Douglas Marshall-MacDonald

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OM...SHANTI...WTF

OM...SHANTI...WTF

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Maybe I was desperate to escape the winter weather or perhaps a recent Oprah and Deepak 21 Day Meditation Challenge inspired my subconscious quest for further enlightenment, but I fantasized about a vacation in the tropics—and ended up in a tent on an Ashram in the Bahamas for a 6 day yoga retreat.

Full Disclosure: I really wanted a good tan but my husband couldn’t get away from work and I didn’t feel like going to a resort by myself for a week.  That seemed excessive and honestly, a little pathetic.  So then, what are my options?  For no known reason I started Googling “Yoga Retreats in the Caribbean”. My guru Gabby Bernstein calls this “being guided,” because a yoga retreat is the last place you’d find me. I didn’t even do yoga that much. I didn’t even like Yoga that much. I like it because it’s “a thing” that people do to be “healthy” and I feel like if I admitted that I didn’t like Yoga, I’d be judged.  So I do it. And now, I was manically searching to go on a retreat expressly for Yogis.

I’m a very spiritual person and I follow all the big metaphysical gurus: Marianne Williamson, Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra, Gabby Bernstein and all the other usual suspects. I write gratitude lists, I manifest stuff, I meditate, I do power of intention – but somehow I always judge my spiritual path as if it’s not real.  I don’t know how to explain that.  It’s that inner fear voice or ego that whispers, “You’re not doing enough” or “You think you’re spiritual but you’re a hack.” – as if spirituality is based on perfectionism.  I looked at yoga retreats as something hippies do who smoke a lot of weed and go to Ayahuasca ceremonies in the woods in search of truth.  I held onto an inner belief that I wouldn’t really fit in to the yogic lifestyle and that I would go on a retreat pretending to be someone I’m not.

I stumbled upon Sivananda – a Yoga Retreat at an Ashram in the Bahamas on the beach.  For $97 a day I could stay in a tent, take 2 daily yoga classes, meditate and pray all I wanted and eat healthy vegetarian meals.  JetBlue flies there direct in a few hours.  It sounded so good I booked myself in for 6 days.

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The confirmation email started with “Om Blessed Self” followed by a list of the rules at the Ashram. That’s when panic set in.  No bare shoulders, no exposed knees, everyone wakes at 5:30am to meditate and chant and do yoga and lights out at 10pm after evening prayer, mediation and chanting.  It got darker: caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are forbidden.  Reviews on trip advisor mentioned it was cultish and cliquey – wasn’t that what I was trying to escape New York?

A week before I was set to go, I was still smoking Marlboro Lights out my bedroom window – a fun little habit I secretly fell back into in the fall, that I’d been trying to shake. For most of November and December, I was a full on smoker with only a few scheduled interruptions that called for a nicotine patch.  I would wear nicotine patches around family for holiday functions and friends who used to smoke and now judge people who still smoke.  Then return to smoking the minute I got home.  With the impending retreat, I was trying to quit for real—wearing the patches full time.  A few days before departure the cigarettes were gone but the patches went on in the morning before I took my first breath.  They would be making the trip to the Bahamas with me.

The rule forbidding caffeine was hard to get my head around.  In November I bought a Keurig Coffee brewer and since then had been actively perfecting the perfect cup of coffee. After that first sip of coffee in the morning would come my cigarette.  Brilliant.  I was committed to my stimulants and had no intention of abandoning them.  I was OK without cigarettes if I had the patches, but coffee was a different battle.  So when I checked my bag at JFK I prayed that it didn’t get lost.  Sure, I’d get up at 5:30am and chant the sun up with the hippies, but you can’t have my caffeine and nicotine.  In the words of my late grandma Mable, who defied rules that the masses generally follow, “I do what I want.”

As the plane was about to touch down in the Bahamas at 10am on Monday morning, I poured my Starbucks Pike Peak Roast packet (from the additional stash in my carry-on) into a small bottle of Disani Water and chugged as we headed to the gate.  So trashy.  So delicious.  I had my first feeling of the retreat.  I started to cry.  It was this feeling of pride and a little bit of disbelief.  I’m actually doing this.  Then the doubts flooded in; the minute something good happens, the negative voices speak up.  I started massaging my nicotine patch deeper into my arm, hoping for some sort of euphoric spike.  After getting my bag, I hitched a cab to the “Yoga Dock”, where a water taxi takes you to the Ashram.  You can only get there by boat, which didn’t ease my fear of being trapped.  

