A husband and wife come to Kripalu, and remember that we’re all in it together.
Telling true stories
by Amy Herring
Since I’m fairly adverse to anything that seems touchy-feely, I thought it would be instructive, on my first morning at Kripalu, to force myself to attend the Share Circle, a workshop that’s regularly offered during R&R Retreats. A group of about 20 of us sit in a large circle on the floor. Our leader, Aruni Nan Futuronsky, informs us that we will go around the circle, each talking about how we’re doing at that moment. We are not to respond to each other, just listen. Sharing is optional.
As I sit there, in my typical defensive posture, my arms clasped around my knees, I find myself getting more and more tense. Will they all actually volunteer personal information to total strangers? This is so corny. Why have I come? I feel humiliated because, at the moment, I’m not feeling very good, and I haven’t for a while. I’m afraid that if I’m honest, I’ll sound whiney and complaining and negative. I eye the door.
But then people start to talk. Some, like me, are attending their first workshop, while others are near the end of longer stays. Everyone seems eager to share. And, to my surprise, each person’s story is more heartfelt and riveting than the last. Almost everyone seems to be dealing with extremely weighty issues—eating disorders, identity crises, infidelity, addictions, breakdowns. And, since I don’t need to respond, to fix things, I can really take in what they’re saying. I feel my heart opening up to them all.
Still, I feel too shy to share. But my turn gets closer and closer, and more out of embarrassment about not talking, I force myself to open my mouth. I tell them about spending the last eight years working on a novel, about sending it out to agents, about the rejections, about how incredibly hard it is for me to stay optimistic and confident in the face of failure. When I’m done, I look around. They’re all smiling at me.
And, for some reason, I suddenly feel elated. “We are all suffering,” sounds so dreary. But as Buddhism’s First Noble Truth states, it’s true. And something in that moment opens my heart. It occurs to me that maybe I don’t need to fortify myself so vigilantly against the world. We are, after all, in this together.
For the rest of my time at Kripalu, I have the same reaction over and over again. In Jennifer Reis’ workshop, Revitalize Your Energy Currents, we’re instructed to observe our normal breathing patterns. Do we naturally breathe in deeply and have a shorter exhale? Is the inhale shallow and the exhale long, or are they fairly even? The exhale represents grounding, but, when unbalanced, can lead to a feeling of heaviness and depression. When you inhale, you’re taking in energy, but too deep an inhalation is associated with anxiety—which was why I’m sure that this will be the case for me. But I find, to my surprise, that I have a very short, tight, inhale and a long, slow exhale. I consciously breathe in deeply, filling my lungs all the way up—and I feel a sense of opening up and allowing the goodness in. Since then, whenever I feel low, I stop and take in a few long, deep breaths, and it makes a big difference.
In the final workshop I attend, Jump-Start Your Memoir, Nancy Slonim Aronie entertains a packed room with riveting and hilarious tales of her adventures in the writing life, as well as of the heartbreak and wisdom that came with the death of her son, Dan, of MS in his twenties. She explains that there are three places in the body where writing can originate—the head, the heart, and the gut. It’s in the gut, she tells us, where the real stories reside—the powerful, meaningful ones. She asks us to take out our pens and, with this in mind, to describe our childhood dinner tables.
Twenty minutes later, quite a few brave souls share what they’ve written—amazingly powerful, sometimes painful stories—and, as the audience winces, or laughs, or nods in understanding, you can see the pride and relief on the reader’s face, demonstrating again how healing the act of acknowledging, and sharing, our true selves with others can be.
As I listen, it comes home to me once again that it’s in exposing the most personal aspects of ourselves, the things about which we are ashamed or afraid, that we truly connect with others. And how, deep down, we are all so alike. Kripalu, for me, came to be about connection—to others and, more importantly, to myself.
