In a small neighborhood studio, a yoga-class friend was telling me about a recent yoga retreat.
“Oh, it was amazing” she said as she folded her blanket into a meditation seat. “I was so relaxed. I just wish I could have felt so good when I came back.”
“Couldn’t you?” I asked. “Couldn’t you feel that relaxed everyday?”
She looked at me. Class began. And at the end of class we wandered off in our respective post-yoga happiness hazes.
Next week, same class, same spot for our mats, my classmate said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said, about feeling relaxed every day and thought, Why not?”
Why not, indeed.
In teaching meditation and yoga to hundreds of students in all sorts of settings in California, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., I’ve come up with several ways to keep that feeling of retreat in mind and body, whether returning from vacation or taking a “staycation.”
It’s a matter of simplicity and joy. The word “retreat” means “to pull back.” On retreat, with tasty fresh food, gentle attention from a teacher, pampering and quiet, we pull back from the habits of daily life that drain us — eating on the run, denying ourselves attention, rushing through or avoiding basic self-care, excessive noise.
Adding vacation vibes to the daily grind means attending to the senses and tending the mind, following guidelines from yoga philosophy.
Start with the body and its senses
Include asana practice, even a little. Unwind a little throughout the day before the knots build in the body (and then the mind). One friend uses the kitchen counter for downward facing dog while the coffee brews. Another practices half moon before bed.
Observe Soucha, the concept of tidiness with attention to the place where you begin and conclude the day: the bed. Simplify your bed-making routine so you never skip it. When replacing the sheets, I splurged on linen. Instead of two blankets, I use a duvet. The bed’s made in seconds and looks and feels luxurious.
Think about other ways to add Santosha, contentment, to a daily routine. This might mean a touch of elegance or fun, like a single flower in a bud vase on the desk or colorful socks peeking from trousers. When I taught at a high school, one of the women in my wing brought silverware and a cloth napkin to eat her sack lunch. While we all clutched peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in plastic bags or dipped yogurt from a disposable cup with a plastic spoon, she spread a simple repast on a clean napkin and ate like a guest at a fine restaurant.
Identify an essential oil that pleases you. Maybe a scent you associate with a place you like to retreat to. I’m in a rose phase and add rose oil to my bathwater, along with Epsom salts and baking soda. Before catching the bus to teach a class, I’ll sometimes dab oil on my inner wrists. Essential oils are subtler than perfumes and less likely to offend others. An oil that calms or energizes might add Tapas to your day, that yoga concept of zeal.
Can you add an occasional pampering service or inspiring lesson to your daily life? Ask in your area for referrals to a massage therapist or esthetician. Develop a relationship with the provider. Even an occasional massage works wonders when you know and trust the person. Or join a painting or knitting group. My local library hosts coloring book nights. Think of receiving a service or exploring a fun past-time as Svadyaya, self-study.
Manage sleep and get enough. (Nice sheets might help!). If sirens and cars disrupt rest, consider using a white noise sound to help you sleep. When I lived on a rowdy block, I used an ocean sound on my smartphone to soothe me. Surrendering to sleep is reminiscent of the release of control we experience in Savasana, corpse pose. Before slipping into sleep, touch upon the notion of interconnectivity of all life and a yielding to its energies – Ishvarapranidhana – by pausing to offer gratitude or appreciation for this life.
Look for opportunities to engage the senses. At least once a day, be sure to taste. Say to yourself, “I am tasting.” Savor. This might mean taking your brown bag sandwich to a park bench to eat alone or sitting in a cafe for 10 minutes with your tea instead of having it in a to-go cup. Use touch. Run your hand along the smooth wood of a tabletop while waiting for a dinner companion, slip off your shoes to stand in the grass for a moment while crossing the square, look up at the sky and watch one cloud pass, pause and sniff the vendor’s flowers. (And treat yourself to a blossom while you’re at it!) Attune the senses as an inverse of Pratyahara, the practice of sensory withdrawal.
Tend the Mind
Being in a new place on retreat plunges us into “beginner’s mind.” Retain that childlike wonder in daily life by shifting routine a bit. Take a different street home from work or let the dog choose your evening walking route. Look at a colleague as if seeing him for the first time. Browse a new section of a bookstore — history, say — even though you usually tend toward fiction. Be willing to be surprised. Buy an unfamiliar magazine. Talk with a stranger on the plane. This is a form of focus, like Dharana, the concentration that supports meditation.
Bring home a habit that you cherished on retreat. Did you drink coffee on a balcony every morning? Could you sit in the apartment window instead? Did you watch the sunrise? Get up a little earlier and let the quiet cloak you. When I drove a commute to work, I woke up an hour earlier to take a pre-dawn walk with my dog. The movement prepared me for the long drive and the happiness I felt motivated me to wake up. Notice how these refreshing habits are supported by the breath and its energy, Prana.
Add an object to your environment that can be a focus of meditation, for Dhyana. Did you bring home a sea shell? Set it atop the computer monitor and steady your gaze on it every once in awhile for four breaths. Or hang a picture of a scene that soothes you. Use it in a similar way, to rest the eyes. Then close the eyes and, as you breathe, imagine the sounds and smells of the scene.
The mind and the body, imagination and movement, are powerful vehicles to carry us from one moment into another. Give yourself permission to daydream. And then let that daydream drift away like a boat untied from a dock. Stretch the arms overhead and return to the task at hand. Notice the connection between then and now, was and is – that connection is you, your breath, your attention.
Eventually, a retreat may become as simple as lying down in constructive rest beside an open window and listening to the birds outside. Or as joyful as hopping on a vacant park swing to move through the air feeling the wind in your face.
Alexa Mergen offers Simple, Joyful Yoga at her tiny studio in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and teaches private lessons in Washington, D.C. Her poems, stories and articles are widely published. Visit Yoga Stanza to learn more.
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