For the past two years, my yoga practice has been a deeply personal retreat from the world. I’m often uncomfortable even in small crowds, so I go to classes where I know I’ll encounter no more than a half dozen students. What I really love, though, is to practice by my bedroom’s bay windows, which overlook a lush city garden. With the scent of honeysuckle wafting in from below and green branches tapping against the glass, my oasis is inspiring, private, and secure.
But I knew there was a great big yoga community out there, one that I had yet to connect with. I’d often see yogis introducing themselves before class, making plans to meet for tea afterward, and encouraging each other to go further in their practice. “Hello” was about as far as I could ever get. A part of me was afraid that if I knew the people I practiced with, I would lose my inner focus. And yet I was beginning to feel like a hermit. Perhaps, suggested a co-worker one day, the next step in my evolution as a yogi was to make friends who would support my practice.
A few weeks later, I found myself taking the long, winding drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco toward Big Sur on California’s central coast. My destination was the annual yoga festival at the Esalen Institute, a place known for its transformative yoga retreats, more than 26 acres of beautiful coastline grounds, and (gulp) coed clothing-optional hot springs. And, yes, I was anxious.
Once there, though, I knew I had to commit fully to the experience: no hiding away in my room. I was here not only to practice in an intimate setting with great yogis—Seane Corn, Thomas Fortel, Shiva Rea, and Mark Whitwell—but also to connect with others. So after dropping off my bags and grabbing a quick bite in the dining room, I headed straight to the famous cliffside baths and stripped—fast. Look down. Plunge in. Stare straight ahead.
The hot mineral water soothed my aching muscles after the long drive, but it couldn’t ease my mind. Were people looking at me? Could I look at them? Had I remembered to shave? How could I cover as much as possible without looking as though I were trying to cover as much as possible? The entire time I was in the baths, my racing thoughts never let up. Tired of trying so hard to relax, I fled midway through a beautiful sunset that made the ocean waves shimmer red and gold. Still, I felt a sense of accomplishment. That, I thought, would surely be the scariest thing I’d have to do all week.
That night, the festival’s 175 attendees gathered inside a large yurt at the center of the property for kirtan, or devotional chanting, led by Bhagavan Das, an early influence in American kirtan. Brightly colored fabrics were draped around the room, and small altars with burning incense were scattered here and there, giving the place the look and feel of a bona fide festival.
But before the music began, I had to find a seat. Everywhere I looked, people greeted each other with warm hugs and beaming smiles. Some clearly knew each other, but others didn’t, and it was surprising to see how quickly people seemed to feel a sense of connection.
As I scanned the dimly lit room for an empty corner, I felt a small tug at my left pant leg. “Been saving you a spot,” said a man sitting on the floor beside his partner. I accepted his invitation, and we settled into our places and introduced ourselves. Moments later, musician Joey Lugassey quieted the crowd and asked that we begin the evening by taking the time to look at the person next to us. This was to be not a glance, but a long, thoughtful gaze into a stranger’s eyes.
My neighbor who had asked me to sit with him had no problem with this. His warm eyes smiled patiently while I struggled to focus for more than a few seconds. Each time our eyes locked, I could not help but look away to his nose, ears, or graying eyebrows, hoping I could fake the exercise and no one would notice. My palms became clammy, and I could feel my cheeks flush. How was it that poses like Shoulderstand and Reclining Hero had never fazed me, while an intimate moment with a stranger made me feel like a failure as a yogini?
“It’s OK,” my neighbor said, squeezing my hand. “You’ll get it.”
The next morning, we split into smaller groups to begin our meditation and asana practice. Vinyasa instructor Shiva Rea started the day by setting up an altar to a variety of deities and spiritual teachers. The room, with floor-to-ceiling walls looking out on the sea, was wonderfully inspiring. As Rea lit incense and a small kirtan band readied their instruments to accompany the dance-flow practice, Rea asked that each of us find our guru. She didn’t necessarily mean a person: It could be any of the objects she had placed on the altar, or if we liked, it could be nature itself. I chose the ocean and turned my mat toward the fog just beginning to clear over the waves.
It was indeed an invigorating practice, one that began with our letting go of our inhibitions to dance and sway to the harmonium’s music. I moved from one pose to another using, as Rea suggested, the sound of the waves as my guide. And at the end, Rea announced that we would do our Savasana (Corpse Pose) in the hot springs.
A day earlier, I would have excused myself and sneaked back to my room to do Savasana alone and in peace. But Esalen and our heart-opening practice had already begun to work their magic on me. And so, with my focus turned inward, I calmly made my way to the changing room in silence with the others, folded my clothes in a neat stack, and then took a deep breath. When I came out, a group of five people waved me over to join their tub. They instructed me to lie in the water, back slightly arched in Savasana, while they held my head and legs. I closed my eyes and surrendered.
Floating there, bare-bottomed and bare-chested in front of all those unfamiliar bodies, I somehow found the trust to let go and lose myself in the experience. It wasn’t until someone squeezed my big toes that I came up, swept my wet hair to the side, and saw these perfect strangers smiling kindly at me. And then all I could do was look deep into their eyes.