Free to be you and me
by Chris Newbound
I arrive at Kripalu dressed in baggy sweats and a faded Red Sox T-shirt, grabbed hastily from the bottom of my drawer. Let me say it right up front: I’m not a yogi. While others have been stretching and breathing, I’ve been pounding through the necessary miles on pavement in order to get myself ready for marathons, or punishing my body with sports like tennis and basketball that tore ACLs and knee cartilage along the way. Never very limber to begin with, now in my fifties, I’ve only become less so—as in “Tin Man” less so. All to say, I’m not approaching my first yoga class of this two-day Kripalu R&R Retreat with much confidence. Although I’ve taken yoga classes in the past, and always feel so much better for having done so, it seems to be something—like flossing—that I know is good for me but I’m not great at doing consistently, maybe because it’s so painfully humbling to begin at the beginning.
One of the oft-repeated teachings I’ll hear during the next two days is that the universe teaches you exactly what you need to learn. It doesn’t take me long to come up against just one in the laundry list of lessons it seems the universe wants to teach me . . . again.
Don’t judge. Don’t judge others. Don’t judge yourself. Be in the moment, and be open to what the moment has to offer, free of judgment.
Seems simple enough. And all the easier to focus on, one would think, amid the clutter-free surroundings of Kripalu, when there is very little else to focus on. Meals, with a vegetarian emphasis and lots of variety, are taken care of. Peace and quiet and therefore introspection are easy to find, particularly when staying at the recently added Annex building.
It’s interesting to notice how this theme of pushing away judgment continues to raise its distracting head throughout my time at Kripalu. I confess as much to a woman I’m paired with during a workshop, appropriately titled The Grace of Surrender, in which we’re told to simply listen to someone talk to us about their lives for a few minutes without commenting, then turn the tables and speak to them about ours. She tells me about a family member who recently had his heart broken and whom she feels the burden of having to care for. I tell her that I judge others too hastily and fear I lack compassion, especially for those I don’t know. I have one of those minor but useful epiphanies: Clearly such lack of compassion and judgment boomerangs right back at me.
So back to me standing barefoot in my first yoga class of that first day. I try to remind myself to let go of outcome, to detach from results, but I’m distracted by noticing how really nasty my toenails—blackened from constantly jamming up against my sneakers when I play squash—must look to others. The very fit-looking yoga instructor, who I’m sure has very lovely toenails, helpfully offers that our bodies aren’t the enemy here—not something to punish into submission and ultimately into shape, but rather to gently coax. If something doesn’t feel right, she continues, as if speaking directly to me, we should back off. But does that include something as simple and beginner-like as Child’s pose (kneeling with feet tucked behind while pressing forehead to our mats)? Apparently it does, as I have to opt for a more “grown-up” pose—an improvised version involving legs extended straight out in front of me, so that I more closely resemble a luge competitor than a yoga student.
I fight the urge to turn to the stranger next to me—to, in fact, announce to the entire room—“Nothing to look at here. I have bad knees and that’s why I’m the only one in the room not able to do Child’s pose.” Clearly I haven’t parked my ego at the door alongside my running shoes. Who exactly am I competing with here? Who am I trying to impress? My wife, who is obliviously bundled up in her own Child’s pose in front of me? The teacher, who I suspect can’t even see me as I’m strategically hidden behind a post? Or is it the stranger next to me, the only other person in the room other than me who’s also not kneeling in Child’s pose? What’s with him? Uh-oh. Judging again.
As the class proceeds, I begin to notice a number of people—mostly men but some women, too—struggling with various poses that give me less trouble. One man clearly has a shoulder issue and so opts out of all poses that might stress it. Another seems to be working around a back problem.
As I move along with the group into the less knee-challenging Warrior pose, I take a deep yogic breath, reminding myself to try and mind my own business for once. With one long exhale I blow out ego, judgment, expectation. We are both separate and not separate here at Kripalu, just as we are in life. And it feels good, this letting go, this getting it at last, this surge of humility, this finally being in this moment and no other, momentarily oblivious to any ambition other than the desire to be here now, grateful to be breathing in and breathing out with all these others.
Chris Newbound and Amy Herring are writers who live in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with their dog, Winston.