I am just returning home from a silent meditation retreat – the third one I have done in a few years. I have been meaning to write about my experiences being silent for two years – but it had been difficult before this last retreat to put into words what really happened to me when I went silent. Here is the beginning of a multi-part blog series I want to share with you about why silence is so powerful…and why I think everyone should go into silence at some point in their life.
Two years ago in November of 2014 I went on my first silent meditation retreat – four days with an iRest teacher named Anne Douglas who I didn’t know very well. She was leading a weekend retreat from a Friday evening to a Monday midday in Dayton, Ohio. It was close, a cheap flight, I liked her the one time I met her at an iRest Teacher Training and the retreat was part of the requirements for my five year foray into becoming a Certified iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher. I signed up figuring four days was an easy start, and committed to silence. Inside I felt really nervous about the whole thing.
You see, I’m a talker – a chatter. I come from a long line of mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces and grandmothers who have the gift for gab. One of my favorite verbs that I learned while studying abroad in Italy is chiacchierare (to chat). The thought of being silent for four days – not even four full days – really sent me into a spin of internal discomfort. And there is one thing I’ve learned about discomfort over the years: facing it head on has always brought me to amazing places I never knew existed.
When I arrived at Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio for the weekend, we signed in and got our room keys. Everyone around me either knew one another or was getting to know one another. They were all talking loudly in a little lounge area near the front door. As I signed in the woman behind the registration table got me my room key, my map of the building, a schedule, my name tag and noted that I had registered to be silent. She gave me a second tag that said, “In Loving Silence” and told me to wear it so everyone knew I was being silent for the weekend.
It was in that moment I realized that not everyone had chosen to do this weekend silent…in fact only two of us had registered to be silent. I felt a ball in my throat start to form. Being quiet when everyone else was also being quiet was bad enough but absolutely do-able. Being quiet when everyone else was talking incessantly?? Not possible.
I made my way to my room and unpacked. I had a bit of time before dinner and the opening session. I made an agreement with myself to stick with my intention of being quiet even if everyone else was talking. I made my way to the loud dining hall and got some food. I sat alone because it felt weird to sit with everyone else who was talking. I’m typically very social so it felt difficult to sit alone with my food. I raced through my meal to avoid the discomfort. It was evident before the retreat sessions even began that being silent set me apart, made other people uncomfortable and was not really understood.
When we settled in to the first evening session and Anne oriented us to the weekend, she talked about why silence is such a beautiful thing – it gives us a break, it brings us up against our internal dialogue, it is a sacred space we rarely get in our everyday life. I think she had noticed during dinner that the two of us with our “In Loving Silence” badges felt a bit out of it. As a result, she decided to make periods of the entire retreat silent. She chose different meal times, different session times and a couple of evenings when EVERYONE was supposed to be silent. This was to help everyone understand the gift of silence.
I found this shift in the retreat really supportive to my endeavor to be quiet. I found it deepened my meditation and made my silence easier. I also found that the rest of the group had a terrible time with being quiet. Every silent meal people would ask for things like, “Can you pass the salt?” Or comment on the food, “Doesn’t this taste amazing?” Invariably they would then say, “Oh shoot, sorry we aren’t supposed to be talking.” As soon as everyone was out of Anne’s watchful eye, they all started talking and complaining about being quiet.
Our daily schedule included pranayama, silent meditation, guided meditation, intuitive movement/body sensing yoga practices and iRest Yoga Nidra practices. There were breaks for meals and naps. It was a steady and nourishing schedule – one that felt so far from the fast paced hectic life I led back home. It was very interesting to be a silent observer of the dynamic of other participants’ responses to the schedule, silent periods, meals and meditations. And because I was quiet, I really got to take in what was going on around me in much deeper ways than when I was normally distracted by the social chitter chatter of daily life.
At one point another participant held the door as I walked into our meditation room with her and when I didn’t say anything she said, “Well you could at least say thank you!” With a huge harrumph she stormed off. At another point in the weekend I was sitting in my room journaling and a group of other students was outside my door lamenting how me and the other woman who was in silence were being so weird and strange. I felt really judged and really unwelcome, but I held my silence and I learned so much from all of the experiences that weekend. During the meditations I noticed how many of the other participants could not sit still in the quiet – they constantly had to be sighing, mumbling, moving props around, slurping water or tea, or apologizing out loud for making noise. My own silence made every other sound around me amplified. It was fascinating!
Here are the TOP 5 of many things I learned on this retreat while being silent.
