How to suck at yoga on a yoga retreat

Here’s a jargon-free rundown on how to suck at yoga, as written by someone who does, truly, suck at yoga.

Step one: Attend a yoga retreat when you’ve never done yoga

To ensure you make a right fool of yourself, be sure to dive into the deep end and attend a yoga retreat.

You can achieve this in a number of ways.

For me, it was as simple as an eye-catching email popping into my inbox.

The email, from Marlborough Yoga Retreats, advertised the availability of a weekend-long retreat (oh!) in the Marlborough Sounds (double-oh!) at the start of April.

So, I packed up a suitcase, drove over to the Picton water-taxi station and met up with “fellow” yogis.

Some ladies said they’d travelled from as far as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for the retreat. Others had booked their places from as early as December last year.

Most of the women were what I labelled yoga devotees – aka people who practised yoga of their own volition, on the daily.

I was the odd one out. I’d booked the retreat the week before, travelled from a town down the road and hadn’t done a lick of yoga in my life.

But this was all about to change.

A brief trip across the Marlborough Sounds left us at Mistletoe Bay – a stunning, secluded area that looked like it was out of a James Bond movie.

Once we’d touched foot on shore, we were greeted by a cheerful Californian who swamped us with hugs.

Her name was Leza Lowitz and she was a best-selling author, yoga teacher and meditation guide.

Lowitz had gathered a large sum of knowledge teaching yoga to students from all walks of life in all corners of the globe.

She’d taught Oscar-winning actors, athletes, ordinary people, “stiff-as-a-board men” and children.

We were bundled up like sheep and herded into a room with floor-to-ceiling windows, plush carpet and (thankfully) a heater.

The retreat, which Lowitz planned with Marlborough Yoga Retreats owner Anne Brooker over a year ago, was made extra special once Lowitz revealed she’d just undergone heart surgery.

“It was a life or death situation; one that I didn’t foresee when planning this retreat,” she said.

“It has given me a new outlook on life. It has shown me that we must embrace the unknown and the unknowable.”

The retreat was the fifth one Marlborough Yoga Retreats had held in two-and-a-half years and the second Lowitz had attended.

She’d flown over from Tokyo, Japan to Marlborough the morning before to act as our yogini for the weekend.

Her trip to Mistletoe Bay was just as much a retreat for her as it was for us.

“The beautiful natural environment and the laid back vibe of the people is such a contrast to Tokyo,” Lowitz said.

“Everything is so lush and green. The air is clean and clear, and the night starry sky is a masterpiece.”

Lowitz planned to give us an in-depth course in Vinyasa Flow Yoga and Restorative Yoga.

“Our plan is to offer a balance of yoga, mindfulness and meditation and self-inquiry and study of yoga philosophy,” she said.

“In each class, I try to offer a bit of strength training, balance, breath work, meditation, partner work and core work – and, of course, fun.

“Yoga takes us into a space of unlimited potential for evolution – physically,  emotionally and spiritually.”

Step two: Collapse due to exhaustion

Confession time: before this retreat, I thought yoga was easy.

I’d never tried it before but I presumed it was a glorified stretching class for middle-aged mums and hipsters. Boy, was I wrong.

The retreat, dubbed “Yoga Heart – Set Your Life On Fire”, set everything but my heart on fire, including (but not limited to) my hamstrings, triceps and every muscle in my bum.

Everyone else was going great. They were pampered and rejuvenated. Not me.

The best thing I could put to my name was that my back was semi-flexible … probably thanks to years hunched in front of a computer.

“Why does everything hurt?” I blurted out mid-session.

Lowitz replied, “That’s because you’re using muscles you don’t use often.”

The statement was, I’m sure, meant to reassure me, but what I couldn’t help but think was: ‘Why in tarnation are we spending time on those muscles? Clearly, I don’t need them”.

Lowitz seemed to guess the direction of my thoughts and stated: “I like to think of it in Star Wars terms.”

“We are like vessels for the Force,” she said. “The stronger our physical vessels, the more Force we can hold.”

At last, I thought, a concept I could grasp. But understanding and enacting are two different things.

