Photo by Immersion participant Pei-Ru Ko
After a long week of work and an arduous stop-and-go drive through traffic on a steamy September day, we navigated our way through twists and turns of mountains and majestic Redwoods to arrive at the Wildwood Retreat Center in the Russian River Valley. We, 37 of us, had come from all walks of life: accountants, teachers, musicians, writers, etc. We were largely strangers, but we all shared one thing in common: we were all seekers. On some level or another, we were seeking a deeper connection to ourselves. This was the beginning of the 6-month Yoga Tree Anusara Immersion with senior Anusara teachers Stacey Rosenberg and Darcy Lyon.
Sweltering from the unusually hot day and weary after a long week of working, we came to the mat to begin our first yoga practice. We chanted our first Anusara invocation together as a group, the room filled with vibrating resonance. This was our first energetic connection as a kula, a new community. As Stacey and Darcy traded off turns teaching, weaving a beautiful poem with their words, we began to move into our bodies, working out the kinks that had built up over the previous week. We came to the end of the class, sinking into our mats for a much craved Savasana, letting all of our stresses from our daily lives dissolve into the Earth. Class was followed by dinner in the main dining hall, and just like kids at summer camp we began to form our first bonds of friendship.
That evening we converged in the yurt for our first formal introduction to Anusara Yoga and to one another. We learned the incredible story of Anusara founder John Friend and how his journey to create this blissful yoga movement began even in childhood. Then we explored the first principle of Anusara yoga: Open to Grace; the idea that if we can surrender and open our hearts to the Divine connection within us, that magic and beauty will enter our lives and we will align with our true paths. Using this principle, we began our first group ice-breaker exercise. We were to think about a time when Grace had clearly been present in our lives, when magic had happened and allowed the exact right things to occur in our lives.
Looking around the room, we were to find someone with whom our eyes connected and then join with them and share what had been our experience with Grace. I was drawn to a lovely woman whose story synchronistically shared many commonalities with my own. We both found ourselves in very similar situations in our lives and our careers. Was it by accident that I was drawn to this woman? I knew that it was not. This is Grace, and this is Anusara Yoga. As all of the little groups shared their stories, the energy in the yurt was pulsating, and you could hear and feel the bonds starting to grow stronger.
The next morning we began with a philosophy session, diving deeply into the meaning of the Anusara invocation. This was one of the most evocative and compelling parts of the weekend. Some of us were used to singing the chant regularly, while others were a bit skeptical and perhaps a bit uncomfortable with this ritual. As different people shared their thoughts about the purpose and experience of the invocation, I understood all sides of the coin. When I first came to yoga, I was the person who was freaked out by even the simple chanting of “Om.” To my uneducated and unfamiliar ears it seemed all too reminiscent of the religious rituals that I had found creepy as a child. Years later, when I came to yoga amidst a very dark time, and in retrospect in a much more open place, I came to understand the chant from an entirely different perspective. I recognized the healing power of sound and that the vibrational energy of the chant surges into our chakras and brings energetic healing. But I also began to recognize and feel that it was a way for us to truly connect with other human beings. When we chant as a kula, the hearts and souls of every yogin in the room are connected, and we connect not only with our own spirits within, but also with the spirits of others.
We learned the literal meanings of every word within the Anusara invocation, breaking it down into all of its meaning:
Om Namah Shivaya Gurave
Salutations to the true teacher,
the auspicious goodness within my heart
Who is the embodiment of being,
consciousness, and bliss.
Who is always present and full of eternal peace.
Whose essence is completely free from
limitation and sparkles with divine luminosity.
After a robust discussion of the meaning and history of the invocation, we came into a meditation seat, crossed our hands before our hearts into Añjali Mudrā, closed our eyes and sang the chant once again. But this time we sang it with an entirely new perspective, even for those of us who had been singing it for years. It was clear that by understanding the meaning of the words, that they now flowed from a deeper place within our souls. The shift in the energy of the chant was palpable. It was as if we were crossing through time and space and connecting with teachers and students from thousands of years ago, through the wisdom and beauty of these ancient words. At the end of the chant, one beautiful spirit shared with us how moved she was by the chant. As she described her profound experience, she allowed for all of us to witness her beautiful heart opening. There was not a person in the room who was not moved to the core. This is the intention of Anusara Yoga.
After an afternoon practice of exploring two of the main principles of Anusara’s Universal Principles of Alignment, muscular energy and organic energy, we reconvened for our summer-camp-like dinner. We naturally played musical chairs to get to know different people, and the stories and magical connections continued. As we learned more about each other, beautiful, diverse and moving stories about how each of us had come to the mat, began to reveal themselves. The incredible nature of the people in this new kula became evident. Energized chatter and laughter filled the room and the bonds continued to grow deeper.
After dinner we were back in the yurt for more group bonding time. We began the evening by sitting in a circle, knee-to-knee with our hands on the back of the person to each side of us. As we moved with the breath, we swayed to the right, to the left, and bowed to the center. There was not a sound in the room except for the breath, humming like a perfect symphony, in rhythmic movement. As we supported each other’s hearts and moved in perfect unison, you could feel the energy passing through each one of us, from one person to the next and all around the circle. We were truly in union. The meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is union. We embodied the meaning of the word that night, literally.
The next and final morning of our weekend retreat, we began with another philosophy session, this time exploring the meaning of sankalpa, or intention. We discussed how a yogin makes a vrata, or vow, a commitment in service of their intention. We explored some of the key principles of Shiva-Shakti Tantra, which is the founding philosophy of Anusara, and how the different elements work together to serve our highest intention as yogins:
Iccha is our essential fire, our will, to serve our vow, our vrata.
Jnana is the knowledge that allows us to align and expand our cit, our consciousness
Kriya is the action that we take as yogins to implement our knowledge in order to serve our will and to fulfill our intention, our sankalpa.
These themes have been aptly captured and beautifully woven into the 3 A’s of Anusara: Attitude, Alignment and Action. Our Attitude is our Iccha, the mindset that we choose to set to serve our higher intention. Our Alignment, both physical and mental, is the Jnana, the knowledge of the technique we use to align ourselves to serve that intention. And our Action, our Kriya, allows us to express and fulfill our intention in the world.
After a final morning practice, exploring the remaining UPA’s (Universal Principles of Alignment), inner and outer spiral, we had our final communal lunch together, and then we convened for one final session. This was the time when we would set our intention, our sankalpa, for the following 6 months of this beautiful Anusara Immersion. We were each given a Rakhi bracelet, into which we tied a knot for each of the different intentions that we wanted to set for the course of the immersion. With our Rakhi bracelets in hand, we made our way over to a spectacular spot overlooking the Russian River Valley. We formed another circle and with the Rakhi bracelet in our left hand, we put our right hand on the hand and bracelet of the person to our right. With the brilliant sunshine sparkling down on us, we were once again joining energetically as a kula, and this time we were collectively setting all of our intentions. To solidify our intentions, we tied the bracelets onto each other’s wrists, where they will remain for the extent of the Anusara Immersion, to remind of us of our intentions, our sankalpas, and our bond of community.
It was now time to head back to the city, back to our realities and our jobs. There was a sense of sadness that we had to part ways and leave this breath-taking spot beneath the mighty Redwoods. But we knew we would continue to stay connected until we would come together again, for the next month’s immersion weekend. Incredible were the bonds, the connections that were made in fewer than 48 hours. We had come together as strangers, but in the forming of a beautiful kula, we had left as friends.