I left my time with Anne feeling inspired and quite rested. I didn’t want to talk. On the plane ride home and for several days after the retreat, I really spoke very little. Silence left me feeling introspective, raw and vulnerable. I loved it and knew that it needed to be a bigger part of my life, but I wasn’t sure how it fit as a piece into my daily schedule and yearly calendar. I let everyone know when I got back just how refreshing silence was, and how much easier it was than I thought it would be. This first foray into silence began a journey that has continued and influenced so much of my life in wider rippling circles. I’m excited for this series of blogs to share that journey with you and hopefully to inspire you to get quiet and experience your Self and the world around you in a profoundly different way.
Start small: 10 minutes of silence (verbally and technologically) starting now. Report back on how it goes!
Some time ago I subbed a class for one of my colleagues. Subbing is one of my favorite things to do because it gets me out of my comfort zone – puts me in front of new people, mixes up the formats I’m teaching and totally shifts my schedule so my day feels different. On this occasion, I stepped in to teach at the last minute to help out – someone was sick and needed coverage. I’ve been there and I had the time open so I jumped on it.
I planned a really fun fluid class as this was listed as a Power Vinyasa practice at the time. I knew that the students would want more movement than my regular classes. I was pumped! I couldn’t wait to get in there to share with them. I know that my sequencing is different than many other styles of yoga because it considers sequences from a different angle of preparation and pacing, but I have always been able to use my creative sequencing knowledge to build fun class experiences for many levels.
I walked in the room and a small group of students was there – they all looked absolutely annoyed and downright offended that I was there to teach. One student even rolled their eyes as I went to set up my mat. I’m used to not getting a “warm welcome” as a sub – they are used to their regular teacher, I get it. I also know that I am human and I can completely misconstrue the energy of a room because I am feeling nervous. I’m always nervous when I sub so I thought, “Oh I must be reading too much into this! They are probably just a bit tired today and didn’t know there was going to be a sub. It will be great.”
I typically start each class by checking in with each student and getting to know them a little bit. I had seen everyone in this room at least once, but I could not remember many names. As I went around the room, the energy got more challenging. No one wanted to tell me their name. No one wanted to say how they were feeling that day. When I asked how they were doing, I got answers such as “Please make sure we do headstand” “A good class always has a wheel” and “Upward Facing Dog.” Finally towards the end of saying hi to each of the students, one said to me, “Can you please just teach us real yoga and not what you normally do?” And my heart stopped. I got it – they didn’t have any interest in what I was excited to share with them.
I decided in that moment to run an experiment – one that I am actually a bit scared to write about. I threw my carefully planned sequence out. I took each thing they had asked for and put it into the most generic sequence framework I could recall. There were lots of “vinyasas” and no cues about alignment (if you know me, you know I am really keen on alignment!!). There was no guiding force behind the sequence. It was a messy hodge-podge. One student had asked that I not correct them as it “interrupted a strong flow.” So I didn’t assist any of the students. That is also very strange for me as my natural teaching method is to be helpful to each individual and to use touch in a loving way as I teach. I was sure this class was an epic failure – I had just “dialed it in” with a terrible sequence and lots of new-age lingo.
Then the shoe fell, so to speak: THEY LOVED IT…I’ve never gotten such high praise for a class. At the end things like “I knew you could finally get how to teach for real” and “Thanks for the best class you have ever taught” were said alongside hugs. I have never felt so sick to my stomach. And the reason is that I was being praised for being totally and completely inauthentic.
This experiment showed me a lot about myself and others. It showed me that I value my authentic style of teaching more than I value being liked. It showed me that some students don’t have a lot interest in experiencing something different on the mat outside of what they habitually do. It also revealed to me that when I am myself, I draw to my teachings exactly the students I am meant to reach. I got a glimpse of what it feels like to “dial it in” as a yoga teacher. It felt boring and draining to me to teach from that space of inauthenticity.
I hope that you will risk in your own life showing your real self even if it isn’t popular. The world doesn’t really need more flashy, fake or phony – there is enough of that on reality TV. Much to the contrary, the world really needs YOU – you in all your glory. There will never be another person like you in all of time – please share of yourself. Feel into your own life: where have you been dialing it in? And would you take a chance even for a day or two to let your full self shine? The rewards for this risk are incredible! It runs vibrant energy through you when you are authentically yourself. It brings into your life realm the opportunities and people you were made to work with. It inspires vision and takes you in directions where you can really be of the greatest good to those around you. It is a like a magnet for amazing things when you are authentic to yourself.
I’m still not sure what “real” yoga is but I do know that where I teach from is precious – precious to my own heart and to those I share it with. There may be fewer upward facing dogs and more cues about alignment, breath and Spirit, but I love that I get to share that depth of my real self with you in my classes and out.