Epic Silent Retreat
On October 14th, I was on my way to Golden, BC, for a Silent Yoga & Meditation Retreat. This retreat was led by my amazing friend, the best yin yoga teacher in Alberta, Stephanie Staniforth. This is the first silent retreat I’ve ever done, so I had no idea what to expect. I was apprehensive, nervous, and feeling a little out of my element. I have not practiced yoga regularly since I moved out of Calgary in 2015. Little did I know was about to have the most amazing, fulfilling, and refreshing weekend of my life…
It was raining as the three of us piled into Stephanie’s Subaru Forester on Friday morning. We were in good spirits, excited for a weekend of meditation, relaxation, yoga, and rejuvenation. We headed west, into the rain-turning-to-snow. Steph had just gotten her snow tires put on, so we weren’t too worried.
There was an accident on the Trans-Canada Highway before Lake Louise, so we took Highway 1A. There was plenty of snow piled up on the trees and in the ditches, and on the road. Between the falling snow, snow covered road, and construction zones, we probably did an average of about 40 km/hr up 1A to Lake Louise. The roads sucked, but we were committed and confident in Steph’s Subaru with snow tires.
We made a quick pit stop in Lake Louise and then hit the road again. As we were coming down the hill from Wapta Lake we encountered a guy flagging everyone over to the side of the road because of another accident. There was two snow plows ahead, and someone had managed to drive their jeep SUV straight into the side blade of one of them. The flag guy told us there was also a semi jack-knifed across the road a little further on. They cleared up the snow plow incident quite quickly and we continued on, joining the next lineup just down the road by the spiral tunnels. We were a little stressed by now, wondering if maybe Steph should cancel the retreat, or if we should turn around and go back to Highway 93. We had no idea how long the wait would be.
While we waited I was looking around, noticing how beautiful the snow was. I also noticed there was a semi tire chain lying on the pavement in the lane beside us. I jumped out and picked it up, draping it over the guardrail so a snow plow wouldn’t end up flinging it. Then I started thinking “no one will be able to stop and pick it up once traffic gets moving again… someone might as well have it.” Directly in front of us was a vacuum truck. I figured he probably carried chains too, so I went up to ask him if he wanted it.
He hopped out and came back to grab the chain, and says to us “Beautiful day eh?!”. He actually genuinely meant it. He wasn’t wrong, the snow was beautiful. He told us the news on the CB was that they were just pulling out the jackknifed semi and we would be able to get going pretty soon. Then we started to chat. He told us all about his early days of being a cowboy, carousing and partying and high school rodeo-ing. Then he got a bit more serious and he started to tell us about his theories on how choosing to be positive can change your life. He told us how he trained horses when he was younger. He would always take on the difficult, dangerous ones. He said if he committed to maintaining positive thoughts when he was in the ring with them, he always got spectacular results. He rehabilitated horses that everyone else had given up on. Then he began to apply this theory to working with his dogs. His friends. His marriage (36 years going strong). His kids. With amazing results every single time. He said he wakes up every day and says “Today I’m going to battle the negative thoughts” and that catching those thoughts and refocusing on something positive has changed his entire life.
He was telling us all this stuff we’ve all been reading about, studying, trying to practice for years. He’s the living example of what we strive to be. We chatted for a little while longer until the tow truck went by. He asked us to help him out on his mission to spread positivity to the world, and then said goodbye and hopped in his truck.
I feel like he was a genuinely enlightened being. It was a humbling reminder that mindfulness, happiness, positivity are available to anyone. There is not one certain path to happiness. There is no certain level of education required to attain it. It was a fantastic way to start the weekend. We were all much more relaxed, and feeling significantly more positive after chatting with him.
We finally headed on our way a few minutes later, and the rest of the drive was smooth and clear sailing. We arrived safely at the beautiful Quantum Leaps Retreats , and started to settle in. As the remaining attendees trickled in we started to hear that the roads had been fine when the rest of them came through the pass.
I feel like we drove through an alternate universe, just so we could have that humbling lesson from the enlightened vac truck driver.
That evening, after a fantastic vegetarian meal (read: ALL THE MEALS WERE AMAZING, I brought home their cookbook) we settled into the yoga studio space, and Steph led us through a yoga and meditation practice to begin our weekend of silence. (Click here for a Google Streetview 360 of the dining room)
Saturday began with meditation practice, then yummy breakfast, and a little bit of free time before our morning yoga practice. I grabbed my camera bag and headed down to the river to see what I could see. My photography obsession goes a little against the practice of non-doing, but I couldn’t resist the opportunities in such a beautiful location. The Kokanee Salmon were spawning, so there was sure to be some animal sightings.
