Monday. Happy New Year and all that. Just returned from my trip from Menla Mountain in the Catskills where I attended a New Year’s retreat. Worth every penny and I’m so happy I went. I had a wonderful, thoughtful and motivating experience. I tried to get into Kripalu but I was too late. Turned out to be a twist of good fortune. The Catskills were not exactly in the right direction but it was a chance to study with Robert Thurman for the weekend so I took a bed in a shared room (gasp) and headed to the mountains.
Menla Mountain Retreat is a Buddhist center. It is owned by Tibet House and most of the people who come here come for Buddhist training, specifically Tibetan Buddhist training. I was pleasantly surprised when I finally maneuvered my way there to find a rustic, bucolic retreat nestled in the crook of several mountains. (hint, when they say there is no phone access that probably means GPS is hard to find and it might be a good idea to print out driving directions before you get lost in the mountains.)
Menla has an interesting history of being founded on some land where a meteor landed a long time ago and was initially a retreat founded by a psychic. She died, another organization tried to keep it going and failed. Then it was donated to the Tibet House and for the last decade or so they have been hosting conferences there as they continue to build the retreat and Tibet medical therapy center.
First thing I noticed that was different between Menla and Kripalu (in Lenox, Ma.) is the layout. Kripalu is more like a college. Everything is one big building with dorms and classrooms in the same building — you walk up and down stairs and down long hallways to get to the different rooms. Menla is composed of several buildings spaced out over the property. You walk along long paths and up a lot of hills to get between rooms.
The “Inn” is where the meals are served and the offices are. There are also a few rooms there. Otherwise you are assigned to one of five different houses. I’m in the biggest House called Hill House that has 12 bedrooms. Most of them single rooms but I was in a big quad suite. Very nice. Clean, spacious and comfortable. There were 3 of us staying here and everyone was more than nice. My fears of bunking with strangers never materialized. In fact, everyone I met the entire weekend was really nice. Kripalu can accommodate over 650 overnight guests plus commuters. And they were totally booked. We had only 60 people at our retreat and I think they had 3 empty beds when I called. Very different feel. I felt like I was at a large family reunion meeting distant cousins for the first time.
The schedule is pretty jammed pack. Although I went to learn from Robert Thurman, apparently the co-hosting yoga instructors were a big draw as well. I never heard of them but apparently they are big kahunas in the Iyengar Yoga world. I arrived on Thursday afternoon, plopped my bags and the first thing on the schedule was a 2 hour yoga class. It wasn’t that bad, it was a restorative yoga class and they did a lot of talking and none of the poses were difficult — more stretchy and a really nice Savasana session. It just seemed long. I kept looking at my watch. Is this not over yet? 2 hours? Seriously? I was aware that I was very weak and shocked that climbing the little hill to get to class caused me to huff and puff. All of my joints creaked and groaned. Hi, nice to meet you, I’ll be doing an Ironman this year.
Meals are different from Kripalu too. Instead of a long buffet with options for everyone, Menla is more like going to someone’s house for dinner. There is one menu and everyone has the same thing. They do have the “special needs’ room where you will find a very simple and plain meal for those with allergies. Kripalu is catering to a larger group of people as they invite all walks of life. Menla is more like “here’s what you should be eating so here you go. I happened to love all the food very much. [sauteed watercress is amazing] After two days, one of my roommates wanted to go to town to get a hamburger… Ah, how the tables turned!
Thursday’s schedule, 2 hour yoga class, dinner, 2 hour lecture with Robert Thurman until 10 p.m. then to bed. Felt like I had been there for days, not just an afternoon.
Friday up and out the door at 7:15. Breakfast (“Eat Lightly as you have a yoga class” we were all warned.) Off to 2 hour yoga class. I am in the beginner yoga class. It is me and everyone who got kicked out of the advanced yoga class because they weren’t doing the asanas (poses) correctly. Apparently no ego is allowed in the advanced class. We were learning the Iyengar yoga method. It is a little different from the yoga I’ve done at Kripalu and at my gym. Granted I haven’t been in a yoga class in a year but I do remember a few things from here and there.
Iyengar is the guy we get to thank for introducing us to props in yoga. He’s the one who brought blocks, belts, ropes and bolsters into the yoga practice. His idea is that it is better for someone to do the pose correctly assisted with props than unassisted and incorrectly or missed altogether. They talked about why a lot of people are developing injuries from yoga and they really stress precision in doing the pose. We spend a good amount of time getting into the pose, holding the pose and then talking about how we got into the pose and what we were all doing wrong. And everyone is doing something wrong.
We were working a lot on knees and alignment and I got some really great tips on strengthening and stretching my knees. Caroline (the instructor) used to be some kind of world class cyclist. She retired from cycling and took up yoga and to study with Robert Therman. She’s very strict. Everyone is a little afraid of her. But she really knows her stuff and she teaches very well. Believe it or not I don’t say a word in class, that’s how intimidating she is! If anyone talks they get a full reprimand and they don’t do it again. God forbid you don’t align your feet together and “hold up the entire class because you didn’t bother to look down at your feet and now we all have to wait for you to catch up.” “Is your foot aligned over your middle toe? I don’t think so, look at your toe, stop looking at me, look at your toe and fix it!” “Stop wasting time.” “That’s adorable but that is not a yoga pose.” Just some of her gems from one morning.
