Mindfulness is a big part of our culture here in Charlottesville. I should know because I wrote about it for VIRGINIA LIVING magazine and posted the article recently. (click here to read that article). After researching Yogaville for the article, I decided it would be fun to really experience the place so I signed up for a Silent Retreat over New Years. Below are some of my thoughts. Yogaville is a fantastic resource for mindfulness in Central Virginia. I would say it planted the seed for mindfulness in the area but somehow I think the seed was already planted and Swami Satchidananda felt that energy and decided to put his Ashram here because of it. Regardless of which came first, it is worth a visit to get your mindful tun-up.
“Yogaville Silent retreat Day 1: 12/28/2012: Going silent
I have moved into a post- holiday grumpy phase causing me to complain within seconds of picking up Christina, my friend who is joining me on this 5 Day Silent retreat. It is not advisable to do this sort of thing with friends because it is too tempting to communicate, to come out from the purative silence but we didn’t know that when we decided to go and no one warned us when we signed up. At any rate we are driving down Rt. 20 on a cloudy early winter’s day towards Buckingham County and Yogaville, the largest Ashram in the United States where we plan to spend the next several days without talking and practicing minimal communication with the outside world.
It is an easy drive. One right turn basically onto rt. 626 and Yogaville is on the right after about ten miles. We are a bit early and registration is not ready but we are assigned a room, ironically numbered 42. I say ironically because according to the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, the answer to the Universal Question of the meaning of life is 42. I wonder if someone has assigned me this number on purpose.
Post registration, is a guided meditation or yoga class. Christina and I decide to do the yoga class but mistakenly end up in the deep relaxation/guided meditation. I realize the mistake about ten minutes into the class and decide that it is a yogic sign that this is where I needed to be all along – a “you are in the right place at the right time” sort of thing or a more Freudian interpretation, “There are no mistakes”.
It is magical and I am more relaxed than I can recall in recent memory. Perhaps this is because I am mentally ready to be relaxed, to let go. I have prepared this space, these five days, on purpose to be a right of passage to prepare me for marking my 50th Birthday- I am creating a rebirth, if you will, into the second half of my life (Yes, I really do expect to live to 100).
After the class there is a group meditation. I am totally mellow for this and see images and colors. I am very still, thanks in a large part, I am sure, to the deep relaxation guided meditation I just experienced. The 30 minutes pass quickly then it is time for one of Yogaville’s famous vegetarian meals. We take advantage of our last hour of talking by getting to know some of the folks joining us in Silence for the next few days- after all it is our last chance for a long while. It feels strange asking questions like, “From where did you come?” and “What made you decide to try a silent retreat?” when, if this process works the way I am told, we will know these people better than we can possibly imagine without verbal communication by the end of the retreat.
I struggle to keep from talking to Christina on the way back to our room. I am tired and look forward to the events to the next day where I will definitely practice some asana (yoga poses). Up at 5:30am so it is off to bed early.”
This is just the beginning of a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual journey I took from December 28th to January 1, 2012. The following days proved a roller coaster ride of emotions as I meditated, attended workshops, engaged in service work, hiked in the woods, journaled, sang kirtan, listened to inspirational messages from the Swami himself, ate an organic vegetarian diet and generally immersed myself in a yogic lifestyle.
Over the course of the retreat many profound things happened but the things that stand out are the experience of being silent, a workshop in Laugha yoga and a visit to Swami Satchidananda’s home, Ananda Kutir. The five days had a surprisingly profound effect on me physically and mentally which can only be described as a utter relaxation. But it is important to note that the relaxation did not happen all at once but in minuscule graduations and that it was fairly difficult.
Silence, as I learned, is simultaneously liberating and inhibiting. It was suggested that while in silence we even avoid eye contact with people in order to prohibit any kind of communication. The reason for this is to allow one to be completely with their thoughts. It worked but it was frustrating. At first, I was so wrapped up in the goal of being silent that I was very serious about avoiding any kind of communication. The Universe soon set me straight. The first full day of the retreat a member of the kitchen staff pulled me aside to discuss my participation in a karma yoga experience where I would be helping prepare dinner. I was upset enough that he asked me a question verbally but devastated that I had answered without hesitation therefore breaking my silence. I almost cried. Then I realized that I had been placing too much emphasis on the wrong thing, the act of being silent for a specific amount of time, and having broken that silence had freed myself from the expectation therefore easing up- just what I needed. Only then was I able to deeply focus on and objectively observe my thoughts which I discovered were mostly stupid and shallow- very disappointing. I listened to myself judge, complain, whine and self loath to the point where it was a pleasure to quiet the mind. I learned that most of what I would have said to people was fairly unnecessary and the majority of my thoughts were as well.
