Suan Sati Yoga Retreat- February 3rd through 8th- Coming home, to myself.
It seems like forever ago, but I wanted to tell you about the yoga retreat I participated in at the beginning of February.
The yoga retreat was at Suan Sati, which means “Garden of Mindfulness” in Thai. Its an eco-friendly Yoga Retreat center located in the rice fields about an hour outside of the ancient city of Chiang Mai. The experience was an eye-opening and transformative one, as so many yoga retreats are designed to be.
I met the group at the Three Kings Monuments on Monday morning. I had just got my hair cut the day before and was wearing my favorite Thai purchase so far, a tie-dyed light blue dress/poncho. I felt confident and open to new connections and experiences. The group was much bigger then I was expecting, about 27 people. We introduced ourselves and checked in with Kayla, one of the yoga teachers, who greeted us all with a smile and a hug. I wanted to ambush her with questions, how did you get this job? How do I do what you? Tell me EVERYTHING!
We divided into three trucks and drove to the retreat center.
When we arrived, there was a big sign that said, “Welcome Home!” Home? What's that?
We met the staff, including the owner, Will, who was really kind and took the time to speak with me about some yoga teacher volunteer opportunities he had available in the summer. Matt took us on a tour of the property and explained how things were going to run for the week.
We were shown to our rooms. I was in an 8 person dorm-style room. I chose one of the beds by the wall hoping that would provide me with the most privacy. I am not a dorm-style room kind of traveler, surprisingly.
We all had mosquito nets hanging above our bed, shelves, and a little external closet where we could hang our clothes. We were asked to use only all-natural products as they recycle the water from the showers back into the rice fields.
After we settled in we met for some journaling. For our first journal prompt we were asked, Who am I? Oh boy. I am in for a hell of a week, aren’t I?
Our first yoga session was with Rachel in the yoga shala. The yoga shala is a small walk from the rest of the center. The shala is on an island surrounded by a mote of water, so we had to cross a bridge to get to it. The island is surrounded by sunflowers and they are so tall you can see them even when you are lying down on your back during savasana. Suan Sati had all the yoga toys: blocks, straps, blankets, and two different kinds of meditation cushions, one in the same shape as a croissant. I love props and I use them in every yoga practice if they are available.
I was instantly drawn to Rachel's energy and loved how she projected her words with such confidence and truth. Our first session revolved around the idea of “coming home,” but not to a house or a destination, but to this special place we create in our own hearts where we feel loved, whole, forgiven, and safe.
During the week, we were asked to disconnect from our phones, mainly social media, so that we could fully focus our attention on ourselves and our experience. I realized only after the first day how much I relied on social media to distract me from my emotions, just like I did with alcohol. I had no idea how much harm I was actually causing myself when I mindlessness scrolled looking for an answer, but not really knowing what that was.
At first, I felt a little uncomfortable with all the extra time and having no outlet to run to, but by the end, it was incredibly refreshing and liberating.
During the week, I finished a book by Jodi Picoult. I love reading, but, I find that I don’t choose it as much as I would like to in real-life situations. Thats something I am going to change.
At our welcome ceremony the first night, we all chose a name out of a hat (well, a mediation bowl). You were that person's secret guardian angel for the week, so it's your job to make that person feel special and loved.
I was Tim’s guardian angel. I left him notes on his bed with quotes or funny jokes. After dinner, I secretly gave him brownies and other desserts. I went out of my way to ask him how his day was and include him in any way I could…
My guardian angel left me flowers on my pillow and notes that said, “You are beautiful.” Those surprises definitely made my day. I still don’t know who it was.
Many nights one of the two house cats chose to sleep with me. There were so many beds that the kitty could have chosen, but the kitty chose to curl up with me. I think she was my guardian angel, too.
We woke every morning at 5:30 am to the sound of the gong. The gong served as our alarm clocks, but also notified us of mealtime, or really whenever we had to be anywhere. I loved the gong, even at 5:30 am. It felt so much more natural to not wake up to the twenty-five alarm clocks coming from my phone under my pillow.
The mornings were really cold. Our morning meditation and yoga practice was from 6 am to 8:15 am. I wore two pairs of pants, socks, a hat, a sweatshirt, and my puffy jacket. I had a hard time meditating and practicing first thing in the morning without any coffee and in the cold, so often took Childs pose in the beginning. When the sun rose beyond the hills, we all started to thaw out and at that point, I could move a little more freely.
I always looked forward to a cup of coffee with coconut milk after our morning session. Perhaps, coconut milk can replace my usual coffee creamer?
