I went on a 4 day personal retreat at the Satchidananda Ashram (aka Yogaville) in Buckingham, VA. It was 4 days of meditation, yoga, vegetarian eating, no caffeine, hiking, and self reflection. These are the diary entries I wrote during my time there. I have removed some personal insights that I achieved during the retreat to maintain my own personal experience. Enjoy!
Day 3 (Thursday, October 1, 2009)
4:45 came way too quickly this morning. I was cold, tired, and was not sure I was up for an hour and 15 minutes of chanting and meditating. But, I’m here, so I got up, got dressed, and got out the door. I was thinking the whole time that I REALLY didn’t pack well for this trip. Note to people: when going on a yoga retreat, pack lots and lots of layers. It is chilly at 5am and a little yoga pant and t-shirt doesn’t cut it.
This time when I went in for the morning meditation, I knew where to grab the pillows and blankets so I did not embarrass myself. I got seated and realized that my whole body is a wreck at the moment. Sounds surprising, right? A retreat filled with meditation and Hatha yoga should restore the body and uplift it. Nope, it kicks its ass. I am not used to sitting straight-backed and cross legged for several hours a day. It doesn’t seem difficult, but believe me; it is actually kind of strenuous. My posture isn’t the best so the muscles in the middle of my back scream and moan when I sit up straight for more than a few minutes. My knees are shot from dancing so keeping them bent for more than a few minutes has them moaning and screaming too. Two yoga classes a day at an hour and a half a pop will wake up lots of dormant muscles. Plus, hiking to and from shrines in the woods up and down a valley has an effect on you as well. So, I really was feeling the burn this morning. I made it through the meditation but I was not as focused as I would like. I don’t dig the guided meditation because I don’t know the chants, Mr. Petri Dish was back (albeit better than yesterday), and there is only 30 minutes of silent meditation so I’m spending 45 minutes sitting with my knees screaming only to be too distracted by the pain to concentrate during the 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ritual and even though it is early and I’m tired, I am enjoying getting up before the sun and spending that time finding the peace and stillness within. I am debating going back tomorrow, but I think I should since it will be my last day and I don’t want to miss out on anything.
After the meditation I made my way over to Hatha Yoga level I. I could have gone back to Level II but with my body screaming I decided not to push myself. There were only two of us in the class with the teacher, so it was nice and quiet. However, I did have to chant. It was mostly call and answer so that was fine. I think I fell asleep during the deep relaxation, but that’s alright. It was a wonderful class, exactly what I needed to heal my aching body yet invigorate it for the day. As a bonus, the teacher gave me a sheet that actually has the closing chants on it so I could follow along since she knew I was new. FINALLY!!! Some assistance and instruction, woo hoo!!!!
Breakfast was the same as yesterday – oatmeal, raisins, and bananas. I had two servings. I have got to get back into oatmeal when I go home. Jason likes it too so maybe we can commune over a bowl in the morning. I know I keep talking about the ginger tea, but I have figured it out. In the morning, it is clear. By lunch, it is medium brown. By dinner, it is dark brown. Now, yesterday I just assumed that they kept brewing new pots throughout the day but now I think they throw the ingredients (ginger root, roasted cinnamon sticks, cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds) into hot water in the morning and just let them steep all day. So it is pretty weak in the morning but by evening it is potent. I think it is good no matter what strength, so that works for me.
I have not had caffeine since Tuesday at lunch, which is probably part of my fatigue. It feels good though, to be totally cleansed of toxins. No smoke, no alcohol, no caffeine, no saturated fat, no cholesterol. I don’t think I have ever had this scenario in my life. Well, when I was a baby I guess. I haven’t even really had processed sugar, except last night they handed out these pastry thingies after the talk, so that probably had processed sugar but that is it.
So now I am showered, dressed, and trying to decide what to do next. I had planned on taking a hike down into my valley, but I really don’t want to strain myself. I need to rest and relax because I really want to be focused for the noon meditation. I plan to drive up to the LOTUS shrine to do it there. If they have kneeling stools there I might try that. Knees will still be bent but at least it will take the pressure off the outside of the knee, where it is hurting the most.
I decided to take a nap since I was really tired. It is my retreat, so I allowed myself that luxury. I am here to relax and reconnect and if I am too pooped to do so, then it is a waste. I woke up 30 seconds before the alarm went off, so that was good. I had about an hour of sleep.
I drove up to the LOTUS shrine and got there a few minutes early (of course). I went into the gift shop and the woman working there was actually my yoga instructor from this morning. We chatted a little bit. I loved the stuff in there but it is expensive, as you’d expect. The DVD I wanted was $24.95. Hmm… I think I can find something comparable for cheaper. Same goes for the meditation cushions and shawls. Don’t get me wrong, I want to support the ashram but I have bills to pay.
