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Retreat ~ an active surrender

I spent last week at Kripalu, a yoga and health retreat center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, because my yin yoga teacher Corina Benner was teaching a 20-hour workshop called Harnessing the Power of Stillness. It's always wonderful to practice with her, so that was one reason to go. An even better reason to go: avoid the winter holiday sturm und drang. This 5-night adventure led to some realizations about resting the body and the mind, that I thought, given my yoga and meditation practice, I certainly knew very well. Wrong-o.

It was Contemplative Week at Kripalu. Silent meals, no talking in common areas except the cafe. No devices anywhere except the cafe, the busniess center (the only places with WiFi) and one's own room. Perfect during the week of the Winter Solstice, traditionally an ideal time to get quiet, be still, and go inward. Do nothing, Just be.

It's very hard to do nothing.

My luggage was evidence of this. I packed a gigantic bag, a three-year-old child could have fit inisde of it. Thank god it had wheels. Along with yoga clothes, a mat and toiletires, I stuffed distractions: a laptop, a tablet, phone, iPod, four boooks on yin yoga, a journal, a notebook for observations during practice, a mandala coloring book (thanks, Sis!), pens, four inspirational books, two magazines, gym clothes, a foot roller, three stress balls, and Sherman menthol cigarettes. No smoking is allowed on the Kripalu campus, but I picked up smoking again in late summer and am apparently not yet done.

Noticing how I responded to food, time, physical space and of course, my thoughts, came into pretty sharp focus as a result of the daily routine, the choices I could make regarding free time, and the rules around communication. It was fascinating to watch my responses unfold. I meant to play with all the toys I had brought with me, I really did. I wanted to, kept planning what I would do when, but as the week progressed, I did less and less. Initially, this felt like a failure to take advantageof precious free time. Ultimately, a week later, it feels like a gift.

On the second day, I called my spiritual guide, the wise and amazing Pam Shaw, and mentioned I was not exactly bored, but not motivated to do much, not play with my toys or even meditate. She told me it sounded like I didn't have enough to do. That made me laugh so hard for quite a while.

"That's the whole point!" I cried to her.

Kripalu is lovely. A former Jesuit seminary surrounded by mountains, very close to Makheenac Lake, or Stockbridge Bowl, as it is also known. Interiors are comfortable and spotlessly clean, the food is delicious, and encompasses vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and whatever is the descriptor for chicken-eaters. Three meals a day! I never eat three meals a day anymore. Usually just breakfast and then mini-meals every few hours till about 7 p.m. For a minute, I was afraid of gaining weight, but I actually lost a few pounds.

We practiced yin yoga in two hour sessions during the morning and afternoon. Optional Kripalu-style yoga classes were offered three times a day. I made it to two 90-minute Intermediate ones. Additional workshops, on such topics as pranayama (breath control), healing emotional trauma, personal empowerment, and healthy eating were available every day. I wanted to attend the pranayama session taught by Yoganand Michael Carroll, who was also offering a course that week, but it conflicted with a yin session, which I didn't want to miss. There was a drum circle one night, and a live band another. I didn't attend either, though I considered checking out the band, 13 Hands. I'd never heard of them, but live music is such a treat, and the description of their work used words I am attracted to: world, global, peace, spiritual.

One evening, I managed to do the previous blog post on how to select an ideal yoga mat. It took three hours. I planned to do another one before leaving Christmas Day, but noticed on the very first night that my body wanted to rest. To sleep. To lay on my comfy queen bed in my soothing little room and sometimes check Facebook and email, occasionally talk to a few people on the phone, but mostly just stare out the window at the mountains and think as little as possible.

More often than not, I ended up getting sucked into my thoughts. Nothing unusual there, but because of the pervading silence and stillness of the surroundings, and my reasons for being there, it felt easier than usual to recognize the thinking as subjective stories I tell myself about the same four things I shape and reshape in my mind when at home, and then to detach from the thoughts. The worrying that accompanies those stories seemed muffled in cotton balls. It was so wonderful.

The outdoors offered more opportunities to disengage the thinking mind. The 150-acre Kripalu campus contains hiking trails. I love hiking, and since the weather was so mild, if a bit soggy, I was able to do short hikes each day. I hadn't been able to spend as much time in the outdoors as I'd desired this year, so between walking on the beach by the lake and hiking some mountain trails, I was in heaven. There's that moment out in nature when I stop, get still and just listen: to the water moving, the wind in the trees, unseen creatures moving through the brush, the birds. When nothing else exists, including me. A stillpoint. Such bliss.

