“Is that a person, place, or name for a new movie?”
“It’s a place, a place to practice yoga. It’s in the mountains. It’s quiet. You’ll love it.”
My wife surprised me by booking us into a 3-day yoga retreat at an Ashram, to practice something called Ashtanga. A musician friend of ours from our high school band days had recently discovered Ashtanga, encouraged us to go and joined us. It was in the late 90s in the southeast of the United States. I was in full-on triathlon and work mode, about a year into my yoga journey. We were the only 3 who booked the retreat for that weekend.
We arrived at the Ashram and were greeted warmly by a “genuine yogi”. He wore beads, had a beard and seemed so peaceful. He met just about every yogi criteria I knew at the time.
He instructed us to sit down for an opening meditation. I decided I should sit like how I thought a yogi would sit, so I wrenched my legs into Lotus; ankles and knees protesting the whole time. We closed our eyes for silent meditation. I tried hard to get it right, to meditate very well my first time out.
It took all of 1 minute for me to fail to “hold” Lotus — my legs exploded out of their weak, strained contortion.
Two minutes later, I failed at meditation. I realized I didn’t know how to do it, and whatever was supposed to happen wasn’t happening.
We sat for a long time.
10 minutes: I was aching and numb, shifting position constantly. I opened my eyes to make sure I was doing it right and not missing anything. I closed my eyes quickly, lest I get caught.
15 minutes: I was wondering why it takes so long to get things done in meditation.
20 minutes: I was thinking in detail about my last long run and if I should have taken an extra energy gel along or carried energy drink mix instead of water. And I wondered why I got nervous when that dog chased me, why I always get confused at that one junction at the 9-mile mark, and if there was a mosquito on my shoulder right now. I opened my eyes … still not missing anything. I quickly closed them, relieved I didn’t get caught.
22 minutes: I thought of an email I received at work the day before. I mentally crafted a super smart reply to it, and then decided I shouldn’t really send it.
25 minutes: I thought about how it would have been so much easier to hide in a group of 20 people, instead of the 3 of us sitting with a yogi in this tiny room.
27 minutes: I thought I needed to pee, that my lower back was hurting, and that I still didn’t know what an Ashram was.
We finally finished meditating about 17 hours after starting … or perhaps after 30 minutes. It felt like 17 hours though. I didn’t think I got the meditation right, but I was determined to keep trying and “solve it” this weekend. Maybe it’s about choosing a different bolster to sit on and holding my fingers and thumbs together a special way. Enlightenment, here I come!
Our teacher led us through the Ashtanga Primary Series. Compared to my Hatha yoga classes in the past year, this was a huge challenge. I was fried halfway through the standing sequence. The infinite number of vinyasas in the Primary Series were getting harder with each one. Our teacher cued each breath in and breath out. I got them wrong half the time. Or perhaps it was my wife who got them wrong, and trying to copy her, I got them even more wrong by constantly starting exhales after I just finished exhales and inhales after my lungs were full.
Nearing the end of this initial practice, our teacher showed us a headstand. I was perplexed at this act of magic — it was as if he were levitating. I tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and got it .. oops failed. I was determined to “get Ashtanga right” by the end of the 3 days, sooner if possible.
After the asana practice, we did Kirtan, which supposedly meant chanting. I love music, and with a musician wife and band friend next to me, I found this really fun. I had no idea what I was singing, but the sounds made me smile. “Cool stuff you get to do at an Ashram,” I mused.
The next morning I showed up for meditation, ready to absolutely nail it this time. Zero thoughts, hold Lotus .. I’m on it!
Our teacher derailed my plan and introduced the session as a walking meditation. We walked around a field and through the forest for what seemed like 5 minutes, but was actually an hour. I forgot to meditate and instead thought of nothing, as I drifted away into nature. I was hopeful he didn’t notice my lack of focus. I thought maybe I should sing one of the Kirtans the next walking meditation to show my focus on meditating the yogi way.
We completed another Ashtanga practice, which was harder than the first, and took twice the time. Apparently this “Primary Series” was longer than the version we did yesterday. I didn’t get it right again, but figured another couple trips through the series ought to do it. Maybe jumping into headstand is the key to a strong finish. Be aggressive, get into it fast, and then hang on for the ride.
I managed not to break my neck in that practice. At the end, savasana never felt more peaceful, even without the eye pillows, blankets and bolsters we used in my local Hatha class with the Grandmother’s club.
Practicing “the real yoga”
In the afternoon, we did Karma Yoga. I thought our teacher was being cheeky with this Karma Yoga thing and trying to get some free labor out of us. We cleaned out a garden shed. I fell into a deep focus as I organized pots and tools. I lost track of time and forgot to think about anything. The shed looked fantastic in the end. I think we got this one right, although we didn’t chant … maybe you have to chant to get it right.
In the evening, our teacher showed us this bizarre thing called a neti pot. He poured water into one nostril. The water went right into his brain. After somehow not short-circuiting his nervous system, the water came out the other nostril. I was afraid I may not survive it, but gave it a go. My brain stayed in place and I could breath so well after it. Cool. I figured that bizarre act may alone qualify me as a yogi now — well, that plus 3 days at an Ashram. Just need some beads now.
We did super funky things with breathing, chanted more, and then sat for many days in what was later described as a few relatively short meditation sessions. Apparently it was ok to have thoughts when meditating. I was relieved to learn that it was more about observing and being than trying to get anything “right.”
We practiced poses more and took time to learn key fundamentals. I learned not to jump into headstand and to slow down in general. I learned that it takes more than 3 days to learn Ashtanga and that yoga is more than doing sequences of pose, that there’s this whole system with limbs and all these other things to work on.
For brief moments, I stopped trying so hard, stopped caring about getting anything “right,” and started seeing the very beginning of the many lessons that were presenting themselves to me at every corner. For brief moments, time stood still.
I got home and bought a book on Ashtanga. It was full of cool and seemingly impossible poses, and information explaining the 8 limbs of yoga. I put it on the shelf and finally read it 10 years and many yoga classes later. It took that long to really immerse myself and discover a sustainable self-practice for me, at my first YTT with All Yoga Training.
The many lessons from this first experience at the Ashram stuck with me the whole time and bring a smile to my face whenever I’m tempted to “get it right” or think that yoga is anything less than a lifelong journey and a daily practice.
Next up in this series:
I get into hot yoga, start doing yoga before racing, including in the Sahara at the Marathon des Sables, and commit to my first yoga teacher training.