by Janet Bein, Young at Heart Diva

No. I can’t stand on my head. I have no aspirations of doing so. And I still gaze in awe at my instructor when she twists herself into a pretzel. But after a year of attending yoga classes on a fairly regular basis two to three times a week, my stamina, flexibility, and sense of balance have all improved.

Since getting hooked on yoga, I’ve thought a couple of times about going on a women’s yoga retreat. Recently, one of my favorite yoga instructors, Chris Leffler announced that she would be co-leading a Women’s Retreat for a weekend in the Santa Cruz mountains, just a half hour’s driving distance from my house. The retreat site was nestled on a lush green hilltop with a lake, trees, and forest trails. A weekend getaway was easy to fit into my schedule. And this one, which was sponsored by the Palo Alto YMCA, was also very affordable.

The other instructor for this retreat was Sharon Allen, a Stress Reduction Specialist and teacher of Mindfulness Meditation. I had never head of “mindfulness meditation”, but I was pleased that the retreat would include guided meditation sessions. There is some meditation included with the yoga classes that I attend. However, the last time that I had engaged in really concentrated doses of meditation was long, long ago. It was back when I was a very young diva and Transcendental Meditation was sweeping the planet.

I received my own personalized mantra, a secret sound whispered to me in a candlelit ceremony. My mantra is one secret that I’ve managed to keep throughout these many years. I’ve never told a single soul. Clearly, the experience made quite an impression on me. Yet, I didn’t manage to keep practicing Transcendental Meditation for more than a few months. Why not? Although I recognized the beneficial effects that meditation had on me, I couldn’t adhere to the strict schedule of practice that was required—starting with at least twenty minutes of meditation on an empty stomach every morning. My ability to follow that rigid schedule fell apart as soon as I got married.

During the Palo Alto YMCA Women’s Retreat, Allen explained that an advantage of “mindfulness meditation” is that there are no time restrictions. You can practice it any time—regardless of whether your stomach is empty or full—and for any length of time, however short it may be. If you are stuck waiting for a friend to arrive, instead of getting angry with your friend, make good use of those ten minutes to meditate. Allen also introduced us to “walking meditation”—a method of walking slowly and meaningfully, thinking about a particular phrase. For me, walking meditation was the most accessible, since I have an unfortunate tendency to fall asleep when I sit still and silent.

On Saturday and Sunday morning of the retreat, Allen prompted us to get out of bed at 6:30 AM by walking through the corridor ringing a small bell. We had the option of ignoring the bell and some women made that choice. But I wanted to explore the experience of starting off my day with yoga and meditation before breakfast. So I responded to the call of the bell. It turned out that both the yoga and the meditation gave me ample time for additional relaxation, and those exercises were probably even more restorative than an extra hour of sleep would have been.

Allen encouraged us to remain silent until after breakfast in order to delve deeper into self-reflection. After breakfast, we had a group meeting with discussion, journaling, and drawing. On Saturday afternoon, we had more yoga, more group exercises, and more meditation. At night, we had a little party with music and refreshments in a cozy room with a large fireplace. Leffler had brought potting soil, small biodegradable pots, and nasturtium seeds as gifts for each of us–the physical act of planting seeds and nurturing the new plant being yet another way of encouraging us to nurture the spirit within ourselves.

Eleven women, ranging in age from early thirties to sixty, participated in the retreat. Two of us had taken classes yoga classes with Leffler. Others had taken meditation classes with Allen. A few women were involved in yoga classes at other branches of the YMCA in Redwood City or Los Altos. Two women had never done any yoga at all. They came out of curiosity, intrigued by the concept of a “women’s retreat”. During sessions, Leffler offered suggestions for adapting poses to suit the individual’s own capabilities and gave the inexperienced women a little extra coaching. Yoga is not a competitive sport.

We had grown up in several different countries–Serbia, Russian, Israel, Spain, and different parts of the United States. But by the end of the weekend, our sense of connection with each other far outweighed the disparities in age and background. We were no longer strangers, but a mutually supportive group with a couple of new yoga enthusiasts. Namaste.

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