ColumnsThe Seeker

You Don’t Need a Destination for a Retreat


Katie Grant (Photo by Lauren Mazzella)

While I should consider myself lucky to live in a place that experiences such mild winters, I can’t help but feel this season has outstayed its welcome. In the traditional Hindu medicinal system Ayurveda, winter is characterized by a heavy, downward moving energy that causes in us a desire to stay inside and sit dormant. Animals hibernate while people rest and reflect, literally withdrawing.

According to Banyan Botanicals, “Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like and that opposites balance.” To find said balance, I’ve been eagerly getting my butt kicked at boot camp all season, before the sun even has had a chance to peek over the horizon.

This militant regimen, however, has taken a toll on my mind and body. While experiencing burnout, I’ve made the critical error of researching my symptoms on WebMD. The unofficial diagnosis? Adrenal fatigue.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and digestive problems.” Check, check and check. My body feels lame and laden, equally matched by a worrisome mind. I stir easily in my sleep, waking at the presence of any slight disturbance.

I understand I should be taking better care of myself; if I don’t relax now my body will pick a day to quit on its own. I found an “Urban Zen IN-House Yoga Retreat” experience and booked it immediately, yearning for a Sunday afternoon of unwinding. Hosted by Okra and lead by Victoria Martinez and Jane Ritz, the workshop’s focus is on inner-personal work and spiritual dedication paired with energy adjustments to align body, mind and spirit — just what the Web MD doctor ordered.

We crowded onto our mats in a full room, surrounding ourselves with the necessary tools for a chill afternoon: a journal, blanket, two yoga blocks and a bolster (basically a giant pillow).

Lead by Victoria, we initiated our practice together with breath of fire, a type of pranayama or breathing technique incorporating rapid and continuous inhalations and exhalations through the nose. Its purpose is to rid the body of toxins, sharpen focus and counter the slow-moving energy of the winter months. Interestingly, in my post-retreat research I learned that I suffer from “paradoxical breathing,” or breathing backwards. I inhaled by pulling the belly in, thus making less space for the breath instead of more. People who are often anxious (me) or smoke frequently (me in high school) tend to have this pattern.

We stood as a group, moving on to our qigong practice. Qi (or chi) is often translated as life energy, referring to energy circulating through the body. We incorporate qigong body tapping to awaken dormant energy within the body. My fingers tingling with energy, I sat down to thoughtfully journal about what I wanted to receive throughout my practice and what I wanted to release. My intentions are typically some cloudy variation of “express more gratitude” while releasing negative thought patterns.

I can tell you with 100% surety, negative outlooks are no joke. They create symptoms of chronic stress, essentially leaching your mind and body of happiness. With the potential to decrease our life span, chronic stress is a silent killer. According to the Mecklenburg County 2019 Pulse Report, “More than half of all deaths in Mecklenburg County are due to chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.” I am determined to not become a statistic.

Next was my absolute favorite part of the workshop: calming, restorative yoga. According to Yoga Journal, “A restorative yoga sequence typically involves only five or six poses, supported by props that allow you to completely relax and rest. Held for 5 minutes or more, restorative poses include light twists, seated forward folds, and gentle backbends.”

A passive practice, the goal is to slow down and open up through stretching. During this phase of the workshop, Jane weaved her way through the yogis sprawled on their mats, infusing the room with healing energy. Despite my eyes feeling heavy, I’m confident Jane hovered her hands around my temples.

In my post-event reading I learned this is a reiki healing modality, focusing on the sixth and seventh chakras, or energy centers located between the eyes and the crown of the head. “Unblocking” chakras refers to the concept that when all of our chakras are open, energy can flow freely, aligning the body, mind, and spirit — the precise rationale behind booking this urban zen retreat.

As we reclined onto our mats, again supported by our yoga props, we were gifted with a small, drawstring bag of chakra gemstones. We aligned them with our mats and concluded our afternoon practice with a body scan meditation and Yoga Nidra, a systematic form of guided relaxation to seal in the therapeutic effects of the Urban Zen Retreat experience.

Expecting to feel lethargic upon rising, what I actually experienced was the adverse — light, clear and energetic. The perfect opportunity to retox with a shot of whiskey on a frigid winter’s day.

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