“Have fun on your retreat!” I’ve heard this countless times over the past six months during which I’ve been a student at the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. The 650-hour certification program to become an Ayurvedic Health Counselor is split over six ten-day modules, four to eight weeks apart. We start the day at 6:30 AM with 90 minutes of yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation, and end at 6 PM (or 9 PM, if there is an evening session, one of which consisted of 90 minutes of straight chanting). There are seven hours of lecture a day, making for hundreds of pages of hand-written notes in “Sanglish” as I’ve come to call it—very rocky Sanskrit and abbreviated English. After the first module, I made the mistake of not getting a sub for my 7 AM yoga class the day after I returned, but when I fell asleep at 4 PM that afternoon realized I’d need twenty-four hours to recover from these “retreats.”
I get the confusion: Kripalu is inarguably an idyllic place. Standing at the entrance you can see the peaks of the Berkshire mountains, a vast private lake, and a sky that’s worth a thousand Instagram posts. In the summer, orchestral music wafts over from Tanglewood down the road, violins harmonizing with the warm breeze and locusts. In the winter, snowflakes of every variety arrive spontaneously, leaving everything literally calm and bright in their wake. When I’m there, I forget about my phone—the week after I return there’s something like a 200 percent increase in my screen time. I don’t read the news. I walk without podcasts or music streaming into my ears because then I couldn’t hear the quiet. I don’t have to cook or wash dishes and remember how to taste, chew, and digest food.
Still, when I hear people say, “have fun on your retreat,” my mouth replies, “thank you,” but my brain says, “I’m not going on retreat! I’m going on an intensive training where I’m learning a new language and my brain is being overwhelmed by medical information and I’m being asked to confront the dark side of my soul and question the truth of who I am! This is work!” Part of me can’t bear the idea of other people thinking I’m just frolicking in the Berkshires for ten days at a time, doing yoga and meditating and slacking off. Part of me can’t allow myself that time away from the world, where I’m not being “productive” in the billable-hours sense, not glued to my phone, not posting or planning or busy-ing. There is nothing abnormal about these times away from the city, I reassure myself. I’m living with the same intensity, the same dedication, the same air-tight routine, as usual, just somewhere else.
I find myself in a similar situation at present. We all do, really. It’s been nine days since I taught my last group yoga class, took the subway, or did anything I’d consider “normal.” When I was last at Kripalu in late February, the first few cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) had landed in the United States. I was barely aware of it at the time (remember, no phone), except for the extra signage about hand-washing and Purell stations standing like the Queen’s guards all around the center. Within two weeks, everything has changed. Our next module, which was meant to be in April, has been rescheduled for late summer. And yet here I am, in a way, once again on a retreat that’s nothing like a retreat.
On the good days of staying at home, I’m grateful for the elasticity of time. I haven’t woken up before 6 AM in over a week, a true luxury compared to the 5:15 alarms I’ve had for two and half years given my teaching schedule. I prepare my meals fresh, no longer lugging a day’s worth of food in containers in a tote bag. My shoulders have moved away from my ears as a result of not carrying said tote bags, full of not just food but a computer, chargers, notebooks, and extra clothes. I take long savasanas, an extra round (or four) of nadi shodaha, walks in my quaint neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the forsythia and magnolia trees are blooming, breaks to call my mom, sister, and friends, whom I’ll sometimes speak with once or twice a month. My editorial and writing work is getting done, and I’m fortunate to be able to work remotely and not take such a hit in my income as many others are taking. In fact, I’ve adopted the schedule we have at school in order to give my days something of a container: practice, eat, study/work, eat, more study, walk, study three, eat, rest. Repeat. Perhaps I’ve finally made for myself, partly by force, an environment of retreat—at home.
As someone who needs routine in order to not be overwhelmed by the enormity of possibility, the familiarity of my “retreat” schedule has been a lifesaver. Its rhythm soothes the fear I go to sleep with, wake up in the middle of the night with when I hear some odd noise, and wake up in the morning with once I remember this is not all a dream, that we’re actually living a Groundhog Day-type existence: What if today’s the day? The day for what, I’m not sure, but it’s bad. When I start to feel my bottom teeth push up into my sinus cavities I’m clenching my jaw so much, when my limbs feel like live wires they’re so shot-through with cortisol and adrenaline, when my gaze looks out the window and turns the direction of my thoughts to this possibly being the new normal—me, here, alone, unable to touch or hug or kiss or smell anyone I love ever again—I come back to the routine. I will do chandra namaskar and dasha chalana, I will have my adaptogenic tea, I will write, I will eat, I will walk, I will breathe, I will go to sleep, I will wake up.