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As the water taxi guy lifted my unusually large bag onto the boat, I felt a little embarrassed.  Who packs a bag this big to go to a Yoga retreat on the beach?  There were so many rules that I didn’t know what to pack.  I had my cute Lululemon Yoga outfits but what if they actually honored the no bare knees rule?  Two days before departure I went to an authentic Indian clothing store in the East Village and bought traditional Indian garb, like flowing tunic tops that Rachel Zoe would “die” for and baggy linen pants that are legit.  I went in and said, “I need to blend on the Ashram.”  She fit me with a week’s worth of authentic Yoga looks in a Zen color pallet for $80.  If people knew about this place, Lululemon would tank.   By the time I struggled to get the suitcase closed before I headed to the airport, I realized I had enough variations of clothing to last 3 weeks. Modest vacation packing is not my thing.

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I stepped onto Sivananda’s soils around 11:20am, literally fresh off the boat and fresh full of Instant Starbucks!  I was going to do this.  I was going to be quiet, spiritual and modest – as if I had to act a certain way or be a certain Doug to imbibe the yogic ways.  Those feelings of never being enough and feeling like I have to “act” a certain way to fit in, rather than just “be” is a real struggle for me.  As if my authentic self didn’t have any real substance to offer the Ashram—in my head I was expecting to play a role to conform. Beyond the inner struggle with my spiritual identity was a genuine excitement to be there.  I went to check in with a smile on my face and Sandra looked at me and started laughing.  I was like, “Wait, what’s funny?”  She was like, “It’s so nice to see someone smiling; you have a beautiful light.” And so it began.  My aura was glowing thanks to the nicotine patches. That’s when I thought, people here are doing yoga, prayer and meditation for 8 rigorous hours a day, don’t they have anything to smile about?  Yet, Sandra noted I have a beautiful light because I pleasantly said hi, as if it was the exception, not the norm?  Was everyone secretly miserable in tents and tunic tops?  As the week went on, the answer unfolded into a sort of yes and no.

I went to the boutique and met Priya, who was making smoothies.  She’s from Alaska, via Switzerland (which explains her accent) and she’s rather upfront/blunt, aka no bullshit.  She was making Green Goddess Smoothies.  I said, “I just got here, and I want to do what people do here, so I will have a Green Goddess Smoothie because I want to unleash my inner goddess.”  I stood before her, a manic naive boy from New York filled with spiritual promise. She took me under her wing and gave me the lay of the land at Sivananda and told me which yoga classes to go to and at what times.  Priya is a somewhat more spiritual version of Red from Orange is the New Black.  I was ready to be her devotee and let her turn me out to Om Shanti-dom.

On my way out she instructed me to go to the Temple and get a blessing.  I was in my bathing suit, but on my way to the temple.  I was mistakenly baring my knees.  I pulled an Ikea “Ursula” cable knit blanket out of my bag, wrapped it around my waist and headed in for my blessing.  I offered Lakshmi (the Goddess statue) a flower and was suddenly enveloped with smoke by the man doing the blessing–he motioned me to walk around the temple and then he smeared my forehead with some sort of paint.  It wasn’t a white light experience, but it was an Instagram opportunity.  Every time something cool or ironic happened, I thought, I need to tweet this.  I couldn’t separate the idea that I was on this retreat to just be vs. the temptation to be self-mocking on social media, which would essentially belittle the experience.  6 minutes later I was on the beach with my face paint and snapping pics before wiping it off and replacing with SPF.

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I did afternoon Yoga on the dock like Priya instructed.  It was pretty much amazing and being there felt right.  It was a dock, overlooking a clear water bay and it was sunset.  It was peaceful and serene, except for the parts where the booze cruises sailed by playing David Guetta.  This was after all, the Bahamas.

