yoga for change

Why a yoga retreat can make all the difference

I went on a yoga retreat a few years back (one that I wasn't running, I mean).

I really needed to go. I'd had a rough year and I was feeling frayed around the edges. I didn't know what I was looking for, really, except that it would be nice to be somewhere warm at the end of the Winter, and it would be nice having someone else take care of meals and of how the day would be structured. I was so tired by that point, even cooking meals sounded too hard.

The retreat had a pretty loose structure: yoga in the morning, breakfast, maybe an outing or some hanging around the pool, lunch, a massage or a nap, then yoga in the evening.

Yes, I could have done all these things by myself, but what a difference it made being in a beautiful tropical place with a bunch of like-minded people who I could hang out with when I felt like it.

Plus doing that much yoga - it seems to change things. 

Obviously there's the exercise component (most of us don't move enough in our day to day lives, and that stresses our bodies). But there was also the mind stuff - the way, after a few days, I stopped endlessly ruminating, stopped grinding my teeth, settled into a calmer place in myself.

It was like no other holiday I'd ever had. I learned so much about yoga on that retreat.

And so much about how to manage myself.

That's what made me decide to RUN a retreat. And it turns out, those retreats often make the same difference for other people. Here's what an attendee of the 2011 retreat had to say about her experience:

A yoga retreat is a really good way to unwind, deeply unwind. It's a GREAT way to get deeper into your yoga practice because there's time to ask questions and workshop things.

It's also a nice way to spend a holiday with friends or family - there's enough structure that you won't be driving each other mad all day, enough looseness that you can go off and do your own activities as well. Once family will be joining us for a third time this year! 

For me, going on that retreat all those years ago was a turning point: after six months of Extreme Stress, grinding my teeth to chips (I kid you not, don't ask how much I spent on dental bills that year) and of failing health, I felt like a different person when I got home. It lasted for months afterwards, too.

I think the top-up I got at that retreat might have been the impetus to do a bunch of difficult things I needed to do in my personal life. I just somehow felt I would be OK, which I hadn't felt before. 

Now, if I could only find a way to bottle that retreat zen for the times of the year when I get stressed out!

Oh, and if you want to know more about our retreat this year - clickety click.

How not to freak out too much about change.

Recently I had a week where I was so bone tired I could barely get out of bed; there was no way I was going to be able to focus on anything other than work that was absolutely necessary (even that was a struggle).

At the end of that week I got on my yoga mat for my morning yoga session and came into child's pose. Then I started crying. And there I stayed for my entire yoga practice.

Crying. And a little bit embarrassed about it.

Crying in child's pose: a legitimate yoga practice. Really.

Crying in child's pose: a legitimate yoga practice. Really.

I didn't really know why I was crying -- nothing had happened in that week to upset or tire me especially. It took me a little while to work out what was going on: basically my body and my mind were just…done...after several months of significant change in my life.

My work circumstances had changed, I'd started a research degree, and I'd moved house.

I'm very grateful for all of these changes —they've brought amazing things into my life.

Change is not inherently good or bad: usually it's a bit of both. But, big or small, positive or negative, it can be overwhelming, especially if we don't have the space to process how we feel about it.

The same thing can happen, hopefully on a smaller scale, when there's a change of plans in our day (think cancelled meeting or coffee date with a friend). Disappointment, upset, fear, anger, frustration, mild panic even. These are all normal possible emotional reactions to change, along with the more pleasant ones. But they may not be the best way to respond to change—a response being what we actually do with those emotions and the situation.

This is where yoga comes in.

Yoga is essentially a practice of noticing what's going on for us. It's supposed to provide a safe space for us to notice our stuff (sadly, we all have it) and just give it some space to breathe.

It's also about learning skills to deal with that stuff (because letting it all just hang around isn't really all that helpful, is it?) so we can respond to any given situation more *ahem* helpfully.

I've talked before about the fascinating research which found that different types of physical exercise stimulate different parts of the brain.

Anaerobic exercise, which is stretching or strength training (yoga, anyone?) appears to increase activity in the part of the brain that helps us to resolve conflict and to distinguish between confusing sources of stimulation. That conflict could be internal stuff, or it might be because someone has just cancelled a meeting on you for the third time in a row.

Moving the physical body is a pretty amazing mood regulator and will often help with whatever level of weird is going on in the mind.

If, like me, what you notice is that you're feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to stay in child's pose for the entire practice, lie in constructive rest, or do some slow stretching. If you notice that you're more restless you might need to be more active (sun salutes and standing poses, perhaps) to use up some of that excess energy.

But how do you know unless you take a moment or two to notice?

Perhaps the biggest thing for me about learning to observe my mental and emotional states, as well as my physical body, is that I've gradually got better at seeing when I might need to go a little easy on myself (hint: more often than I actually do). 

To practice noticing, try this:

Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Maybe even come into child's pose. Perhaps put on a piece of tinkly relaxy music that lasts for five or ten minutes.

Start by noticing the sounds you can hear around you.

Then notice where your body touches the floor and how that feels. Go back to noticing the sounds around you. Then come back to your body, notice your breath.

Go back to the sounds.

Come back again to the body, see if you can notice your heart beat. If you can feel or hear it, just observe it for a while. If you can't, that's okay, instead see if you can notice how your chest moves with your breath.

Now, do you notice any emotions or thoughts that come up, in just the same way as you've been watching your physical body—as if you're an outside observer? See if you can just let those things come and go for a while. Let your mind wander. If anything is a bit too much and you feel overwhelmed, that's okay, just come back to noticing your heart beat or your breath.

When your music finishes, bring your focus back to your breath for a few minutes. Wriggle your toes and fingers, take a few deeper than normal breaths. When you do get up, get up slowly.

You can do this sitting at your desk too, just sitting, without anybody noticing. And the more often you do it, the better you get at it. Practise makes... well, not perfect, but better. 

Legs up the wall is another great pose to do this witnessing exercise. Take a load off!

Legs up the wall is another great pose to do this witnessing exercise. Take a load off!