Retreat to yourself on a yoga retreat
So here I am, back in sunny Thailand, only this time with my lovely family on a much needed get away together. I am taking this time to recharge the batteries, to practice yoga daily by the beach, to look out to sea and explore my thoughts, to read books but most of all to revel in the absolute joy that comes from spending so much time with my family. And as the time here comes to an end and I am reflecting back on my last retreat to Chiang Mai.
Every retreat is special, magical and unique; each one totally different in many ways and yet there is always the same underlying theme to them, the opportunity to explore the practice of yoga and our relationship with ourself, a space to let time spent on the mat be a reflection of all we think we know and to see all that we can let go of. My aim is always to create an environment for people to get away from the daily aspects of their lives and to spend some time exploring the practice of yoga. The more time I spend on the mat, the more aware I become of how much there is to unlearn, how many layers of learning there are to be unraveled and stripped away. From the moment we arrive into this world we become a student of life, we become human sponges for all that we see, hear and feel and whether we like it or not, we pick up behavioral tendencies and personality traits. A combination of cultural and societal conditioning, education, families, religion and peer pressure can mean that we form ideas around who we are, what our role is and what we are capable of doing in our lifetime. It never ceases to amaze me how many self -limiting beliefs we put upon ourselves, how many times a day we say to ourselves that “we can’t do that” or “that’s not for me”. I know this for a fact, because I do it to myself, so please understand that everyone does it, no exceptions. Everyone has an idea in their head around who they are, everyone has a lense through which they identify with themselves and it is through this lense that they make decisions, form judgements and view their life.
So in Chiang Mai this time I asked everyone to consider what in sanskrit is called a Sankalpa / संकल्प (a sankalpa is an intention formed by the heart and mind — a solemn vow, determination, or resolve). In our first practice we meditated on the idea of “what is my will” or “what is it that I want” – the idea being that in most aspects of our life we are inclined to live out our unconscious tendencies (what it is we think we should want, what it is we think others want for us) and perhaps as a result suppress our true desires, understanding though that if our desires seem purely materialistic it is important to look beneath that and understand what the true desire is. What remains important to such a resolve is the willingness to tune in, to listen and hear, the willingness to sit with and reflect upon what arises and then finally the willingness to act upon it. A sankalpa is voiced in the present tense, it does not need to be spoken out loud and is a deeply personal thing. It could be along the lines “I am compassionate” or “I am free” or “I am strong”. The suggestion is though that it becomes something that we may turn to, something that we may use to bring us back when we are lost. In fact it is suggested, that the process of getting lost is almost helpful as it gives us the chance to come back to whatever our resolve is, to practice the art of coming back to who we are. For if we are truly heartfelt in our desires, then it is nothing more than coming back to the essence of our true self.
So it was from here we started. This was our starting point and it was the point we always returned to. The question was always there “am I reverting back to my conditioned tendencies or am I being true to myself”? In our asana practice never is this a more important question to check in with. Are we pushing too hard, are we caring too much about what someone else is doing, the shape our body is making – are we acting through the lense of what we have learnt or are we instead allowing ourselves the opportunity to unlearn layers of conditioning asana by asana.
As well as an asana based practice, we acknowledged that according the Sutras the asanas are just the tip of the iceberg. So daily we worked with pranayama (breathing) practices and each day we went a little further into the idea of meditation. We explored the practice of yoga nidra – 20 mins of guided rotational awareness. In this practice the student is slowly brought into a deeply relaxed state, the only sense channel that is kept open is auditory as they are asked to listen to the voice at all times and to stay awake. The 5th limb of yoga is Pratyahara and the suggestion is that to learn to meditate we need to learn to withdraw from the senses, to turn inwards – yoga nidra is a wonderful way to practice this. The next stage on the path to self realisation (the 6th limb) is Dharana and so for this we practiced a “tradak” meditation – we sat in a circle with a lit candle in the middle. Students were asked to stare at the candle, blinking as little as possible and then after around 5 minutes were invited to close their eyes. People often say that when they close their eyes it is like seeing a photographic imprint of the candle inside their head – having something to focus on for many is the most powerful form of meditation as it provides a rock, steady anchor point for the mind which is inclined to wander. Then finally we practiced Dhyana (7th limb) – quite simply the state of meditation. For this everyone was taken on a guided meditation where the invitation was to simply be present, to observe what came up and to let it flow though and out of them.
The final state, the final limb is Samadhi or bliss. It is a complete state of oneness. I am not sure that any of us got there as a permanent status but I do know for a fact that small windows were experienced, small windows of absolute joy and contentment. Of course though, as I said to everyone at our last practice, the biggest and number one challenge is to take our practice from the mat and out in the world. It is and remains to be my number one practice, it is something I stumble over daily but without my practice on the mat it would be even harder, for me anyway (I absolutely acknowledge that for some people a physical yoga practice is not what helps them, it could be art, music, running; whatever that keeps you in flow).
So when we step on to the mat whilst we may get lost in our own conditioning, whilst we may to fall back into old patterns of behaviour but through our resolve, our sankalpa, we may develop a deeper level of awareness to our actions and we may learn to unlearn what it is we know and to slowly find greater clarity and understanding. Ultimately we give ourselves a way to come back, a life line back to presence, peace and contentment and what could be more wonderful than that!
“The curious thing is that with these exponential changes, so much of what we currently know is just getting to be wrong. So many of our assumptions are getting to be wrong. As so, as we move forward, not only is it going to be a question of learning it is also going to be a question of unlearning.” — John Seely Brown.