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I went to dinner with an open mind—ready to eat healthfully and lose the weight that I incurred during my attempts to curb smoking.  No lobster or crispy fish tacos—just veggie slop.  Curried veggie slop, shredded carrots, more shredded carrots and bread; the thick heavy kind that doesn’t digest.  Everyone had piles of bread on their plates, slathered with butter and topped with brown sugar. Why, I wondered.  I’ll admit, the food was surprisingly delicious.  But isn’t anything when you’re starving?  After 6 days in a row of veggie slop, you redefine your original declaration of delicious.  

You eat at large picnic tables, mess hall style.  Since I went alone, I had no idea where I’d end up.  I scanned the room for the “cool table”, which after scanning for awhile it seemed obvious that I was scanning for the cool table, which made me rather “uncool”.  I had to remind myself, that’s not why you’re here.  I’ve spent my whole life going to new places, trying so hard to be funny, cool, cute, witty – it’s a campaign to convince everyone of Doug.  It’s exhausting.  Maybe this would be the week to let that go.  

I sat at the table of the lady who did Yoga on the mat next to me, who smiled at me during class, which made me feel welcome.  She was going to be my friend. I went to her table, sat down and said an enthusiastic “hello” to her and the others. Only one person said “hi” and the lady from the yoga mat earlier ignored me.  Before I got resentful, I thought, rather than what can I get out of this situation, what can I bring to it.  I perked up, “How was everyone’s day…”  That got them talking.  I came to find that people were there to 1) Escape the cold, 2) Escape their families, 3) Avoid an inevitable stint in rehab or 4) Prove to themselves how spiritual and resilient they are.  I was there for all of the above.  I know I’m cynical and judgmental, but I started to warm up to the idea of this.

At 8pm, everyone gathers at the temple for 30 minutes of silent meditation, followed by 30 minutes of chanting and then an hour of music or “lessons”.  The chants are actually really cool and catchy.  There’s a chant book with the Sanskrit chants, but it also translates what they mean.  The long and the short of it is that the chants pay homage to our inner wisdom and a bunch of Gods and Goddesses who protect us, guide us and keep us safe. We polish the 30 minutes of chanting off with, “I am Bliss.  Bliss Absolute.”  I felt great. Really great.  Really grateful.  There was a certain beauty about the process.  It felt sacred and I felt blessed to be a part of it.  I was happy I came.

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I crawled into my tent and was so excited to sleep/pass out.  Being THAT spiritual is kind of exhausting.  The one thing you forget when you are staying in a tent is that they are made of nylon and next to other tents.  So if someone near you is snoring, you’re right there with them.  I was across from that snoring someone. WTF.  My serenity escaped me.  Anger and frustration welled up inside me, I was hating the person, I wanted to scream. I have such a low threshold for patience with others’ shortcomings.  I could escape New York and the cold, but my feelings stayed the same.  It’s that feeling of being screwed over, this is happening only to me, the vacation is ruined, I hate my life, I’m alone and a loser. Someone else’s snoring brought me to that state of mind. Falling asleep to those feelings doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep—but I was in the right place.

A gong goes off at 5:30am every morning.  I heard that people who were new to the Ashram kind of sleep through it until they muster the courage to actually rise at that time.  Not me.  I got up and threw on my flowing pants and H&M sweatshirt and went to the beach. I was committed to being among my peoples.  It was silent beach walk day.  It was just breaking dawn and very foggy, so when I got to the beach, all I could see were the silhouettes of about 100+ people in the faint light and fog.  It was moving, stunning and beautiful.  I cried.  The spirit was reaching me.  I’d never done anything like that and it was a heart opening experience and I felt very lucky and grateful.

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We walked for 20 minutes in silence and the energy among us was palpable, like being in a safe bubble, united with a common purpose.  We were led to the waters edge, where we sat down and began chanting and slowly but quickly, the sun rose before us.  We chanted the sun up that day.  We were messengers for the light of the day.  I cried again.  It was probably one of the more moving experiences of my life.  I felt connected to something larger than me and to those around me.  I looked around and literally saw the beauty in the people around me.  My layers were shedding.  My normally selfish, self absorbed and entitled self was honoring the light in others.  I was so excited and proud of myself.  Was it tacky to snap a pic and instagram this moment?  I chalked it up to carrying the message of the divine—to instagram. Clearly the search for validation via social media hadn’t floated away among the chants.