I went into the LOTUS and realized that the sanctuary was upstairs so I went up there. I walked in, didn’t know where the pillows were, went to grab a couple that were piled by the door and, here we go again, the SAME woman from the other morning who had to show me where they were was sitting right there, shook her head at me (meaning “no” not “oh no not again”) and told me there were pillows downstairs. Ugh, that did not put me in a very calm mood, I was just embarrassed. Note to self: when meditating in a new building, look for pillows before entering the meditation room. Duh. I set up my pillows (too mortified to grab the kneeling bench I mentioned earlier, will save that one for the 2pm session) and settled into position. Oh. My. God. The fluorescent lights in this place were buzzing so loudly that I do not know how anyone could find the peace and stillness within. Mr. Petri Dish (whose pillows I almost stole) was there too in his throat clearing glory. But, I tried to find peace. I was not going to be thwarted. I had a few moments of peace but mostly was trying to block out the buzzing and trying to figure out if my back will ever whip itself into shape so I can sit straight up for an extended period of time like these people surrounding me. One can only hope. Again, Rome wasn’t built in a day. I just need to find my own personal meditation position I suppose. I feel like, out of respect for this ashram, I should continue to meditate in their spaces in the positions they suggest. I read somewhere that it is disrespectful to lay down in a shrine so I am just going to tough it out until tomorrow night and meditate standing on my head if I want to when I get home. This is just a primer for my life “on the outside.”
Lunch was delicious. They remade the Thai sauce from last night’s Pad Thai, but this time with Tahini. It tasted delicious over rice, tofu, kale, and broccoli and even over the salad I made. They had miso soup too but there is only so much I can eat. A woman who sat really close to me at the table struck up a conversation. I am not trying to be rude at all, but I am really working on self reflection here and I just don’t have a lot of interest in exchanging small talk. They probably think I am being rude, but I am just shy and it is getting old saying the same things over again “I’m here on a personal retreat, I came Tuesday and I’m leaving on Friday, I live in Pennsylvania, this is my first time here, I am having a great experience.” OK that is me being negative, I am brushing that aside. The people here really are nice. I think my problem at the moment is I’m realizing the divergence between my personal beliefs and the beliefs of the ashram. I knew I did not hold the same beliefs but until last night, it was just a small crack. Now I feel like there is a giant fissure dividing how I feel from the tenets of this institution. I think last night’s lecture threw me. I was thinking about it just before lunch… I cannot swear off this earthly life and spend my time on earth solely focused on connecting with god. I do not believe that is what He/She wants from us. It reminds me of the idea of sacrifice in the Catholic religion. Sure, god gave you free will but you better not use it or you show Him you don’t love him. What? I’m feeling the same pull from these Hindu readings. Nothing on this earth should impress you… I get that, but the idea that the only way to heaven is to basically swear off anything remotely personal, selfish, earthly seems a bit much to me. So I am a little nervous for my meeting with Mataji tomorrow morning. She was good about considering my earthly needs/wants when we met the first time, so I guess any progress towards finding god or the spirit will make for good conversation.
As I was sitting at lunch, though, I was really thinking about the divergence. This led me to think about how for many things in my life, I have had to find my own way because what is presented to me does not seem to fit how I think or feel. Mostly it has been religious and spiritual beliefs. I take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and, combined with my own personal experiences, I have formulated a draft version of what I believe. Religious leaders and scholars might say that I am cherry-picking for my own benefit, but really I’m not. I’m following my heart. If you don’t believe it in your heart, how can you follow it as truth?
Excellent breakthroughs. I’m really really happy. It is so interesting being here because one minute I’m not feeling “productive” and then the next I come out with something totally useful and insightful for myself. This journaling has helped. I don’t want to lose the momentum when I come home, which is why this journal is so important. I don’t want to let go of the lessons I’m learning and the lifestyle I am living. Though not all of it will carry over to life at home, it is the idea of stepping outside of my normal life and expectations that is significant for this journey. I would not have come to these conclusions at home. Certainly not for a while, at least. The removal of distractions and duties and day to day life has been enormously beneficial. I guess that is why people take vacations. I will have to discuss this with Jason – we might need a life-mandated vacation once a year! Off to meditate.
Afternoon meditation went really well. I used the kneeling stool which was awesome. It was quiet and, though I was not completely centered the entire time, I definitely got a lot out of that session.
