“I’m not a therapist. This isn’t the place for your problems. This is the place to find story and joy….”
This is the opening discussion at my week long yoga & writing retreats. Harsh? Maybe, but I’d like to think it’s more responsible, clear & honest. I do go on to point out that I am available to talk privately but I want to set the boundaries and be clear what the retreat is really all about. Because the truth is, I’m not a therapist. I’m a yoga teacher. I’ve done a lot of therapy, I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve immersed myself in the healing of my own pain but I am not qualified to address this with others in a group setting, so I don’t. More to the point, I think the yoga industry has over-indulged on self-help and feels dangerously close to feeling like I’m in a bad spiritual reality show a lot of the time; vapid, first world problems and an audience who wants to soak it up to feel better about themselves.
Ok, that was harsh (but immerse yourself in this industry enough and you’ll know what I’m talking about).
I’ve been to too many trainings where I thought I was going to discover a new way to get into Urdhva Danurasana, or to sit in on a meditation lecture and then next thing you know I’m hearing the architecture of someone’s marriage breakdown or job dissatisfaction, tears are flowing and the teacher is not doing anything about it.
Or worse, they’re indulging in advice and therapy when they should be leading a group.
It’s not what I paid for, and neither did the other participants. Which is not to say that sharing within a group should be discouraged, I wholeheartedly believe it to be a powerful way to heal – but in the right context, and with trained professionals.
Therapy is not what my yoga retreats are about because I’m clear that I don’t want to be a therapist and I have too much admiration and respect for people who have spent years training and are truly doing this as their calling; educated and experienced. I’m also not a spiritual counselor, self-help guru, manifestation maverick, yogic philosopher, healer, transformational or life coach!
However, the truth is, over the course of my yoga teaching years – as I was doing my own learning – I’ve tried to be all of these at some point, in my own little way, because it seemed to be where the categories of teachers lie. A lot of the noise makers want to be a gurus (even though they’ll tell you they don’t) and, in order to make a living out of teaching yoga, it often felt like you had to be. Either that or a self-documented acrobat (and, is it just me, or does it feel like narcissism is being packaged as self-worth lately?)
And yet, I understand there is a great need for inspiration and positive affirmation in the world. Despite my skepticism of some people’s intentions, the audience is flocking to anyone who tells them they’re worth it (you are, by the way). It’s clear we’re in a lack of self-worth epidemic and it’s serious. Self-worth and purpose are your anchors to life; your foundation and I think that’s what we should start building before we embark on a journey to connect to any godly creatures…I believe. But, I digress.
So, what about those people who want to practice yoga (asana, mediation & pranayama) and who want to connect to the world in an alert, attentive and creative way but who don’t want to spend time strumming their pain with a harmonium? What about those who’ve done the work and want to connect to something more tangible and relevant and who want to feel actionable in their lives? What about those who want to have fun and feel ‘in’ the world and not retreat or have to decode metaphors?
I’m one of those people. After years of feeling inauthentic while publicly singing Hindu chants and not feeling part of the club because I hadn’t tattooed Sanskrit or a Hindu deity on my body (no judgment; I’ve seen gorgeous ones), and I wasn’t interested in spending hours working on a yoga pose. Of raising an eyebrow or two at watching yoga teachers addicted to their asana practice and calling it commitment. Or, worse, watching them hide injuries in order to save face with their students…while teaching them the exact same things that probably caused the injury. And after years of figuring out my own relationship to yoga, while making a living and not wanting to retreat entirely from the world, I’ve finally come to know what spirituality is all about – for me.
After trying it all on; metaphor speaking, poetic jargon, inspirational quoting and affirming my desires I realized I just wanted to engage in real, responsible action. I wanted to be in the doing of life, not just the dreaming of it. I didn’t want to spend my time on a vision board ( I was never very good at those anyway ), I wanted to do the unsexy work of creating the vision (managing finances, making phone calls, managing my time, putting in the work…taking care of business).
What I’ve come to understand is that my feelings of spirituality are directly connected to how creative I feel. And, how creative I feel is directly connected to how attentive I am with my body and my emotions. And, how attentive I’m being is directly related to how long I choose to look at something, or someone, what questions I ask and what story I’m living.
And why, subsequently I lead yoga & writing retreats that aren’t about traditional yoga, they’re not about the science of manifesting your dream life and are not about the architecture of writing.
They’re about about being creative. They’re about forming the world, not pulling away from it. They’re about chipping away, carving out, writing down, dusting off, hammering in, hoisting up, painting on and smoothing out. They’re about engaging in even the mundane things to find a story; They are about exploration, asking questions, finding nuances, scaling back, enjoying life, discovering the world we live in and making friends.
Many years ago I had a conversation with my dear, ridiculously creative friend; the photographer Anna Moller. We have a shared connection to Amma and when I had mentioned that I didn’t feel anything when I received my hug (darshan) we went on to talk about our personal spiritual moments and she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said that even after all these years of meditation, yoga and spiritual practices she still feels the most connected when she is taking photos. That’s when she is not in her thinking mind, when she feels she is offering her best self, and when she feels connected to anything beyond the mortal world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and after all these years of being around creatives, entrepreneurs, writers, teachers, musicians, painters and dedicated parents I have come to understand that we are most in service when we are being our wholesome, honest and expressive selves. And, I don’t think self-expression is restricted just to the arts; I know lawyers and accountants who wholeheartedly love their job because it speaks to their strengths and when they’re in it, they lose time.
That’s what I mean by feeling spiritual – you lose the mortal experience of time. It’s when what you’re doing feels like an extension of self and you don’t watch the clock.
This is the exact reason I now lead yoga & writing retreats. Through the experience of yoga and the medium of the written word; we have an opportunity for self-expression. We have an opportunity to hook that inspired thought and to offer cement to that epiphany in the world. I teach these retreats now to offer a place for immersion and joy. To travel to far off lands, out of your comfort zone to wake up that dormant story inside. It’s not about being a writer and it’s not about being a yogi, it’s just about being in the world and finding the hilarity and the color and the joy and the story.
My friend, Elise Ballard, author of the book Epiphany and creator of the inspiring website Epiphany Channel, is an epiphany expert. She says that there are four qualities of a life-changing epiphany. The first is a state of listening, every person she interviewed said they were in a state of listening (life crisis, meditation, walking etc.). Two, that when the epiphany arrived there was no doubt of its truth, they felt wholeheartedly in their body and mind and didn’t question it. Three, they took action on it and Four they experienced serendipity. The world literally felt like it was conspiring to turn these epiphanies into reality.
We use the writing portion to see more, we use the yoga portion to feel more and we travel to wildly beautiful and exotic lands because why the hell not? Travel will offer you your most fertile ground for harvesting story.
Yes, you’ll have revelations and epiphanies and healing – but that’s not the goal.
So folks, I’ve the listening environment all set up for you. You’ll have time to indulge and manifest those wild imaginings in your body and soul if there is an epiphany waiting for you. But, if there isn’t – then there is an exotic place waiting for you to immerse yourself in, a wide open beach for you to toss your cares worries into and a group of creative souls waiting to spend a week hanging out and telling stories.