January marked my seventh year of visiting the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where I led my annual weekend of yoga for athletes and a five-day intensive on teaching yoga to athletes (always available online, and offered in North Carolina this July). For most of us who visit, a stay at Kripalu is like being in yoga heaven: there are classes offered three or more times a day; the food is healthy and delicious; there are lovely hiking trails, a whirlpool, beautiful mountain views. Better yet, the retreat offers us a chance to observe our habits, and to try out some new ones.
In yoga, we call these habits samskara—the ruts we dig for ourselves. Sometimes these ruts are important for getting in a groove. Like a trail carved into the forest, they help keep energy flowing in a certain direction. For example, developing a regular practice of yoga, meditation, writing, or running will require repetition and discipline. But often we fall into deep habits without noticing. I had a few meals with a woman who was participating in a detox program with the (apparently successful) goal of changing her sugar-eating habits. Over the weekend, there was a large group of women enjoying a program focused on self-renewal, on reprioritizing spending time on self-care instead of overcommitting and overgiving. Personally, I enjoyed the time away from e-mail and television and, for the most part, from melted cheese at both lunch and dinner.
My assistant for both programs was Sisse Dall, who came all the way from Denmark to help out. Although she grew up in Scandinavia, Sisse had never been snowshoeing, nor had I. We cajoled an alumna of the program, Joanna, who leads hikes for Kripalu, into taking us out one afternoon. Toward the end of our trek, she led us onto Lake Mahkeenac—the Stockbridge Bowl—which she assured us was covered in over a foot of ice. After a few tentative steps, we strode out toward the middle of the lake. Joanna suggested that we spread out, close our eyes, and try moving through space with full attention on the inner experience.
Where else could one have such a novel project? The snow-covered ice was smooth, the expanse vast. I aimed for a house on the other side of the lake from our entry point near Kripalu’s beach and began moving. With the long snowshoes and poles, it was easy to fall into a steady, comfortable rhythm. After taking several dozen steps I had a few that were a little wobbly, but I followed Joanna’s advice and returned to my breath, committing to try just a few more. When I felt done, I stood still for a moment and opened my eyes.
Much to my surprise, I was looking at Kripalu’s beach—180 degrees in the other direction from where I thought I’d be facing! Joanna said, “Oh, I thought you were going to continue in your circle.” Circle?!? Yes. Joanna watched as I traced a circle twenty yards in diameter in a clockwise direction for one and a half revolutions, pointing me back toward where I came from. She thought I was doing it intentionally.
Not at all. I thought I was walking straight. But my footprints told a different story. And while I originally thought it was a downer—all that time I thought I was making progress, I was walking in a circle, and aren’t we all just walking on a frozen lake, anyhow, waiting for the ice to crack?—I came to a different conclusion, thanks to Barry Dorfman, one of the wonderful massage therapists at Kripalu Healing Arts. He pointed out that it could be a spiral, like our revolutions around the sun. There I was back at Kripalu another year, but with another layer of experience and perspective to share. I could stay in the circle with new awareness.
What circles are you tracing in 2015?