After stuffing my face for four days in Hong Kong, I came back to Shanghai and went on my first yoga retreat. A friend informed me a few months ago of a great group, Yejo Circle, that organizes city-break events at a low cost. I’ve been eyeing at the yoga retreat for quite a while, but until now, I’ve always had obligations on weekends. I was looking forward to finally partaking in the activity, and was in extra need of getting out of Shanghai after 4 days in Hong Kong, where in comparison, Shanghai began to feel very… well, uncivilized. Per my usual self, I signed myself up for this not knowing anyone who would attend, nor had much of a clue as to what would actually take place. I figured it’s a yoga retreat, so yoga must be involved somehow. Senior year of college, I took a great class that changed how I approach life. It was a class on social justice, but it taught me about living a mindful life. We had learned of Plum Village in France, started by the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. It was also the same time that I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time. Since, I’ve been fascinated by ashrams, temples, and the like.
This was my chance to get a mini taste. The yoga retreat took place at the YuanJue Temple (圆觉寺) two hours outside of Shanghai in a village in Jiashan (嘉善). Me and 20 other people, mostly foreigners, were dropped off at this temple late in the night. We were told that we would be woken up the next morning at 4:45am by the sound of a bell. I’m thinking, it better be some loud bell, cuz I’m tired.
To my surprise, it was a calm bell, but I woke up. (note to self: need to find this bell sound as my alarm on my iPhone.) We began the morning chanting Sanskrit. I’ve never really done this before. The few yoga classes that made me chant, I always found it kinda hokey. But this time, it felt calming. We were giving English translations of our chants, as to better our understanding (and to remove the hokieness). We also did a few rounds of sun salutations to warm our bodies up and to wake up. Two hours went by surprisingly quickly, and then it was breakfast at 7am, with the rest of the members in the Temple.
It was an entirely new and incredible experience to take part in the temple life. To eat as the monks do, and get a glimpse of life in that state of tranquility. The rest of the two days went on in this very orderly fashion. Unlike the yoga classes that I am used to, this retreat was much more about the philosophy of yoga, and yoga as a way of life rather than as a workout fad. I learned various breathing and meditation techniques, and at many occasions, were forced to step out of my comfort zone.
One of my favorite poses in yoga is the Savasana pose, which is literally just laying still at the end of a yoga session, to let your body completely relax. Well, it’s all good and well for 5 minutes at the end of a class, but when our Indian yoga master, Ganesh, made us lay there for 45 minutes, I had to fight against every urge in my body to jump up out of the mat and to do some jumping jacks. I never thought it’d be that hard to simply lay still.
Mind over body. That was a big takeaway. Most yoga teachers do not emphasize on this important fact of yoga nearly enough. Yoga really isn’t about how far you can stretch and what weird positions you can get into, but rather, how still you can be at any moment in time, both on and off of the mat. Most of us fail miserably at this. As I get older, the thought, “oh my, time is flying” occurs at a far higher frequency. Time just goes, and I am not living every moment as diligently as I once did as a child. Yoga is about bringing back the childish innocence in each of us and to become aware of every moment as we live it.
Beyond the yoga stuff, we had a chance to stroll through the village. It was so extremely refreshing to see green fields, to walk through them, and to breath in the fresh, fresh air. (Air pollution index was only 33, excellent, in this village while it was 165, unhealthy, just two hours away in Shanghai.) To wake up in the morning, and to hear birds chirping - once upon a time, that used to be my life, too. It’s all about balance, and after this weekend, I will be sure to bring myself outside of the city more frequently.
And so there it was, my first yoga retreat. I had just finished re-reading Eat,Pray, Love. during my recent trip to Hong Kong. In some ways, I feel like I too went on a mini journey myself. I certainly related to the author as I laid on that mat telling myself "I will not move. I will not move. I will not move" during that 45-minute savasana. I thought of the chapter where she had written about her inability to calm her mind in meditation sessions at the beginning. Baby steps.
I ate in Hong Kong, prayed in Jiashan, so… is the love part coming? That’s probably wishful thinking. I better just keep working on living in the moment, and being my best self! Namaste.