Reflections on a Summer Retreat
Before the sun, a new moon rises - a slender crescent against a dark sky - and my heart lifts. I wake my beloved sister and we walk silently towards the still-dark quiet of the Sardinian sea. Before we reach the deserted beach, the promise of dawn shows itself mauve and lavender in hue. From the path’s edge, a faint scent of wild fennel spills as we pass by, and cockerels, distant in the hills, call and respond to the coming of a greater light.
At my favourite spot - the end of a board-walk that later in the day will lead soft-footed bathers towards the water across the unforgiving pebbles of the beach - an elderly bespectacled widow dressed all in black - hair covered in the traditional way - rests on the stability of an over-turned boat. Very still, silent and alone, she waits here each day and watches patiently until the crimson orb of the sun suddenly shimmers into view, disrupting the perfect line of the sea’s horizon with fiery, morning glory.
My sister and I free our selves of clothes and wade happily into the surprising warmth and darkness of mercurial waters; I feel the old woman’s eyes on us, but sense no disapproval, and imagine that she enjoys our freedom of spirit and movement. Together, we swim towards the horizon until the pull of sun and moon begins to move the water and stir the waves from their slumber. Easily, my sister stretches out to float, her ears submerged, and I know that before any other human disturbance, she is listening to the sound of the sea - alive, all alive, all around.
Before long, as the sun quickly establishes its taken for granted presence in the sky, we are moved to return to shore, and see that the elderly woman has already started her return journey. Bent over, leaning on her stick, she makes her way along the board-walk toward the beautiful pine trees lining the beach, and beyond those, to the dusty road. I wonder about her story, and feel sure that, like us, she has consoled herself, and found joy in the awe and wonder of celestial bodies rising on our planet.
Energised by a dawn swim, deeply comforted by my sister’s company, and inspired by the dedication of this elderly woman whose day begins with such a quiet and simple, but spectacular act of devotion, it is not difficult for me, and my beloved daughter, (who lends her beautiful presence to the work of assisting me on retreat), to encourage others on yoga retreat with us in Sardinia to rise early and come together to salute the sun.
Surrounded by all the elements – sun, sea, sky and land - it is easier for us to persuade people to drag themselves out of bed and join the enquiry of a morning yoga practice. Sleepily, and more, or less grumpily, guests make their way among the striking, terracotta- orange of our shared dwellings and through the peace and quiet of flower-filled gardens; traipsing slowly up hill, they straggle in twos, threes and solitary ones, and I imagine they are slowly seduced to wakefulness and gain encouragement each day from the stunning sight of a Sardinian sunrise.
Softly, a warm breeze blows through the beautiful open-air yoga shala, and gently, guests are persuaded by the idea that the effort is worthwhile of reaching our vantage point overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I know it is not easy to arrive to a morning yoga practice through the invitation of a seated morning meditation. This is often the most challenging part of a retreat – the invitation to be still, and, sitting in stillness, to explore what it might mean to sit well with one’s self. If only the focus of the retreat was simply the execution of difficult physical postures, that would be easier. Wouldn’t it be so welcome - the constant challenge of movement, the distraction of gymnastic instructions and the possibility to rush headlong, towards a sense of achievement? Instead, the idea is that in a comfortable seated position, with a growing awareness of the rise and fall of the breath, and resting in the steadiness of that tidal motion, we can, patiently, find sufficient courage to tune into and pay attention to the inner landscape.
This, as I understand it, is part of the objective of yoga - to learn how to listen to the body - to practice the art of discernment, exploring what kind of knowledge can be discovered by gazing inwards. How does the breath move the form of the body? What is the feeling of the physical form of the body on any particular morning? How do emotions take up residence and inhabit the body, creating sudden upward surges of joy, for example, or coalescing in long-held angers that create holding patterns in the form? What is the quality of the mind – is it easy to settle in the breath, or does it run away with itself like a crazy horse as the mind is want to do? And, what is the quality of the energy – is it full and freely moving - or is there a sense of tightness, weakness, or contraction in the subtle, vital form of the body?
Gradually, with a regular practice, meditation becomes a precious skill, a craft to be savoured - the chance to practice coming to a place of stillness, to feel and enquire – using the body as a finely balanced barometer – posing anew the same question each day. How am I in my self? What does the experience of being in the body have to reveal to me about what life is really, truly like at the moment? Is it possible for me to breathe alongside whatever truths arise, no matter how difficult, instead of trying to escape the difficult, and, sometimes, unbearable feeling of being alive?
And, what is the reward of the discipline that arises with sitting each day in meditation? Partly, it is the gift of the clues that the body gives us about what might be needed to bring life back into balance. If only we can learn to be perceptive to this form of in-sight, meditation can become a subtle, but powerful tool for personal transformation. Its promise is an expanding state of awareness – one of the primary aims of the practice of yoga - and the opportunity to recalibrate on a daily basis - re-approaching and discovering what it might feel like to exist in a state of equilibrium, even if only for a few minutes each day.
Cultivating a grounded sense of one’s presence in the body in this way also makes it possible to cultivate a grounded sense of being in the world. Gently, and carefully, opening the eyes at the end of the seated meditation, the invitation is to take a moment to notice the quality of this morning’s light, the sounds of the world coming to life all around, the feel and temperature of the air on the skin, the textures of the surface of the world coming into contact with the skin, the smell of the air entering the nostrils with the breath and the taste in one’s mouth. Slowly, and with a fullness of appreciation for the beautiful complexity of existence, the art of meditation is to wake up to the dawning of the day, and through the day, to the awakening of one’s self.
