The white windmills on highway 47 north cut through the deep blue Midwestern sky. I turned onto a side road and got out of my car to take in the sweeping panoramic views that included waving cornfields, blue wild asters, and a stoic barn in the distance.
When I arrived at the conference center in North Lake, Illinois, I didn’t know what to expect. I was there to attend a weekend yoga retreat called BhaktiFest Midwest. I have practiced bhakti (the yoga path of love and devotion) with Saul David Raye (an internationally known teacher) whenever he comes to the St. Louis area, but this time around I was going to immerse myself in the ancient traditions of kirtan, chanting (mantra), and breathwork (pranyama) as well as yoga poses (asana), and whatever other types of classes were offered. I was curious to know if I would come away with a “blissed out” experience or if I was fooling myself into thinking that I could let go of conventions and old ways of being and allow my wild self to be present in the sessions.
I hesitated as I pulled in the parking lot next to a hippy van painted with a rainbow cosmic scene of Saturn and a guy on a surfboard. A sense of loneliness and self-consciousness came over me as one of the volunteers wrapped the green band around my wrist and welcomed me. Guys with man buns and lots of jewelry and women covered in tattoos and hairy armpits intermingled with men in kahki pants and Birkenstocks and women in all white with scarves around their foreheads. Were “these people” part of my tribe now? Did I fit in with hippies, love gurus, and mystics? There were vendors selling their wares of mala beads, scarves, tie-dye, loose-fitting tops and pants, statues, and even cosmic readings. I pulled my yoga mat closer to my chest and searched for the yoga room. I wanted familiarity. I wanted to distance myself from people who smelled like patchouli and rose water and roll out my mat and go through the motions of poses I’ve been doing for 15 years. Thankfully, I didn’t get what I was asking for.
By the time I got to my second session of the day I had chastised myself for being so judgmental and dared myself to be more open-minded and open-hearted. These people were fellow seekers of the heart. People wanting to experience more than the ordinary and to be touched by the sublime. And isn’t that what I’m doing too on this new journey? Seeking a place where I can creatively express my emotions and experiences. Seeking a way of being that is different than my traditional role as a mainstream English teacher, good and responsible daughter and sister, wild aunt, and single woman in a big house. All roles I upheld by determination and default.
As I laid down on my back, preparing to be guided through a 2 hour session focused solely on the breath, I realized I don’t know that much about life or love as I pretended to know when I got to the conference. As Michael Brain Baker (the teacher, who was dressed in all white, had dreadlocks, and smelled of some heavenly rose watered scent) played cosmic sounds and chanted lullabies in Portuguese, Sanskrit, Hindi, and some other exotic languages, my body became awakened by my deep breathing (two deep inhales through the mouth and one long exhale through the mouth for 7 minute increments that were followed by periods of rest and then breath retention). The breathing mimicked a buildup to a good cry. The effect in the room was that of a wounded child sobbing for her mother. I heard others wailing, crying, and moaning in anguish while my eyes were closed and we were all covered in darkness. Anger and frustration awakened inside of me. I wanted them to be quiet so I could have a peaceful, blissful experience. I focused on Michael’s voice and directions. I kept breathing, deeper and more fully, willing others to quiet themselves. The more intense I became with my breath, the more my feet tingled, and then my hands and arms began tingling as well. I got worried when my scalp tightened and my mouth started to go numb as well, but still I kept breathing faster and more intense. One of the helpers in the room must have sensed my intensity and she came over and I felt some warm drop of rose scented liquid on my forehead. Then, I heard her breathing, softly, sweetly, and calmly. I took her cue and my short-circuited nervous system stopped going haywire. She stayed with me for what felt like a long time. Her presence at the crown of my head. Cool air from the central air spread across my chest and I shivered then breathed, shivered then breathed. I kept hearing her rhythmic breath and she was never far away from me, even as others cried and giggled and eventually burst into wild laughter and howling. Next came pure silence as we rested our controlled breathing. I felt like I was floating due to the fact that we had been oxygenating areas of our body that rarely get the deep benefits from our shallow daily breathing. Peace flooded the room. And silence. And then it happened. My heart cracked and I began crying. The man who was moaning in sheer agony and pain across the room suddenly became my brother and I cried for him, imagining I was holding him in my arms, cradling him and rocking him through his pain. Tears flowed from my eyes, and the man eventually quieted.
In the morning, I went to a nondescript workshop conducted by a 60 year old man with a scruffy white beard. He was wearing jeans, a buttoned down long sleeve shirt, and tennis shoes. He played the dulcimer and talked in a meditative voice. The topic was on freedom and liberation of the soul. We all have attachments and deep fears and the yogis and mystics say all attachments and fears stem from the greatest fear of all: death. He strummed the dulcimer that was in harmony with the pulsating, warping sound coming out of an amplifier. This grandfather of a man told us we were all safe and that we had been in this cycle of birth and re-death for thousands of years, and would continue until we learned to face our own mortality and welcome it fully and with great love.
He instructed us to close our eyes and take an inhale through our nose, saying to ourselves, “Thank you, Great Spirit.” And as we exhaled, he said, “I’m coming home.” It sounded too simplistic for me to see how it could be a profound experience. Yet, I listened to my intuition and allowed myself to be guided. Eyes closed, I began to shed my inhibitions. I tuned in to his voice, his words, his wisdom and guidance. For awhile, my thoughts and breaths were mechanical and methodical. The man literally struck a chord on his dulcimer right as I inhaled and said to myself, “Thank you for this breath, Great Spirit.” I retained my breath for a few seconds; as he struck another reverberating chord, I gently exhaled and said whole-heartedly, “I’m coming home.” A tenderness and warmth spread over my heart center and I started crying heavy tears that ran down my face and dropped onto my chest. I kept my eyes closed, but I cried, and I kept the mantra and breath work going. More tenderness, more tears. Until after maybe a half an hour the breath became seamless and the words became truth. A clarity came over me and it excited and frightened me at the same time. I broke the moment by opening my eyes and looking at the teacher at the front of the room. Too much to handle all at once I suppose. Life turned back to the ordinary matrix we function in. I had caught a glimpse of the sublime, however, and it was no other place but at the center of my heart.
(P.S., I added this last picture in because it’s true and it’s also a reminder not to take myself too seriously either. Ha ha!)