I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!
To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.
Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!
I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!
There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.
1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!
2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.
3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”
4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.
5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.
It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.
In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.
As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.
Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.
We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.
In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)
Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.
At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.
Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.
Last year at this time I was just finishing up assisting a monthlong teacher training course alongside my teacher, Ana Forrest. It was an enlightening and grueling month of 4am mornings, intense learning and inspiring work. I oscillated all month between feeling completely in the “right place” as a yoga teacher and feeling like running away entirely. I felt alternately like a highly skilled instructor and total fraud. At the end of the month, I began a year of questioning whether I should continue being a yoga teacher at all. This wasn’t a matter of whether I “could” be a yoga teacher – I have been a yoga teacher for 14 years and the skills to do so successfully are there for me to grow from. This was more a question of whether I “should” continue being a yoga teacher or whether my Spirit was feeling restless and looking in a different direction.
For a while before assisting this teacher training I had been feeling lackluster. The politics of the “yoga world” were bringing me down. Teachers speaking badly of one another, seeing teachers with the right “look” move ahead even as their students were getting injured, the general competitiveness of a community that outwardly “supported” one another but inwardly exposed a deeply ingrained scarcity complex. I felt unappreciated for my really hard work. I spent (and spend) hours working on sequences, doing my own practice to stay inspired, educating myself to be a better and better teacher and so much more. I was feeling like all that meant nothing. Then festivals and workshop venues started questioning the number of Facebook and Instagram followers I had – as if this was a better litmus test of what kind of instructor I was than my actual teaching skills and training. Falling compensation rates, festivals not paying at all, and potential clients balking at the price of private sessions all compounded my feelings. At this time last year I had come off some comments through the grapevine about how I was getting “old” not in age but in teaching techniques, and fears of being irrelevant in the changing yoga atmosphere toward fast-paced flashy vinyasa sequences were at the forefront of my mind.
Through my work with Ana Forrest last September, each day I questioned what I was doing and why. She pushed my boundaries physically, mentally and emotionally, and questioned me about my ethics and values – not to be mean but to get me to hone in on what I really wanted from my life and to cut out the extraneous. She revealed to me as no one else could these glaring blind spots in my life and in my teaching. She has known me longer than anyone except my family, partner and a few close friends – she knows me inside and out better than I do sometimes. She can see me without the veil of my limiting beliefs and from a lifetime of her own experiences in the deep dark places. She was willing to go with me into those feelings of inadequacy and fear – to understand where they were really coming from. I’m a graceful navigator of life – a fact she reminded me of daily – and she knew better than I did that these feelings of not belonging in the yoga world were merely an indicator of another much deeper Spiritual malady and discomfort.
I was there to assist a teacher training, but she assigned me to write poems and read them out loud in front of everyone with a trembling voice. She sat with me when everyone else had partnered up for an exercise, set a timer and asked me to tell her all the secrets I had kept bottled up for so long. She listened openly about how cramped my Spirit felt in my current life. She threw me in front of the crowds coming to her intensives and encouraged me to speak in ways that I never had. Ana Forrest told me repeatedly in whispers throughout the month to, “Let the Poet speak, she has important things to say.” She left me at the end of the month with the note below: “Please schedule in writing as a daily spiritual responsibility. It’s time. Spiritual Fulfillment.”
Because while I have found tremendous fulfillment, delight and financial success as a yoga teacher, it was at the expense of some other really important dreams of my Spirit. I put on hold my ideas for books and the stories that passed by in dreams. I closed off the whispers of poems that passed through my ears while I cued elbow to knee or drove down Lake Shore Drive. I came to believe that the thing I was best at was teaching yoga. I forgot that there was a time not long ago that I did write every day. I remembered a time in my life when I lived in a internal world of magical stories made real on the page. My discomfort with my current career and all the signs around it were simply redirecting me back to the magic of these stories. The stories have been bubbling up louder and louder each year, and the roar could no longer be ignored.
One of the most fantastic parts of Forrest Yoga is just this: the reclaiming of our whole Self, not just the accepted one. Breath by breath, practice by practice, the tools of Forrest Yoga infiltrate life off the mat to bring about the most amazing epiphanies. From the memory of the magic of those stories I went forward and hired a shaman – Bridget Boland – to help me on the process of calling in my other parts of Spirit that needed attention. We have spent the better part of this year doing the work necessary to clear limiting beliefs, work with past mistakes, forgive myself and move ahead with a guidance from wisdom-keepers beyond my daily life.
I likely will not have the biggest Instagram following at any time. I don’t teach or sequence “traditionally” – I’m like me. I am still teaching. I decided not to go, but I made an agreement about staying. If I was going to continue teaching it had to be unapologetically on my terms. I re-cultivated my own voice and took some big risks in the topics, sequences and methods I taught from. I included more ceremonial work and anatomical instruction this year publicly than ever before. I talked about my dark spots. I read poems in class (not one of my own yet). I wrote blogs like this and journal entries more frequently than in the previous 10 years of teaching yoga full time. I stopped comparing myself to other yoga teachers and focused on what I was doing. I chose to spend time with those who really inspire me in different areas of my life. Moving into next year I turned down any work that didn’t actually support me in the teacher and person I most want to be. I made space in my schedule for writing. And I am happier for it.
Many students have stay or go questions: marriages, jobs, having children and so much more. I’m not a therapist – I have no training in that arena – but through the practices of Forrest Yoga I can help you listen to the voice of your Spirit more clearly. And through the voice of your Spirit you can feel when it is time to stay, go or simply change the balance of power of elements in your life. So a year later and a lot of reflection from whirlwind experiences over the past 12 months, I’ve decided to stay but, as many of you have noticed, with some big changes in my teaching. I hope that those changes continue so that the pieces of me long held in storage can finally get more air than my Ujjayi breathing.