I sat in a circle of seven women and one man inside a pagoda in the gardens of the hotel in Tallalla, in Sri Lanka’s south.
Mary-Kate, our blonde, sun-kissed retreat leader, pushed her palms together in prayer and smiled. She made eye contact with each of us individually — hers were blue and wide and her brows stretched meaningfully toward one another.
In the middle of the circle were flowers, crystals, tarot cards, sage leaves, a picture of Ganesha, a feather.
“Welcome.” She thanked us all for coming, she thanked Mother Gaia for having us, she thanked the nation of Sri Lanka for hosting us and said she didn’t know much about the country but that it probably had some “healing to do” like us.
An earthquake had devastated Nepal the day before, so Mary-Kate asked us all to exhale and raise our arms up to send positive energy across the oceans.
I could see the Laccadive Sea twinkling blue on the horizon, felt I could touch it with my fingertips if I just reached out and I wondered who this would comfort.
This was the first but not the last time that week I felt resentful for being told to feel something I didn’t or to send energies into parts of my life or someone else’s in lieu of actual help.
Mary-Kate made requests that differentiated her kind of yoga from that which I’d practiced in the 10 years prior. There was a lot more fanfare. We weren’t bending forward, we were pouring our torsos over our legs. We weren’t extending to the right, we were painting the sky towards the ocean. We weren’t stretching our chests, we were opening our hearts, which seemed like a different thing.
Here on the retreat, the postures and physical adjustments were the same but the Sanskrit names for the asanas had been replaced with English words: triangle pose, pigeon pose, boat pose and in some sections of the practice we were just encouraged to move in a way that “felt good.”
I had never been to a yoga class where I hadn’t lost awareness of my surroundings, but under the pagoda in Tallala, my attention would just hop from one colored Lululemon sports bra to the next.
I felt surrounded by mirrors, like I was watching the classes from outside myself, poised and ready to Instagram the next shape I made and acutely aware of my complicity in Mary-Kate’s spectacle of appropriation.
Teachers will often encourage you to abandon your ego (ahamkara) and detach from any critical response to postures you like or dislike, can or can’t do and flow through the practice with awareness but without adjudication.
Your breath can come and go until the class does. But time moved differently in Tallala and my awareness refused to find the present, instead, it danced into the imagined future I felt us stretching and striving toward, reaching for the stillness of having it all. Which was, to me, a fantasy and the opposite of what we were there for.
The trip had turned from a way to advance my yoga practice — improving my strength, flexibility and ability to be present — into a frenzied quest to become my best self as soon as possible. But each day I felt further away from uncovering the enlightened part of me Mary-Kate had said existed in each of us.
The chatter at dinner flitted from yoga wear to food intolerances and eventually relaxed into radical plans of self-improvement.
Ally was going to launch a platform for yoga teachers and the Park Rangers wanted to open a yoga school in Darwin where the classes would be held on stand-up paddleboards. This business plan would evolve over the next few days with the benefit of Mary-Kate’s perspective.
She told the couple that she had taken a leap and left her high-flying job in media for a life of financial insecurity as she hopped from one yoga retreat to the next — Ibiza, Bali, Sri Lanka.
I wanted to ask how big the leap really was when you already owned property in Bondi. I wanted to ask whether the billions of people around the world who work to simply eat were lacking in creativity or bravery. I wanted to ask why the yoga was on a paddleboard.
I was in a “choose what makes you happy” Instagram post. I was in Eat Pray Love. I was in a “Choose Your Passion” Ted Talk and I had bought into it. It wasn’t the first time I had tried to buy my way to wellness — I was more than familiar with vitamins, superfoods, meditation apps and organic cotton crop tops.
I knew that the stripped bare, back-to-basics, off-the-grid, down to-earth, minimalist approach was expensive and the morality attached to how you spend your dollar only left me smug and virtuous when I could afford it.
I knew that when a cultural practice is co-opted by the masses it wasn’t just about class, that there was also the loss of meaning and transfer of power when tradition becomes mainstream, but here I was, taking notes down on my phone about my fellow yogi’s favorite brand of carob chocolate.
I knew I was complicit in a festival of self-absorption and cultural appropriation but there was a small part of me that had sipped the kombucha and thought transcendence might strike me. I was secretly waiting for some sort of insight. In the mornings, we were encouraged to write out our thoughts in a stream of consciousness and I hoped for even a single line of profundity but the closest I got was earnest descriptions of how beautiful the beaches were.
They were empty, occupied only by an occasional stray dog who would collapse contently onto the wet sand and squint towards the sun. The water was so outrageously blue, diving under each unpopulated wave felt like a transgression.
On the last day, we planted a tree to symbolize something and as everyone’s hands reached towards the tiny trunk of the plant and patted the dirt down, I willed myself to feel something. All I could think about was how the trees’ incoming roots might, hopefully, impact the structural integrity of the adjacent pagoda.
“I’m officially down-to-earth now,” I told my friend, who had missed the retreat, over Skype.
“This sounds like a f–king nightmare,” she replied.
This is an edited extract of “Yoga Poses” by Gina Rushton from “Balancing Acts: Women In Sport” (NewSouth Books, $32.99) edited by Justin Wolfers and Erin Riley, on sale now.
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