Finding Your True Self at Summer Camp

At age 12, at YMCA summer camp, I made a lanyard keychain by knotting orange and turquoise plastic threads into a boxy cord. (If you went to summer camp in the ‘80s, you probably remember making one, too.) That July, I was obsessed with Prince, the Go-Go’s, and a French-Canadian boy named Jerome. I chose the colors for my lanyard to match my favorite outfits. I was proud of my work—from flimsy bits of plastic, I’d constructed something artful and utilitarian.

At camp, I took Arts and Crafts, Water Ballet, and Outdoor Living (how to avoid poison ivy). Best of all, I was far from my small town, which has been home to Tuppers for generations. Back there, I was an only child, a budding theater nerd, a spatially challenged bookworm who was always picked last in gym class. My identity seemed set in stone.  

But at camp, for two glorious weeks, I wasn’t picked last for kickball—not for the first week, anyway. I could occupy a different niche.

Summer Camp for Grownups

This June, July, and August, Kripalu offers Yoga Summer Camp for adults, led by faculty members Michelle Dalbec, a teacher trainer for the Kripalu Schools and a mindfulness educator; and Jess Frey, a 1000-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, life coach, and artist. I asked Michelle and Jess what makes summer camp attractive to adults.

“It’s a chance to set aside some of the pressures of being a grown-up,” says Jess. “Adulting can be intense. We take things so seriously. We forget to take time for ourselves. Summer camp provides a break, a pause to remember what really matters, to savor what is always around us, yet easy to miss when we’re rushing around.”

These days, people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, and as many as 11 hours per day staring at a screen. "Kripalu’s Summer Camp gets people outside and interacting with the world around them, through arts workshops, nature observation and identification classes, yoga, dance, hikes, kayaking, and stand up paddleboard sessions," says Michelle.

A Gathering of Like-Hearted Campers

“Our groups each create a unique and eclectic gathering of like-hearted people,” says Jess. “They come to share conversations over a campfire, to learn new things and take risks together. And I get to witness it. It’s medicine for the heart to connect so intimately, so quickly, and in such a fun, goofy way.”

Michelle adds, “It can be challenging to meet new people and make friends as an adult. One of the things I love most about Summer Camp is the camaraderie and bonding that takes place among the guests that grows and deepens every day. I’ve heard back from some former campers that they still keep in touch with their ‘camp-mates’ from years past.”

I remember my cabin-mates from camp. I’d never shared a bedroom before, but for two weeks I had nine siblings who whispered and giggled into the night. They took me out of myself and made me giggle, too.

Why is it harder, as an adult, to make such connections?

Jess says, “Perhaps, growing up, we weren’t encouraged to play. Perhaps joy and pleasure weren’t prioritized. Maybe we were the caregiver. Maybe play didn’t feel safe. And now it can be hard to give ourselves permission.”

“Adults are expected to ‘do’ and ‘produce’ more,” says Michelle. “Relaxing, playing, and enjoying are not valued in our culture even though the benefits are clear.” 

Ripping Off the Labels

At 12, it didn’t take long for me to lighten up. I even learned how to twirl through water, Esther Williams style. Now it’s harder to bend the stories I’ve established about myself. I can’t remember the last time I performed a “clam drop” in a lake.

“It’s easy to get locked into a fixed set of beliefs, patterns, labels, identities—a fixed mindset of who we are,” says Jess. “This becomes a distorted self-concept and affects how we relate to the world. We get stuck in this box we’ve created. Life becomes limiting and narrow, and often times there is a sense of unfulfillment. We feel exhausted, burned out, never satisfied.”

This sounds familiar. So how do we break away from the patterns we've established?

“Eventually we all need to confront our confused minds,” says Jess. “This is the beginning of waking up and seeing ourselves more clearly—a glimmer into another way of being.” Beyond the confusion, she says, is our basic nature, an intuitive intelligence and energy that yoga calls prana. “It’s an ongoing process to move beyond limiting beliefs and mental barriers into a life more true,” Jess adds. “But we have to allow ourselves to be different.”

Which starts with acting differently—thus, the appeal of summer camp. It’s more than playtime. It’s a chance to experiment with who we are.

I asked Michelle and Jess if they went to camp as kids. Michelle grew up in a city; her most vivid memories of Girl Scout camp are spending time out in nature with her friends. “I was enthralled with cooking over an open fire and setting up camp under the stars.”

Jess never went to camp: As a kid, she was either playing in her backyard or working on a local farm, picking fruit and making flower bouquets for the farmer’s market. For her, adult summer camp is about “remembering what is most important at the core of being human. Remembering presence, connection, intimacy, community, and togetherness. It’s an opportunity to shine glimmers of sun into some of the cloudy nooks. To put a chip into the rigidness.”

I like to recall that fluidity, which is why I still use my keychain. I start my car and remember the earnest, socially awkward, mosquito-bitten girl who crafted it. I remember the bug juice, the creaky top bunk, the initial fear of not fitting in. But for two weeks I didn’t have to be the “me” everyone thought I was. I surprised myself there.

Get dates and details for Yoga Summer Camp at Kripalu.

Kripalu faculty member Lara Tupper writes, sings, and teaches in the Berkshires. More about the author:

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Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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