I went on a yoga retreat and came back with a Buddha belly

You know that feeling when you walk into a yoga class for the first time and you have no idea what to expect? I did that. For five days. Despite how much I had read about my impending retreat to the Bahamas, I still had no idea what to really expect.

I am generally open-minded and was excited for the opportunity to be present and experience something new. Then I got to the yoga class and it was so uncomfortable. It was not what I was used to. Showing up for the classes took a huge amount of letting go of expectations and getting really comfortable with the unexpected. I resisted at first, but then finally surrendered and in the end, through letting go, I came back with a Buddha Belly.

If you know me, you know how funny that might sound. I work out every day and love to be in good shape. I've been a runner all my life and while I have never been an extreme athlete, exercise is a part of who I am; I can still run a sub 6-minute mile in my 40s.

I have been wanting to go on a 10-day vipassanā retreat since Heather Hiles shared her experiences on my podcast back in November 2015. As much as I would love that and would benefit from more mindfulness in my life, as a full-time single mom who also works full-time, it is difficult to get away.

Since my son was going to be with his dad for spring break, I decided I could take my own vacation at the same time. I found the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas and booked five nights. It’s a spiritual learning center with two vegetarian meals a day, no caffeine, no alcohol, and a 5:30 am morning wake up call for meditation, followed by a full day of meditation, yoga, and courses throughout the day.

If that sounds awful to you, don’t worry! A five-minute walk down the beach is the Atlantis, a mega-resort with all of the temptations – Starbucks, a casino, water slides, a fancy spa, gift stores, an aquarium, and much more.

Still, mindful of my purpose, I was going to detox and participate fully in the ashram schedule.

Before going, I tried to wean myself off coffee. My diet is mostly vegetarian and I have no problem going without alcohol. But, I was concerned about going off caffeine. I didn’t develop a daily coffee ritual until just six years ago and have gone without caffeine for days at a time, but this time it was harder. I couldn’t just drop it cold turkey.

Here is what happened:

My flight was delayed, so I arrived late in the evening and didn’t have time to meet others or explore the ashram during daylight. The next day, after the morning meditation and satsang*, I met a few women at breakfast who said that they were heading to Starbucks, just a five-minute walk down the beach. I wanted to detoxify as part of the journey, so I didn’t go…until 4 pm hit and I had to have coffee. I gave in and ran into several others from the ashram in line for coffee. When you feel like you are cheating, there is something redeeming in knowing that others are doing it, too.

Participating fully in the day’s activities would include: 5:30 am wake up; 6 am meditation and satsang; 8 am yoga; 10 am brunch; 12 and 2 pm courses including more meditation; 4 pm yoga; 6 pm dinner; 8 pm evening meditation and satsang; in bed by 10 pm.

Here’s how it happened for me: 5:30 am wake-up call; keep sleeping; 5:45 am second wake-up call; consciously awake, lying in bed with eyes closed; 5:50 am, roll out of bed, brush teeth, shower, change, walk briskly to the meditation center and try to slip into a chair near the back, ever so gracefully, just as the first chants of om start.

I really loved the meditation, the letting go, the mindfulness, and the uplifting energy of the satsang. I would move to the cushions on the floor for the chanting part to have more freedom to move around and feel more engaged.

I participated in a few of the optional courses as well – two on the yogic diet and two on building a mindfulness practice. I embraced it all right away except for the yoga.

I am used to practicing with Stephanie Snyder and David Moreno. Both practices are spiritual and mindful and also a sweaty flow that leaves me feeling like I’ve had a complete workout. That’s my sweet spot and what I have come to expect from a yoga class.

Sivananda yoga is very different than bhakti or vinyasa flow. I knew that Sivananda yoga would be focused on breath and a slower pace, I just didn’t appreciate how different the practice would be. It starts with pranayama breath. The moves are focused on alignment and connecting with your body. While some of the moves are challenging, no part of it felt like a workout. It is very slow and by the second day I was frustrated. I wanted to leave the yoga class and go somewhere else. I did not appreciate it. Before the trip, I had booked a massage at the spa at Atlantis so I went for my appointment and spent that afternoon wandering around the crowds, basking in the luxury.

When I passed through the casino I immediately felt overwhelmed. I was uncomfortable being there. I had no appreciation for the gambling, the shopping, the indulging. I wanted to teleport myself back to the ashram as quickly as possible.

I found the quickest way back and as soon as my feet hit the sand and the sound of the waves overtook the sound of the people I felt calm. Back in yoga class the next morning, I had a brand new appreciation for what it gave me. Mindfulness. Wow!

I continued my walks down the beach, including for a sunrise meditation on my last day, and my perspective had shifted. I was completely at ease at the ashram, detoxified (to some extent) and feeling good. I appreciated my body, my physical and mental alignment, the tranquility, and my heightened sense of mindfulness.

The connection I developed to myself and my own body allowed me to let go of expectations, let go of wanting a yoga practice to build tight abs, and realize how much I loved being mindful and appreciating me for me. I love my Buddha belly – that space in my belly that gives me permission to be okay with – to appreciate – to love myself just the way I am.

Yoga is about mindfulness and meditation, true enough. Still, when I practice yoga there is a strong sense of wanting to look good, play the part, be strong, and wear the right outfit. Now I realize no one else is judging me for those things. It is only me judging myself.

Thinking about the Buddha belly, I realize how it takes so much power to let go of expectations, to let go of the things that are holding us back, to let go of the criticism and doubt that we put on ourselves for not being good enough.

After two hours of meditation a day it is so much easier to let go of perfection, to let go of this curated view of ourselves that we share with the world on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, conferences, public appearances… It felt redeeming to just be, to live in a space of openness and exploration and not worry about controlling the things we cannot control.

What’s your Buddha belly? What do you appreciate about being you? What do you want to let go?

*Satsang is a Sanskrit word that means “the company of the highest truth.” It refers to the company of a guru and typically includes 30 minutes of silent meditation, 20 minutes of chanting, and an hour talk, presentation, or performance by a teacher or guest speaker.

This post was originally written in April 2017 after spending five nights at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island. While I don’t want it to get too crowded, I would recommend the experience for anyone. I can't wait to go back! There are nine Sivananda Ashrams around the world.

Update: I am happy to report that two months after the retreat, I finally completed a 30-day daily meditation challenge for myself.

Thank you to Jane Finette and Michèle Taipale for encouraging me to share this post.

A few of my favorite yogis and studios:

Stephanie Snyder, Love Story Yoga, San Francisco

Yoga Source, Palo Alto

Just Be Yoga, Walnut Creek

Indaba Yoga Studio, London

Marc Holzman, in Paris, Los Angeles, and on Yogaglo

David MorenoYoga Tree Telegraph, Berkeley

Tranquil Space, Washington, DC

Meg Olsen at Yoga Shala, Washington, DC

*Photo is welcome sign to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island, the Bahamas