How a bacon-loving "non-yogi" escaped her hectic city life and found enlightenment on a vegetarian yoga retreat (sort of).
Getty Images/ Hans Huber/ Red Chopsticks Images
"Let's go out for burgers on Sunday when I get back," I said to my husband as I finished packing my small suitcase for a long weekend in the Catskills, a couple hours away by car from my home in Brooklyn.
I was about to embark upon my very first yoga retreat with 25 or so strangers. The yoga instructor, Miriam Wolf, was the only person I'd know (though maybe I'd recognize a face or two from her popular yoga classes in the city).
The retreat information offered was sparse from my fastidious planning perspective. Five classes and chef-prepared, vegetarian meals by Sweet Bean Eats, and an instruction to bring warm clothing and wine if we wanted to sip something by the nightly campfires.
I've been practicing yoga for a fairly long time, but I have attended classes with little consistency since moving to NYC in 2007. I don't call myself a yogi, though I suppose to someone who has never done yoga before, I am one.
Still, I'm far more into running than I am into yoga. For one thing, it's a heck of a lot cheaper. All I need to do is lace up and head to the park. With yoga, I need to carve out 90 minutes plus the time it takes to travel to and from class. And I need to shell out approximately $20 per session. Not nearly as bank-breaking as say, SoulCycle or the latest trending workout, but more than it costs to do a 3-mile run—and it takes four times as long. So, I practice yoga when I'm preparing for a marathon. Because I'm lazy about stretching, it helps that a standard Vinyasa class provides plenty of limb-stretching opportunities. I'm certain my hips are better because of pigeon pose. (Related: 11 Yoga Poses Every Runner Needs to Know)
At this point in my yoga journey (first time I've ever called it that, by the way), I can hold my own in a challenging class. (Miriam's classes are arguably some of the most rigorous in the city.) And I'm even pretty good at a lot of the poses. For example, my long limbs make me a great binding candidate. I can also do a headstand in the middle of the room and often stay up for several minutes. When I manage to balance on my head like that without wobbling, it's my favorite pose. I hate triangle pose. And standing split. And sometimes, in class, I just want to stay in child's pose forever.
I've never bought a monthly yoga membership. I don't own the classic yoga props (strap, blocks, bolster), and my mat is so old and crappy that I actually borrowed a friend's for the retreat! I like the idea of a solo home practice, but I'm simply not disciplined enough to pull that off.
So what business exactly did I have going on a yoga retreat? Hard to say. Life had been feeling particularly hectic, and I felt like a break was in order. A three-day city escape seemed to fit the bill. My husband agreed to dog duty and there I was: yoga-bound!
My late registration, unfortunately, meant that I missed my chance to stay in a private room. Instead, I'd be sleeping in one giant room—the yoga studio itself, in fact—with all those strangers.
Miriam had described it as "basically the best sleepover party ever," but I knew better, double-checking before I left to meet my ride (yes, another perfect stranger) that I had foam earplugs, an eye mask, and an emergency Xanax. If the yoga's working, I told myself (along with anyone who asked about the set up), I should be okay.
Alas, there's no point in sugarcoating it: The first night I slept poorly. Latecomers getting settled into sleeping pallets mere inches from me, one and a half bathrooms for nearly 20 people, and too-hot heated floors all proved challenging. Yet at the end of the second day, after more than three hours of exercise and a decent amount of red wine by the fire, I slept more or less soundly. And by the third night, I was a rock.
Each day started with coffee, homemade cashew milk and granola, and hard-boiled eggs, followed by 90+ minutes of yoga, followed by brunch, followed by a whole lot of free time. The unaccounted-for time, more than anything else, felt foreign. Should I read my book? Go for a walk? Engage in conversation? Play a game? Stare out into the distance over the mountains? The yoga was one thing, but the freedom from distractions took a bit of getting used to.
Photo: Kim Brooks
There was also the whole no-meat thing. I love vegetables and typically make myself inventive salads for lunch, but my diet is quite balanced. Last week I seared a duck breast for dinner; there's almost always a "meat" protein in dinners I cook and in the ones I eat out. While I respect that a vegetarian diet works for some people, a life without bacon? No, thank you! While, for full disclosure, I started to experience some stomach issues from all the fiber and raw greens I was consuming (one little-discussed side-effect of going vegan), I was surprised that the dishes served during the retreat were delicious and hearty.
Then there was the whole spiritual component. I had never been invested in yoga philosophy, always caring more about the body workout than the mind, even though I know both matter. Before the first class, Miriam explained that the weekend's practice was structured around the chakras (energy centers in the body through which energy flows) and their related elements. We started with the root chakra (earth) and finished with the throat chakra (ether), essentially working our way up through the body. (Related: The Non-Yogi's Guide to the 7 Chakras)
It's with a bit of skepticism then that I say I started feeling more incredible as the weekend went on (could the chakra work be credited?), in spite of finding myself incredibly sore by Saturday morning, the second full day of the retreat. Overall, I felt the yoga retreat was doing its job, even if articulating exactly what that means is a struggle. Maybe the energy was coursing through my body as we worked through the chakras? Or maybe I was just loving temporarily abandoning life's inevitable tedium? It was pretty incredible to feel so at ease with people who, hours earlier, I didn't know from Eve. I may not have found my new best friend or even people I'd be having regular dinners with back in the city, but to me, what I discovered in the ease and peace of this company was all I really needed.
In spite of the slight discomfort and the inevitable increasing soreness in my entire body, I persevered. I wasn't about quitting a marathon at mile 22, and I wasn't going to skip one of the five classes I'd come for (and paid for). I don't know if it was a complete emotional release or mind-body exhaustion or simply the song in the background, but by the last class, I felt tears welling up in my eyes as I flowed through Surya Namaskar A (sun salutation).
The weekend opened my eyes up to yoga in a new way. I was never worried that I'd be able to do the three-plus hours of yoga two days in a row with yet another class the last morning of the retreat, but I wasn't sure if I'd be able to stay present during that many sessions. After all, I was accustomed to using yoga to break up my running regimen. Now it was replacing running completely—at least for the three days I was away. One evening at dinner, I spoke to a woman who told me she used to be a runner. Then, she discovered yoga during a particularly difficult period in her life and when she realized that it was doing more for her than running ever did, she became a devoted follower, eschewing the pavement for the studio.
I don't see myself ever giving up running. I like the marathon distance and all the training that goes into it. But perhaps I could view yoga in a fresh light. Rather than relying on it for running recovery, maybe I could make it its own thing. Back in the city, when I received a promotional email to purchase three classes for $30 at a studio where Miriam teaches, I immediately entered my credit card information, and on my calendar this week, I've blocked off time to attend not one, but two classes!
In a perfect world, I'd only ever practice like we did on the retreat: in the mountains, in a sun-drenched studio with no ugly street sounds or a subway to catch as soon as the last om was uttered. With superfoods laid out before me right after class. With new friends who also didn't need to catch a train to make it to the next thing, the next obligation. But for now, I'll settle for fitting it into my real life.
When I returned home on Sunday, I went out for burgers with my husband, relishing every juicy bite. Then I basked in my "yoga brain"—a good, floaty feeling—and contemplated Sicily in April, the location of Miriam's next retreat. At the very least, I think I'll buy a new yoga mat.