The city has given way to the country. Gaudy shopfronts have become apartment buildings, bridges, hulking billboards and now, suddenly, there is only low morning sunlight, dazzling through skinny trees. As always, I am amazed at how quickly New York City can be left behind.
I had that same thought last year, on my first journey to Kripalu, a yoga retreat in the Berkshire Mountains, four hours from New York. And as the bus winds past forests and rivers, I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of making the trip a second time, how easily happy memories can morph into clawing expectations.
The end of March last year was hot, as hot as any Irish summer day. Of course, I had no sunscreen and as I explored the labyrinth in the grounds my neck and shoulders burned bright red. This year, as we disembark from the bus, snow is swirling in thick flakes and I am envious of my fellow travellers in their Timberland boots. My feet, in Converse, are already freezing and once again, it seems, I’m arriving unprepared.
We check in with military precision, receive colour coded badges based on our workshops. Kripalu runs a wide spectrum, everything from nutrition to NLP. Once again, I am taking Elena Brower’s ‘Art of Attention’ yoga workshop. To say this workshop changed my life last year would be an exaggeration – but only just.
Snow has clogged the labyrinth, making the tiny trails invisible, so instead I tramp around the meditation garden, making my initials from my footprints in the snow. Afterwards, it’s time to check into my dorm room and get ready for the first class.
As I unpack, I’m looking forward to stretching out the imprints of the journey from my body. Ever since I started yoga, I’ve had a fondness for a Friday evening practice. My twenty something self would have been part confused, part mortified at this blatant waste of a Friday night in an ‘exercise class,’ being totally convinced, as she was, that post work pints with slurring work colleagues were the only way to ease into the weekend. The thought that I can be so utterly wrong about my sense of the future would sometimes make me nervous, but tonight it makes me smile.
The practice is gentle, opening unexpectedly with chocolates and flowers. Elena asks us to set an intention for the weekend, and as night falls on the mountains outside, she takes us through an eclectic and totally perfect sequence, all the while urging us to make space, to let go, to release ourselves from the grip of blame.
Blame was a big topic last year too, something I didn’t think applied to me. Everything in my life was fine, and even if it wasn’t, blame wasn’t my style. I was sure of that, on the Friday night when we started practice I was sure, but as the weekend wore on I started to see things a little differently. It was five months then, after my big move from Dublin to New York, and I was still grappling with the absence of so many things that were thousands of miles away – family and friends went without saying but there were so many hundreds of smaller things too. Things that should be insignificant but weren’t insignificant at all – my car, my hairdresser, the cheese I liked, my brands of deodorant and moisturiser, my kettle - the things that for 37 years had been the basic scaffolding of my life. A life I’d given up to be with my partner in New York.
And there it was – in that sentence, I saw it, different words that spelled out the same word: blame. A life I’d given up to be with my partner in New York. As long as I said those words – to my partner, to my friends, even to myself – I’d be holding her accountable, slicing off another little sliver of blame to add to the wedge of it that threatened to grow between us.
Lights are out by 10pm in the dorm rooms and lying in my bottom bunk - after only three bumps of my head on the iron bedframe - I recall how that simple realisation changed everything. Coming home on the Sunday night, I told on myself to my partner, admitted that I had - on some level - been blaming her every time my new life didn’t hold up to my vision for it, every time I didn’t want to feel the sadness of leaving my old one. I asked her to call me on it, to help me see it when I was falling back into it. And she did, now and then, and after a time, less and less. On the edge of sleep I try to think of the last time she has had to, and I can’t remember.
Saturday morning, 7am and I’m last out of the dorm. Outside, the air is cold as a pane of glass and I jog carefully, wary of patches of ice. The intention I set last night, ‘to be more authentically myself’ seems to grow clearer, like the lines of colour in the sky that seep through the trees. Picking up speed past snowy fields and sleeping houses, being authentically myself seems like the easiest thing in the world to be.
Six years ago, before I started yoga, I don’t think I used the word ‘authentic’ very often. I knew what it meant – of course I did – but I didn’t waste time thinking about it, reflecting on it. There was too much else to do – work for one thing and in the precious free moments when not at working, a whirl of social plans with friends and acquaintances and work colleagues and family. There were always things to be bought and used and replaced and cleaned and trips to plan and go on and more work to be done to pay for it all. Who had time to navel gaze about ‘authentic selves’? Wasn’t the whole point about life that you had to just get on with it and not be caught hanging around at the starting line when everyone else was already half way through?
I don’t remember exactly when it was that the thought first sneaked under the barbed wire of busyness and into the centre stage of my consciousness. The thought that became a question, that became the only question: what if this life - the life I was living – wasn’t the one I had chosen? What if it was someone else’s life – my mother’s maybe, or my best friend’s or some convoluted mix of things I’d seen on TV? I knew enough to know there was no ‘undo’ icon, that this was no dress rehearsal. Wasn’t it worth checking that out? Checking in? Just to be sure?