I decided to go hiking after the meditation. I wasn’t going to, I was going to rest, but I had already napped and I didn’t want to read, so I took a trek down to my valley. I sat by the side of the stream and just took in all the nature I could muster. As I sat and gazed up in awe at the creation around me, I realized how comfortable I was. I wanted to camp there, I wanted to stay there. I was so happy communing with nature. Until, that is, nature decided to commune with me a bit too much. Unidentifiable insects were creepy crawling on me and I began to fear for bites and bloodsuckers, so I opted to hike to Kailash, which is where Swami Longname told me the Puja was held (the tea party with god). By the way, no Pujas that I could attend while here. The only one going on is at 8am and that is breakfast time and way up the hill – I wouldn’t make it in time after morning yoga. So, no tea party with god for me. I raise a cup of ginger tea to god, though.
I hiked up the valley and all over the place, following the path that said “Kailash.” Now, on the trail map, there is just the word “Kailash,” no little circle or square to indicate a building. So, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I hiked all the way up a giant hill (or mountain, as it seemed) and when I reached the top I found myself at a shrine which, by the map, should have been Nataraj. Did I miss it? I didn’t pass anything that might have been somewhere people would gather to worship a stone, so I don’t know what Kailash is about. In any case, I took a walk around the shrine. You are not supposed to enter unless you are a priest, but the entire thing is glass encased so you can see a big statue of Krishna or Shiva (not sure). It was nice. There was a statue of Satchidananda on the other side. Then, there was the view. It was at the summit of the hill that overlooks the Chidambaram Shrine as well as the LOTUS Shrine. Behind LOTUS is a lake so it really is a breathtaking view. I sent Jason a pix message from that location to show him where I was sitting. I had to share it with someone.
After a little while, I hiked back down and headed back to my room. It was time for the evening yoga and I needed to catch my breath, cool down, and change. I figured out that I hiked about 1 ¾ mi total. Yesterday, when I hiked to LOTUS and back, it was just under that (not as much uphill though). So, I have been getting in my workouts! I enjoy the hiking, there is a destination and a return, rather than just walking in place on a treadmill. But, as it is getting much colder, the treadmill will serve its purpose until it warms up and I can maybe walk in Valley Forge Park.
This evening’s yoga class was excellent. I really liked the instructor. She made us work but the rest was delicious. The more of these classes I go to the more I think that a yoga DVD I bought a while ago and didn’t like needs to be revisited. I think that DVD was very much Hatha Yoga. I will have to check it out. I have two more yoga classes to go while I am here and I have to say I will miss it. I will miss the meditation areas as well. I’m thinking I really need to work on setting up space at home for these things. Perhaps a permanent space and not just having to drag out the yoga mat when it’s time. We’ll see if that is possible.
I went to my “last supper” tonight. It was kind of a redo of last night’s Pad Thai, only with the tahini-based sauce instead of peanut. It was not bad. They served roasted potatoes that were delightful. The rest was the usual. It was not a bad last supper. I am satiated, and that is all I need. The longer I am here the more I am realizing how important mealtimes are. At home, people skip meals all the time. I don’t think that is possible here. The work that you do with yoga and meditation, as well as just the environment, has you needing nourishment unlike I have known. For every meal, I am genuinely hungry. I need that nourishment to get me through what I have to (or choose to) do in the next several hours. I need that nourishment to help my body recoup what it lost in the last several hours. It really is an interesting thing.
Expanding on that, this place really brings you down to your most basic needs. Food, as I have mentioned, is a central part. Shelter is taken care of. You focus on your mind and your body. There are no social pressures, no politics, all of that is stripped away. It really is an incredible thing. I don’t know that I could stay here for more than a few days at a time, though. I think that has more to do with the fissure of Hinduism v. Lauren’s beliefs than anything else. It really is an interesting experience though. There are all kinds of different people here, all walks of life.
Oh, randomly… I was totally wrong about the ginger tea. It was crystal clear all day today. Go figure. Why was it dark last night? Did a cardamom seed rupture in the pot? Strange, but oh well. Delicious.
Tonight’s program was basically a scripture reading so I decided to skip it. Instead, I am going to draw myself a nice hot bubble bath and try to get to sleep by 9pm. I am not sure if I will have time for (or want to take) a nap tomorrow, so I want to make sure I am not dead on my feet like I was this morning. I can’t believe after all of that I still took that hike to the top of the mountain. But, it felt great. It feels great to have my body working and moving and active. I didn’t realize how much I was really out of shape until this week. I don’t just want to be in shape so I look good, I want a fully functional body. What good is a fit looking body if you get winded walking up the stairs? It is all about function. I want a fit body so I can be healthier, live longer, bounce back from illness quicker, etc. But I digress. Time to soak these aching muscles and creaking bones!
I had a lovely bath while listening to some meditative music. I massaged my muscles and gently stretched them so that I would not be sore in the morning. I felt really good getting into bed (before 9!) and listened to a short guided imagery exercise to wind myself down. Sleepytime!