Having grown up expected always to do my best, imagine my amusement when Paul Spector encouraged us not to. “Don’t do your best” was a consistent refrain as he instructed yoga postures in Tuscany this past October. That instruction helped me to remember what I had decided at the very beginning of the yoga retreat—that, with no official responsibilities, this week I would let go of doing and shift into being, into noticing, experiencing, discovering and being open to learning. This challenging shift yielded deep and unexpected results.
My initial motivation for the trip was to learn more about managing and leading a yoga retreat. Intrigued by the possibility of offering retreats, I wanted to learn from an expert. Paul Spector, with decades of experience as a yoga teacher and retreat leader, generously offered to mentor me on the retreat he was leading. I accepted the offer, knowing it would be a great opportunity to learn, as well as to visit one of the most beautiful places in the world.
As I prepared for the trip, I knew it would draw me out of my comfort zone—going to a country I’d never visited, on retreat with a teacher whose yoga teaching I hadn’t experienced, sharing a room with someone I’d met only by phone, spending a week with a group of people I didn’t know. I welcomed this kind of ‘discomfort.’ What better way to learn and grow? What I didn’t welcome was jet lag. To minimize that possibility, coffee lover that I am, I slowly, painfully went off of caffeine before the trip. I would allow myself only small amounts of coffee in Italy.
The retreat was at Ebbio, an 800-year old Tuscan farmhouse restored as a retreat center, located on a working farm with many friendly animals, olive orchards, vineyards, pine forests and exquisite views.
Our days began with 1-2 hours of meditation/pranayama and 2 hours of asana practice. After the first morning’s meditation, in small groups we were asked to share our intentions for the retreat. Something completely obvious had only gradually occurred to me–that I was not responsible for this retreat, for the organizing, teaching, driving, planning, cooking. Nor was this an official teacher training experience for me. There was nothing I had to do. I would learn about leading and managing a retreat through observation, participation and conversations with Paul. So, putting into words what had just dawned on me, I said, ‘I’m here just to open, to take in each experience, to be aware and to learn.’ With that declaration, I gave myself permission to let go of doing and shift into being, into noticing, experiencing and discovering.
But making this shift was not easy. Early in the week, I began the yoga practice in my typical way, paying attention to what I could learn as a yoga teacher from Paul, taking notes, analyzing what he said and did, writing comments later. But over time his consistent, counter-yoga-cultural instruction, ‘Don’t do your best’ began to take hold. It served as a reminder to me to let go. Whatever my ‘best’ might have been, I tried simply to be present.
Paul’s unique yoga teaching drew on what he had learned from his many teachers and experiences. His love for meditation and breathing, practices often minimized in yoga classes, was clear. Having an hour each day for breathing and meditation brought me back to their power.
Paul’s asana instruction was interestingly different from my own, especially its pace. Because I provide many alignment cues and help students to cultivate their awareness, my instruction tends to be slow. His was much slower, with many steps and details leading us gradually into a pose. Some of Paul’s words and phrases were familiar, and others were not. Taking his instruction on its own terms, I appreciated its effects—creating physical opening and deep calm. These effects were not new, but the routes there were.
Musician and kirtan leader Charlie Braun brought music to the retreat. We practiced kirtan, the powerful call and response repetition of Sanskrit mantras that is a devotional form of yoga, bhakti yoga. Although being good at singing is not a requirement for kirtan, our group was unusually musical, the strong voices and vibrations leading us to a place that was spiritual and meditative. Attuned to these vibrational qualities, one morning before breakfast a group of us gathered near the coffee machine. As the pod machine warmed up loudly, we all spontaneously chanted om at the same pitch as the machine. Bhakti yoga or coffee devotion?
Each afternoon we became tourists, exploring several of the nearby medieval towns, hiking to a vineyard and, in general, taking in some of the history and incredible beauty of this part of Tuscany. Most days, we did lots of walking. The rhythm of yoga in the morning, exploring, walking, talking and the possibility of gelato in the afternoon, seemed perfect. Yet early in the week I didn’t feel a connection between the yoga and the touring, despite some photos to the contrary—this one in Siena.
