Published on October 11, 2012 by      Print
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By Lindsay Bell

I broke up with yoga in the Berkshires. I was on a five-day intensive at an ashram-turned-retreat-center over Christmas in 2011. The setting was idyllic: mountains, lakes, crisp fresh air and about five hundred souls seeking health and wellness either through one of the center’s dozen programs or by simply getting massaged with essential oils and eating from an Ayurvedic buffet. I poured over their brochure for months planning my escape to “connect with myself.” After my first day on the mat, I knew my relationship with yoga was over.

Like many of the thirty thousand people who retreat to this center every year, I was in search of myself.

I wasn’t really interested in finding the self I spend every waking and sleeping moment with; I wanted to find a new and improved, wholly whole, authentically authentic self. This wholly whole, authentically authentic self would be so grounded and so in touch with herself that she would be better able to connect with others (read: men). “The real me” would certainly be good at making meaningful relationships. All I had to do was track her down using state-of-the-art asanas and meditation techniques.

I (like many yogis) believe there is something inherently insightful about isolating yourself. Many of us trudge off to retreats or take solitary confinement on our mats in the hopes that we may connect with “our true selves.” I arrived at the retreat armed and ready for connection. I bought a new journal for my innermost thoughts, a roller ball pen to record them, and a week’s supply of chocolate in case the center’s sugar-free policy proved to be too much on top of all of the other life changes I was going to be making. Plus, if I learned anything from growing up going to summer camp, being the kid with the contraband substance is the easiest way to ensure one’s popularity.

Rather quickly, my eager heart transformed into an upset stomach. It wasn’t the chocolate. The workshop was led by an Anusura guru. As a devoted Ashtangi at the time, I was immediately put off by all the shiny heart talk. Us Ashtangis are the (smug) silent types. Plus, anyone using the term “lineage” to describe something that started in the 1990s is totally suspect, in my book. But it wasn’t simply a matter of lineage wars or missing chemistry. “It’s not you, it’s me,” as they say.

This is what I discovered.

Each day as I sat front and center in the large yoga studio, I slowly came face to face with my own self-indulgence. In yoga speak, “it wasn’t serving me well.” I had come to the retreat in search myself, but that self was the smug kind of person who wanted to be able to report that she spent her holiday doing seven hours of yoga a day while the rest of you were doing such unholy things as, um… socializing, having fun and being with other people. While family and friends were home eating, drinking and being uncharacteristically merry, I was standing alone at the Ayurvedic bar debating a second helping of miso. I almost wrote myself a note “Dear self, fuck you” letter, then I realized the issue ran deeper.

My retreat made this much clear. Trying to “fix” myself by being alone all the time was making me really fucking lonely. The thing I was trying to avoid was the very thing I invited into my life every time I made a choice to spend three hours sweating in silence at the studio or taking “vacations” that no one without a history of eating disorder would ever pay money for. The real hurdle to making meaningful relationships was isolating myself in a sea of self-help. It turns out you can’t make connections with other people when you spend all your time alone thinking about connection.

We get better at connecting with others by connecting with others.

Maybe some people do need to “take space” for themselves, but for me isolation is an everyday occurrence. I am a single PhD student writing a dissertation on poverty in the Arctic (seriously). If solitude produced insight, this wouldn’t be the fourth year in a row that I announce that it is the “last year of my PhD.” For now, I have retreated from routinely practicing yoga. I have sworn to never spend another hard-earned dollar (or air mile) to travel to a beautiful place only to sit inside and think about myself the entire time. Rather than endlessly searching for insight into life, I am making a point of experiencing it.

About Lindsay Bell

Lindsay BellLindsay practices yoga promiscuously by signing up for the introductory special at a new studio each month. This can go on indefinitely, as she lives in Toronto, where yoga spreads like an STD. Instead of writing her PhD dissertation, Lindsay spends a lot of time writing about yoga, illicit affairs and homemade dog food (separately, of course). She is rarely sanctimonious, but is highly offended by the suggestion that yoga will improve the lives of rural villagers or inner city kids. As one of her academic gurus once told her, “Poor people are poor because they don’t have any money.”

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  1. Anya Porter says:

    FUCKING AWESOME ARTICLE. Thank you thank you for keeping it real. I was just commenting about how we should do “advances” instead of “retreats”. Connect with the world instead of leaving it!

  2. Georgie says:

    I love this. Thanks Lindsay.

  3. Isabelle says:

    Thank you for that. You just saved me a grand as I was toying with the idea of signing up for a weekend in that same Berkshire centre even though I had promised myself that I wouldn’t spend one more dollar on yoga (non-)vacations. I had even picked out a somewhat-interesting teacher and workshop combo on awakening my psychic strengths (or something). Now I will use the money for gin and Pepperidge Farm goldfish.

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      With those savings you can buy yourself a bottle of Hendrick’s and a soda stream! Let the good times roll!

  4. elina says:

    Great article – you are a terrific writer with great insight.

