A Mother-Son Yoga Retreat

December 16, 2014    BY Donna Nebenzahl

How my son and I enjoyed the family “Om” on Paradise Island.

I open my eyes and the star shapes and rustling fronds of a 30-foot palm tree sway above me. It’s 8 a.m., and I’m flat on my back at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas, contemplating the word “Om,” which the teacher asks us to visualize in the center of our foreheads. This is day one of a one-week yoga holiday my son and I are taking, and so far the Sivananda ashram on Paradise Island is everything I imagined it would be. From the multicolored sign at Nassau’s Mermaid Dock to the spectacular vista from the beach side of the property and our little two-bed room that looks onto the ocean, this promises to be a calming, restorative experience. That’s my feeling, anyway. I’m not so sure about Devin.

It’s 8 a.m., and I’m flat on my back at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas, contemplating the word “Om.”

My 17-year-old son is now sleeping peacefully in our beach hut to the sound of crashing waves, missing the morning yoga class on the beach platform as he would every morning of our stay. It had become pretty clear after his first yoga class the previous afternoon that two classes a day would be too much for my athletic yet inflexible son. I hadn’t realized that basketball, frisbee, snowboarding, and soccer wouldn’t necessarily translate into being able to do a shoulderstand.

Even beginner classes at the retreat are full of flexible young and not-so-young women and men. How do they reach over and grab their ankles like that? Never mind, I tell myself. Devin and I are here for the yogic experience, which is about much more than yoga classes. Neither of us would be disappointed. (“I like trying new things,” Devin tells me brightly, after we get home.)

I had been looking for a way to marry my remembered enjoyment of the Sivananda yoga classes I had taken in Montreal when Devin was just a toddler with our yearly tradition of a mother-son week away during his winter break. He’s now a long way from the toddler stage, and while I do the occasional meditation routine and some yoga on the living room floor, my yoga development has been on the back burner for quite some time. But I’ve been yearning for the clarity of yoga, the beautiful stillness of the movement, and the way I can reach a tranquil place I rarely visit in my life as a journalist, teacher, and mother of two teens. I confess to being interested, too, in how an active and sometimes easily distracted boy like Devin might benefit from the physicality and calmness of the practice. I wasn’t looking for the latest yoga trend: Sivananda always felt authentic to me. So why not, I thought, explore the experience in the sunny Bahamas.

Those first few days, I have a love-hate relationship with the hatha classes. I love shavasana, the flat-on-your-back relaxation position that we move into after a few postures, and I especially like the teacher calling on my flyaway mind to concentrate on relaxing different parts of my body.

I also enjoy the sun salutations, remembering them from a dance class decades earlier. I’m still awed by how the body warms as you move into the fourth and fifth round of the exercise.

Nevertheless, all is not immediate bliss. I’m challenged right off by the breathing exercises, pranayama, especially kapalabhati, where we forcefully expel air by contracting the abdominal muscles. It’s supposed to stimulate the body, but after 20 of these, I’m drained. Not to mention the simplest posture, the forward bend: My spine, which this posture is meant to stretch, won’t take me past my knees.

Nevertheless, all is not immediate bliss.

So it’s a beautiful thing when, as the morning class comes to a close and we relax into deep breathing, the smell of baking bread wafts through the air. Dozens of sliced loaves of freshly baked, caraway-studded dark bread are laid out at 10 a.m., when brunch is served, along with porridge, homemade granola, yogurt, and brown sugar for the breakfast eaters, or green salad, chickpea and vegetables in stew, rice, and potatoes for early risers who are ready for lunch. Devin and I cover the territory since he prefers lunch and I love breakfast food—there are many people who take a little bit of everything, plus peanut butter, fruit slices, and herbal tea.

It has taken me only one caffeine headache to get on the herbal tea wagon, which is a relief. I’m also thrilled there’s so much food at each of the two daily meals—the next at 6 p.m., after the four o’clock yoga class—that Devin is never hungry. We indulge only occasionally in an evening ice cream, which we buy at the pretty Health Hut down the path on the way to the temple.

