I am not a yogi. I can do like, max 4 breaths in downward dog before my arms start to tap out. I can’t shift my body into tons of positions (all of which I’ve learned almost solely from watching yoga on YouTube instead of going to classes, because I’m intimidated). And I’m bad at mindfulness, I can’t tell you the last time I let myself fall asleep without a combination of melatonin and Netflix so that I can ensure I’m not going to be alone with my thoughts for too long.
But I had a rough winter. Out of nowhere I was having anxiety and depression thoughts I hadn’t dealt with in a similar intensity for a decade. Nothing “happened” — I have a great job, I have a lot of people who inexplicably care about me enough to listen to me cry on the phone for however long I want, there’s been no changes in my health or relationship status. Every exterior thing in my life was the same as it had been during some of the best times in my life, but happiness just took a sudden nosedive.
I’d been crying too much and my therapist wasn’t really helping. I was on the verge of going to see my regular MD to go on anti-depressants, which I’m pretty opposed to, but understand the value of as a departure point when things are going downhill and you can’t seem to right yourself. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my insurance company arguing about whether I could go back to an eating disorder program I’d previously gone through, which helped a lot at the time. (They won’t cover it, they’re full of shit, our health care system is so fucked up, blah blah blah).
This is how I found myself in a car making an almost six hour trek to a camp near the Minnesota-Canadian border with an acquaintance who told me about a yoga retreat she thought I’d love. I knew most of the people going would be really into yoga and I’d probably feel stupid a lot, but I was willing to try anything to feel better.
Luckily for me though this yoga retreat did consist almost entirely of pretty dedicated yogis (a core group were in a yoga studies course that costs $2k and includes the retreat), it was planned to be pretty lite on actual yoga. We holed up in beautiful little cabins with 5-6 strangers each (like summer camp! something I was actually good at) and would attend a session each morning and afternoon which consisted of an hour of yogi teachings, an hour of yoga practice, and an hour of writing exercises.
I thought there would be tons of time leftover from just 6 hours of planned activities each day and planned to ski and hike and read a bunch of books — but it turns out 2 hours of yoga and 4 hours of using your brain to think about your life is exhausting !!! I went to bed at 9:30 every day and woke up around 7:30.
I made myself lots of yogi meals that looked like this:
There was also a lot of crying!!!! I cried constantly on this trip. I cried at first circle time when we had to share our reason for coming and I had to talk about what a mental ward reject I felt like lately. I cried during yoga practice when I felt dumb for not being able to do anything right. I cried during writing exercises when we had to do extremely bleak (but helpful!) stuff like write our eulogies as if we died right now and how our failure to achieve our dharma (the purpose you’re alive to fulfill) has affected our friends, families, and ourselves. Fun stuff! I also cried back at my cabin as I bonded with my cabin-mates and explained things about myself like how I hate that I’m always crying.
My short lived irl yoga career started and ended at special yoga class for people with addictions that was recommended to me by my eating disorder group (spoiler alert: every person on the planet has addictions and should go to addiction yoga). People cried in that class all the time and the instructor would smiling knowingly and say ‘your issues live in your tissues.’ But less people seemed to be crying in these classes. Most people were sweating in the glistening way only yogis can sweat. Or like, pilates moms after pilates class as they go to get their cold-pressed juice and gossip with the other pilates moms. (My life dream is to be a pilates mom).
But people on this retreat weren’t really crying, just gracefully holding positions in noble silence.
I did hear lots of people get vulnerable, though, which is always incredibly helpful. I’m the worst at seeing something that’s great about someone’s life and assuming their whole life is incredible while mine is like, trudging along. I always forget to run it through the filter of “how does my life look from the outside?” and remember that we all make tradeoffs and we all have things that look good to others.
I got up from one session and walked back to our cabin alone so I could seethe quietly and scream ‘this is BULLSHIT’ over and over in my head. I was skeptical from the beginning because there is a lot of money to be made in telling people you can change their lives for the better. Overall, we’re a pretty unhappy culture and we’re all holding our collective breath for a magic pill that’s going to take all our existential pain away. But I went home and read more from the book we were supposed to read and tried to open my mind and open my heart and remember that nothing was going to hurt me at the very worst. Everything could only help, even if I later realized it was made up. Who cares if it did the trick.
So I did all the work we were supposed to do, even if sometimes I did it as an angry skeptic who thinks maybe the whole thing is set up by grifters.
