When you think of the word retreat, you may envision doing down dogs in an open-air pavilion overlooking an azure sea with garden-fresh meals lovingly prepared for you three times a day and massage therapists on call. But retreat actually just means “an act of retiring or withdrawing,” as from a negative situation or from the stimulation and distraction of the world. The fifth limb of raja yoga, pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, means not being lured away from our innate peaceful nature by anything outside us: text messages, ice cream, the latest Netflix series, cleaning the oven. Pratyahara invites us to practice retreating.
Many of us have been forced by the pandemic to withdraw from life as we knew it, but that’s not the same thing as consciously, intentionally retreating—intention and awareness determine the outcome, the benefits we receive from any act. And while we may have had to forgo physical contact with others, that does not mean that we have not been interacting, that our energy has not been drawn outward—Zoom-sphere guilty as charged. In fact, many of us may have been seduced into interacting more, because of the abundance of opportunities to do so, because we miss community, because it's challenging to be without others. We have perhaps been spending more time looking outside ourselves rather than seizing this potent time to look deeper within.
I had just returned to Colorado from California, where I had been taking care of my dying mother, when Boulder, where I live, went into lockdown. I was content to be home alone with my grief, to be in retreat, to reground. Then I got lured away from this place of heart-peace by being able to connect with some of my favorite teachers all over the world and with my global yoga communities. While that was rich and juicy in many ways, I eventually realized that it was also a distraction, that it took me away, away from my center and away from the asana practice that worked best for me. And so I withdrew from the virtual back into the reality of me, of what really served me. I re-retreated.
How I Discovered My Own Version of "Retreat"
As a teenager I became involved in an Orthodox Jewish youth group (hey, the guys were really hot!) and attempted to observe the Jewish Sabbath. In the Jewish tradition Shabbos is family time. My family wasn’t observant, so I’d walk to synagogue and spend the day with a friend’s family—the lunch table crowded with more people than it could hold, the house ringing with a joyful cacophony all afternoon. My foray into Orthodoxy turned out to be just a 16-year-old’s passing fancy, but a seed had been planted.
Later, I studied with a Tibetan Buddhist lama who encouraged his students to get busy being unbusy, to unplug one day a week, withdraw. I tried, but failed. I could never find the right day, a day I wasn’t teaching or didn’t have other worldly obligations. I tied myself into knots of schedule analysis and guilt and finally gave up—it was just too hard.
And then, more than a year ago, I was reintroduced to the concept of Sabbath by relationship coach Anastasia Frank. And that seed, dormant since I was a teenager, germinated, sprouted, and pushed through the surface of me totally unbidden, as seeds are wont to do—they know when it’s time. I decided that I would withdraw, retreat, one day a week, because I could and because I wanted to see what would happen.
I decided that I would unplug on Saturdays, that Saturdays would become sacred. Not because of the Jewish tradition, but because through my studies of jyotish, Vedic astrology, I had become connected to the energies different planets bring to different days. Saturday is Saturn’s day. Saturn craves quiet and meditation, and he brings discipline and focus—he wants us to sit on our cushion, not go out and party; he wants us to be attentive to what truly matters. (It helped that I was no longer teaching on Saturdays, so could no longer use that as an excuse!)
Unplugging from worldly concerns is part of many spiritual and religious traditions. While Jews honor the Sabbath on Saturdays, most Christian denominations do so on Sunday, and Muslims on Friday. The new, full, and quarter moons are feast days for Buddhists and times for reflection. In the Ashtanga yoga world, there is no asana practice on Saturdays or on full and new moon days, which are set aside for more meditative practices.
The quiet that surrounds us when we step away from our devices, from the noise of the world, gives us the space in which to remember what really matters, who and what really nourishes us, who we really are.
I can’t speak to all religious and spiritual traditions, and I know there are plenty of people who were forced to put on clothes they didn’t want to wear and attend services that felt sere, that made them feel deprived rather than enriched by their time away from, say, Xbox and the mall. But Sabbath, or what I call Sacred Saturday, is meant to refresh, to rejuvenate, to renew, to nourish. If it makes you feel less than rather than more than, I’d say it’s not really sacred. The quiet that surrounds us when we step away from our devices, from the noise of the world, gives us the space in which to remember what really matters, who and what really nourishes us, who we really are. It gives us time to be rather than do. It allows wisdom to arise.
And guess what? Sabbath for the modern age doesn’t have any rules—you get to make your own! My rules are pretty flexible, but my bottom line is that I don’t email or text or get on the phone on Saturdays. I also don’t do anything for anyone else—it’s all about me, about what feels most nourishing to me.
In the “before” times, I would go to the yoga studio first thing Saturday morning, hit the farmer’s market, then retreat at home for the rest of the day. When I was in California, it was a little more challenging because I was a caretaker, but I still drew the line at the e-sphere. Everyone’s life is different; we get to adjust accordingly.
Making Your Day Work for You
I feel sublimely refreshed when I don’t turn anything on except lights, but sometimes I do feel like doing some laundry or steaming the floors, because having clean laundry and floors feels nourishing, and so I do. And right now I am sitting at my computer writing, because when I woke up this morning, that’s what I really, really, really wanted to do, that’s what my heart craved, and Saturday is about listening to my heart, getting quiet enough to hear what it has to say. But that does not mean I will open my email or read the texts that may have landed before I turned my phone off last night, or that I will place an order on Amazon or check my Match messages. Writing pulls me into myself, and that other stuff pulls me away. And Sacred Saturday is for pulling in, for reconnecting to the source, the essence of who we are and why we are here.
I invite you to unplug any way that feels right to you, for however long feels right. Just as when some people transition from an animal-based to a plant-based diet, they do so gradually (unlike me, who went cold turkey!), maybe starting with Meatless Monday, you can embrace Sabbath or Sacred Saturday or whatever you choose to call it (Magic Monday?) at your own pace—start with an hour or with a morning, start with Textless Tuesday or Facebook-less Friday. And if you are worried that your friends and family won’t understand, fear not: I even managed to train my contrarian brother not to expect responses to his emails or text messages or phone calls on Saturdays.
When I was a wee young thing, maybe six or so, I had the realization that when people died, the world continued on its merry way. This was a little disconcerting to me, as I expected the world to stop when I did. But now I realize that I am just not that important, that if I don’t respond to an email, the world will not stop. And—dare I say it?—none of us are that important.
Believe it or not, there was a time when we weren’t attached at the hip to everyone and everything, a time when after we finished work for the day, our boss or clients couldn’t contact us, a time when going on vacation meant truly being out of touch, a time when we weren’t Facebooking-Instagraming-Tweeting incessantly. Because those platforms didn’t exist. And we did just fine.
A New Challenge
In Sabbath, minister and therapist Wayne Muller suggests that “Sabbath can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities, and accomplishments.” He reminds us that just as fields need to lie fallow, to have a period of rest, in order to be more productive, so, too, do we. And not resting doesn’t just affect us: “It colors the way we build and sustain community, it dictates the way we respond to suffering, and it shapes the ways in which we seek peace and healing in the world.”
I think it’s safe to say that the world needs all the peace and healing each one of us can facilitate right now. Are you up for the challenge?