It was astounding to me how much energy I expended each day on trivial stuff like remarking on the weather or complimenting someone on an article of clothing.
Working on changing these thought patterns was quite emotional. The retreat offered a variety of ways to do this. There were daily yoga and meditation sessions, chats on nutrition, meditation, karma yoga opportunities (the act of service without expectation of reward), creative workshops like coloring mantras and creating vision boards, music, darma talks, chances to hike in the woods, a kirtan (singing of mantras) and more.
It was also difficult to restrain from expressing myself verbally. I wanted to know things about the people around me. Where were they from? Why a silent new years? Why did they choose Yogaville as a destination for spiritual study? Things that really would not make any difference in our spiritual quests.
We were not expected to be totally silent, however. In fact we were encouraged to participate in chanting and singing mantras. Personally, I dislike dogma so this was difficult for me. And like me, other people in the group became very somber and serious in their practice of silence.
The break came in the form of a Laugha yoga workshop. Through a variety of expressive exercises the participants laughed in different ways and related to each other while experiencing first hand the healing power of laughter. It was just what I needed to lighten up. We laughed for 40 minutes then had a 30 minute guided Shivasana or prone meditation. It was sublime. I felt rejuvenated. All the cells in my body were awakened and infused with joy. I so enjoyed it, I even signed up for the training to teach Laugha Yoga later in the year.
All my grumpiness was gone after the Laugha Yoga session. It was the release I had needed until the very end of the retreat when all the participants sat in one circle and each had a turn saying something about the retreat.
Visiting Ananda Kutir, was also and extremely powerful experience. Yogi’s believe that the soul simply passes through bodily experiences and that the essence or energy of a person exists eternally. Being a skeptic, I have little faith in the power of shrines but wanted to visit Swami Satchidanada’s home for a meditation session anyway. I am glad I did. Two totally unexpected and in my world rather bizarre things happened. The first was the deepest meditation I have yet experienced. I saw the Swami’s face and had a conversation with him in my head. Until this time, I had only experienced seeing colors and some limited images during deep meditations so seeing his face and hearing his voice was astounding to me. I won’t share the content of our conversation but I will tell you that Gurudev as he is called at the Ashram, is a funny guy with a great sense of humor. The second thing that happened was downright mystical. I have a set of three silver rings made by a Tibetan monk that I have worn almost every day for the last four years without ever cleaning them which had mede them rather dull over the years. On a whim, I placed them on a tray before the meditation session to be blessed by the spirit of the Swami. At the end of the session, I absent-mindedly slid them back on my left ring finger without really looking at them. Hours later I looked down at them and noticed that they were shining like new – and they are still at this writing two-and-a-half months later! Make your own conclusions here regarding what happened to the rings but I will tell you that I did not clean them or do anything differently with them.
Listening to each person share at the end of the retreat was perhaps the most surprising thing of all. These 59 other people were so different in reality compared to what I had imagined them to be. Their voices were different, their backgrounds were different. The things that stood out in their minds as important were different than what I had thought. It was incredible. I realized how wrong I was about most of them which made me think about the hundreds of judgements I make about strangers (and non-strangers) every day and how likely those judgements are equally inaccurate. I realized that though it is important to be discerning it is better to be patient and learn what people are really about rather than categorizing them instantly.
This is a difficult lesson to learn for someone who has survived for years by carefully observing people’s actions and reactions as a way of self preservation. But we can only do what we can do and as was reinforced through this Silent Retreat experience, change happens in small steps every day rather than in occasional giant leaps.
By the end of the retreat I was in a peaceful place. The perpetual tension in my shoulders had released to painless ease. I was glowing with peace and love for myself and my fellow humans. An adventure well worth taking.