After a full day of yoga and meditation classes, a group of ladies asked Lowitz to host another, more demanding, yoga session during our allocated free time.

The class was optional but I refused to keel over and cry ‘mercy’, so I attended what Lowitz described as “a more intensive session”.

And, as Yoda would have said, “Intense, it was”.

By the end of the hour-long session, my legs were sore and shaking, and the very thought of arching into the Downward-Facing Dog – the staple pose Lowitz often returned to for a breather – had me filled with dread.

“A teacher of mine once told me advanced yoga is when you can smile through the whole session,” Lowitz said as we filed out of the yoga room and headed to dinner. I believed it.

That night, there was the option of following up dinner with a restorative yoga session, but I mumbled something incoherent and headed to bed instead.

The little hamster in my head had fallen off its wheel. Exhaustion had taken me and, for the moment, I had given up.

Step three: (Wrongly) believe that yoga is all physical 

Lowitz’s short answer to this myth was “no”. Her long answer was “hell no”.

Turns out that yoga started out about 2000 years ago thanks to Indian sage Patanjali, who penned the Yoga Sutras.

In practice, he wrote, yogis are supposed to master compassion for other people and compassion for themselves before they even kick off on the physical path.

“Our odd society has things backwards,” Lowitz said.

“Here, we practice the physical aspects of yoga first before even touching upon the mental – and that’s even if we decide to go there.”

Without a grasp on the inner teachings of yoga, you can’t appreciate the practice in full, said Lowitz.

It’s like driving a car without knowing the road rules. It just shouldn’t happen.

“Yoga is not just on our mats,” Lowitz said.

“Yoga helps us to become more accepting of our imperfections but teaching us to stay in the moment and experience without judgment what is arising.

“It shows us the beauty of failure, the importance of the process rather than the outcome.

“We break down the barriers between ourselves and others and realise our interconnectedness and unity.”

Lowitz, who studied with the Dalai Lama in Japan, said everyone could use yoga to “learn to be more patient, loving, compassionate and peaceful”.

“Even his Holiness himself practices mindfulness meditations six times a day.”

Practising all aspects of yoga has helped Lowitz in her own life, too.

“Spiritually, my yoga practice has helped me embrace my potential as a writer, mother, yoga teacher, and better person overall,” she said.

Step four: Be deeply in love with meat

One of the five yamas (things you should do) of yoga is ahimsa, which is the practice of non-violence.

Because of this, most yogis are vegans. Because of this, the retreat provided vegan meals for each course.

Because of this, I wanted to go bush and spear the lone weka that often circled around our shoes.

That’s not to say the food on the retreat wasn’t good.

In fact, the meals were five-star, thanks to yoga chef Damien Oehlrich, who based his creative vision on Hippocrates’ famous quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

Think fresh kawakawa tea picked straight from the garden; coconut quinoa crusted chickpea tempeh with potato parsnip gnocchi; fig salad with smoked tomato, quinoa and watercress; or – my favourite – raspberry chocolate almond raw biscuits.

This new and, dare I say it, ‘improved’ diet allowed us all to detox from the caffeine, sugar and fat that ran amok in our daily lives.

But, like the terrible yogi I am, I still craved the occasional (or, er, frequent) slab of pork on my fork.

And, apparently, so did others.

On Saturday night, Lowitz instructed us to make groups of four and take turns listening to each person speak for a few minutes at a time.

During this exercise, the group I formed with jokingly named ourselves the ‘meat-lovers club’.

Points if you can guess what our topic of conversation was.

Step five: Do none of the above

If there’s anything that the Marlborough Yoga Retreats has taught me, it’s that sometimes you must suck to succeed.

At the beginning of the retreat I struggled to touch my toes (I could get to the back of my calves) and by the end I was a tiny bit closer.

I still sucked, just not as much. And that’s OK.

Because, in my opinion, you suck at yoga if you’ve never sucked at yoga, because you’ve never learnt anything from it.​​

For more information on Marlborough Yoga Retreats, head to their Facebook page.

The reporter attended the weekend retreat courtesy of Marlborough Yoga Retreats.

The reporter attended the kayak trip courtesy of Sea Kayak Adventures.

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