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An Unexpected Retreat

Updated: Mar 2

I was surprised that it was 10 years into my practice, and 1 year after I completed teacher training that I attended my first yoga retreat. I had chosen something within driving distance, at an affordable price point to accommodate my budget, and led by a fabulous teacher who I had become introduced to during my teacher training - Erin Jorich, owner of Voyager Yoga

I was excited, and nervous all at the same time. On my drive to the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center I felt the self imposed pressure of performance amongst what were likely to be many of my new colleagues and peers, as well as wanting to make a positive impression on the retreat leader. So I decided to stop at the Scenic Café for a break, and some self love.

I gave myself permission to treat myself and ordered. As a traveling educator, I was totally comfortable eating and traveling alone, even though I felt plenty of inquiring glances as I indulged solo. Learning for me is a time that requires my complete focus, I despise distractions and love to hear from the experts. So I rarely choose to take continuing education with friends or colleagues.

Arriving at the Wolf Ridge ELC, I made my way around the property to find the retreat group, and accommodations. The set-up was shared dorms, private group sessions, and cafeteria style dining. I met a few of my fellow practitioners, and got set-up in my own private dorm room.

Each day consisted of a morning, afternoon, and evening practice; In addition to a group hike, a bonfire, and community meals. There were around 20 people attending the retreat, and we were all in different phases of our yoga journey. Our practice location had a serene view of the surrounding woods, and over the course of the weekend, saw blue jays and other birds frolicking in panorama throughout our sessions.

I won’t deny that I was feeling my nerves, imagining what the intensity of the practice would look like. Erin taught vinyasa yoga & yogasculpt, and I was mentally preparing for vigorous vinyasa classes. I was happily surprised to find the direction was paced, repetitive, and built up adding in new movements over time. This was a new side of her teaching I was able to experience, and I was grateful for the shift in approach from the corporately structured classes I was familiar with.

She began by sharing a lavender roll-on with us all, and the practice room throughout the retreat was intoxicatingly perfumed with delicious lavender. Grounding in was the first indication of the class's pace, and a thoughtful and intentional warm-up transformed into a lengthy series of moderate sun salutations. What became apparent to me very quickly, was that the most challenging part of the retreat for me, was the intense experience that came with prolonged breath work. Feeling a buzz or high throughout the practice was something newer to me, and could have been partially from the 1,000 ft elevation increase, but likely from my life long athletic induced asthma. It had always made me be very protective of my breath, and typically, shifting into a cardio heart rate zone would start to kick it off. So I always try to keep my exercise below that threshold.

Advice from my yoga teacher training was fresh in my mind then, and I kept hearing that it is ok to make your practice your own - take breaks, do what you want without causing a disturbance to the group, and listen to your body/mind/soul.

I would catch glimpses of other students, and take notice of their individual approaches, allowing me to give myself permission and inspiration to modify my own practice.

I have always been the type of student who did what the teacher said throughout class, unless I was simply too fatigued to get there, and that would even be a mental defeat to me. In 10 years of practice I had spent 6 of them practicing only Bikram yoga - a heated, rigorous, hatha style yoga class that repeated the same 26 postures in 90 minutes. The direction was always to try harder, go deeper, and stay longer. There were plenty of times I had to stop or modify my Bikram practice because of the heat and my varying levels of energy that would accompany me, but only because I had been pushed to the edge, not because of gentle permission and listening to my body/mind/soul.

On the second day, we went on a group hike to a summit where you could catch glimpses of Lake Superior, and a 360 degree view of the surrounding fall leaves and mountains. On this day I was handed another reality check in the form of my physical abilities. My knee will flare up on me during certain activities (usually jogging) and the hike triggered whatever causes that pain. And there I am, trying to keep pace with the others in my group, and wincing in pain with every step I take. I endure the return to the living quarters, and go directly to my room to rest the knee, where I get to face a barrage of mental dialogue that includes everything from pity to self-beratement. “But I’m not going to get to do everything, and I paid for this, that’s so disappointing!” “How will I participate in the yoga practices we have left, and how will that affect what Erin, and the other students think of me?!” “You aren’t really physically cut out for this type of work, and at your age, and after the career you had!”

I took the class that evening, and was happy to report that the pain wasn’t too intense; Hiking was the worst of it all. But all of that, coupled with the rigor of the weekend, driving 4 hours, practicing prolonged breathwork, and sustaining an injury had made me absolutely exhausted. I was bouncing between the dialogue of letting myself down, to it's ok to sleep in and take care of yourself - skip the morning practice tomorrow. A very polarized debate occurred all evening for me. It wouldn’t be until the morning that I decided to sleep in, and drive back early to make my 5 pm class.

I got up, and packed while feeling only a self-imposed perspective of something like the ‘walk of shame’ for a yogi leaving a retreat early. I chatted with fellow students, and everyone was very cool and didn’t seem to pass any judgement. The same came when I said goodbye to Erin, someone I had wanted to impress and be considered as a mentee. Her tone throughout the entire weekend was one of support, and that everything was optional. And it stayed the same in that final moment.

As I packed up my car, and drove away I started to feel more powerful, and confident in my decision. I had a long drive back with myself to face the mental chatter that was likely to flourish, and I was no longer feeling defeated. Of course the saying hindsight is 20/20 is the first thing to tell yourself in reviewing the ‘tape’. But this time I was able to dissect those thoughts further. I felt good driving home, and having less pressure about making it back in time for the 5pm class I was teaching that Sunday. I felt empowered deciding my own fate based on where I was at physically/spiritually/mentally each day. I didn’t care anymore what the other students thought of how I chose to approach my retreat experience. I was still amazed at how intoxicating the breathwork had been for me, and how this had become the most challenging aspect physically and psychologically for me; Even over all of the other mind clutter that flowed throughout the weekend.

In reflecting on how the retreat aligned or misaligned with my expectations going into it, I can say that I am beyond glad I did it despite the challenges. I definitely thought beforehand that my greatest challenges would be in the asana practice, and perhaps posture clinics. But the real challenge lay in managing the unexpected, and the mental dialogue that went along with that. Digging into ahimsa in those moments, and allowing myself to flow into the challenges pushed my psychological boundaries, and I learned a lot about myself. Growing causes temporary pain right? But that pain recedes, and we slowly forget it was ever there.

And now I know what to expect from myself the next time I sign-up for a yoga retreat. It is something like a work retreat, combined with some self exploration and relaxation. But overall I would not view this experience as a vacation, maybe being set in an exotic location could be amazing, but that’s probably all in your own perspective. Prepare for it by training your body and your practice, and nourishing yourself in the most supportive ways possible. And women - make sure to pick a time you are not menstruating to attend a retreat, your body needs rest that week.

Your walls will be different from mine no doubt, and your review tape will tell your tale of growth and development. That tape will be pungently relevant to you. And we challenge ourselves to sit with that, and aim to ‘let it be’ without judgement. Knowing the challenges will always keep coming, and that there are many more mountains to climb.

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