Last month, I went on an intensive week-long yoga retreat at an Ayurvedic resort nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains near Rishikesh, India.
Since I’ve come back, everyone is just dying to know how it went, and I always say the same thing: “Oh my god, it was amazing. So transformational. So life-changing.” They squeal with delight. It’s what they want to hear. It’s also bullshit.
But, apparently, I have to say that, because anytime I’ve told anyone the truth (“It was nice. You know, some good, some bad, like any other vacation, really”) they seem so disappointed that it wasn’t an experience that is worthy of a best-selling beach book for bored housewives trying to find themselves, I feel like I’ve just told a five-year-old that Santa isn’t real. It also seems to make them think that this trip that I’d basically spent all summer planning/wigging out about was a “failure,” which is certainly not how I feel. But I’ll get to that.
Let’s rewind. I first got into yoga about three years ago and quickly fell in love with both the practice and the community it came with. It felt like the antidote to the toxic, dramatic, Russian, it’s-always-Chernobyl-every-day household I grew up in. I was in my 20s and living with a couple of hippies when I found out that not everyone starts off their morning by chain smoking on their balcony while staring out into the void. Anxiety was not called “anxiety” in my house; it was called “Tuesday.”
And, indeed, yoga has helped my mental health immensely over the years: I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and adopted many beneficial principles along the way. But there’s always a part of me that feels like a fraud around hardcore yogis. I am not kinetically gifted, so yoga is hard for me. I am also not naturally present; I drift off and get lost in thought a lot, which never fails to make them say, “Are you OK?” in a well-meaning way that nevertheless makes me feel really self-conscious. And—no matter how hard I try—there’s a bit of a darkness to me, a darkness I feel like they can intuitively sense, a darkness I inherited from my father that I may never fully be able to shed, one that will never make me one of them.
So, every so often, I do something in an attempt to go “full hippie,” and this retreat was the latest iteration of that.
“Just you wait,” I told my boyfriend as I packed my mumu and elephant pants, “When I come back, I’m going to be a whole new person. Maybe I’ll quit drinking and eating meat and I’ll wear tunics everywhere and talk about crystals.”
“Mhmmm,” was his appropriately unconvinced response.
But I meant it. I went into the retreat with the best intentions and gave it my all. But, whenever I do something like this, I always come across things that I also find toxic. It’s different from the toxic that I grew up with, but it’s toxic enough to make me want to run back into the arms of the toxic I’m at least already familiar with.
First of all, there’s the inauthenticity. Don’t get me wrong; everyone on the retreat was very nice, but when you get to the end and everyone is hugging and crying, I feel like a stereotypical man, as all I can sincerely cough up in response to their “I love you”s is “I…really enjoyed spending time with you.” I mean, for fuck’s sake, we spent a week doing yoga at a wellness center; we didn’t serve in ‘Nam. Yes, Sharon, I will always cherish that time you lent me your water bottle but, no, realistically, I do not love you and I will not be coming to your bake sale.
My yoga instructor has always been a bit…quirky, but she went really hard on the “I’m a spiritual guru who’s one step away from being a deity” beat. It seemed very important for everyone to do whatever she said without question and to have a particular reaction. When she asked for feedback on some of the ceremonies we did and temples we visited, it was very obvious that I was supposed to say, “Oh my goodness, that was so incredible. I felt like I could hear the Divine Mother speaking to me.” If I just smiled and said, “Thank you, that was really nice,” she looked at me like she wanted to throw me into the fire pit along with the orange carnations and coconuts. I get that she had her fantasy of how things were going to go and it was incumbent upon all of us to play into it, but I still think trying to control another human being’s emotional reaction to something is kind of toxic.
I’ve been through this before. I tend to gravitate toward yoga instructors who want to be spiritual gurus, and I historically do so when I’m in a place in my life in which I feel very lost and anxious. Once I’m in a more calm and centered headspace, however, I typically feel like the level of obedience, devotion, and adulation that they demand is, at best, unhealthy. And when I try to draw some boundaries, they respond by shutting me out entirely.
Case in point: even though nothing remotely dramatic happened between us and I still wrote her a very grateful thank-you card at the end of the trip, I came home to find a long text message from her telling me I should perhaps “step away” from taking her class. I’ve been dumped by hippies before and I always find it insufferable. They don’t have the courage to do it in person, tell you the truth, and deal with the inevitable emotional fallout. Instead they send texts and couch it with seemingly well-intentioned language like “I just don’t want us to develop unnecessary karmas” and the oh-so-passive aggressive “I hope you find some solace and peace in your mind <prayer emoji>” which leaves you with no option but to write “Of course, I understand <prayer emoji>” all of which is so fake and, in some ways, cruel. I grew up around people who were almost aggressively real with one another, and if you threw a plate at the wall because they said something that really hurt you, they went, “Yeah, fair, I’d probably feel the same way,” which is a lot more empathetic and noble in my book.
I still really enjoyed the retreat, and I got what I wanted out of it, which is to say that I came back feeling a lot more calm, centered, and in touch with myself than when I left. And I did have revelations—they were just almost the opposite of the revelations I thought I was going to have.
There was a particular moment at one point while I was struggling in shoulder stand, when a voice in my head—a voice I’ve heard before and intrinsically trust—that said, “Girl, why are you trying so hard to be something you’re not, and simultaneously letting something you are slowly wither and die?” I knew immediately what that meant. Again, the yogi life does not come naturally to me. That’s OK; I think it’s important to challenge yourself and to evolve and grow.
But, in my zealous pursuit of becoming someone who drinks turmeric lattes while in headstand, I’d also neglected a lot of things that I am naturally good at that also bring me joy, like writing. In fact, it suddenly felt stupid that I’d never considered going on a writing retreat for a vacation, given that drinking wine while talking to people about their troubled childhoods is a hell of a lot more my idea of “fun” than eating vegan mush and going to bed at 9 p.m. in the jungle.
And I have always been firmly of the opinion that there are many, many ways to lead a “good life.”
When we got back to Delhi, my friends and I treated ourselves to a really nice hotel. On our first night, I got all dressed up, put on my favorite pair of heels, went down to the gorgeous oak bar in the lobby, ordered a dirty martini with blue-cheese stuffed olives, got hit on by an international businessman, opened my laptop, and started to write. “This…” I thought, smiling to myself while sipping my drink and tapping the keyboard, “…is who I really am.”