I’ve been back from my retreat at Spirit Rock for a week now, and I’m finally finding some time to share my experiences. One of my main interests in blogging is to talk about the continuum between mindful movement (yoga) and mindful stillness (seated meditation) in my practice. I don’t always find it easy to identify that continuum, but I want to make it stronger so that my yoga and meditation practices can support each other better.
Not surprisingly, this is all a lot easier on retreat! While it was mostly a meditation retreat, alternating between 45 minutes of sitting meditation and 45 minutes of walking meditation for most of the day, we also had the opportunity to attend yoga classes at least once a day.
These yoga classes were an absolute life saver. Whoa. Let me tell you…when you do that much sitting day after day, the yoga is huge in relieving the tensions, aches, and pains that accumulate in the body. My achiness peaked on the third day, but after that, I actually felt MORE open and comfortable in sitting.
I also found the yoga supported my sitting practice in a second major way: it built up my energy. I have the tendency when I start to get calm and concentrated, to go too far in that direction, and I fall asleep. This didn’t happen when I first started meditating, because I had all that restless agitation to keep me awake! I have been working on balancing the energy level in sitting, so that I can be calm and concentrated, but also vibrant and alert. Each time I took a yoga class on the retreat, I felt energized for the next sitting session. Much like the disappearance of my achiness, over the course of the retreat, I found I was struggling less with sleepiness.
The yoga practice itself felt more mindful – like a logical extension of the sitting and walking we’d been doing. I think there are a several reasons for this:
- Continuity is supported by the retreat itself – not just concerning the yoga, but through all activities (eating, walking from one place to another, taking a shower). Everything is part of the practice.
- Being surrounded by dozens of other students doing the same practice you are, with the same (or at least similar) intentions. This feels different from going to a public yoga class where people are gathering from all kinds of different places, each bringing in their own busy energy, and each with their own goals for the practice, ranging from the sublime to the superficial.
- The silence of the retreat helps you to get out of your head. When you’re a yoga teacher and you attend another teacher’s class, it’s hard not to go into an analytical space as you experience their style, cues you like/dislike, etc. In a silent retreat, the students don’t speak, but the teacher does – but her words were chosen carefully, and she wasn’t just speaking to fill the space. And, probably it goes without saying, but these yoga classes were done without music. No distractions.
- The presence of the teacher herself. The yoga teacher participated in most of the seated meditation with us, came to the nightly talks, and was really integrated into the retreat. She was operating at the same speed as us.
- The yoga was simple. No elaborate or super challenging poses, and the poses were given without an abundance of technical alignment cues. Normally, I teach a very alignment-based form of Hatha Yoga, but it’s always a fine line to teach with precision without making the practice too cerebral. The simplicity of this practice on retreat allowed us to just stay present with the body.
- And, the yoga was just what we needed. The focus of the yoga was on reinforcing the themes of the retreat, and preparing the body for sitting. We were opening the hips, releasing the shoulders, and turning towards the body with kindness, rather than emphasizing fitness, technique, or the attainment of particular poses. Not that these goals are always a problem, but they can actually compete with the intention to make the asana a meditative experience.
- The asana practice didn’t overuse one’s physical energy to the point where you collapse into savasana at the end. When I go to a more vigorous class, sometimes I leave feeling drained rather than relaxed. That’s a sign of overusing energy. I know some students are so wound up, they feel like exhaustion is the only way to actually relax in savasana at the end. But, ideally, yoga balances the energy rather than draining it. True relaxation is not the same as exhaustion or dullness.