A student’s experience of attending the Shiva Shakti Therapeutic Workshop at Amritapuri, India with Brahmacharini Shobana.
The day after the Shiva-Shakti retreat ended, I was able to put my palms on the floor in forward bend for the first time in my life. You might think, oh, she’s probably young and fit, that’s not such a big deal. But no, I’m 61 and have been living with the limitation of illness (chronic fatigue syndrome) for many years.
In fact, the last yoga class I took was for disabled people and those with special needs. I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to sign up for this Shiva Shakti retreat. Would I be able to keep up? I have not been able to work for years. But I’d been feeling a little stronger lately, and had been practicing daily yoga on my own for a couple of months.
Reading about the class, it sounded like most people found it very relaxing. I’d heard a lot of people saying how wonderful Amrita Yoga classes were, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I decided to go for it.
My goal was to work on releasing a couple of big knots of habitual tension, one in my right hip, the other in the back of my right shoulder. They do release quite a bit when I meditate a lot, but always return.
On the first afternoon and the next morning, I felt reassured that the poses were not too much for me. The sequence would probably be fairly accessible for most people. Even though it’s fairly easy, Shobhana says the sequence she teaches in this class gives about 60 per cent of the benefits offered by all yoga poses.
However, though I do have a yoga practice, I don’t hold poses as long as we did in the class. By the second afternoon my energy was low, and my legs were feeling really tired. I was discouraged, wondering if I should stop attending before I got ill. (With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, overdoing an activity can leave a person feeling exhausted for days, even weeks.) Luckily, I did attend that afternoon – with the intention to be very, very careful and perhaps just watch – but it was a beautiful restorative session.
We were mostly on the floor, doing supported restorative poses, while Shobhana sang chants. The chants really deepened the effect of the poses. Then we ended with a lovely savasana, followed by a 30-minute meditation.
Every afternoon of the retreat, I was surprised how deep and quiet my meditations were. At home I used to meditate first and then do yoga. This sequence relaxed my body and made the stretches easier. But I see that doing yoga first can really affect the quality of the meditation.
To my great surprise, I left that afternoon’s session feeling more energy than when I arrived! But I also learned my lesson – that I needed to pace myself during the active sessions.
The 7 a.m. chanting sessions were very sweet. The yoga studio at Amritapuri ashram is on the third floor, with large open windows at the same level as the canopies of the nearby trees. I loved arriving early to gaze at and listen to the birds as they flew from one tree to the next, perched and sang. I recall hearing Amma saying that being in nature is also satsang. The chanting was a lovely way to begin the day. Shobhana patiently taught us the pronunciation before we chanted together. Over the five days we learned several beautiful chants.
The next morning’s sesssion was more active. I realized that despite Shobhana’s encouragement to not be competitive, that was probably getting me in trouble. I was pushing myself to hold poses as long as everyone else. I didn’t want to be seen as the weakest person in the class. So I learned something – maybe competition happens not only when we’re trying to be the best, but also when we’re trying to avoid being the worst! Perhaps it’s at work in any kind of comparing and judging, instead of just staying in my own experience with my body.
My body felt different after each session. After the first afternoon, I felt wider, more grounded. The next day, my legs felt longer. I felt very aware of the whole length of each leg to foot as I left the building, and also of my body weight balancing easily from one side to the other with each step.
One afternoon, after we’d been focusing a little more on chest-opening, followed by a lovely meditation, I really noticed a difference at evening bhajans in the Kali Temple. The music and singing seemed to enter my heart more deeply and subtly. Amma was still giving darshan, and seeing her holding someone in her arms felt so deeply moving that it brought tears to my eyes. I thought about what kind of barriers I use to protect my heart, and how I’m usually less present for moments like these.
It was also beautiful to begin and end each session with a prayer. It helped to strengthen our inward focus and affected the quality of our attention. I also appreciated Shobhana’s suggestion to bow our heads to the Being in our hearts as we finished our prayers. That too helped me focus more on my heart, and brought wonder and tenderness into my relationship with it.
The yoga nidra session was especially wonderful. Shobhana told us to make sure we rested after lunch, so we wouldn’t fall asleep during the yoga nidra. No problem! Shobhana guided us through our bodies, and at some point asked us to make a resolve. I made one about an issue that has caused me anxiety off and on for years, and that I feel ‘shouldn’t’ be a big deal to me. I was aware of feeling fear around the resolve.
But after the beautiful visualization, when Shobhana asked us to bring it back to mind, there was no fear. Instead I was more aware of my essential self, and its power and ability. I also sensed that, any progress on this issue isn’t so important. It felt more important and appealing to go within, meditate, and move closer to experiencing the Self.
Over the days, I felt those knots releasing in my right shoulder. As I layed down in savasana at the end of a session, the back of the shoulder gradually met the ground more fully, and didn’t feel like there were chunks of wood in the shoulder blade. My right hip also started releasing. This made me realize the groin muscle is also very tight, and maybe the psoas as well.
Sometimes during a savasana I would feel a whole muscle in my back suddenly soften, relax and lengthen. I felt adjustments happening through my entire body – small lengthenings and releases in my mid-back, along the spine, even right out into my hands and feet. I realized for the first time there is an area of tightness on the left side of the spine, and in the left diaphragm and chest. The left hip is also surprisingly tight, but in a more subtle way than the right. After much letting go, the remaining tightness was mostly in my neck and sacrum – areas I hadn’t really been aware of before.
During the class I sometimes felt emotions coming up – sadness, discouragement. A heaviness in my chest, a sense of old anxiety. I just noticed and felt them, and they passed.
By the end of the retreat, the tension in my right hip and shoulder were greatly reduced. I still have the tendency to unconsciously tighten these areas under stress. But the retreat has given me more inner awareness, so I’m more likely to notice I’m tensing up. If I can keep up my daily practice, I’m hoping to maintain this level of relaxation and maybe even improve upon it.
It felt like there was more space in my body. My movements were more fluid – less like solid chunks of me, attempting to allow movement. It was a pleasure to return to my own practice and to feel the difference in ease. It was a lovely surprise to be able to place my palms on the floor the next day.
Also, relaxation during my savasana went further, and happened faster than usual. I enjoyed keeping the heart-centred focus and using the Ma-Om. (But I missed the morning chanting, and Shobhana’s singing chants to us.)
Since the class, I’ve experimented with keeping a focus on my heart during asana practice on my own, and it seems to sometimes tune me into the body’s own wisdom. I’ll go into a pose, then remember to be present in my heart. Then suddenly I know how to make a subtle shift in my position that intuitively feels better.
For instance, in lunge position, going into my heart made me realize I needed to relax and bring my head up. While attempting to touch my toes to the floor in plow position (I used to be able to!), heart-centered awareness made me realize I was trying to bend the wrong part of my back, and that I’d likely injure myself if I kept trying.
Using the Ma-Om breathing has really brought me more into the present. Until now, I hadn’t realized how goal-oriented my breathing can be while doing yoga! Breathing in with “Maaaa….” I was ready to start breathing out, but my body let me know it wasn’t finished with the in-breath yet. Now I pay more attention to how long my body wants the breaths to be.
I feel more peace in my body. And it feels like it contains more space. I would recommend this workshop to anyone who wants to slow down and spend some quality time in their body. You too might feel deeply relaxed, and you might experience some pleasant surprises in what you’re able to do.
As always, thoughtful comments are invited and appreciated. Share your reflections with us! See below to leave a comment.