My Retreat, My Self
by Susan Abbattista
I had dreams of coming to Kripalu long before my arrival. In my fantasies, I’m doing yoga on the lawn, getting an adjustment by Rodney Yee, and romping through the woods with a smiling, scruffy-faced yogi who just can’t keep his hands off me. In my Kripalu world, I have a rock-solid core. I’m radiant and toned (not to mention unbelievably sexy) and truly at peace with who I am.
Well, of course, reality is far more complex and interesting than that. I came to Kripalu three days after my 50th birthday. To say that hitting the half-century mark really shook me up would be a vast understatement. After 30 years of marching to the beat of a corporate drummer, I needed to press the pause button. Who am I and what am I doing with my life? I asked myself. Most common yardsticks of success (spouse, house, children, fine china, bedroom set) are nonexistent in my life. So I can honestly say that my long-awaited arrival at Kripalu was more of a deer-in-the-headlights freakout than any kind of tofu-powered lovefest. I needed to take stock. So I booked three nights of Retreat and Renewal.
The beauty of the R&R program is that it’s unique to each person. Like a do-it-yourself yoga practice, you choose what feels best and go with the flow. This was perfect for me. I could pick a seminar or two, choose a Healing Arts service, go for a walk, and—yes—maybe even have some nice, steamy herbal tea.
I also came to Kripalu to do yoga and more yoga. Although I’ve been practicing for a long time—for the past two years at the Baptiste Power Yoga studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts—I love to try new classes wherever I go. For example, I’ve done Bikram Yoga in San Francisco (structured and strict) and Power Yoga at Bryan Kest’s studio in Santa Monica (spiritual and meditative). I’ve also had some great hatha classes at a charming little studio near my mother’s apartment on Long Island (perms and bling). I’ve loved all of those experiences. And I love yoga.
I love yoga so much that everything feels like a pose to me now. This must be what my teachers call “integration,” taking what you learn on the mat and applying it to life in general. If I’m having an emotionally difficult time, it feels the same as holding Warrior II. When I need to keep my focus in a boring meeting, I’m in Dancer’s pose. And if I’m having a really good conversation, I’m in juicy Half Pigeon. So it’s no surprise, then, that the actual real-life experience of R&R was a yoga flow in itself. It went like this.
Fog pose. I arrived tense and tired on a Sunday evening. The drive from Boston took an hour longer than expected, slowed by wind and rain. By the time I dragged my bags and yoga mat to my room, I was drenched. I changed into dry socks and jeans, stood at my window, and pressed my forehead against the glass. Outside, blankets of fog curved like fingertips upon the mountaintops and rose up in vapor trails from the snow below. My breath made a halo on the window. Everywhere I looked, there was fog. Where am I and how did I get here? The universe couldn’t have picked a better metaphor for me at that moment.
Yum pose. I’d heard the food was amazing at Kripalu, but it was better than my wildest dreams. I kept wishing my friends could be there to share the harvest. Vegan sausage with cabbage and fennel. Thai-style spicy string beans. And local greens topped with crunchy sesame croutons. My plate became a palette of rich colors and textures, veggie concoctions that seemed to be illuminated by virtuousness. I wanted it all. I ate it all. And I thanked the universe for providing elastic waistbands.
Shy pose. The Dining Hall was more crowded than I had imagined. The swell of activity and conversation brought me outside my comfort zone, right back to the awkwardness of being a college freshman—trying to fill an elusive, unnamed hunger with food. I scanned the room and saw people of all ages and shapes in animated discussions. Others sat alone, chewing in quiet contemplation. Who would I sit with? What would I say? Would my silence be interpreted as standoffishness? Feeling a little lost, I sat by myself and tried to concentrate on my experience. Wow, I know I’m full but I really want a piece of bread with sweet apricot jam! I went for it. When I returned to my table, a handsome, thirtysomething man in a T-shirt and flip-flops had parked his bowl of soba noodles right across from my spot. This caught me off guard. I breathed and smiled. He smiled back and twirled noodles on his fork, not saying a word. I chewed. He chewed. Finally I said something. “Are you doing something special here?” He demurely explained he was in a meditation program. I replied, “I hope you didn’t take a vow of silence!” He grinned, and I stood up to leave. “Have a good one,” I said, “I think I need to find some sugar.” And he laughed.
