The sugar coated Mid-Atlantic whizzes by as I savor the last blueberry muffin I snatched for travel food from the Kripalu lunch buffet line yesterday afternoon. It is the type of winter that people will talk about and compare to other severe winters for years to come – long, cold and snow covered – and I am observing its effects from Connecticut to Central Virginia from a slush streaked Amtrak passenger train window. Why would this warm weather loving Southerner venture to the frost-bitten North in mid-February of all times of year? To fill my spirit with yoga and community while checking off a bucket list item- TRY CROSS COUNTRY SKIING.
As my regular readers know I am experiencing a dating dry spell, admittedly, a tad self-imposed yet still a current state of affairs. When I say, “self-imposed” I mean in the sense that I am avoiding the internet as a source for potential dates but certainly if someone popped up in life that interested me, I would be open to dating them. At any rate…What should a single person who is in search of a soul-mate do when soul-mate material is out of immediate sight range? My answer: Do stuff that fills your spirit and manifests love in ways other than romantically.
This past weekend I did just that- I went to Kripalu, (a big yoga and mindfulness retreat center near Lenox, Ma) to participate in a workshop called: “Cross-Country Skiing and Yoga Retreat” which was hosted by the graceful and endlessly patient, Shrila Leslie Luppino and the vivacious yet zen, Evelyn Gonzalez. I went with my High School chum, Prudence (not her real name), who needs yoga to balance out her stressful Manhattan Investment Banker lifestyle. In many ways, Prudence and I are polar opposites. Just sit in a car with us while we try to choose what music to listen to and you will understand- it’s Kenny G vs Foster the People. If we were characters in a Jane Austin novel it would be titled, “Cents and Sensuality”. Yet, against all odds, the mysterious synchronicity of our yin and yang personalities has created a friendship that has stood the test of time and when we are together hilarity ensues. There was also a collection of some really accomplished, smart, rowdy women with a few husbands in tow who were there to test themselves in ways they failed to previously imagine.
Due to snowstorm PAX ( a totally stupid name for a disruptive event like a snowstorm btw), I was a day late leaving Charlottesville so Candace met me at the train station in Stamford and we drove up to Lenox in the late afternoon. We arrived at Kripalu just in time to partake in a lovely buffet dinner of organic yumminess that is a signature aspect of the Kripalu experience. Once sated, we popped down to the opening session of our workshop to meet each other, practice some yoga and get oriented to the weekend schedule. We were asked to share our favorite snow stories. Oddly both of mine had to do with the first few flakes falling from the sky. The next morning was similar. Shrila divided us into groups according to ability beginners, intermediates and advanced cross country skiers. Prudence is a downhill person. She has skied in some of the best resorts in the world . This would be her fifth try at cross-country. I, on the other hand, have skied downhill only a handful of times on the soft low swells of mountains in Virginia. The closest I had ever come to cross-country skiing was an abysmal attempt at exercise on a Nordic Trak which more closely resembled a puppy’s first attempt at walking on ice than required gazelle-like movement.
During the morning Sivasana, the resting yoga position that traditionally ends an asana practice, Evelyn asked us to let go of expectation and remember to be compassionately present for ourselves throughout the day. “Tell yourself, I will never ever leave you,” she said.
Yoga teaches us compassion through self love and nurturing. Humans, particularly those of us who live in the Western cultures, have a tendency to become overly self critical. As adults, we want to be perfect at something from the first try whether it is on a first date, the first time we recite a monolog (Shout out to Evelyn) or our first time on skis. We forget that half the fun of life is the journey from the first step onward- the growth that is most rewarding and really, when you think about it, perfection is the moment when we let go of judging, comparing, criticism and expectation and simply experience the flow of something, accepting it for what it is and being in the moment.
Easier said….., right?
Learning to cross-country ski is a fantastic medium for applying these yogic principles. Naturally, I thought I was destined for a challenge free day when I clicked into my skis with ease and made a few practice glides across a small, flat training course on the Kripalu property during the morning section of the class. But humility would find me in the afternoon as I fell eight to ten times (with my entire class watching) as I attempted to ski down a tiny hill on a nearby golf course turned cross-country ski track. At mid- point, after fall number 5 or so, I just broke down into belly laughs so hard I could barely get back to my feet where my left ski promptly slid out from under me and I hit the soft snow again. “This really sucks,” I thought, ” but I am going to get down this hill one way or another.” Later, I learned the problems with my technique and the stickiness of the snow that caused my awkward decent, giving me some gleam of hope that I might become competent at this sport at some point.
All that afternoon, it seemed that just as I found the sweet spot, the place where I was looking ahead, heart open to the world, remembering to glide and toss my hands to the correct level I would loose it and make some ugly, jerking move to keep from falling. Shrila, who instructed the beginner group, skied with me for a few minutes. I was so jealous of her balletic smooth movements and incredible level of fitness so more to sooth bruised ego rather than satisfy any actual curiosity I asked her how long she had been Nordic skiing. “Over twenty years,” she replied. “Good,” I said, “I have been doing this for only a couple of hours.” At that moment I realized I needed to stop comparing my beginner self to experts just like people who are new to yoga in my yoga classes who compare themselves to intermediate or advanced yogis and get frustrated. We are each on our own path so judging and comparing are a waste of precious energy.