I call this morning meditation, which I first learned on retreat with my wonderful, and deeply inspiring teacher, Anna Ashby, Cultivating Presence. Eventually, the idea, as far as I understand the full consequence of the meditation, is to gently and quietly cultivate a background sense of appreciation for life, and a regularly renewed sense of awe and wonder in the face of being in the world. Arising from this expanded state of awareness, there is the chance to cultivate equal presence – inner landscape and outer landscape - that gives rise, on occasion, to a blissful feeling of equanimity. And, eventually, the idea is, to press pause on habits that take us first in the morning to our smart phones, social media, emails and other distractions, and, instead to arrive to the day by bearing witness to oneself, taking responsibility, then, for the presence one brings to other people and to the world as the day unfolds. I think of this expanding state of awareness – to one’s self, the world and other people in it - as the art of truly paying attention. It brings to mind a quote from Mary Oliver’s beautiful reflection on the inseparability of human life from the natural world - Upstream:
Saluting the Sun
In Ogliastra Province in Sardinia, as in Icaria, in Greece; Nicoya Province, in Costa Rica; Loma Linda in California and in Okinawa in Japan, humans are living in alignment with their nature. As a result, they are living the longest, healthiest and most vital lives of all humans on the planet. In these places, called Blue Zones, the elders are free of the degenerative diseases of mind and body that plague modern western, industrial and urban life; they have lessons to teach us all about what it means to live in alignment with our human nature.
Remarkable about these all these places, despite their geographical and social and cultural diversity, is that exceptional health and longevity is the outcome of the same nine variables for the organisation of human existence. One of these variables is the experience of awe and wonder in the face of being in the world. The elderly widow that we encountered on the beach at dawn each day is a living embodiment of a simple veneration. Existing close to the elements, in touch with cultivation of the earth and seas, under star-filled heavens, humans in the five Blue Zones of the world live a good life. They are engaged in meaningful labour – not necessarily well paid – but they certainly don’t work too hard. They teach us that stress and over-work without adequate rest is the enemy of vitality. They eat good food grown in good soil, (mostly vegetable, pulse, nut and grain, but not vegetarian) and they drink a little wine each day as they enjoy good company. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that none of the elders in these communities have devoted hours of their lives to exercise classes, or yoga practice in an effort to stay fit and healthy. Rather, they have lived lives in which they move naturally through the everyday activities of walking, gardening, fishing, labouring, swimming, dancing etc, so that they regularly, and in the most taken-for-granted way, exercise the joints and muscles of the body through their full range of motion, and thus, they keep everything in good working order.
In the mountain villages of Sardinia, there exists the world’s highest number of centenarians. Surrounded by family and friends in close-knit communities, where the elders are highly respected and placed at the centre of family life, older people enjoy the respect of younger generations and thrive. Here, in these places, among these people, there is everything to learn about the conditions for human flourishing and lessons to understand about the ways in which modern life in the industrial urban centres of the world appears to be progressive, but is too often out of alignment with the necessary and simple conditions for natural health and life-long vitality.
Why then, if yoga is not part of the culture of Blue Zone living, do I propose the practice of yoga as part of a Blue Zone retreat? The proposition, because we are, in modern cities, to a great extent removed from the habits of life that are conducive to a life well-lived, is to introduce yoga as an alternative to, replacement for, or transition towards the activities/experiences provided by natural movement and simple living that are so essential to human well being. On retreat, the opportunity arises to drop into a slower pace of life, to enjoy the warm-hearted, joyful company of new friends, and a supportive community of yoga practice in a beautiful natural environment. Swimming in the sea, eating local food, and drinking local wine, the opportunity arises for us to gradually try out new rituals of self-care and to experiment with what it feels like to carefully engage with the enquiry that yoga offers; through a safe exploration of a set of practical movement and breath techniques, even in just one week, the opportunity arises to address and begin to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of a life lived in alignment with the flow of energetic vitality, the natural life force, or prāna.
Yoga is a technology for removing the illusory veil that stands between us and the animating force of life.
Donna Fahri 2004: 17
This understanding of what yoga offers – the opportunity to come into alignment with the life force, or prāna, and, therefore, to become energised, to feel vital – brings a whole new meaning to the alignment-based method of yoga that I have learned to teach. The practice of seated meditation, and, then, the strength building sun salutation sequences offer more than the potential to gain insight, or to bring muscles and bones into alignment, slowly bringing integrity, suppleness and strength to the muscular-skeletal form: these practices also make it possible to cultivate everyday, a gentle background appreciation of what it means for us to exist on a planet filled with life, where, remarkably, humans can learn how to harness and circulate energy through movement and meditation practices that gradually lend an expansiveness and spaciousness to our experience of being embodied on earth. This is why, like the elderly Sardinian widow on the beach at dawn, we take time to rise early and salute the sun. We come back to the yoga mat each day to remind ourselves of the source of light and life on earth; it is steady and spectacular, we can depend upon it, and it lifts our hearts, sending our spirits soaring…
Earth below, sky above: humans in between