Evening Satsang

The temple is a busy place in the evening. Most people attend satsang. Attendees sit on mats or chairs—cross-legged if possible—for silent group meditation followed by chanting, a reading, and a talk by a visiting speaker. I never did make it to the 6 a.m. satsang, but I soon begin to look forward to evening satsang. I love to see the lineup of sandals and clogs outside the temple door and welcome the long quiet before the singing begins. Devin loves the music, which we find amazingly joyful, even though we don’t understand the Sanskrit words. I also enjoy the evening lectures by a university professor who is an authority on Eastern Christianity. Like the fountain on the main path to the ashram that includes Buddha, Mary with Jesus, and native Inukshuk statues, there is an openness here to all spiritual roads.

I love to see the lineup of sandals and clogs outside the temple door and welcome the long quiet before the singing begins.

I marvel at the mix of people—yoga students; teachers who do karma yoga, exchanging work for room and board; and yoga vacationers—all spread out, from the bay to the beach, over five acres, which is interwoven with pathways and gardens, small houses, dorm rooms, and communal bathrooms. There is the feeling of a quest here, people seeking some kind of understanding or peace—dare I say enlightenment?—attending each other with a certain gentleness and, I realize, a deep respect for another’s need for solitude.

Lots of women come on their own or with a friend, combining beach time with the body toning and spiritual nourishment of yoga and meditation. I meet a grade school teacher from Connecticut, a nurse from New Jersey, a student from Holland, all yoga practitioners on a week-long getaway. A writer from New York City has been coming on her own for more than 20 years. She’s one of several regulars we meet. One family from Ottawa, Canada, has been coming every couple of years since their children were 2, 7, and 9 years old. Another family from New Jersey has come often in the last 20 years with their daughters. A few days into our stay, one of their daughters, now 33, surprised her mother by arriving for her birthday.

Mother-Son Bonding

After breakfast, Devin and I are on our own until the 4 p.m. yoga class, so we swim in the roaring surf or go for a walk along the beach. We make it into Nassau a couple of times for a look around, and we spend a lovely afternoon snorkeling on the reefs, a magical time as we float on the surface of the salty water and gaze at the abundance of striped, spotted, and iridescent fish—with a few barracuda and swordfish to make life interesting. It’s a first for both of us and a highlight for Devin, who becomes such a friend of marine life that we go snorkeling several more times during our stay. We’re chatting more than we ever do at home, and it’s a thrill to watch him—my non-reading son—settle into bed after our evening walk and open his book to read.

We’re chatting more than we ever do at home.

After just a few days, I’m feeling more relaxed, working on my breathing and improving some of my postures. One day I find myself in tree pose, fully centered; the next, during the relaxation time, I feel as if I’m floating. (I’m heartened when a more experienced student tells me this doesn’t mean I’m just falling off to sleep, but that I’m attaining “alpha state,” when my brain is relaxed but aware, and highly creative. Yes!)

Devin, on the other hand, despite special attention from several teachers, is still not able to bend much more. A vacationing Sivananda yoga teacher suggests he would benefit from a beginners’ class specially designed for teens, with stretching offered at a slower pace.

So after four classes I tell him he doesn’t have to attend anymore. He’s grateful, and I’m impressed that he wouldn’t have asked to quit if I hadn’t made the offer. Despite his lack of attendance, his good nature is welcome here. People stop by to shoot a few hoops with him as he sweats it out on the basketball court. Josephine, the lovely woman who runs the Health Hut, sends me back one evening with a smoothie she has prepared for him.

“Your son is such a good boy,” she says, a sentiment I hear throughout our stay. I’m proud of him for doing this, for being kind enough to his mom to accept the experience. Would he come back here? Maybe when he’s older.

Will I? Let’s put it this way: I’m now reading Autobiography of a Yogi and checking out the programs at Sivananda’s Val Morin ashram, an hour from my home. I keep the azure water and peaceful white sands of Paradise Island alive in my mind. And I can still hear the teacher’s singsong voice as I go through my practice each morning.

Donna Nebenzahl
Donna Nebenzahl is a columnist and feature writer at The Gazette in Montreal.

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