now that the latter imbalance is the cause of great long-lasting physical damage and, for many, a lack of desired “results” from their Yoga practice.
— After my initial week of getting acclimated to the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the course, I found myself withdrawing inward to be more contemplative than usual. Normally, I’m quite comfortable in my own company anyway, so this wasn’t an issue for me (though, I imagine, some of my co-students — who were all discovering needs and moods of their own — might have considered it somewhat subversive behavior). And, the need for solitude just became greater as I worked to understand how to get better in my practice and classroom sessions the following day. The other daily problems and annoyances around me paled in comparison with this urgent point of attention. This ability to filter out noise, especially negativity, so effectively and easily was new to me as I can be, generally, easily distracted. Taken to extremes, I suppose one might consider it self-absorption. Except that, in this mode, I was actually more mindful of everything and everyone around me as well as what was happening inside of me — see the next point.
— There was a lot of talk about mindfulness and awareness during both our practical and theory sessions. Prior to the course, I’d heard or read most of this before and, truth be told, never really been able to apply it all consistently. Let me first clarify what I mean by mindfulness as there are many definitions out there: focusing one’s awareness on the present moment and acknowledging and accepting one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without any kind of judgement. It’s about a deeper level of consciousness. Easier said than done, of course, particularly for someone like me whose brain is whirring all the time. Sometimes, through certain kinds of reading and writing, I can manage to get to a deeper-than-usual level of sense and perception awareness of both my self and the world around me. However, there are always accompanying thoughts and ideas because of a need to “process” whatever I’m sensing or perceiving. So, this new kind of mindfulness was a pleasant surprise to me. Oddly, this did not happen for me in the meditation sessions but in the Yoga practice sessions. As my body worked through different asanas/postures, my mind had to be stilled to focus on what I was doing at that very moment. And, during that mental stillness, I could sense a more-than-physical energy also growing inside me. As I’m not a religious person, I can only describe this energy as my soul or my awareness.
— Coming back to the thought process: before this course, I certainly knew how particular thinking patterns can set one back (intellectually, emotionally, and physically) by creating a negative kind of energy within. What really hit home for me, like a slowly-dawning realization throughout the month, is how exactly thoughts affect not just our mindset and moods but also our bodies at the cellular level. Now, I don’t quite believe, like some die-hard Yogis, that all disease and illness is psychosomatic. I have, however. come to believe that our thoughts can create enough internal conflict and stress in our minds, which then manifests through our physical bodies and makes any discomfort/disease/illness worse. I found that, being more mindful (as described above), stopped thoughts, good or bad, from altering my individual energy and asanas/poses came easier. As if certain physical channels deep inside my body were being unblocked or made whole again. Further, an hour or so of being in this mode created a store of physical and positive energy within that I could draw on for the rest of the day. This has never really happened to me before with regular, daily exercise. And, even now, I am not able to consistently achieve this state without a single-minded focus and effort. With each practice, as I let go of all baggage and stay only in the present, the letting-go itself gets easier. I do, of course, find myself picking up all that baggage again soon enough. But, I’m building muscle memory around the letting-go and those particular muscles get stronger with each effort.
So, having taken this interesting personal journey, where, a week later, am I now? I’m practicing asanas daily, yes. And, waking up early mornings to do so. But, in a more mindful way so that body, mind, and soul are connected and being energized and healed together. No, I’m not ready to teach others yet, though I have a certificate for it, because my body isn’t where it should be with certain asanas/postures in terms of flexibility or strength or both. Yes, I do intend to teach eventually because I believe in the body-mind-soul benefits of Yoga as an overall way of life. And, when I get to that stage, I hope to try a more holistic approach rather than just asana classes.
Would I recommend a month-long immersive course to others? Not in a general way. Beyond the practical commitments of time, money, and energy, one has to be individually prepared — physically, intellectually, and emotionally — to take this kind of journey within oneself. If I’d tried this even five years ago, I’d probably have wasted most of it. It took me a good part of six months to decide I was going to do this course. After booking it, I had another three months to get myself somewhat prepared for it. And, after all that, I found that the key preparation that was necessary and useful was to have dampened down all prejudged expectations (which I did miraculously manage to do for, probably, the first time in my life).
To anyone reading this and considering a similar journey, I offer you this poem by John O’Donahue called ‘For the Traveler’:
For the Traveler
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
~ John O’Donohue, ‘To Bless the Space Between Us‘