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By 10am, I realized something.  I had been up for 4 hours (that’s like half a day) and I hadn’t put on a nicotine patch, nor did I have a Starbucks instant.  Was this bliss divine?  Had the blessing removed all of my favorite addictions?  I decided to role with it.  Who was I not to detox?  I didn’t put on a patch.  I didn’t have a coffee.  I let my body guide me.  I do believe it was a form of letting go.

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Then there was beach, afternoon yoga and dinner.  In general people were quiet and chill and “zen”.  I’m generally loud but was trying to be more mellow.  I was really drinking the Kool-Aid and falling into ZenDoug mode. When I went to save myself a seat for evening meditation, I met a beautiful Syrian girl from Atlanta who used to live in New York.  She had enthusiasm in her voice.  It had octaves. It was like a siren calling and I followed.  She was a former NYC party girl, now pregnant with her second child. Classic.  I go to an Ashram and out of the woodwork come my people.  We fell hard and fast into sarcasm, complaining and mocking the ways of the Ashram.  It felt so right.  And so wrong. I found out she was leaving in 2 days and I was grateful, because this could have easily turned into Cruel Intentions. Not long after we met, we were making fun of the “other” pregnant lady on the Ashram…

They say water seeks it’s own level, so I was still gravitating toward the same people.  Or the same types of people were finding me. I always seem to find the needles in a haystack: The party girls, the fashion girls, the rule breakers, the shit talkers.  We get on well and they even come out to play at the Ashram.  I was in the boutique getting a smoothie and met a girl from Australia who was a Pilates instructor with the darkest tan I’ve ever seen, traveling the world in search of herself and a hot surfer.  We were instant chums and she asked to meet me on the beach.  She rolled up with Banana Boat Dark Tanning Oil and a pack of cigs.  Of course I met the girl who is sneaking cigs down the beach.  It didn’t feel right, so I spent the next two days avoiding her, as if I was better because I stopped smoking 4 days ago.  I didn’t want to be around that energy. I was being judgmental – as if my path was better or more sacred than hers.  I avoided her, I hid from her – I told her I would text and didn’t.

By day 3 I found my groove.  I figured out how to navigate my day in a way that met my needs.  I was rising at 5:30am and spiritual until 10am and then I would walk over to the Atlantis Resort and sit on their beach chairs with plush yellow towels.  It was the antithesis of the Ashram, but I didn’t go to the Bahamas to pass up my divine right to sit on a padded beach chair.  It was a balance that I patted myself on the back for – taking advantage of all Sivananda had to offer in the morning and night and hanging out at resorts during the day.  I had it all figured out – living in two very different worlds.  And in each world I felt better than those around me.  At Atlantis I thought, “you’re paying a fortune to be here and you’re drunk all the time, while I’m having a spiritual experience at the Ashram.”  At the Ashram I would think, “while you’re leading your sad simple lives, I’m off at a resort living it up during the day.”  I felt like I had cracked the code or unleashed the secret to how to “make it” on a yoga retreat.  It wasn’t very spiritual, but I wasn’t conscious of how much I was judging others and putting myself on a pedestal.  I would walk down the beaches by the resorts and see people drinking out of pineapples and think, “How sad that you’re not having the spiritual experience I am.” But what was really sad, is that I couldn’t stop judging others, separating myself and getting in my head about how great it was that I was getting away with being at a resort during the day while staying in a tent at night. 

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I spent so much time off the Ashram during the day going on little adventures by myself— I was having a lot of fun – swimming, exploring, sunning.  It was the “me” time I was seeking and it felt so good and I was proud of myself for being so independent and self-propelled.  I was avoiding certain people and not trying to make friends. That was new for me.  I wasn’t trying to be part of everything or the center of attention.  Perhaps that’s why I was judging so many people, because not being connected to an inner web at the Ashram was very new behavior for me so I had to cause drama elsewhere-mainly my mind.   I would go back to the Ashram at night and brag about my daily adventures to the people I was avoiding.  Then, they would want to come to the beach with me the next day and I went out of my way to avoid them.  It made no sense.

