By Meg Winnecour
The truth came out during a hunger-induced fight outside the temple early one October afternoon. I did not come to the Bahamas to find enlightenment. I came for some serious R&R and a tan. My sweet husband, Josh, a yoga teacher in training, standing sandal-footed in the lush grass, finally knew my secret. His quest for a deepened yoga practice and an intense brain rest after a grueling year was met by my search for the most perfect beach vacay. We were not seeing third eye to eye.
Back in July, tankard of coffee in hand, Josh said, “I’m quitting my job and we’re going to take a month off. I really want to spend it at an ashram.” I inwardly panicked. I had never been to an ashram but I had a vision of one in my head—sparse rooms, lots of chanting and yoga for hours on end. In other words, no caffeine, beer, or new episodes of Lost. What, a whole month without my vices? What kind of a vacation is that? But, trying to support a vacation idea proposed by my hardworking husband, I wondered: Surely there must be ashrams on beaches? I can renounce anything in the comfortable cradle of the tropics.
A few Google searches and a visit to Orbitz later, we had ourselves a nice month-long work-study at an ashram that happens to share “one of the most beautiful beaches in the world” with the Disney-esque Atlantis Resort. Josh and I would join yoga students from around the world in breathing mindfully, eating sparsely and willing ourselves not to drift down the beach to enjoy the forbidden treasures on Atlantis (i.e. Starbucks).
Don’t get me wrong. Living in the yoga capital of the Southeast, I enjoy a yoga class or two as much as the next hip Ashevillean. I could get excited about diving into a daily yoga practice, learning some stress-relieving meditation techniques and improving my Downward Dog. But the real draw of an ashram vacation was the potential to turn off my brain for a month and be a well-stretched beach bum. The week before we flew, my sister Polly called in a panic. She was watching Oprah interview the author Elizabeth Gilbert, who had actually been to an ashram. “And Meg, do you know what she said? AN ASHRAM…IS NOT A SPA. Is it too late to get your money back?!!”
A few weeks prior, a friend insisted I read Ms. Gilbert’s wildly popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, to give me a better idea of what we were getting ourselves into. Fortunately, by the time Polly called, I was halfway through the ashram part of the book and felt like I had a pretty good understanding of what yogi life would be like (swapping her Indian mosquitoes for my white sand and virgin coconut drinks). I mean, come on—surely if someone in the midst of existential crisis (like Gilbert) could float around in nirvana, we sun-seekers could, too. Right?
The Bahamas greeted us with torrential downpours. The spritely ashram staff, unfazed by the deluge, showed us to our microscopic but dry room and suggested we rest a bit before the puja that night. We didn’t know what the hell a puja was, so we exploded our packs into our tiny quarters and jumped around in delight at living the dream—even if it was soggy.
We landed at the ashram smack in the middle of the Navaratri pujas, nine nights of worship of the Hindu Divine Mother. Celebrations we could get into, but worship makes us, a former Catholic and Jew, a little skittish. Come to find out, puja could kick the pants off Catholic mass in a worship contest. We sat cross-legged, we prayed, we chanted, we poured milk, we kissed and tossed petals, we sat, we chanted some more. Suddenly, our Caribbean yoga vacation was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, with an eight-armed deity and her elephant-god son standing in for the birthday boy and his mom.
Looking back, my husband and I hallucinated through our first week. Apparently the ashram lifestyle, which excludes stimulants and sleep, is designed to create the perfect weakened mental state during which millions of mini-yogis crawl into your brain and rewire it. Around day four, we winced at the mere mention of puja and cussed limply at the extra dishes we had to wash, thanks to all that goddess worship. By day five, we questioned our sanity in beaching ourselves on this tiny island of religious freaks. Then, on the sixth day, something broke.
It happened during the morning yoga class. Somewhere between my brain telling me the yoga we were doing wasn’t nearly as good as what I had done back home and that I should raid the walk-in for last night’s delicious Prasad, I actually did what the instructor asked me to do: I surrendered. We were in Seated Forward Fold, a most reviled pose for my concrete hamstrings, and the instructor simply said, “Just let go.” My head safely tucked toward my knees, I began to cry. And then stretch.
With those simple words, in that humbling pose, my iron will melted. All the armor and expectation of a great tan and loads of sleep fell to the mat; what remained was slippery and new, a mind unencumbered by checklists and open to the possibility of joy and love through surrender to reality, to life exactly as it was.
The rest of the day came and went in peace with the warm tide. With that teary release, the fog of exhaustion and detox finally lifted. Miraculously, I found I had more energy than a 13-year-old and I no longer loathed puja or the hours spent cross-legged on the floor worshipping goddesses I’d never hear of. Instead of dreading the meditation that I knew would set my hips and knees to screaming, I honed and savored my pre-sit pillow-stacking ritual. Without trying, I got lucky enough to allow myself to just be present to the newness and reality around me. It was warmer and more beautiful than any beach chair.
Once I’d let go of my yoga vacation checklist, my mind opened in sheer joy to the quirky beauties of the ashram. I learned the basics of meditation from a spry Sanskrit scholar named Harry, stayed up all night baking bread alongside an ornery and hilarious yogi in preparation for a hurricane evacuation, touched my feet to the floor behind my head in my first-ever Plow pose, shared an eggless birthday cake (decorated with tiny OM symbols), sang happy birthday in six languages, pacified frenzied wasps with incense and beheld my formerly exhausted husband running like a kid into a sparkling Caribbean sea at sundown. It was the happiest month of my life.