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Moving from Regret Towards Freedom

How a month-long yoga retreat in a small Guatemalan village helped me face my emotions and make peace with my past.

Image Source: Daniel Mingook Kim + edits.


I didn’t have any particularly deep reasons for wanting to start practicing yoga. I just wanted to be able to do all those cool-looking poses. There was a free yoga class every week at my college. I somehow knew I would love it and my first class confirmed that reckless assumption.

When I first started, I couldn’t even touch my toes with my fingers, but enjoyed it anyway. I continued practicing after college and met amazing teachers who taught me many lessons as I progressed. The changes set in motion eventually led to me quitting my nine-to-five job to follow my heart.

One day, a yoga teacher friend recommended the Moon Course at Las Pirámides del Ka, assuring me it would be a life-changing experience. It was also perfect timing. I was already in Mexico when I checked the schedule on their website. I promised myself I would register if they still had space for the next month, and they did.

The Retreat Begins

I had traveled all the way to a small village, San Marcos La Laguna for a whole month of taking three classes per day. Yoga in the morning, metaphysics at noon, and meditation in the afternoon.

The first class of the retreat was meditation. The teacher didn’t explain much. We were just told to sit up straight and close our eyes. I was sitting with my legs crossed, hands on knees, and palms facing up. As time passed, all kinds of thoughts started to pop up in my mind.

“What shall I cook for dinner?

“Oh, I must remember to email my mother.”

“When is this going to be over?”

Raindrops hit the roof of the temple incessantly while the scent of incense made my nose itch. My legs started to numb. I wanted to change their position, but repressed the urge and endured further.

I felt another urge. This time, to open my eyes and look around. Doing so felt like I would be betraying the teacher and the group. Still, I couldn’t help myself and opened a corner of my left eye to peek at my surroundings. I could only vaguely see a few figures on my left in the candlelight. They were striking the same pose as me but with their eyes closed. I closed my eyes too and tried to bring my focus back inside.

Eventually, the teacher gently hit a singing bowl with a wooden stick to let us know it was time to end our meditation session. I grew to love its sound, which was somehow comforting. It also meant I could open my eyes and stretch my legs.

In front of my pyramid at Las Pirámides del Ka before heading to the morning class. Photo by Sayaka Ishida.

I felt better after the session, but it wasn’t anything extraordinary. I wondered if I could learn anything from this retreat. “It had better be worth it,” I thought to myself and stood up to leave the temple.

Confronting My Emotions

A few weeks into the retreat, I was getting used to the daily schedule and classes. It was a relaxed atmosphere, but there were always optional activities like chanting or nutrition/cooking classes available.

It was raining just like any other day when a feeling appeared without warning and decided to lodge itself in my head. I couldn’t get rid of it no matter how hard I tried. I ignored it at first. Even after I noticed it was there, I didn’t want to deal with it.

It wasn’t my intention to come all the way to a foreign country to suffer where nobody besides the teachers spoke English. I just wanted to practice yoga and get to know myself better. Regardless of my efforts to ignore it, the feeling kept returning. We fought for a while, but then I gave up and decided to deal with it, though, I didn’t know how. I asked my teacher about what was happening. She suggested I write everything down to find the emotion’ source and transcend it. She said it so casually as it would be an easy task, but I could feel the emotion’s weight and intensity.

San Marcos La Laguna in Guatemala where I lived for a month. Photo by: Sayaka Ishida.

The classes continued while I was fighting with the emotion. I kept practicing yoga and meditation and preparing myself for the last week. By that time, I could follow the yoga flow with great focus and was able to sit still for a whole hour without moving or peeking from the corners of my eyes. Sometimes I forgot how long I had been sitting.

I started to notice small changes in my mind rather than in my body. When I closed my eyes to meditate, my consciousness expanded. It was so powerful that I got a bit scared. It was almost like falling through a rabbit hole into a new world. It was over four years since I had started learning yoga when I finally understood that the body and mind must work together at the same time to be balanced. Being flexible or able to do a headstand is just one side of the practice. How aware you become is the key.

The emotion that kept bothering me was regret. I thought back to the times when I let things go. I figured I knew what I wanted to do, so I followed, but later ended up regretting the decision. When I talked about it, many people asked me, “Are you talking about your ex-boyfriend?” No, I wasn’t talking about breaking up with my ex-boyfriend or quitting the job I had in New York. I had no regret about those things.

My morning meditation spot by the lake. Photo by: Sayaka Ishida.

I was too ashamed to share what I regretted because I thought it was pathetic. What did I regret that I let go? My belongings — things I had owned before beginning my travels. When I quit my job, I packed my life into just two and a half suitcases and a single backpack. Everything else I sold, donated, gave, or threw away.

It wasn’t just a cactus plant because my best friend gave it to me as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t just a bedside table because I remembered how much I liked it when I found it in an antique store. One by one, I had to give them up, and it tore my heart out. Each piece had a meaning and reminded me of something. I was so attached to them.

A Week of Nothing

The silent week started. It was the last week of the retreat and consisted of nothing. No talking, no listening, no reading, no Internet. Oh, and no eating. What were you supposed to do? Meditate. I had never done anything like that before, but I was excited to get started.

The naïve pre-silent week I didn’t know how hard it could be. I was hungry, weak, and emotional — interspersed with occasional moments of delight and contentment. I cried a lot during the week, not because I was sad or hungry, but I was overwhelmed with emotion. Something in me unlatched and opened, widely.

The teacher gave us some homework to do during the silent week. “Where did we come from?” — She always asked these ridiculous questions that made us cringe. When I was meditating on the idea, that’s when it clicked. I realized and accepted that we all came from the past. Everything — good or bad, meaningful or meaningless, smart or stupid choices I had made, all the experiences I had gone through make me “me.”

I no longer saw the point of regretting anything. I wouldn’t be this version of “me” if I didn’t let them go if I didn’t make that decision. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but that moment awakened me, and it changed the way I feel about my past forever.

Expanding my perspective. Photo by: Sayaka Ishida.

My miserable silent week turned out to be an incomparable experience that I needed to go through. I didn’t feel like a new person, but I certainly felt I had gained a new perspective. On the last day, I saw a hummingbird in the garden while I was having a cup of herbal tea which they gave us each day. I hadn’t seen a hummingbird in around four weeks. Then I realized, the hummingbird didn’t change her home, it was I who had changed my attitude and perception.

Never Ending Journey

It took me a while to process everything I had experienced. After the retreat, I continued with my adventure in Central and South America. I spent over a year discovering new cultures and myself in many different countries.

I became more sensitive to emotions — both my own and those of others. I have learned to listen to what I feel in my heart. I no longer discard or second guess it. Making decisions is much easier now.

Hiking in Bolivia. Photo by: Sayaka Ishida.

I appreciate everything more — big or small, good or bad, past or future. I’m genuinely excited about my life, either on the road or back in an ordinary life. I believe it’s because I made peace with my past, so it doesn’t spoil my present and future.

Originally published at medium.com

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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