Dog in mirror pose. At some point in my stay, I stopped eating and went to yoga. The vigorous vinyasa class took place in a beautiful, bright room near the Dining Hall. It smelled like garlic and lentils. All mats faced a center point, like petals of a flower. The vinyasa flow was fast-paced and inventive, with lots of fancy arm balances. I was so happy to be on my mat. That is, until I realized that when I was in Downward Facing Dog, I could see my butt in the mirror behind me. I have been practicing in a room without mirrors for years. I just wasn’t prepared to see my backside at 50. Observation without judgment, I told myself for the entire class. It didn’t help that much.
Naked on table pose. (A counterpose to Dog in Mirror pose.) I’ve always been fascinated by the healing practices of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian “science of life,” so I’d booked a Healing Arts appointment called Abyhanga-Garshana (herbal oil treatment and exfoliation). This was no ordinary massage. Before the session began, I answered a questionnaire that indicated I had imbalances in all three principal doshas (body types): vata, pitta, and kapha. As my Ayurvedic massage therapist, Sita, quietly warmed the oil for tri-doshic balance, I lay face-up on the massage table with a small square towel just barely covering my torso. Sita began by vigorously rubbing my body with rough silk gloves to stimulate my circulation. She worked quickly, folding the towel back to reveal me in my full glory. At first I felt incredibly exposed. But by the time Sita began working the warm, nutty oil up my legs, arms, torso, and scalp, I had gently let go of my fear of being naked (and judged). Once I did, I felt as though the slate of my existence was wiped clean. I don’t fully understand how this ancient system works, but I was transported to another dimension of myself—pure, flowing, and crystal clear. I have never felt so relaxed in my own skin.
Open mind pose. Each day I attended a workshop or two from the R&R schedule, which provided me with a sampler of practical advice for leading a healthier, more balanced life. In Ayurvedic Tools for Renewal, I learned how to use a neti pot, an important part of daily cleansing practices. In the Yoga of Nutrition, I was reminded that everything I’ve learned in yoga classes—compassion and awareness—could be applied to food. (I hope to remember this the next time I sit down in front of the TV with a bag of potato chips.) In Introduction to Meditation, I recalled how much I enjoy the gentle guidance of a patient teacher. Regardless of what was being taught, each class surrounded me with people from all walks of life who came to Kripalu for something specific—goals as varied as the people themselves. When I sat among them, I felt connected to a larger whole that I often don’t feel living alone (full disclosure: my cat is a cranky conversationalist).
Silence in the woods pose. On my second day, when the rain stopped and the fog lifted, I went for a walk in the bright March sunshine. I ventured out with my hat, gloves, and lip balm. From the edge of the road, I saw Earth’s Altar—a peaceful collection of snow-covered statues nestled in the woods—but there was a thick crust of ice stretching between us. It took a long progression of steps and missteps to make my way there without breaking my neck, but I was so glad I did. I stood before a snow-covered statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, and remembered what I hear a lot in yoga: “Sometimes the only thing you need to do is get out of your own way.”
Acceptance pose. My favorite yoga teachers have always been those whose words pierce my heart like an arrow. We’ll settle into a difficult pose, like Frog, and they’ll tell a story from their life or simply encourage us to breathe and be in the present moment. “Stay with yourself,” my teacher Jane always says, just when I need to hear it the most (for the thousandth time). “Can you welcome all aspects of your experience to the table?” another teacher, Gregor, will ask. These words have become my mantras for holding the toughest poses, and for everyday life. At Kripalu, I kept walking past a placard in the stairwell that simply stated: “Yoga is the art of seeing life the way it is.” (From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.) And I would remind myself: I’m 50 years old. I’m not sure where I’m headed. Sometimes I feel exposed. Sometimes I’m shy. Sometimes there are moments of clarity. Happiness. Sadness. I try to stay with myself, one moment to the next, one breath to the next. This is my life, my yoga.
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