I’m back at the yoga retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand for an 11-day stretch. Literally a stretch since we do four hours of yoga and meditation a day, so my hamstrings are getting loose and limber.
And the physical practice of yoga is a challenge, of course. Using your hand as a shoe and balancing your curled-up body on just your hands in crow pose takes work. It’s a kind of external work I find comforting in its routine and the clear benchmarks of progress.
In the past months, I’ve learned more about the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of yoga. They’re less obvious, and less impressive to the outsider (there’s no internal version of a handstand), but a whole other world of rewards.
The yoga poses, or asanas, are meant to prepare the body for sitting in meditation. I used to have this image of a sage meditator sitting effortlessly cross legged, enjoying her empty mind. But now I know that’s an false ideal. Meditating is fucking hard. My legs go prickly and then numb every time, flies crawl up my nose, the metal zipper on my hoodie runs its cold teeth against my soft and sensitive chest as I sit.
And that’s only the physical hardships.
Letting the waves of your thoughts crash over you, without resistance or judgement, accepting whatever comes up, is a life’s work. I sit still with my numb toes and my too-tender heart listening to all the frightening and frightened things my mind says. I sit through tears, through terror, through old and buried trauma, through the boredom and the numbness and the mindless chatter my mind tries to distract me with.
I love when we chant mantras or sing (called a kirtan), even though otherwise public singing is my living nightmare. But as our voices weave together into the ritual songs to the monkey-god Hanoman, my little monkey mind quiets. It stops scanning the horizon for bugs or bananas or a mate and it sits its little tail down, lulled by the repetitive chants.
Lately I’ve also visualized my meditations. Laying in the surf as the waves crash onto my feet over and over, constant in their changefulness. Floating away from the noisy swell of my thoughts into the vast ocean of my consciousness. Cleansing my darkness in a Balinese water temple, watching it float peacefully away with my flower offerings. Water images are constant for me too – cooling my melting body in the 100 degree heat, cleansing and purifying and slowly changing all it touches.
What a gift to find a place where I can sink safely into all of this. The smooth polished wood of the shala floor holds me up as I drift into my consciousness. Surrounded by the sweet kindness of the teachers and students and staff here, I can peer into those dark corners and know I’m not alone. I glide down the stairs after practice and nourish myself with thick vegan waffles and piles of fresh sweet mango. I shower under the stars each night with my heady vanilla soap. I slip into my soft bed with soft sheets and let the crickets sing me to sleep. The gong goes off at 5:30 am and I do it all again.
And when I’m really sad and really lucky, a little cat finds me and I’m whole again.