I expected to feel something because I’m a sensitive person and things set up to make you feel something usually work on me (have you not read about all the crying? ^^^). But I didn’t expect to have the kind of AHA moments I had after a particularly tense afternoon where I had to list out all my negative behaviors and work on figuring out the unconscious desires that compelled me to act this way. (Example would be, “my desire to avoid or immediately quell bad feelings motivates me to avoid situations where I am alone with my thoughts by constantly listening to music/engaging with text/scrolling through my phone like a deranged teen girl in a movie written by someone who doesn’t actually know what teen girls are like). But I put some things together and as someone who always likes a nice juicy explanation, understanding the “why” of some of the thoughts and behaviors that had made my winter so rough felt good, productive. There was something I could work with here.
On the last night we drove to an even more remote location to go into a dingy, ancient sauna. There were like, 15 naked women packed into a tiny, hot space. Everyone was laughing in the easy way women laugh when men aren’t around. It was relaxing as hell.
We all sat in there as long as we could until we were dripping sweat and then one by one or in pairs we ran out the door and jumped into a square hole that had been carved into the frozen lake. It wasn’t actually the plunge in below freezing temperature that was scary, it was the way you couldn’t actually see what you were jumping into — the unknown abyss. But you did it because everyone else was laughing and screaming and doing it. And it was fun once you surfaced and felt so awake.
It was incredible because women are incredible and women’s bodies are incredible and there’s nothing like being in a room full of happy naked women to remember how much you think there’s a kind of magic to being alive. (Men are great too, mens’ bodies are great too, blah blah blah go read a male writer talk about this, I’m not here for that purpose right now). I can’t remember if I cried and I don’t know how to tell with all the different kinds of wetness that were everywhere.
In our last session on the morning we were all going to head home I struggled through our practice per usual, but we did a very long (maybe 30 minutes) meditation and I enjoyed it! And my mind didn’t wander away to think about how awful I think I am! I felt chill and calm and enjoyed imagining a little almond of fire inside my navel like the instructor told me to. It was mid-morning so all this hot sunlight was coming in through the windows and onto my closed eyes and I kept pretending I was so good at meditation that I was making the whole room hot.
We circled up and talked about what we learned over the course of the retreat. I watched how gracefully everyone got up to retrieve their carefully chosen sacred objects from the alter at the front of the room and then felt embarrassed when I rolled around and walked over to get the bougie as hell David Yurman ring I’d decided to use. (No one said anything, but this is not a very yogi thing to do).
I told everyone I’d learned that there could be space between me and my problems. I didn’t have to feel like I was in a mania just because there was some unhappiness or dis-ease bubbling below my surface. I could acknowledge that and work on it without it being consumed by it. Which is true. I think you have to work a lot (and like, daily) to keep a buffer between the way you feel and your resting emotional state, but it can definitely be done.
We namaste-d and I went back to my cabin and cried and hugged the strangers I’d been living with because they weren’t strangers anymore. All I want in my entire life is to be as honest and for people to be as honest with me as we all were with each other. Life necessitates small talk. But I know I’m not the only one who wished it also necessitated deep talk at any regular interval. I’m starving in my daily life for this.
I came home and I got a scissor and tape and wrote out my dharma and taped it on my door and I wrote out my sankalpa and taped it on my fridge. I did Yoga with Adriene before bed and again in the morning. The next day, back at work, I sat itching as the sun came out. I closed my laptop and walked around a lake. I went to bed without my phone and without melatonin. I woke up this morning and felt good and meditated anyway.
I’m not saying I’m fixed (fun fact: I’m not!!) or healed or anything. But I got some good medicine. I think if I did yoga and meditated daily I would feel better daily. I worry about it because I am worried about tricking myself into thinking something is a magic pill — and a good indicator for that is that you have to do it all the time in order for it to work. But maybe — and this is a working hypothesis — instead of worrying I am being tricked by a medicine you take once and then are magically healed by, I can consider that gardens require maintenance. Fallible human beings require maintenance. There is weeding and watering to be done every day and there’s never a point where you are done working and your garden suddenly takes care of itself.
Maybe I am a shitty little garden whose gardener thought gardening books were bullshit, I don’t know!
But it feels good to feel better, even if all I’m getting is a short vacation. It’s worth being embarrassed because you can’t press your palms into your mat in forward fold and you’re definitely not doing the wheel right. I don’t know if all those other yogis brains are better than mine, calmer and full of self-love and acceptance. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. Checking in does that to you, you find stuff, you figure out how to fix it if you try long enough. I’m hoping.