“You’re. Doing. What?” said The Iconoclast.
I. Am. Going. To. A. Yoga. Retreat. I repeated it slowly, hesitantly.
I felt like I was admitting to something quite zany and dreadful, like selling my kidneys for extra cash, or joining The Conservative Party.
The Iconoclast began railing indignantly at the entire yogic enterprise, all 5,000 years (or so) of it. Taken aback, I concentrated on my dinner, which she had cooked. It was delicious: earthy and complex. It contained all the sensitivity and sweet consideration I couldn’t hear in her words. I figured out, as she spoke, that an ex of hers had been into yoga and I’m guessing it wasn’t a pastime they shared. It wasn’t about me, or yoga, really.
Four days later, I was in Kingston on my way to the Shanti Yoga Retreat, Like a novice about to renounce her worldly life and enter a nunnery, I indulged myself in Kingston as though for the last time.
I dropped into a glorious old-school health food store, strolled the streets and took pictures of the signage. I bought not one but two summer frocks. I visited the renowned Chez Piggy Restaurant for a lamb burger and fries. Then, I got on a ferry, where I met a “Gender Deconstruction Worker”, a very pleasant queer activist (the last bit of queerness I was going to see for days…)
I ended up on Wolfe Island, where a funny, casual dude with a ponytail picked me up in his truck and took me to my very first yoga retreat.
Reader, I was not brainwashed. I did not engage in strange rituals and shave my head. But I did do a hell of a lot of yoga.
And, I ate some really good food, like the Pad Thai, salad rolls, and mango salad served the first night.
But The Iconoclast’s words echoed in my head as I struggled mightily with chakras, sun salutations, cobra poses and downward dogs. All the other attendees had better yoga outfits, and limbs like spaghetti. My limbs were rebellious, and my mind was monkey-ish, leaping wildly from thought to thought. The Iconoclast’s doubts resonated because they stood in for my own. My body, a stranger to me at this stage of my life, refusing to bend to my will. My own self-criticism, and all the ways I barricade my heart.
As usual, food created a space for connection. As we spoke and ate, I could sense the others’ own doubts and fears, and the troubles that had brought them to this place. By the end of the second day, I was aching and bone-tired, but my body vibrated with energy. Dinner that night was fantastic: vegetarian enchiladas with chard and cheese; brown rice, and local greens with chili-lime dressing; salsa and homemade guacamole on the side. The sun, after hiding all day, poured into the dining room like liquid honey.
How to live. How to love. How to have a life of the body and of the spirit and of the mind. How not to let your job steal your soul. Turns out there’s folks who have been thinking these things through, for oh, I guess 5,00 years or so.
Anyone can do a yoga pose, said the pony-tailed dude (who turned out the be one of the yoga teachers) to me on the last day . That’s just flexibility. What’s more important is that you make a spiritual connection.
That’s what the yogis call ananda: ineffable bliss; an unshakable joy; a feeling of contentment and well-being.
I’m not one for conversion experiences, or the wholesale appropriation of cultures not my own, but I have to say that for a brief time after that retreat it was as though I was looking through newly-washed windows. The colours more vivid, conversations more revealing. I could hear, and feel, and see, more.
It didn’t last, but I won’t quickly forget it. To paraphrase the philosopher Spinoza, We do not know what a body (or a spirit) can do.