As time went on I recognized that the yoga practices—breathing, meditation, asana, kirtan helped us to open to each other more genuinely than we would have otherwise. The yoga—and practicing together—brought us to ourselves in ways that allowed us to be more open, more authentic, more empathic, more helpful to each other. The yoga in the morning changed what could happen, what did happen, later in the day. We got to know each other better than we would have had we simply been a group of people touring Tuscany.
And these were women and men worth getting to know—caring, generous and funny. Most were serious yogis, and three of us, in addition to Paul, were teachers. With varied and unusual professional backgrounds and personal histories, this older group—most in their 60’s—had, like me, done a great deal of living. Conversations ranged from personal life-changing crises and choices to employee-centric businesses to cultural differences in caring for dogs to the value of shamanic practices and, of course, to which gelato shop and flavor were most fabulous. This was Italy, after all!
This was also a yoga retreat, after all. So there were conversations about yoga, about people’s history with yoga, connections to particular teachers or styles of yoga, and how yoga had helped them—and still helps them—through physical, emotional and spiritual challenges. I heard consistent stories about the benefits of the yoga practice, as well as considerable passion about their teacher or style of yoga. I too have my strong beliefs, but these conversations reminded me of the value of the rich variety of teachers and ‘yogas’ that we have in this country.
The Tuscan food at Ebbio was fresh, simple, local, naturally and interestingly flavored, and totally delicious. I loved it that, one day when we needed more time for yoga before lunch, chef Lucca said that the pasta was ready and had to be eaten immediately. So we did. The food had to be respected. The yoga could wait. Perhaps respecting that lovingly-prepared food, eating it on time, was yoga.
Throughout the retreat I noticed how it was being managed, what the challenges were, how issues were resolved, and days made to go as smoothly as possible by Paul and those who helped him. Paul was available toward the end of each day to answer my questions and respond to my observations. In a post-retreat discussion several weeks later, he filled in more details and offered useful advice.
On the last day of the retreat, because Paul had to leave early, the other two teachers and I led the asana practice. Having ventured far out of the doing mode all week, I felt some reluctance to return to my yoga teacher self. Needless to say, I overcame the resistance and totally enjoyed leading these amazing yogis through an asana practice and being led by the other two teachers. We all got to know each other better through the yoga….again.
Now, in January 2016, I find myself surprised by some of the effects of this brief retreat, effects I’m still enjoying.
The retreat has affected the rhythm of my everyday life. Having discovered how deeply I benefitted from spending some time outdoors every day, I have added time outdoors in the afternoon—walking, hiking, shoveling snow—as often as I can. I do love the outdoors, but not usually in winter. Getting out into the light during this dark time of year, for even a short period of time, is making winter easier for me.
My cooking and caffeine consumption have shifted. I’ve been adding Tuscan dishes to my repertoire, and favor olive oil over butter for my bread. Having discovered that I really don’t need 4 to 6 coffee measures of coffee each morning, I’m sticking with 2. My body thanks me.
As a yoga teacher, the retreat reminded me of how much a teacher can offer over the course of a week, with 3-4 hours of each day devoted to a powerful range of yoga practices and a whole week to weave them together in meaningful ways. Typical yoga classes of 60 to 90 minutes naturally limit the scope of what we can do. I came away with a longing to teach more of what I know and love, to share more broadly and deeply what I have integrated from my many teachers and life experiences.
At the same time, I came away from the retreat with a deeper appreciation of the variety of yoga teaching in this country, and of its powerful effects.
My initial goal to learn about leading and managing a yoga retreat was amply met. Paul’s insights and my own observations have provided a trustworthy foundation. Thank you, Paul.
And, most of all, I learned how much can happen when I open to my experience and don’t do my best.