Health

I Went Looking for Peace at a Yoga Retreat

I'm an anxious person with a tendency to freak out over almost everything. Would a week at an ashram help me learn to quiet my mind?

It’s 5:30 a.m. when I’m awoken by the sound of a big bell ringing just outside my window. It’s quite dark out, but I lazily pull on yoga pants and a sweater before heading outside for morning meditation. It’s my first day at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp in Val-Morin, Quebec, and though I am here entirely by choice, I’m nervous about stepping out of my comfort zone in such unfamiliar surroundings. Aside from maybe a nudist colony, it’s basically the last place on earth I thought my tightly wound self would end up. 

A small group congregates outside the dorm building, and we begin the satsang, which is a common yogic practice that revolves around spiritual discussion and literally translates from Sanskrit as “in the company of truth.” It’s basically a group meditation session in which people meditate and chant Sanskrit mantras, and it concludes with a “words of wisdom” shtick from one of the teachers. I don’t know any of the mantras—and to be quite honest, they are a little too out there for me—but I’m into the vibe, and I sit silently as people chant in unison. Sometimes, the satsang also includes a long silent walk in the woods. Regardless, it’s a stark contrast to how I usually spend my mornings, which entails mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed or staring at the ceiling worrying that I’ll never find a full-time job for the better part of an hour before dragging myself out of bed. 

I’ve always been an anxious person. Even as a little kid, I distinctly remember feeling a pang of anxiety at the end of every school day because I had an irrational fear that my mom would forget to pick me up and I’d have to spend the night in my classroom. Spoiler: She never forgot. As an adult, concerns about my career, my family history of heart disease and the declining populations of the world’s wildlife keep me up at night. Though I try to live each day with gratitude and be “in the moment,” I regularly have freak-outs about my life choices and consider quitting my day job and opening a bakery in a Scandanavian village. 

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But despite my life-long neuroticism, I consider myself to be the Phoebe Buffay of my friend group. I haven’t eaten meat for almost 10 years for ethical and environmental reasons, I carry essential oils with me at all times and I live for yoga (yeah, I hate me too). Yoga has always been a part of my life, as both my mom and my sister had phases where they were really into it, but I started taking regular classes two years ago as a form of self-care and to deal with school stress. Since then, I’ve become a true yoga fiend, and the classes I attend are often the highlights of my week. 

So, in keeping with my personal brand as “the granola friend” and guided by my desire to take my yoga practice to the next level, I decided to spend a week at an ashram in The Middle of Nowhere, Quebec. Population: Krishna.

You might not think of the Great White North as a yogic destination, but Canada is actually home to the west’s first Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, which was founded by Swami Vishnudevananda in Montreal in 1959, before moving to its current location in Val-Morin in 1962. It’s part of an international network of yoga centres—there’s actually a yoga centre in Toronto—that aims to educate people about all aspects of this several-thousand-year-old tradition. 

In Sanskrit, “ashram” means “a place away from work.” It’s a safe space for people to escape the pressures of daily life and focus on personal development through meditation, reflection and yoga. I went immediately following my university graduation, when I was about to enter the workforce. I wanted to take some time to myself during this period of immense change and work on my stress-coping mechanisms.

(Photo: Ruty Korotaev)

The ashram is situated in the Laurentian mountains, surrounded by forest, just outside the quaint French town of Val-Morin, where I would occasionally sneak away to get some St. Viateur bagels from the local grocery store—it’s my contractual obligation as a Jew.

The morning satsang is followed by a two-hour hatha yoga class that kicks off around 8 a.m. It focuses on stretching and toning the whole body and involves frequent relaxation, meditation and a whole lot of breathing exercises. There are two classes a day—one in the morning and the other in the afternoon—which totals four hours of yoga a day. I was sore, to say the least. Back home, I typically go to three yoga classes a week, so this level of intensity and frequency was not something I was used to.

The ashram’s facilities are by no means lavish. Every morning, I filled up my pink water bottle from a hose by the drinking fountain, with nary a Brita filter in sight. Most people walked around barefoot. Though I was initially hesitant to join the shoeless masses, groupthink got the better of me and, soon enough, I left my scruffy white Converse behind and joined the pack. When in Rome, I guess. 

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We had two vegetarian meals a day, which usually consisted of salad and some sort of cooked lentils and vegetables washed down with herbal tea. Before every meal, everyone would stand in a circle and chant mantras. I felt a bit out of place as an awkward little Jewess surrounded by barefoot hippies and yoga moms, but I tried my best to join in. 

The dorm rooms and bathrooms were neat and very, very simple. I was in a double-occupancy room, sharing with a friend of a friend. Since the ashram is maintained entirely by volunteers, we made our beds ourselves with the thin white linens provided. Before checking out, we had to clean the room and our bathroom to make sure they were presentable for the next guests. The ashram also has single rooms and rooms with bunk beds that could fit up to four people. Or, for the particularly adventurous, there is an option to sleep in a tent in the surrounding forest. Overall, the whole thing felt like a big summer camp for adults, with a spiritual twist.

Aside from the yoga classes and meals, I spent most of my days going on walks, reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (I am a cliché) and observing my surroundings. I’d watch yogis doing advanced positions, or asanas, on the grass, kids running around (yes, the ashram also has a children’s camp) and volunteers doing chores. The ashram offers various activities throughout the day, like philosophical lectures and karma yoga, the latter of which is a practice that encourages visitors to spend a few hours a day giving back to the ashram, whether it be by doing dishes, laundry or gardening.

The ashram certainly wasn’t a five-star hotel, but that’s the point—to let go of luxuries and distractions and focus your mind inwards. Though I was still using my iPhone, I tried to limit my usage, and I deleted some of my social apps for the week. I was quite surprised by how little I missed everyday items, like my duvet and my laptop. But turning off my brain proved a little more challenging, and I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, both in terms of yoga (I still can’t do a headstand), and in life.

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It was an idyllic setting that allowed me to focus on myself, contemplate my place in this world and consider what I want out of life. This question is especially significant to me as a recent journalism grad trying to find my footing in an industry that seems to be increasingly precarious. Back home, I was applying to hundreds of jobs, most of which I was not particularly interested in, and panicking as more and more of my peers posted their “personal news” on Twitter. Gross.

Occasionally I’d find myself in a casual state of existential dread, but I grew to be OK with it. Maybe it’s because I was reading Sapiens, a book about the history of humankind and evolution, but I came to terms with my place in the universe and the notion that life is only as meaningful as you make it. It’s an acceptance that has added some perspective to the problems I used to think were monumental. Though my freak-outs are unavoidable, I’ve learned to step back and consider the actual problem through a more holistic lens, with the understanding that my issues mean nothing in the enormous timeline of human history. 

Even though I was only immersed in this strange little world for a week, it had a major impact on me. Yoga is a lot more than just doing a downward dog in Lululemon leggings (even though I love me a cute fitness outfit)—it’s a way to connect with your body, and it promotes a life of balance. It’s about the art of controlling your mind and your thoughts and learning how to find peace within yourself, even when things around you—or in your overactive brain—seem chaotic. 

Sivananda teachings stress that every action, and every thought, matters. I’m trying to remember this—that everything I say and do should have meaning and intention—now that I’m back in the real world. I might still freak out from time to time, but at least I’m Zen in between.