Feelings were coming up for me that I couldn’t even identify. In some moments I was having a profound spiritual experience and trying to make sense of it in my mind.  But I couldn’t let go of that ego voice inside my head that basically never shuts up.  I didn’t realize it at the time but I was muddying my experience by judging others, both at the Ashram and at the resorts.  I felt 10 times more judgmental than I normally have the power to be.  I was kind of coming undone.  I didn’t know who I was and I was so pissed that underneath all of these spiritual experiences was so much judgment of others.  On one hand I felt like, “Is this Ashram life the one I’m supposed to live?  Do I need to give up my city life and follow the enlightened Swamis?”  I think I was so afraid to admit that I was having a deep profound experience as if I didn’t really deserve it or it wasn’t real.  So when things were genuinely changing, I subconsciously grabbed onto familiar behaviors – going to nice beaches and putting pictures on Facebook/Instagram to get validation or looking at outsiders and judging them.  I had put so much stock in this trip, as if I was going to come back a new and changed person—yet, I was behaving worse than at home.

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On the 4th day emotional walls started coming down.  I began to see how much I was judging others and I started feeling uncomfortable.  I began praying to not judge.  Something shifted and I wasn’t getting a rush out of toxic thoughts.  The yoga and meditation and sleep were recharging me. I was eating natural foods from the earth, so I was detoxing.  I wasn’t drinking coffee and all traces of nicotine were out of my blood stream. This was a good move. 

I began looking at people and searching for positive features.  She has a pretty bathing suit, he has nice sunglasses, those kids seem happy, that old lady has a great smile.  Then I realized the old lady reminded me of my grandmother that had recently passed.  I felt like she was there with me, I felt her energy.  The moment I sought an alternative to judgment, I opened myself to a new energy and a new feeling.  That’s when I felt surrounded by love.  It was a minute by minute process to not judge people, but the attempt to judge less was definitely made.

On this particular day I was really loving the water.  I spent a couple hours in the ocean, which was huge for me because I got caught in a riptide in Long Island 10 years ago and since then I have had a hard time getting into open bodies of water.  I got it in my head to skip afternoon Yoga in favor of staying on the beach and that was HUGE for me.  I was going to just “be”.  My decision to skip yoga came with a burden of guilt and I felt like a failure and loser – but I was determined to NOT do yoga, to feel the feelings of not doing what everyone else was doing.  About 45 minutes before the class was about to start, I panicked.  I couldn’t not do it – but I wasn’t even near the Ashram. I got so mad at myself and rushed back to do yoga in a manic state.  It was this crazy inner struggle.  I didn’t want to do yoga, yet, I went and did it.  Letting go isn’t easy for me.

I got to class on time, but as I tried to do poses on the dock overlooking the beach, I couldn’t get into it. I regretted leaving the beach and in my head I was beating myself up for rushing back to yoga.  The ocean was calling me and this time I followed my instinct.  I jumped up, left the class and ran into the ocean and I felt so happy.  The class was doing headstands and I was flirting with the water.  It was heaven. 

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In the water I ran into Priya and another guy who lived on the Ashram and we hung out.  As the 3 of us splashed around in the ocean, I got an earful of what really goes down at Sivananada.  There was a new director and she was cracking down on people who lived on the Ashram who didn’t go to prayer and meditation twice a day (something that is technically mandatory).  She was implementing an attendance policy and a chore regimen.  An Ashram is a community, so everyone should be pitching in and maintaining spiritual fitness for the greater good.  To me, an outsider, it made sense.  Kind of like, well, if you are committing to living on the Ashram, you should probably follow the rules and set an example.  However, people living on the Ashram don’t see it that way, and for good reasons.  Turns out, the new director was angling to move up the ranks to Swami-hood (that’s like a closer level to being enlightened) – so her ideas of mandatory prayer and meditation were an attempt to get recognition from above.  So the new director was not very popular among the residents (aka anyone below her).  But she didn’t care, because it only matters what the higher up Swamis think of you, in order to get ahead, not the people below you.  In the corporate world, people will step on your toes to become a VP.  On the Ashram, people will step on your toes to become a Swami.  The same shit that goes on in an office happens at the Ashram too. Learning that came as a huge relief to me.  This wasn’t Utopia.  And from what I was hearing, it wasn’t even that functional on the Ashram.  The higher up Swamis wouldn’t really associate with general students or even look them in the eye (I heard that from a couple people).  People who actually lived on the Ashram admitted to being “miserable”.

