Aaaah…yoga retreat

It’s funny – most of us are so busy, so rushed, so stressed most of the time, that it’s almost become our natural state. We don’t realise how tense and wound up we are until there’s some kind of shift that allows us, finally, to relax.

So it was for me as I drove towards Healesville for my yoga teacher trainee retreat in September. It wasn’t until the houses, snuggled cheek-to-jowl, gave way to paddocks, vineyards and lush, verdant hills that I was able to let out the breath I hadn’t even known I was holding. My shoulders dropped a few millimetres and I was, at last, able to leave the grind of the ‘burbs and my worklife behind.

The retreat took place at Maitripa, tucked away along a long and winding road through Healesville’s glorious bushland. Stepping out of the car was like stepping into another world. Everything was so quiet, so still. The only other time I’ve felt the same thing is first thing in the morning, before the rest of the world awakens.

Over the course of the weekend, we enjoyed no less than five, two-hour asana sessions, one meditation session, a discussion of the Yamas and Niyamas, a beautiful hike through the surrounding bush and a rather raucous, though good-natured, trivia night. Not to mention delicious, wholesome, vegetarian food and plenty of time to just “be”.

Our first classes of the day started at 6am, which although I had expected, was a bit nervous about. I’ve never practiced that early, and never on a completely empty stomach. The verdict? I loved it. The stillness and quiet was so much deeper, my mind more focused as it had not the time to start ticking over with distractions. And, tell me, what can be more beautiful than watching the sky lighten with sunrise whilst practicing sun salutations?

I was a little surprised that there weren’t more people who went but, at the same time, the thirteen of us that did go seemed to develop a much closer bond. It was seriously one the best things I’ve done in a long time, and it’s made me look at my practice with new eyes. How might I deepen it, and what are some small ways in which I might be able to take my practice off the mat.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realised there had been no TV, no radio, no internet. And I didn’t miss it. Admittedly, it didn’t take long for me to embrace them once again, but hopefully now it’s engaged with a bit more mindfully.

On the first day of the retreat, we were asked why we were there. Initially, I’d booked in simply because I’d never been on a retreat before, and I thought it was a great opportunity to do so, the slight scariness of going so deep into my practice tempered by the fact that I knew both the students and the teachers well, and knew that support and safety would be there every step of the way. Later, when I was just barely holding it together following a traumatic month at work, the retreat became my drishti; knowing that soon, I would be able to take abreak, recalibrate, reclaim my inner strength, and be able to return to the world, face whatever came next, with equanimity.

If you’ve never been on a yoga retreat, I can highly recommend it! This may have been my first, but it will certainly not be my last.

Why the ego has no place on the yoga mat

What would happen if you were in the middle of Warrior I, happily settled into the pose, and someone else chose just that moment to jump onto your mat? You’d feel crowded, distracted, maybe even lose your balance, no? I’m betting you’d feel pretty miffed that this person disturbed your practice.

This is what it feels like when you bring your ego onto the mat.

We’ve all done it. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve looked around the studio, watched as another student effortlessly kick up into a handstand against the wall, and felt frustrated by my own efforts to do the same. I’ve felt irritable when I constantly fall out of Garudasana (Eagle Pose), despite holding it for a full five breaths just a day earlier.

This is the ego at work, directing what you should be able to do/feel/act/be. At best, it can take you out of the present moment, as you remember what you were able to do yesterday, and projecting into the future all the poses that you should be able to do. At worst, it can lead to injury, as you force yourself into an asana you’re neither physically nor mentally ready for, rather than waiting fo the body to open naturally.

I learnt this the hard way, about six months ago. I’d decided that I was going to be able to sit in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) NO MATTER WHAT. It took a little bit of yanking my knees in all sorts of directions, but I was eventually able to do it. But guess what? I also stuffed my knees up royally. For weeks, even sitting in a simple cross-legged position caused pain. Hip openers like pigeon were only possible if I kept my knee joint completely closed. Any asana that involved moving into either half or full Lotus was completely off-limits, effectively stunting my progress in moving deeper into these poses. My poor knees eventually recovered, and since that time I’ve learned how to move into Lotus safely, rotating through the hip joint (though my left knee can still be a bit tweaky if my hips aren’t warm enough). My ego still pops up on the mat fairly regularly, but now I just remind it of my knees, and it buggers off again pretty quicksmart.

How else might we try to rein in the ego?

The secret lies in the Yamas and Niyamas: specifically, Satya (Truth), Aparigraha (Non-grasping), Santosha Contentment) and Isvara Pranidhana (Surrender).

We need to start by honouring ourselves and where we are today – both in what we can and what we are unable to do. This is our reality, our truth. When we are dishonest with ourselves, we allow the ego to come to the fore, telling us what we should be able to do, leading only to frustration and disappointment when this does not eventuate.

Through the practice of Aparigraha and Santosha, we realise that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, and have no need to grasp for more. When we start this cycle of always wanting more, more more, we  can never be satisfied. So you can put your foot behind your head; that’s great, but if you’ve become attached to the outcome – that is, it’s only been a successful practice if you’ve been able to master a particular pose – soon this will not be enough to make you happy. Next time you get on the mat, it will have to be both feet behind the head, otherwise you have failed. It’s not always easy, but we need to try and be happy with wherever we are, at any given moment, all the while knowing that this moment will change again and again. Our task is to remain equanimous in the face of such change.

This is where Isvara Pranidhana comes in. Your practice is just that – a practice. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be the same today as it was yesterday, and tomorrow it will be different again. Everything is temporary. When we surrender to this fact, we are able to let go of the need to strike the perfect pose every time. We let go of the ego, dissolve our “I-ness” and begin to merge with the practice instead, allowing ourselves to become a vessel for divine energy. Without the ego, without the fluctuations in consciousness, we are better able to achieve union – to practice Yoga in the truest sense of the word.