Cross-country is a very aerobic, athletic sport and after two rounds of the course both Prudence and I were done for the day. My clothing, wet on the outside from falling so many times down the snow covered hill and sweat soaked from the inside from sweating, made a visit to the warm dry tavern for a glass of red wine a welcome change from the 29 degree snowy outdoors. Several women from the workshop soon joined us and the sisterhood of the Rowdy Yoginis began. Each woman was there to grow in the knowledge of yoga or skiing or both.
I find “seekers” to be the most interesting people. They always have inspirational stories of travel, their work or their personal lives that teach me something. One woman was a surgeon, one a world traveler who had recently returned from Burma, a small group were celebrating their 50th Birthdays (as were me and Prudence) while another was celebrating her 26 plus year marriage with her husband.
Yummy Stretchy yoga with Evelyn in the evening was much appreciated. I was too tired to attend the screening of a cross-country ski film that night. I went to bed around 8:30pm where my body began to engage in a war between exhaustion and sore muscles that kept me tossing for an hour until I took a holistic sleeping aid to knock me out. Prudence summed things up when she said, “I am having the realization that I am not twenty any more.” Yup. We have exchanged youth for wisdom and wisdom apparently uses different muscles than cross-country.
We started with yoga in the morning to help us center and prepare our mind/bodies for the day. I was a little intimidated because we would be out on an actual cross-country trail at Notchview and the image of my embarrassing previous day hill experience was still resonating. Both Eveylyn and Shrila reminded us to let go of those emotions that were not serving us. “Set an intention then release expectation,” is what Guru Valma would say.
Notchview is a gorgeous preserved area for all types of Nordic skiing and snowshoeing about 45 minutes from Kripalu. We took a big yellow school bus there. Prudence bumped up to the intermediate group which was helpful in curbing my competitive nature. The beginners spent the first part of the day learning how to go down hills- I only fell once post proper instruction btw. But one woman in our group fell almost constantly. It seemed she spent as much time not he ground as standing but she had a terrific attitude. She would just pop up with a smile a keep going. My new idol! This is the attitude I must adapt for dating.
Another indomitable spirit was the assistant to the beginner group, Beth. Beth is in her 70’s or 80’s and could out energize the Bunny on the battery commercial. But the best part about Beth is how her inner light beams out of her like rays of warm comforting sunshine. She is alive. She exudes joy for life like a toddle full of wonder at a first snowfall.
Post lunch which consisted of sandwiches we had packed in the morning, the newbies hit the trail again and did some actual skiing. Conditions were perfect. Sunny cloudless skies, 19 degree temps, plenty of snow on professionally groomed trails. The woods looked like a backdrop for a Currier and Ives card with globs of snow topping evergreen branches gently bending them in homage to the season. Crisp air and the scent of pine needles kissed the senses. Breath became synonymous with movement. The meditation began. Swish, swish, swish, swish in time to inhale, exhale, head up, hands back, stride and glide.
About 3/4’s of the way through my muscles were in such pain I thought I might not make it. But I did. Screaming quads and all.
Yummy stretchy yoga with extended Sivasana saved me from even more discomfort than I can imagine. Then after a sumptuous Kripalu dinner which included wonderful conversation with Evelyn, Shrila , Prudence, in a flash of typical celebratory brilliance, booked down to the local grocery and purchased the best bottle of sparkling wine she could find to toast our birthdays and ski triumphs. Since ice is unavailable at Kripalu (alcohol consumption is discouraged. Ooops.) and bubbles should be chilled, a trash can was emptied of its plastic bag and filled with snow to fashion an ice bucket. We crowded onto one of the twin beds in the room, sipped sparkling wine and watched episode 8 of Downton Abbey thoughtfully downloaded from iTunes days before – the perfect apres ski for two middle aged women. During the opening credits, Candace raised her glass, “To the Rowdy Yoginis!” I added, “I hold the vision they have many more enlightening adventures together- or better!”
The next day the group shared about their experiences. I was so grateful for how supportive everyone had been, cheering me on when I hit the snow, congratulating me when I hit a good stride. Sharing insights, stories and water on the trail. Love was everywhere.
Take aways from the weekend:
1. I checked something off my bucket list. YIPPY!
2. It is important to show compassion for yourself especially when trying something for the first time.
3. It is OK for me to be me and go at my own pace despite what other people do or think.
4. Everyone is our teacher and we are theirs.
5. I made some new Rowdy Yogini friends.
I am in Virginia now. The 15 inches of snow that fell a few days ago has shrunk to about three and there are many grassy patches now. The temperature in Charlottesville is predicted to be in the upper 50’s tomorrow. Winter might be over for us at this point but maybe, if I’m lucky, I can give this new to me sport one more try before the season is over in my geographic area. But even if my new found love for cross-country skiing has to wait to be expressed until next winter, I can exercise the other love lessons I learned on the trails.