I didn’t go for the yoga but I have to admit I learned a tremendous amount over the weekend. So many tips on how I can use props to do poses that normally hurt my knees so much. (Caroline says if I just keep doing these knee exercises I will have really strong knees.) She spent a good five minutes working on my left knee in front of the entire class showing the whole class on how to get my femur down to the ground. (“The Femur is the most popular bone in Iyengar” she says.) She spends just as much time explaining why we are doing something as much as how to do it. I really appreciate that. I’ve never had a yoga teacher go into that much explanation about why we do poses in exactly one way.
Then we had another 2 hour lecture and meditation. It’s about 1:15 of lecture and then 45 minutes of guided meditation. It was very complex stuff. I kept cheating and taking notes. Nobody saw me because they were all meditating. I giggled to myself at the thought of getting kicked out of class for cheating at meditation.
Friday afternoon we had a 3 hour break, I went for a little walk through the woods. I got back in time for, yep, you guessed it another yoga class. 2 hours. Restorative yoga. Yeah, it was still hard.
Dinner then another 2 hour lecture same format lecture/guided mediation. By the time my head hit the pillow I was out like a light. 4 hours of lecture/meditation and 4 hours of yoga!! Whoa. That was a lot for me. I’ve never done 4 hours of yoga in one day in my life. Pretty sure 90 minutes has been the most.
Saturday morning. Breakfast and more…. Yep, yoga! 2 hours of bending poses. I was tired but I was learning so much I had to get to class to make sure I didn’t miss anything. My butt hurt. My hamstrings were officially stretched. I was scared of some of the poses to come. Tales of the advanced class were sweeping around the dining hall.
Right after yoga, directly into the meeting room for another two-hour lecture. I will say this, having the yoga class right before the lecture enabled me to stay wide awake. I didn’t doze off at all. Very interesting. So much to learn. I know nothing!
Lunch. And Break. I’m was tired. A lot of people blew off the morning yoga. I didn’t feel that was an option for me. How am I going to do Ironman when I am out of breath walking back and forth to the lecture hall and yoga studio? (Oh yeah, everyone there walks. It’s about an 8-10 minute walk to the lecture hall. My first instinct was to drive – there’s a driveway. My car is right there, the yoga studio is down the road. Would take 2 minutes to drive there. Nope nobody drives everyone walks…. back to the rooms, back to the lecture hall, back to the rooms back to the lecture hall. At night we walk in the dark with flashlights. Crazy. Friday I walked to and from there 4 times. Probably 2 miles of walking just to get to classes. And the literal pain in the ass part is the walk there is all uphill and I’m trying so hard not to sound out of breath as I’m talking with my fellow commuters. Seriously my gluteus hurt to the maximus on Saturday.
Saturday evening we had another…. Yoga class, then another lecture and then a New Year’s eve gathering which was really lovely. They had a big fire lit in the main dining room fireplace. They made special New Year’s eve treats and we toasted with hot apple cider or your choice of sparkling juices. Everyone was in a very good mood and it was a lovely party. As soon as we did the countdown I booked back to my room because I was wiped out. I was determined to go to the morning yoga class just to prove to myself that I could do 12 hours of yoga in 4 days.
Sunday morning I woke up and felt amazing. I felt stronger. I felt more aligned. I walked briskly to the yoga studio — even skipped up the hill, carrying both my yoga bag and my book bag. No problem. No huffing and puffing. I was aware of my legs and how strong they felt. Last yoga class. More bends, more dogs (ups and downs). I was shocked at how much better I was after only 3 days. I was doing everything!! I was even doing shoulder stands! Highlight of my morning was when I was deep in Veerabhadra (powerful warrior pose), I was focused and I felt for the first time ever that I was really doing it right because I really did feel powerful. The instructor was walking around and telling everyone was they were doing wrong and adjusting this and that (are you pushing into your back heel? I don’t think so. Bend that knee so there is a box! Left hip back, right hip forward! Wider stance! Narrower stance!) You have to hold the pose as she walks around and fixes everyone. You feel like screaming, “do the pose already so we can stand up.” The teacher walks by me, nods her head and winks at me and, I couldn’t believe it, she smiled!! I was so proud. My little yoga moment. My own little glimpse at Nirvana.
I loved all the people here. The lectures were fascinating and complex. Robert Thurman is obviously brilliant and I will have a lot of studying to do to understand half of what he is saying. But, the overall message is one of love, peace and compassion and that’s not too hard to follow. I am very happy I went. My mind is opened. Much to learn.
Now in CT to check on the folks. Received my workouts for the month. Looks like some fun stuff planned. Lots of work to do. But I feel ready.
2012, let’s do this!
Happy New Year and
Some pictures of Menla or you can just look here at better ones www.menlamountain.org :
Little Buddha on the mountain side
The main building
.View from my room.