Sweeney Yogini: Yoga Reatreat? What, Why, How

Xinalani – Near Puerto Villarta Mexico

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IMG_3447This post is about my recent yoga retreat in Mexico.  I went to a retreat hosted by a teacher who I only knew a little bit about but who was an acquaintance when I used to live near Princeton. Her name is Lara Heimann and I will link you here to her  site – Yoga Stream.  She specializes in teaching and doing handstand in her yoga flow and I chose her and her retreat largely because a friend mentioned she was going and it sounded like a great way to work on my own yoga practice. Lara Heimann’s personal yoga practice is outstanding!

IMG_3421I know a lot of my clients have never been on a yoga retreat so I thought I’d write this blog about what I learned.  For me things are nearly always about what I learned.  I think it’s just my nature to crave new experiences and I want to feel I’m growing and learning.  You might be wondering: Do you do yoga the entire time at a yoga retreat?  Well, sometimes it feels like that but, NO.  This particular retreat with it’s boat drop off on the beach (no dock!), it’s 150 stairs up and down to and from the room, and it’s 2 daily fast paced yoga flow workouts  (like marine corp boot camp) would not be for everyone. And after considering, the boot camp part wasn’t right for me either.  Being honest with myself, the flows move too fast for my muscle type.  Next year when I go (because I am going with this same group again), I plan to do some of my own yoga practices and, unless by chance Lara adds meditation and pranayama for 30 minutes a day to her routine, I plan to do that on my own.

What I’ve brought to you all from Lara

IMG_3670Yes, I learned a few things that I am using in my yoga classes back at Liberty Yoga.  One is all those crunches where I’m trying to convince you guys to get your shoulder blades off the mat – and this is not a metaphor!  (I do love metaphors… “Let a light shine out of your forehead, Linda!”…)  In all seriousness, I also took some alignment changes away with me.  The most notable is that I no longer want you to line up your heals in warrior I – Wow, am I happy with that change.  I totally agree with Lara that we are not 11 year old boys and we do not need to torment our SI joints and low backs to try to become 11 year old boys when we stand in a pose.  For my own practice, I am feeling the back muscles under my shoulder blades (lower rhomboids and seratus anterior) contract much more completely after working with Lara.  I am also accessing my psoas, extending through it during standing poses, more fully.  The cue “move your pubic bone forward” was very useful for me with my nasty habit of anterior pelvic tilting (Shakes fist at naughty pelvis!) and I’ve been using it with you all in class!  Good work team!

What is a retreat REALLY about?  Answer:  You!

IMG_3637What else would I like to share? This bit is very important. Retreats are about you.  The word retreat means “a quiet or secluded place where one can rest and relax.”  It’s your escape so that you can recharge and feel great! That’s the 1st and most important thing. Make sure, whatever you do, that you are going for you. My friend ended up not going and even though I missed having her there that choice made it easier for the trip to be about me and my time away.  I wasn’t staying with someone I already knew and I wasn’t with family or friends either.  I made new friends and had a great time but I could also get off alone sometimes too, which was very healthy for me. I think the most important thing I learned about retreats is to go “alone”.  Meaning that I enjoyed going without close friends and family. Especially going without kids.  The whole time I missed them and wished they could have done some of the things I did but it would not have been a retreat for me if they’d been there.  Maybe when they are 30…  but not right now.

Slow Flow or Fast?

IMG_3458I learned quite a lot about myself and my own personal yoga practice on this retreat.  A yoga teacher needs a strong home practice. I want to be progressing and believe me I am – I do lots and lots of yoga. My body taught me quite a bit on this retreat.  I know a little bit about anatomy and physiology from being an instructor in that subject and I found my own body did not respond well to two rapid flow yoga practices a day.  My body is not naturally particularly flexible.  I’ve had to really work to get where I am in my practice.  I wondered why at the beginning of the week I felt great but by the end of the week my body just hurt (and not as much due to muscle soreness as due to actual fatigue).  I felt heavy and slow when I left Xinalani – not rejuvenated. Why?

IMG_3654I’ve done a little refresher research on muscle fiber types and on muscle movement physiology since getting back to ponder this.  I found in one of Mukunda Stiles’ books that muscles can contract on their lonesome (get shorter) but they cannot extend (get longer) without the help of an opposite or complimentary muscle.  I talk about this in class a lot  but I often feel it’s hard to listen when you are doing a pose.  I get that. So anyway, the point I’m headed for is that I’m not naturally very flexible but my body does extend pretty well after five years of constant work.  That said, I’ve found that I need time to make my extensions.  My muscles are working really hard to do a forward fold or a back bend.  That’s because my hamstrings don’t stretch as well as Lara Heimann’s do and neither do my thighs and shoulders.  I’m already working 1.2 times harder than her every time I bend (perhaps more).  And someone who is truly tight might be working 5 times harder.  So… what does that mean over the course of 2 or 3 workouts?  It adds up to muscle fatigue.  My body has to work harder than someone who is naturally quite loose and they can’t even feel what I’m dealing with.  This is why some of you get so fatigued after class.  For me, we aren’t working very hard, but the natural tightness you carry around all the time in your body is fighting all your movements and making your workout quite a bit harder than mine.  Mukunda Stiles goes so far as to argue in his book Structural Yoga Therapy – Adapting to the Individual:

Slow steady-paced yoga practice based on the tradition of Patanjali is an efficient form of exercise for burning fat and reducing lactic acid. Patanjali states guidelines that, in effect, minimize the effort involved during the practice of asana. Scientific research has also discovered that this type of stretching characterized by low force yet long duration, produces a plastic or permanent deformation in the muscle tissue.  The opposite type of stretching, with high force and short duration, was shown by the same researchers to produce elastic or recoverable deformation in muscle tissue. p117

IMG_3670Well, what does all that mean?  If you aren’t sure already, I’ll give you my interpretation.  People who are tight need to hold their poses a lot longer than people who are loose in order to become looser.  I actually don’t fully agree with Mukunda about the part “based on the tradition of Patanjali”.  We don’t know this.  Patanjali’s  sutras don’t say anything about how long you should hold your poses or even list any poses at all.  We have a tradition of yoga that has many different aspects and ways of practicing – there are many different traditions that are valid and cross training has been shown to be a very healthy way to exercise the body.

Variety = good in terms of training the body just as repetition also = good.  The hard part is finding the right movement practices for your body at this time in your life.  And likely, it won’t be the same answer today as it is in 20 years or even, maybe, next year. Bottom line – my body needs a slower flow than Yoga Stream or I’m just going to wear myself out. Maybe in a few more years that won’t be true, but it could always be true.  I’m just not a naturally elastic person.

In the end, the biggest thing I learned is that a yoga retreat is a great way to learn things about your yoga practice.  Not just to make it stronger but to make it smarter and more right for you.   A lot of yoga is about experimenting until you find the activities and exercises that heal you, make you stronger and make you calmer! Remember: When doing yoga, set your intention to quiet your mind!  That’s one thing we can all agree Pantanjali definitely said.

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