Hiking is when I would smoke. Something about "good" tobacco in the great outdoors, I just dig it.

And then there was the body. The yoga practice brought up a not unfamiliar assortment of issues specific to moi. The processing felt easier this time, perhaps because I have a deeper understanding of them now, methods for using them to benefit myself and others, and skilled teachers who help me do that (thank you Pam, Tom, and Corina). Kripalu has a wonderful Healing Arts wellness center, so I worked out the ick even more with a foot massage, some cranio-sacral therapy (wow) and a facial.

Interestingly, not much socializing. I'm not shy or extroverted, somewhere in the middle, and though all the women in my workshop were cool chicks, I didn't feel moved to connect beyond the sessions. It was refreshing. Small talk can be such a prana drain at times.

The food! I'm not a vegetarian. I eat red meat maybe half a dozen times a year, chicken and fish every few months. I try not to eat processed food and I steer clear of gluten as much as possible because it gives me indigestion, makes me cranky and irritates my skin. The options for meals catered to all of these. The vegetarian dishes were particularly appealing and my choices revolved around these. Lots of braised and roasted root veggies. LOTS of kale. One lunch was healthy faux Chinese: stir fired tofu and veg in a sauce that really was MSG-free, without being watery or bland, and an eggroll that was spicy, bright and light, not a greasy carboard grenade of digestive doom. Oatmeal for breakfast every day. Steel cut oatmeal, to be exact. My fave.

They had the crunchiest rice cakes I have ever encountered. Major yum.

Food tasted different. Maybe because I was just eating at mealtime, not reading, not standing alone in the kitchen obsessing, not talking to someone, I noticed flavors more. Elimintating condiments and salt also helped pinpoint subtle tastes. Scaling back on portion size was an interesting experiment, too. Made me more discriminating in my selections, though you could return to the buffets as often as you wished during the two-hour mealtimes.

I ate slower than I normally do. Usually while looking out at the lake, the mountains, the lawn.

So peaceful, so leisurely. I always thought there wouldn't be enough time to eat, hike, then make it back to practice, but I was always wrong. It was so calming not to rush and pack things in, though I still wanted to do a million things. Day by day, this craving faded.

The kitchen was closed between meals. Apples, pears, oranges and tangerines were avaliable for free at the front desk 24/7. The cafe was the only place cofee was aviailable . . . for a price. It also sold "healthy" processed and packaged snacks. Refrigerators and microwaves were on the fourth floor for personal use, and a tea station in one of the smaller dining rooms had iced herbal tea, hot water, and caffeinnated and herbal tea. White sugar may have been availble in the cafe, I never wandered in there, milk was offered in the dining hall, and evaporated cane sugar, stevia and some other natural sweetener I'd never heard of and cannot recall the name of were other options.

The most delicious meal was Christmas breakfast: gluten free cinnamon raisin French toast with real maple syrup, potato and veggie sausage scrapple, and stewed apples. And oatmeal.

Some things surprised me: chocolate cake (not gluten free) for dessert Christmas Eve. Chicken as an entree choice one evening. How much I did not like tempeh. The thing that was most astonishing was my reaction to the lack of sugar, fat, salt, and caffeinne. Primarily the first three. Big fan of those. I don't drink coffee, so, not a big sacrifice there. I brought some of my English black tea bags with me, but only had two cups towards the end of the my stay. Most days I had yerba mate (a kind of green tea) and ginger tea during breakfast. And lots of water all day.

I think my digestive system was delighted to have a rest also. And nothing untoward occurred on that front, I am happy to report. I feel cleaner internally, lighter in spirit and a bit more conscious.

Overall, a fascinating experience of the opposite in many ways.

I can't say I brought too much of these lifestyle changes home. I haven't been practicing four hours a day even though I am off all this week as well. I have been eating less, still not feeling deprived, and laying off the sugar, fat, salt and caffeinne. Sticking to mostly veg, had some seafood this week though. Delicious.

I haven't felt like doing much of anything, quite frankly.

Maybe that is the sign of change. By the time I was ready to leave I felt I had just gotten comfortable with doing nothing. Perhaps it is internalized a bit. I hope so.

Thanks for reading this insanely long post. They keep getting longer! The next one will be short, I promise. With a video. At least there are pics. Though I forgot to take photos of the food and the interiors. Bummer.

Thanks, Kripalu! You rock.

Happy New Year! In the Chinese lunar calendar, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey: clever, resourceful and most importantly, FUN! So, have a blast and be ingenious.



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