The food was one of my favorite parts of the retreat. They served all-vegan cuisine, buffet style. Before each meal, we would gather in a circle, hold hands, and name something that we were grateful for. I said things like my health, yoga, dogs, my family, and coffee. Some meals, I resisted the food-itude (food/gratitude) circle, and really had to break down to myself why I was in resistance mode.
My favorite breakfast was oatmeal with seeds and berries in coconut milk. They always had a bowl of dark chocolate to drizzle over the top. From 5:30am gong, until the last person finished breakfast, we observed “silent mornings” meaning we didn't talk for the first four hours of the day.
Most of the time, I enjoyed this because I could focus on eating mindfully and I absolutely love silence. Its my favorite band.
I noticed sometimes people avoided eye contact with each other during silent mornings, as if losing their ability to speak, made them feel like they had to disengage altogether.
There was one day when I was tired and emotional and the silent breakfast was particularly tough. It felt like times in the past when I was hurting inside and felt overlooked, like everyone carried on with their lives, indifferent to my pain. It made me feel so alone, even amongst so many people.
After that particularly tough morning, if I noticed someone that looked upset, I would share a hug, to let them know they were seen.
People often gave me hugs out of nowhere and I welcomed the human touch and comfort. I didnt know how much I needed the hugs until after it happened.
For each meal, they offered rice from their fields and a mushroom dish using the mushrooms from their garden, amongst many many other things. There was always enough food and I was never hungry. We all were responsible for washing our own dishes and cleaning up after ourselves. I enjoyed taking other people's plates and washing them so they didn't have to.
We were constantly journaling and sharing our challenges. I had this revelation on the second day about my parent's divorce and the disunion of my family.
The divorce happened almost 20 years ago, but it felt like “us kids” were still in the middle. My revelation included asking my parents to make amends, so we could finally find some closure from the experience. Also, the display of kindness, respect, and forgiveness would set a much better example for the next generation. I thought if we could all hash out our resentments and communicate openly and honestly, take responsibility for hurting one another, we could move forward and forgive each other. Maybe even have strong loving relationships again.
I was eager to share this idea with my family, though the idea of squashing resentments was not received as well from some as I had hoped. I feel like it possibly even backfired completely.
As the week progressed, I found myself withdrawing. Groups within the group started to form, and I didn't particularly fit into any of them. I didn't want to feel like I was forcing myself somewhere I wasn’t wanted. It felt all too familiar. I gave myself permission to take space whenever I needed it. I was pretty used to doing my own thing anyway.
There were times when I didn't want to leave my bed, but I knew that shutting out the world would get me nowhere, so I continued to show up. I showed up each session regardless of how overwhelmed, emotional, or irrelevant I felt, but in a way that respected and honored my own process of acceptance. If I didn’t feel like sharing during our group talks, I worked on listening, empathizing, and understanding. I offered myself to others, held space for them to work through whatever they needed to work through, and as a result, it helped me work through some things too.
Rachel sat with me during some meals and talked with me in a nonjudgmental or intimidating way. She held space for me to share my feelings. The week wouldn't have been the same without her.
The last day we focused on Lela, or playfulness and child like curiosity. We played games jumping over each other, going in between each other's legs, and dancing. I was having a little trouble letting loose, but my insecurities escaped me as soon as I heard “Under the Sea” from the Little Mermaid play from the speakers.
As a girl, I remembered dancing to this song during one of my dance recitals all decked out in a mermaid costume and pink lips. My whole family came to watch the show. The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie.
That song was all it took. BOOM! I was a kid again, before all the bullshit happened in my life, shaking my moneymaker and jumping around the shala without a care in the world. It was hugely liberating to laugh uninhibitedly..
One of the things that really sticks out about my time at Suan Sati was our “Silent Gratitude Circle”. Imagine this: we had two circles, an inner circle, and an outer circle. The inner-circle faced in held hands and closed their eyes. The outer circle walked around slowly and were given prompts, like, “You are more intelligent then you think you are,” and “I think you are a great teacher,” and other positive affirmations. The outer circle would then squeeze the shoulder of the inner circle with one or two hands, silently letting them know that they thought that prompt applied to them. I couldn't help but tear up when I was in the inner circle with my eyes closed and heard, “I think you are powerful,” and felt many people walking behind me and softly squeezing my shoulders. Maybe I can be the change I want to see in the world, Gandhi.
I had such an amazing experience with Suan Sati. Everything they did so skillfully navigated us through the week. There was the perfect balance of yoga, meditation, chanting, food, journaling, workshops, downtime, etc…
The first day we all showed up as strangers looking for something and to heal some part of us that hurt. We left a week later as friends and with a better understanding of the importance of creating a home in your heart, a special place where you can always go to feel loved, whole, forgiven, and safe.