I got lucky that morning. (Google Streetview 360 from where I was standing) Down the river a ways there was an eagle was sitting on the roots of a dead, fallen tree, lying in the middle of the river on an island. It was still foggy, and misty, and so mysterious and quiet and magical feeling. While I was changing lenses two wolves crossed the river near the eagle. They stopped on the island and sniffed around under the eagle’s perch for a minute, and then continued across the river. I have never seen wolves in the wild before, it was so beautiful. I’m sad that I did not get photos of them, but I’ll never forget that moment: the mist swirling, the bald eagle resting serenely on his perch, regarding the wolves quietly. There was aristocratic and dignified air about the whole encounter. It was almost as if the eagle would have said to them “Good Day sir’s” and they would have replied with cordial “Good day” and tipped their hats as they passed by. It was an enchanting moment.
After lunch we had a few more hours free for contemplation. I headed straight down to the river again. I hiked my way down the side of the river, and found a spot to cross to the island the eagle and wolves had been on. It was quite a sizable island and I spent most of the afternoon exploring there, contemplating life, taking photos, and sitting. Just enjoying the serenity. It was an amazing afternoon, not one I’ll soon forget. (Google Streetview 360's from the island: Number 1, Number 2, Number 3, Number 4, Number 5)
We had another yoga and meditation practice before supper, and then a bit more free time. I spent that time writing. Contemplating everything going in my head. That evening Steph led us through a Yoga Nidra, which was a beautiful experience
Sunday began with more meditation, breakfast, a bit of free time, and then our last yoga and meditation session. We all came out of silence together, and sat in small groups to talk a bit about our experiences. We all headed to our last amazing meal, and then people started to hit the road for home.
It was a truly epic experience.
There was a few things I was worried about going into this:
- Would the silence be really lonely?
- Would I be really embarrassed by my out of practice yoga?
- Would I screw up and accidentally talk all the time?
- Hell no. It was actually the complete opposite of lonely. I can fully say that is the LEAST lonely I have ever felt in my entire life. I felt more peacefully connected with everyone there than I have ever felt with people.
- This was the least of my worries. Yoga is yoga. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been gone from it for over a year. The practice is what matters, not the depth or perfect alignment or perfection of the pose. It’s not about being flexible and muscular and having the best yoga tights. It’s about existing, showing up for yourself on your mat. Taking care of you, and loving you, and accepting you.
- It was surprisingly easy to not talk. There was one point where I did have a very short conversation with someone, she was down the trail when the wolves crossed and apparently she was pretty close to them, so she called out to alert them and then she came back and since I was fairly close by she warned me about them. Otherwise, it was pretty easy to not talk. I heard from some other extroverted participants that it was easier than they expected. There was a sense of relief, there was no expectation of them to carry or lead conversation or activities, no obligations, no pressure.
The hardest thing for me was actually leaving my phone alone. There wasn’t much service out there, so that made it a bit easier, but I still struggled. I texted my mom a few times. I looked something up on wikipedia once. And I took a bunch of Google Streetview 360’s. That was the biggest struggle for me. To actually commit to being fully disconnected from my family. Even though they knew where I was, they had a phone number for the Quantum Leaps staff I still couldn’t completely disconnect. That’s something I think I’d like to spend a little bit of time contemplating.
My favourite moment was seeing the wolves.
My favourite feeling was just the utter sense of freedom, and relaxation, and disconnection from normal life. No obligations. It was completely rejuvenating. I badly needed that. I felt so amazing coming home from that. Some of that is still lingering with me. It’s what is motivating me to commit to my blogging schedule. And to re-commit to a daily meditation practice. I think I found my general direction in life over that weekend, and it’s writing (because clearly that hasn’t be obvious enough based on my obsession with writing for my whole life).
The drive home, with Steph and Christine was as amazing as the drive out. We didn’t have any angelic vac truck driver experiences, but we had really great conversations, about the lodge, the food, the staff, and our retreat experiences. There was plenty of discussion about spirituality, it was so awesome to be able to discuss stuff like that with open minded people.
Would I do it again? HELL YES. And I’d highly recommend it to everyone I know, whether you know anything about yoga or meditation or not.
In fact, Steph is planning another weekend silent yoga retreat for spring 2017, and then a 5 day silent yoga retreat for fall 2017. I’d like to attend both, realistically I’m aiming for the 5 day one. Check out her site if you’d like more info!
P.S. I had some really interesting, intense meditation experiences over that weekend. I don’t think I will blog about them, but if anyone is interested in hearing about them, drop me a line, I’d be happy to chat about them.