    I totally hear what you are saying re yoga not being the answer to the problems of ‘the poor’, HOWEVER – what if it was more accessible to a wider array of interested people and part of a solution? Check this out:

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      My thoughts are it is better to think about structural changes to end poverty rather than programming that makes it more tolerable. That said, there is something for bringing people together. It makes for the possibility of politics.

  5. Omiya says:

    Great article. I went to that same center, but luckily for the Ashtanga Mela retreat. The retreat itself was good because I chose the teachers, so to me it represented what is good about yoga. The center was pretty crazy and weird, reflecting the worst of commercial yoga culture. I would never go there for their routine workshops, it is only useful as a host for the teachers you really want to study with.

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      Yes, choosing the workshop is key for this place. My parents (who kindly paid the tuition after hearing me dream about retreating for months on end) knew I did yoga that starts with an A, and that is how this all began. I will say, the food actually is amazing.

  6. Bria @ Yoga with Bria says:

    Keepin’ it real for sure. Great observations. I suppose it’s all in the type of retreat you choose, and what you bring into it. I run retreats myself, and continue to be struck by the sense of community that’s created in such a short time together. Yet as you pointed out, this doesn’t always happen; one has to seek out that connection with others. That’s the key. That, and good contraband ;-) Good luck with your dissertation. (I mean that 100% sincerely).

  7. Jiselle says:

    Thanks Lindsay – You’re quite the wordsmith and this article is sidesplittingly real! Now off for some contraband.

  8. Mireille says:

    You are beyond insightful as always Lindsay! And oh, how I miss socializing. And doing yoga. I really need to investigate my relationship with work…

  9. Jade Doherty says:

    I ADORE this!

    I have nothing insightful to add, but wanted to tell you how awesome it is!


  10. Kate says:

    I very much loved this…just endlessly.

  11. cresta says:

    Girl, I am so JEALOUS! I fantasize about being able to go to a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat. No one needing me…A bed all to myself…Silence…Just me, my third-eye and I…Food prepared by someone else…What’s not to love?? Seriously, speaking from some 20 years of varied experience— relationships are over-rated. Ditto for marriage. I’d call it suffering squared—a literal death march—til death do us part. Although some young chap recently researched marriage and wrote a book with his findings which state that a mere 17 percent of marriages are pleasant & peaceful. SEVENTEEN PERCENT! Are you a gambling sort of gal? I guess the grass is always greener, right? Loved your writing & you are adorable! Cheers & I SO hope you have a very Merry Christmas with your friends & fam this year!

    • Lindsay Bell says:

      Cresta- much appreciated. I am currently scotch taping my heart back together as it was torn into a million little pieces a few weeks ago. I am not one to gamble, so knowing that the odds for peace, love and happiness were stacked against me from the start somehow makes the mending easier. Thank you for your lovely comment :)

      • cresta says:

        Oh no! Lindsay, say it ain’t soooo. Who dared to make confetti out of your heart? The most handsome guy ever? Boooo. Scotch tape will not do—a case of bright pink duck tape should do the trick. Do you know what I hate at moments like this? Some wise-monkey coming along with that tidbit of a Rumi- poem -turned- into -a- Leonard Cohen lyric that goes something like “we’re broken down so the light has cracks to shine through”. That can be so annoying. Here’s to a big hug from your BFF, Indian take out and a DVD of 30 Rock reruns to make you laugh or a Jane Austen flick if you want to cry some more—oxox

        • Lindsay Bell says:

          Cresta, it was indeed the M.H.M.E . Sigh. And yes, scotch tape is proving fruitless, Good Scotch on the other hand… ;)

          Your post got a serious LOL from me as I actually had a very well meaning friend send me a Leonard Cohen quote in attempts to cheer me up. Fail. Thanks for the sound advice. Calling for Baingan Ka Bharta as I type.

  12. Chelsea Langevin says:

    I’ve yet to go on a yoga retreat, so I’m glad I read this because lately that’s all my studio is talking about! I do hear a lot of positive things coming out of it, but I have to wonder if it is worth the $2K to travel to a foreign country with strangers, only to do yoga and never really see the place for yourself. Thanks for sharing this. P.S. I love this quote:

    “The thing I was trying to avoid was the very thing I invited into my life every time I made a choice to spend three hours sweating in silence at the studio or taking “vacations” that no one without a history of eating disorder would ever pay money for.”

  13. Chetana says:

    I loved this article – you really touch on a lot of issues. We tend to focus so much on retreat, when a lot of yoga is about navigating our social and community relationships, such as Patanjali’s Sutra 1:33.

    It is ironic though as Kripalu is known for connection, integration and community building. I’d recommend to anyone to take a workshop with one of their own excellent facilitators in yoga or yoga ‘off the mat’ so to speak, like Stephen Cope (Wisdom of Yoga), Ken Nelson (Facilitating Experiential Workshops), or Amy Weintraub (Yoga for Anxiety and Depression).

    Love your writing, and the addressing of issues like connecting vs. retreating, and addressing inequity as opposed to making poverty tolerable. Very Osho!

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