On a plane en route to Beijing, I leaned back into my seat, beginning to envision what I thought would soon become my reality. I pictured myself in my pink yoga leggings stretching into Virabhadrasana, Warrior II, under a full moon. I felt sure that between the fully waxed moon and morning and evening yoga practices for five days, I would feel a great expansion taking place within myself. As my school year in China has begun in an unprecedented way, as many teachers around the world have experienced, I was so looking forward to space to breathe and stretch and grow and center.
It was my first night at the hotel in Inner Mongolia when I realized that my week was going to take a different shape than I had imagined or expected.
To begin, while the sky was a sterling blue, it was cooold and windy. This is not so unlike the Midwest, my hometown region, but to my blood that has turned tropical, I felt the cold was biting. And my room at the hotel felt like management had stuck a bed in a warehouse room and said, “Sleep tight!” Sleep tight, I did not. Honestly, I was spooked by the space that felt like something out of The Shining. I lay awake deep into the night, and I woke the next morning drenched from night sweats.
As I got out of bed for our first morning yoga practice, I fought off feelings of regret. The last two yoga retreats I had traveled to had been a certain perfection for me; this retreat was beginning in a rather disappointing way. I sighed sadly as I stretched into my yoga clothes, but I also set an intention to stay open to the experience.
The first part of the retreat was nothing of the kind of magic that I had yearned for, but in those first days, I did enjoy the yoga sessions, I met new and interesting international people, and I got my chopsticks around mounds of delicious food.
On the second full day, the group took a short trip to some ruins, though from which dynasty I have already forgotten. More memorable for me was the way I felt looking out at the never-ending open landscape. A horizon did not even seem to exist, it was simply infinity. And this was unsettling. Unnerving even.
At the time of the trip, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. In the book, he writes, “Sometimes, when one is moving silently through such an utterly desolate landscape, an overwhelming hallucination can make one feel that oneself, as an individual human being, is slowly coming unraveled. The surrounding space is so vast that is becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one’s being.” You nailed it, Murakami, I thought as I stood atop the small leftover ruins.
It was halfway through the trip when I passed through this anxious feeling into something … larger, something more open, and beautiful. On the coldest day of the trip, a few of us yogis were in the library reading. I took a break from Murakami to sit by the floor-to-ceiling window and gazed outside. The sky was a bit overcast. The wind was neither tempestuous nor mild. It was just present. In this space of observation, I felt an acceptance of what was.
The following day, I went for a run around the lake near the hotel. As I passed roaming camels and a bus that somehow balanced on its nose (which certainly felt like it could have been included in Murakami’s novel), I embraced the desolate landscape. As I was running past one of the few trees that grew out of the soil, I felt somehow moved to use it as my post for a handstand. I giggled as I planted my hands near the trunk, and climbed my legs towards the branches. Once again, I realized, I had found my rootedness in an experience that had begun as something uncomfortable.
Nearing the hotel, I called my grandma, as I do each week. I wanted her to see something of the vast expanse in front of me. “Are you okay there?,” she started as I turned my camera towards the road ahead of me. “There’s no one around. Are you safe?” she continued. And then, with a note of skepticism in her voice, “Is it beautiful there?” “It is, Gram,” I replied lightly. “It really is, it’s just a different kind of beauty,” I said, as I rounded the last turn to the hotel.
When I hung up with my grandma, I picked up my pace, and I smiled into the sun, settled in the blanket of blue. And in this space grew gratitude from the seeds of open-mindedness that I had planted in my first day’s intention. I thought of words I had read in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, once again:
“The sun would rise from the eastern horizon, cut its way across the empty sky, and sink below the western horizon. This was the only perceptible change in our surroundings. And in the movement of the sun, I felt something I hardly know how to name: some huge, cosmic love.”