The air was drier than I was used to, with the barest hint of dust, reminiscent of my vacations at my cousins’ home in Northern Nigeria close to the Saharan desert. I walked into the studio, Lex Gillan, the creator of this event, was stretching in a corner of the room. I could smell coffee and the Christmasy scent of the fir trees right by the door. Exchanged a few friendly looks and nods as I found my way to my mat, I settled in for the beginning of a week-long advanced yoga training retreat at Mount Carmel monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There was no talking allowed during the first quarter of the day’s training so I poured myself a cup of coffee and sipped as I waited till we began.
Two days ago, I checked into the Santa Fe International youth hostel where I would stay for the duration of the training and prepared myself for day one the next day. I also met with Kenyetta, a fellow Houstonian who was also staying at the hostel and whom I would be carpooling with to the site of the training about fifteen minutes away at the Mount Carmel monastery.
The first day, Sunday, we assembled at the monastery at 3pm and were briefed by Lex on the week’s schedule. We also met the other three instructors; Ed Gabrielson who would be teaching us mantras and leading us through chants; Matt Russell, a Zen meditation teacher; and Richard Seagler, a professor of Religion who would be teach us about the history of Yoga’s introduction and development in the west. After this we introduced ourselves to the class. The 30 member group consisted of 95% women. There were people from all over the country and even one, Lucero, and 89 year old lady from Mexico. She was the oldest member of the group, while the youngest was a 21 year old from Texas. With the exception of two people (myself included) everybody else had taken a previous training with Lex and the Yoga institute before and most were yoga teachers. Sunday was dedicated to introductions and getting an overview of the week, the real training started on Monday morning at 7am.
I arrived around 6:45, just in time to get some much needed coffee. The first quarter of the day was meant to be spent in silence, so the studio was very quiet, when Lex began by leading us in a loving-kindness meditation and transitioned into some yoga postures. When that session ended, Ed came up next to teach us how to chant some mantras and led us in several visualization and chanting exercises, also focused on the theme of loving kindness and opening the heart. After a break Richard gave a talk about the dynamics and colonial context in which the West was introduced to Yoga and Southeast Asian philosophies. Next followed a lunch break and then a two hour space to take one of several hiking trails. I chose what I thought was an easy hike with six other classmates but soon found myself out of breath due to the altitude. But it was a fun experience getting to know the others . The views of the valley while on the trail were spectacular.
We all returned slightly spent and began a meditation led by Matt that was also centered around the heart and compassion. Veronica, one of the classmates and a Yoga instructor led us through a gentle restorative yoga session and then Lex concluded at 5pm by holding a little discussion about different challenges that pop up in teaching Yoga.
Later that evening while reflecting on the day’s training I was particularly struck by how fulfilling and engaging the whole day had been and how much the different activities and the order in which they were arranged complemented each other to produce such a powerful effect.
The first meditation of the day grounded the yoga practice which in turn opened me up and the sustained silence made the chanting that much more impactful especially when my whole body was enlivened by the Yoga. The increased body awareness made me more mindful of the sensations flowing through me as I made the vocalizations. At that fully embodied point, my intellect was engaged by Richard’s talk. The hike in nature created a spaciousness I could carry the feeling of expanded awareness into and I was able to bring that vibrant openness back to the mat and sink it deeper into my being through more meditation and Yoga in the second half of the day all the while making new friends and enjoying the beautiful city. At some point towards the end of the day, Lex checked in with me, “So, how’s it going, man?” he asked. “I cannot believe this is only the first day”, was my reply and I meant it. I already felt so inspired and clear-headed it was astounding to think that I still had four more days to go. Little did I know that the most significant part of that Monday for me would occur after I went to bed. That night, I had a particularly vivid and detailed dream that involved me weeping in public out of sympathy for an acquaintance who lost a loved one, in the dream. Two things that struck me the most later during my recollection were; first, that in the dream I was aware of and did not care that that particular setting was inappropriate for such displays of emotion; and in the dream I felt the friend’s pain and grief so acutely in my own chest, and my heart felt like it was being torn open.
Over the years as I’ve matured I’ve had more access to my emotions especially empathy and compassion but nothing like I experienced in this dream. As a boy growing up in Nigeria, from an early age I was used to suppressing strong emotions and the idea of publicly crying anywhere other than at a funeral was previously unimaginable to me given my cultural background. The next morning, I felt tremendously more open and alive. I could feel that inside I had a fundamental shift in the way I experienced the world. Everything and everyone I encountered impacted me in newer, more textured ways. And now during Tuesday morning’s meditation I had the chance to fully explore this new level of Being I had dropped into.
The rest of the week’s training kept me in that open aware state. I hadn’t felt that continuously ultra-engaged and fully-embodied moment by moment day after day since I first started practicing mindfulness years ago. The beauty of the landscape played an enormous role in keeping me in a near constant state of awe. On Thursday we had a road trip to the Benedictine abbey of Christ in the Desert, one of North America’s most remote monasteries, out in the mountains. Visitors are urged to keep as quiet as possible and above the sound of footsteps, whispering guests and occasional birds the mountain tops in the dry rocky desert seemed enveloped in an intense silence and stillness. We attended an afternoon mass and ate our lunch on the grounds. The whole experience was beautiful, including the drive.
Friday was the conclusion and we gathered at Lex’s beautiful 130 year old adobe house to officially end the training and say our farewells. As expected over the course of the week friendships were made and it was a bittersweet ending. I personally felt like I had grown and processed so much during the training that I still needed to digest and even as I write this blog almost two months after, I can still feel the deep impact the whole trip had on me on multiple levels. It was indeed a training because I learnt new yoga postures, meditation and chanting techniques but it was also a retreat because I came back feeling deeply nourished, with renewed inspiration and greater access to more of myself. On the last day of training, I enthusiastically declared to Lex that I was committed to attending the training again if he chose to have one the next year, he smiled and replied knowingly,”maybe, find out how you feel after the heat of the moment.” Well, the training happened in September and now in November, I am even more determined to attend the next one!