The Retreat Experience

By Linda Oshins

I was asked to describe the retreat experience before the Yoga on High Annual Retreat, and the very thought made me laugh. There are many varieties of experience because you come as you are and see what you see. I go on retreat every year and I have a different experience every time.
Even so, let’s look at common expectations. Some people look forward to retreat with relish. They anticipate leaving behind daily conflicts and demands, being fed every meal, and catching up on much-needed sleep. They want to practice pranayama, meditation and asana morning, noon and night. They imagine retreat as being restful and joyous. Other people are anxious about not talking, find the thought of being separated from loved-ones daunting, and can’t imagine life without the Internet. They wonder if they’ll feel isolated and unloved. They don’t want to spend full days practicing yoga.
Retreat can be difficult. In the closing circle last year, one woman said, “I really heard the accusatory and demanding voices in my head. I had no idea how negative that self-talk was and how prevalent. Just hearing that voice is an important first step. But I also realized that, though I don’t live up to my idea of a perfect wife and mother, the list of my failings is not the whole story.” She had a rocky experience on retreat and often wept, but she was grateful for it.
On the other hand, retreat can be ecstatic. Time slows, senses heighten, the heart opens, you are receptive and resonant. Colors, shapes, peoples’ faces, dawning light in the meditation hall, a walk in the labyrinth—all sweet and undiluted, unobscured. You abide in witness consciousness or in a state of pure awareness, transcending your common definitions of yourself and life around you.
Of course, most people have a combination of experiences on retreat—some challenging days, some transcendent ones. Whatever the experience, welcome it just as it is. Make the commitment to experience retreat fully, talking only when necessary. If you distract yourself, you might not accept the invitation to notice something subtle of profound importance to you. If you break silence and call your husband or wife at night because he or she is your best friend, biggest supporter, and will make you feel better, you lose the chance to look at questions like, “How can I support myself?” or “What is the root of my suffering? Where is it in my body? What is it like?” Retreat is an opportunity to be supported by your teachers and your community so that you can engage in deep exploration.
So whether you come with expectations or haven’t the slightest idea what to expect, prepare to be surprised. You may have a blissful experience from start to finish or tears along the path, but whatever your journey, you will take home some gift from retreat that nourishes, enriches, and enlightens.
Set aside the electronic devices, ask your loved-ones permission to withdraw from Friday night through mid-day Wednesday, clear your work calendar and commit yourself to unqualified, pure presence. Namaste.