Location of our retreat meditation. Image by Monica Stone. Edited by Sati.
It’s been almost a month since the retreat and this is the first time I’ve been able to write about it. Only recently have I been able to talk about it without tears threatening to make an appearance. When I’ve tried to communicate the experience to others, my heart has felt like its pushing outside its normal limits and I’m suddenly desperate to get a bigger size. A plus-size heart for a plus-size experience. The fall newsletter has been my excuse to get some of this on paper. So without further ado…
Marshall, North Carolina. Prama Institute. Sunday, August 28, 2011. 1:30 p.m. We’re all sitting in a circle. The afternoon sun is shining through the dome windows creating halos around our heads, as if to add just one more surreal element to our time at the Refuge In The Mountains Ashtanga Yoga Retreat. Caroline and I are not sure what to say. What do we say? How can we encapsulate in a few tidy words what the last few days have meant to us and to so many of the students?
We, like so many who attended that weekend, thought we were going to a retreat center in the mountains for a few days of spiritual practice and contemplation. But what we didn’t realize was that we were going home—to a home with a resonance, neither of us expected to encounter. At one point during the weekend, I looked at Caroline and said, “I haven’t felt this way since Nepal.” To which she replied, “I haven’t felt this way since Greece.”
We consider those places to be our respective spiritual homes as they have been places where we’ve experienced profound love and spiritual insight. Nepal for me and Greece for Caroline substantially shifted the course of our individual lives. And it was about to happen again—but this time we would be together.
When Caroline and I stepped into the Prama Institute we both got hit with a wave of love. My chest started burning. Tears immediately leaked out the corner of my eyes and I struggled to stay grounded. Indeed I had to, because Caroline simply couldn’t speak. I took one look at her and I knew she needed me to do the talking while we got a tour of the property. We were so grateful to Ramesh who co-runs the Institute, when upon gathering what was happening to us, simply said, “I understand.”
After I was able to calm down, harness the joy and ride the vibration of the place I become attuned to something else. There was something about this place I already knew. I knew the smell. I knew the view overlooking the mountains. I felt like I was having childhood memories of the place but I had never been here before. It wasn’t deja vu. It wasn’t a memory of that exact moment but of prior or perhaps future moments I was destined to have there. I didn’t share this with anyone immediately until this recognition was echoed by my sister who turned to me halfway through the retreat and asked, “Have we been here before?” I couldn’t believe it. She felt it too. But how?
All I knew for sure was that I intrinsically understood this place. This land. This building. This mountain. And it understood me. And there was A LOT of love here. I could almost hear the Divine laughing at me while saying, “Well, I know you were all pumped and excited for your trip to India and move to Nepal, but I thought I’d throw you a curve ball and give you a reason to come back!”
Those several days of leading the retreat where a whirlwind. Caroline and I were the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. Both mornings I stumbled down the stairs at 5:50 a.m. to hit the button on the industrial size coffeemaker since it took 30 minutes to brew and I, like so many in my South Indian Yoga tradition, drink coffee before practicing and teaching morning mysore. I cannot remember being happier to lose sleep. One night while relaxing on my bed a ladybug suddenly appeared in front of my nose. She was waltzing along the handle of one of my bags with a message: wishes fulfilled and auspicious luck. Yes, indeed.
The photos and the video of the retreat fall short of illuminating the magic and transformative intimacy of the event. And any attempt to convey through words what happened that weekend will be wholly inaccurate but I’m here writing, so here goes…
There was a star-filled sky, purifying fire, and angelic music by beloved friends. There was kundalini rising and scary samskaras attempting take us down. There was craving and aversion and then the absence of both once they got dipped in love. There was Vedanta, Tantra, Buddhism, and Samkhya. There was pleasure and pain and a revaluation on how we define those. There was a vibrating mountain made of quartz and a lot of purifying wind. A journal got burned and a few funny stories got told including one by a guy who bought a cow without a cowshed. There was the discovery of a few hidden talents and the sharing of future dreams. We skipped around poison ivy and meditated on the land. Some of us shed our skin, grew new wings, and weaved a new web all with the help of a few animal totems. Fascia was melted, torn, and realigned along with old beliefs. There was mentorship, affirmation, gratitude and a lot of humility. There was the marriage of bhakti and jnana and the absence of garlic and onions at all meals. There was a sparkly chef who had no idea how good she was at her job and a chance meeting of old college acquaintances. Manhattanites broke bread with Southerners and Tantrikas cracked jokes with Ashtangis. Yes, this was indeed the coming together of spiritual family on a holy land. To quote a student who attended, “I was one with God that whole weekend.” That pretty much sums it up.
So there we were. The end of the retreat. All neatly organized in a circle. The students looking at me. Me looking at them, totally beside myself. Then the inevitable was voiced by a student. “What do I do now? How do I keep what I’ve found here?”
I had been thinking about that exact same thing. The most profound moments of my life have felt like baptisms or sacred anointments and this weekend had been that for me. I knew once I drove down that mountain there would be shift. There had to be. Caroline and I had discussed what we felt would the most important piece of information that needed to be said to the students before the retreat’s end. It turned out to be the answer to this student’s question. I cannot remember the exact words we used but the message went something like this:
Ultimately, we must be our own refuge. We came here to seek refuge. To get out of our of old habituated ways of being by leaving our geography to become more malleable, to be able to establish new pathways of understanding through new experience. But the results cannot be dependent on this place. They must integrated into our beings so we can take the wisdom and love back to our old lives. It probably won’t be easy. We’ll bump up against all our old karma; the places, people, and environments the previous version of ourselves installed. Changes will have to be made when we get back. But we called this retreat, refuge in the mountains for a reason. Take refuge in the teachings, your practice, and the memory of this place. Then, you will be the light of Yoga and an inexhaustible refuge—not only for yourself but for others.
For myself, I head back to the institue in a month for a visit. I don’t know what lies ahead and I don’t know how this place and its people will integrate into my future life but that doesn’t give me trepidation. After all, I’ve got the good wishes of a ladybug, the wisdom of a plus-size heart and the memory of a sacred land.