This question – I should add - was not what brought me to yoga. No, my first motivation for yoga was far simpler: I wanted to tone up, get more flexible. I was a runner, I went to the gym, but my knees hurt and my back hurt. At thirty years old, my doctor had said it was to be expected. ‘Wear and tear,’ she said. Some people said yoga might help, and hey, who wouldn’t want a yoga body?
My body, it turned out, was not well equipped for yoga. Maybe it had been once, but the patterns of life had taken its toll and I was stiff and solid in places that I didn’t know the name for, parts of my body that before yoga, I didn’t seem to know existed. Six years on, I am less stiff, less solid but the rate of change in flexibility – in my left hip, my shoulders - has been slow and stubborn and frustrating. But was has changed, what started to change soon after I first stepped onto the mat, was the way I saw the world, the way I saw myself.
It would be much too simplistic to write here that it was yoga that made me see that I wanted to be a writer, that I am made for a non-profit rather than a corporate world, that I could finally accept at the age of 35, that I was gay. But what I do know, is that through all those transitions, those canyons of change, that showing up on the mat again and again and again has helped me and guided me in ways that I never thought possible, because it is on the mat that I am able to connect, once again, with that deepest part of myself.
Saturday morning’s practice is more vigorous, with lots of Vinyasa. Elena mixes in Kundalini and Yin yoga and by the time we are doing a ‘crea’ to a perfectly chosen soundtrack, my body is shaking from exertion. Once again, the yoga mat has served as a petri dish of my life and in the hugging of muscle to bone, the directing of my breath into tight pockets of cells where tension lies, I have a rare opportunity to see things exactly as they are. Thoughts rise, as thoughts always do. Some of them are familiar – the things I was shocked to see when I first started to practice: my challenge with staying present, my competitive nature, my tendency to compare, to judge, to be harsh on people, especially myself. They rise and fall with my breath, I see them, I let them go.
By the time I roll up my mat every cell in my body is tingling. It has been a good practice - a great one. Unlike my first year or so when a good practice was when I made it through a whole class without being ‘corrected’ by the teacher, now a good class is where I have mostly stayed in my own head, my own body. To be able to exchange a few words with the woman next to me and realise that I was hardly aware of her presence, therein lies the victory.
After lunch we practice again and I am relieved to know that like last year, the evening class will be ‘off the mat’, a Q&A session conducted within the framework of Elena’s work with the Handel Group. We are invited to create a vision for an area of our lives where we want to focus our attention – we have 18 to choose from, covering everything from sex to spirituality.
Last year, I crafted a vision for my relationship, a place where I wanted myself and my partner to be. I didn’t read it out to the group; only a short year ago I was much too afraid to be so outspoken about my sexuality. But I listened and I refined it, and what I wrote down a year ago is not dissimilar to the relationship I have today, the relationship that has had room to blossom in so many other ways once the weeds of blame were uprooted.
This year, I choose my writing as my vision. And this year, in a candlelit studio, I read it out.
Sunday comes with the last class, as the last class always does. As a class, we have gotten to know each other a little. A woman tells me my writing dream has inspired her. A young guy with slick backed hair and bulging muscles shyly hands me a pamphlet on a Women Writers’ Festival.
The practice is slower, preparing us for our journey – the next phase of it. Elena shares more about her own practice, her own life – tips on how to take our visions with us, in our hearts, instead of leaving them waiting for us in the woods of Kripalu until we next return.
Afterwards, I walk to the labyrinth in the hope the thaw has been enough to expose its winding paths. Where there was snow, now there is slushy mud, but I persevere, doubling back on myself to avoid the impassable parts. I am not following the right path, I know, but I am tracing a new one.
I think again about my writing vision, what I have to do to put it into practice. In the search for my authentic self, I have always been grateful to have writing as my foundation – the first thing I knew with absolute certainty that my life needed to have a space for. In many ways, writing and yoga aren’t so different – there’s always been an indefinable physicality to the act of writing for me, words rising up from somewhere in my body. Over the weekend, Elena talked about listening and my best writing has always felt like an act of listening and not of producing at all – that all I need to do is be still, listen, and get out of my own way.
Walking back towards the main building, the hill is a patchwork of green and white. Below, the lake is hidden under a sheet of ice, but I know that it will be melting around the edges, that soon it will be water again.
At the end of my second trip to Kripalu, I hope this won’t be the last journey I will make here - I know I have so much more to find. Last year’s workshop came at the exact time it was needed, with an immediate and obvious action to be taken. The effects of this year’s will be slower, gradual, less to do with action and more to do with patience, consistency – a nudge along a path I’ve been carving out with care rather than a jerk back to the right one.
And looking down at my Converse, sliding on the slippery grass, I know the trick is to take each step with courage, with breath, with the trust that no matter what the terrain, I will always be in the right shoes.