In that moment, it all made sense.  My decision to leave the yoga class to enjoy the water lead to my awakening.  Or rather, the information I learned in the water vindicated all of my negative feelings about myself and how I was judging my own spiritual path.  The notion that all my problems would leave me while on retreat floated away and the belief that I had to act a certain way to be “spiritual” washed off.  I could just be me because that was real. Everything changed.  Sure, it was a major gossip fest in the water.  But it ended up being a message to me that this experience could be whatever I wanted it to be.  The rigorous prayer, meditation and yoga rituals, even on the Ashram, doesn’t ensure that everyone is happy.  Which translated to me, that I could achieve happiness and peace wherever I am; it’s not dependent upon being on retreat.  I could take some of the habits and practices I learned on retreat back with me.  But I don’t have to live on an Ashram to be closer to God or closer to myself. Having feelings of judgment while staying on the Ashram doesn’t make me an awful person, it makes me human.  I felt relief.  The relief I was looking for.  In that moment I let go of what I thought I should be doing (yoga) and went for what I wanted to be doing (swimming).  I didn’t have to go back home a changed person, I could just go back more aware. Also, I started feeling like I was enough as I was, and stopped searching for a different version of myself. I felt present, in that present moment.

On the 5th day something radical happened; I started craving the very people I had been avoiding.  In particular, the girl who was smoking cigs down the beach. I stopped ditching her texts and started seeking her out.  We had breakfast and she explained to me that when she saw me leave the yoga class the evening before and jump into the water, she admired my gumption to detach from the group.  It was like that one small move I made (which was huge for me to part from what everyone else was doing) sent a ripple effect to the universe.  When she saw me in the water, she saw my joy.  So she left the class and took a stroll down the beach.  She ran into a guy and they started talking and he asked her out on a date.  I wasn’t kidding when I said she was in search of a guy.  She “thanked” me for inspiring her; because she would not have met him had she not seen me experiencing joy.  It inspired her to get out of the class too.  I know that sounds odd – but I realized I’m not the only one who feels that guilt inclination to do what everyone else is doing or what I think others expect me to do. 

After breakfast I felt assured that I was in a good place emotionally and I headed to the beach at the Ocean Club, a top rated resort that has rooms starting at $895/night.  I skipped evening yoga and stayed on the beach late so that I could take myself to dinner at the Ocean Club’s restaurant.  I felt like I was broken out of jail.  I ate seafood, bread and sugar and drank a whole bottle of Perrier. 

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When leaving the Ocean Club, I was waiting for the shuttle bus but it wasn’t running.  I wasn’t sure how to get back – but the doorman, who assumed I was staying there, radioed for a taxi to get me and a Black Escalade pulled up.  It was like I had stepped back into the world I was worried about leaving behind when I arrived 5 days ago.  I got dropped off at the Atlantis because I had to walk back along the beach to get back to the Ashram.  Before I walked back, I sat on a beach chair at the resort to upload selfies of me eating Key Lime pie at the Ocean Club.  In the distance I saw a happy couple making out on the beach.  It was my friend from the Ashram with the guy she met.  I literally felt a sense of joy in seeing that.  Everyone on the Ashram, including myself, was having the experience they were meant to be having and WANTED to be having.  Who am I to judge what others are doing?  I was genuinely happy for her!  We keep in touch and she’s still with that guy and in love –1 year later.

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During prayer and meditation that night my back started hurting so I laid down. A guy who worked at the Ashram walked up and scolded me; it was against the rules to lay down in the sacred temple.  I get it, there are rules to follow, but his energy felt so heavy as he stared me down to reprimand me.  So I left.  I started getting giddy at the realization I was going home the next day.  I had had enough.  When I got back to my tent, the snoring lady who I spent the week viewing as the enemy approached me to say hello.  We had never spoken before.  She was so nice and warm and lovely.  She said she never got a chance to talk to me while I was here, but that I have a beautiful smile and a great energy.  I felt like such a fraud because I spent the whole week hating her in my mind because she was the bitch who snored.  It was a great reminder that a lot of my opinions are based on nothing and that I fight with people in my head who I don’t even know anything about.  The woman I was so angry at for snoring was so sweet and complimentary.  How had I had such anger toward someone I didn’t even know?  It was yet another sign from the universe to be more mindful of my thoughts, anger and judgment of others.  I’m often wrong.

