YOGA IN ITALY
When I went on my first yoga retreat, in Tuscany, I had no idea it would lead to what was essentially a new life. I had been practicing yoga for several years but not seriously—I used a DVD at home, no substitute for classes. My sister was a certified instructor, and after much persuasion I agreed to a weeklong retreat with her own instructor.
The first thing I had to do when I arrived in Rome’s airport was to slow down. Everyone was walking so slowly compared to in the U.S. After the initial hit of American-style frustration, I matched my pace to theirs. When in Rome…
We stayed at an 800-year-old farmhouse surrounded by forested hills and vineyards. The silence of the countryside at night was striking and helped us settle into a more serene state of mind. Every morning at six we walked down to the olive grove, our footsteps crunching on the frosted ground. Our meditations there, sometimes accompanied by tai chi, would set a sort of theme for the day and bring us to a place of calm attention to our bodies and minds.
Life was cut down to a basic routine each day: morning meditation, two sessions of yoga, sightseeing, and another meditation/discussion session at night. We ate outdoors, simple but delicious food. Our explorations took us to old walled cities, elaborate cathedrals, hot springs, and beaches, among cypress trees, evergreen forests, and winding dirt roads. As I relaxed into this ritual and the Italian love of food, beauty, and art seeped into my psyche, my normal stresses felt almost unreachable. The simplicity of this life was an ideal backdrop for yoga.
Having had only brief experience with an instructor, I learned I had been doing a poor imitation of downward dog and needed to push myself significantly to approximate it. The sessions were often tremendously challenging, and sometimes I was unable to do an asana properly right away (if at all), but all we had to do was the best we could. There was no sense of competition or comparison. We just had to stretch ourselves, literally and figuratively, based on our own abilities. During Savasana (final relaxation) at the end of each class, I felt more relaxed than I could remember ever being.
The stretching and reaching and twisting of yoga have a way of opening you up, not just physically. As a certain scent can transport you emotionally, the body remembers, so it makes sense that moving in new ways could shake up memories. Some of these memories seemed insignificant. Others were emotionally charged and arose in ways they hadn’t before—with an ability to look at them differently, with less judgment and more inquiry. On more than one occasion I was able to see a certain situation in a way that allowed for release or healing. I came to see yoga as a means to enhance both physical and emotional strength.
After I came home, I felt like a different version of myself, more grounded and more content within, yet at the same time more able to see the discontent with my life. I moved across the country, from the Midwest to the West Coast, incidentally to the city where my instructor lived. I started taking his classes regularly. The changes since then are a topic for another time, but I think of the retreat in Tuscany as a new beginning.