Bringing my retreat home has brought the defensiveness I feel toward my time at Kripalu to a new level. Not only am I uncertain about what is leisure and what is work (and what those two categories even mean anymore), but I am also uncertain about the integrity of the home I’ve been tending, cleansing, nourishing, decorating, and protecting with extra care for years, but especially since school started in September: my body. The feelings of deep distrust toward my body, any body, that made me sick years ago are back. I look at the people around me when I go outside and feel the warning of an invisible electric fence around us all; I wonder, Will you infect me, neighbor? I look at myself at the end of the day, my clothes, my hair, my skin, my hands; I wonder, Am I infected, and will I infect someone else? Being at home in my body, trusting its resilience and worth, has become the most arduous work I do every day. And by the time I settle into myself again, remembering my own strength, it’s time to go back into the dark of sleep so I can do it all again in the morning. Until further notice.
Whenever I come back from an actual retreat, times of deep practice and no outside distractions, I reenter my home with a renewed sense of purpose. I will eat better, sleep better, relate to others better, relate to myself better, hoping I can bring the retreat environment home. And yet, when the opportunity to do so has arrived in full living color, my body has spoken up with fierce resistance. The habits I fall back into so easily after five days off of WiFi are not the same normalcies I’m trying to maintain. The entire world order is in the thick of change, and we can’t even know what parts of our lives BC (before coronavirus) will remain the same on the other side. No one’s body is ready for this, and I don’t think any amount of hours on retreat could prepare us for sitting with this reality.
Considering this time of quiet and rest, of existential dread and physical isolation, to be a “home retreat” is a conscious act I’m taking in order to do the work of acknowledge the undeniable fact that there is nothing normal about what’s going on. I can teach and take as many online yoga classes, complete as many professional projects, and lean into as many familiar routines as I want, but how I feel about these things is completely abnormal. And I am scared. Not of illness, or of death, but of uncertainty.
But being with uncertainty, in the end, is the most powerful and transformative work any of us can do right now. I was reminded by Buddhist teacher Jeff Rubin that the state of hope and fear, which I vacillate between hourly it seems, are illusion—the future-projects that tether us to suffering. Only the gray area of uncertainty can be relied upon as a stable, unwavering truth. On a normal day, nothing is certain—I could get mugged on the subway, or meet the love of my life, or find a hundred dollar bill on the street. And yet I go about accepting that uncertainty because I’m so distracted by being mad at the subway delays, polishing my online dating profiles, and listening to my headphones instead of looking around while I walk. Those distractions are gone, but the uncertainty is still there. We are all now faced with the opportunity to grapple with that truth, as we must—for the sake of all beings—retreat to our homes, including our bodies and the earth. Because the fact that this crisis is borne in illness, a threat to our bodies with immune systems weakened by stress, and is bringing to a halt the is no irony. Nature is telling us it’s time to retreat—or else.
At the end of our December Ayurveda module, we were asked to write a letter to ourselves as a kind of snapshot of how we were in the present moment. I’ve always found this exercise kind of silly, namely because I will start writing in the lofty, pretentious language of “retreat mind” I normally scoff at. My letter arrived the other day, and upon reading my retreat-self’s thoughts I burst into tears:
There is so much you don’t know, and that is a very good thing. Not knowing allows you to practice faith, to lighten the grip on the reins of reality you think you have. You are so good at doing what is right, which is a wonderful trait. But maybe now is a time to worry less about being right and more about feeling well and whole. The rightness is already there.
Do not let yourself be small again. Being small does not solve anything. Do not question the divinity of your being down to every tiny molecule. Nothing was wasted on you, and you know how to make the smallest essentials into something beyond expectations. . . .
There is wisdom only in darkness, but you are the light—tejas—in the dark. Dance in the light.
Even if I wasn’t ready for it, retreat has been delivered right into my home in the form of my own words. I’m clearing some space to dance here in the light. Until further notice.