The next day I went to my last yoga class and there was someone on the mat next to me that was doing different movements from the class.  The teacher came up to her and told her that if she wouldn’t do what everyone else was doing, she would have to leave.  She was told she was disrupting the flow.  I think that was my breaking point.  She left and I left right behind her – I didn’t want to be there anymore.  The rules or rituals became barriers to entry.  I went for a run on the beach and I felt free, relaxed and happy – snapping selfies while listening to Rihanna.  I had breakfast with the people I had avoided earlier in the week, who now felt like good friends and we were being sarcastic, laughing and swearing.  That was bliss divine.  

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When I went to turn in my yoga mat, the girl collecting them had the most beautiful, sparkling eyes. It was the look of spirituality and clean living – I asked her what her secret was.  She leaned in, gave me this look that suggested I need to keep this between us, and told me she makes a Starbucks run every morning.  I was like, really??  She was like, if I didn’t have coffee I would kill myself.  I was personally 6 days off of caffeine, which I was very proud of, so I asked her if she wanted my Starbucks Via packets and she obliged.  I was contributing to black market ethics on the Ashram and I felt truly generous.  I was overcome by gratitude that I was “getting out”.  The reality of life on the Ashram was far different from my projections of what I thought it would be like before I arrived. 

I had the most amazing experience; it was the right amount of fun in the sun, spiritual practice and also self-realizations.  I really couldn’t wait to leave, but I was sad to leave the handful of friends that I made.  Priya took me aside and asked me to get the final blessing at the temple and she told me to continue to be myself.  I had a lot of talks with her throughout the week about my struggles with feeling like I needed to act a certain way to be spiritual.  She told me that acting spiritual was bullshit and it wasn’t getting anyone at the Ashram to a higher place, and that my personal faith was beautiful in it’s own right and my love of Western world riches was completely OK. 

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I didn’t leave the Ashram a different person; I left it feeling good about who I am and where I was at in life.  I took several gems with me: I left a non-smoker.  I haven’t smoked in a year since leaving, and if that’s all I got from 6 days on retreat, I got my monies worth.  I started doing more yoga and I have grown to love it.  When I stray from a yoga practice, my body lets me know I need to get back to it.  I now see what a mental, physical and spiritual release yoga provides me.  The more I “practice” it, the more I love it – I now appreciate why it’s called a yoga practice.  I started meditating almost every day.  It has become my center.  The rigorous course of prayer and meditation at Sivananda taught me that when I actively pray and meditate, my life flows better.  It’s no longer extra credit; it’s part of my daily regimen whereas it hadn’t always been before the retreat.  Every now and then I do the Sivananda chants when I wake up and they bring me joy (I recorded them on my iphone).  When I happen to be awake for it, I watch the sunrise and think of the time we chanted the sun up and it brings me to tears. 

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I have so many amazing memories from my 6 days on the Ashram.  As time went by, I forgot the annoying parts (veggie slop and snoring tent neighbors) and embraced all that challenged me on the trip: judgments, avoiding people and trying to act a certain way.  When I fall hard back into judgment, I no longer get the rush of pleasure I used to before the retreat.  I was brought to a place of awareness about how toxic I can be and I now have the ability to witness it and correct it before it gets out of hand.  I gained that awareness on retreat.  In the end, it really did end up being one of the best experiences of my life–though if you asked me at the time, I didn’t see it that way.  I didn’t come back a changed person, but my experiences led me to change the way I do things.  I understand that some of my accounts sound very negative and judgmental, filled with self-seeking ego inflation as I describe my “quest”, while bashing some of the ways of the Ashram.  I get that – but I will also say this, I’d recommend a trip like this to anyone and I’m hopefully going to go back to Sivananda.  It has a special place in my heart for all the good and the bad; it was all worth it and I’m so grateful for my time there.

Have you ever gone on a retreat of some sort?  What were your experiences?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

*All pictures in this article are taken by me, Douglas Marshall!

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3 Minute Meditation: Set your day up for Success!

3 Minute Meditation: Set your day up for Success!

Take the 2 minute a day Creative Visualization Challenge with me!

Take the 2 minute a day Creative Visualization Challenge with me!