Harmony Yoga Retreat | Yelapa, Mexico

This was my first time out of the country and my first yoga retreat, so it was an amazing adventure, to say the least.

Yoga Journal Conference Midwest

Dharma Mittra, Seane Corn, Aadil Pakhilivala, Maty Ezraty, Jim Bennitt... Need I say more?

Sunday, May 25

Namaskar Yoga | Chicago, IL

LOCATION: Pretty straight forward directions through the Lakeview neighborhood to get to Namaskar and they had big yoga signs for you to see it right away too. Street parking only (some metered, but non-metered is nearby), and as with most Chicago street parking... Read your signs. They're near Wrigley, so show up early on game days to be sure you have a spot.  
$16 drop-in, cash or cards 
STUDIO: Loved this space—they curtained off the front 1/5 of the room for check-in and merch (which included boxes of free Toms Toothpaste, score!). Beyond the curtain was a narrow, long room with a bathroom, dressing room, water, and props at the back.    
CLASS DESCRIPTION: Yoga Hour: This energetic one-hour class is the ideal way to sneak in some yoga over your lunch break or between the day’s activities. Expect a good flow addressing flexibility, strength, balance, connection to the breath and mental focus. Recharge your spirit, reconnect with your body and leave feeling great!
INSTRUCTOR: We were suppose to have Jody, but she had a sub this day... Shawn is a certified yoga instructor who completed the 200-hour Yogaview Teacher Training under the amazing guidance of Quinn Kearney, Geri Bleier, Claire Mark, and Tom Quinn. She has also completed a 35-hour teacher training with Seane Corn and participated in multiple workshops with Sianna Sherman, Natasha Rizopolous, Ray Long and Maty Ezraty to continue to deepen her practice and the teaching element of yoga. Her fun, challenging and inspiring vinyasa flow classes, encourage students to become in tune with their bodies through strength, alignment and breath. Prior to becoming a yoga instructor, Shawn was in marketing and communications and holds degrees from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and Northwestern University. She lives in Chicago with her family and dog.
CONTACT: Namaskar Yoga

Girls day in Chicago! Girls day in Chicago! A couple months ago I asked two of my gal pals (and amazing yoga instructors) to join me for a day in Chicago. Since we all work for ourselves we could go during the week, which made the day all the better... like we were breaking the law or something :)

We started our morning off with a gorgeous day for a road trip north—blue skies, sunshine, music to sing along to at the top of our lungs, and enough conversation to fill up a 3-day drive if need be. First on our agenda was yoga at Namaskar—we chose it because of it's walking distance to all our plans, the timing so we didn't have to wake up at the buttcrack of dawn to drive, and because none of us have been here before.

When I go to new spaces for classes, it's funny how often I have Hayli + Jodi's voices in my brain reminding me how to adjust in a pose or help out a class I'm not getting into enough (knowing I can modify to take it to the next level or pull it back to suit my body). To actually go to a class I'm going to review with them was a bit of a game changer.

When we arrived, Rachel at the front desk checked us in. She was awesome—I actually tried to recruit her on girls day, because you could tell she was good people. The instructor from the class just getting out was surrounded by students asking her questions. I figured that's a good sign, because she perked the curiosity of her class. As Rachel set up her mat, the three of us followed suit when the instructor said, "Is this how you normally set up the room?" I didn't realize she was subbing someone's class when I responded with, "This is our first time here, we have no idea."

She started us instantly in Balasana (child's pose). I definitely was missing the centering time common in a lot of classes, but starting in child's pose interested me because it's my favorite pose to open up my body. Stretching out the back and knees, recognizing if my hips are shifting to the left or right (usually the left), I always stretch my arms out to open my shoulder (again, my left shoulder is insanely tight, and child's pose opens up both my shoulders nicely), and resting my forehead on the ground is—for a lot of people—immediately calming. I think I'll make this part of my practice before the instructor comes in the room, while everyone sets up their mats.

Then the music started... an odd mash-up of current, American music with a familiar, Indian song. I enjoyed it until the lyrics ended up being english—and from there the music was 100% American. I tried to approach it as a challenge to tune-out the distraction, but when I find myself tapping my toe or singing along... the challenge starts to irritate me. This is why I like instrumental or lyrics in a different language—it doesn't take me away from my practice, it adds to it and guides it.

Shawn then took us through a whirlwind of poses during our hour with her. I found her instruction lacking—almost empty. There was no sense of nurturing coming from her, just an urgency to get through the poses as quickly as possible and run out the door (which is exactly what she did after class). Half the poses seemed to be back bends (so many locusts) with out any counter poses to balance out the body. I found myself going into forward bends on my own to protect my back. She did a few adjustments—one to my friend I knew was unnecessary (which made me cringe because she was adjusting an instructor).

We did a series that had us go from Trikonasana (triangle) directly into Virabhadrasana III (warrior 3). My other friend put it best, "Straight leg pose to straight leg pose isn't natural" and I believe it can lead to injuries if you don't know how to protect yourself. At that point my back was already sensitive from locust and lots of single-leg poses (ever since I hurt my sacrum, I know I have to balance out my hips if the class spends a lot of time on one leg... normally I know to do that regardless of instruction, but we were moving so quickly there wasn't really time for it).

Our last pose was an inversion option—this made me happy since I've been craving inversions. I opted for a modified forearm stand using blocks. I love this because you don't actually have to use much arm strength (allowing you to build it without injuring yourself) + my tight shoulders do not enjoy this rotation (so I can open them up gently this way too). Meanwhile, my back enjoys a massage + reversed gravity (so-to-speak) and, of course, the numerous other benefits that come with an inversion. I'm hoping to work myself up to kicking up, like the third picture, eventually. 
Then we ended with savasana, where I opted for my regular legs up the wall. Ever since I took a yin yoga workshop where the instructor noted legs up the wall as one of the most beneficial poses for your body, I've chosen this as my savasana (unless the instructor is more specific). Shawn woke us up with, what I believe was, a digital chime over the stereo. Which, honestly, was the perfect metaphor for this class.

Before I was done cleaning up my stuff the instructor apologized for rushing out the door. I like to think she had such a busy day she couldn't invest herself in any part of it—maybe it was a one-time thing? I don't know. I do know I'd like to try other instructors at Namaskar, because I feel our class was a reflection of the instructor's day and not the studio.

We chatted with Rachel after class again + then headed off to the rest of our day. The three of us all seem to be on the same page with our experience. And to be honest, I felt bad choosing this class since I had friends with me... You know, when you plan the day out you want everything to be perfect. At the same time, when you're with such amazing women, if something isn't perfect it just adds to the story of your adventure together and you wouldn't trade that for the world. I absolutely adore Hayli + Jodi and I'm SO grateful I spent a full day with them in Chicago. I'll share our day in pics/captions below.

Thank you Namaskar and Rachel for a lovely start to our adventure—namaste.

Yum Yum (Hayli) and Ja Ja (Jodi) — my nicknames for them after today!
Props to the left // Water, bathroom + changing space on the right
Asado Coffee — I drink decaf, and it was so good I had to make sure it was actually decaf.
My elephant logo (NEOI + Mowgli) + Ahimsa (sanskrit for nonviolence toward all living things Ⓥ)
What an honor to design Hayli's tattoo—
(based on The Harmonious Brothers » Bird = Jodi, Monkey = Hayli, Elephant = Anni)
Our amazing tattoo artist (and Hayli's friend), Gentleman Joel
Chicago Diner!!!
THE best finale to our day—sharing this chocolate shake on our drive home

Friday, May 9

Gray Bear Lodge: Rest + Relaxation Retreat | Hohenwald, TN

LOCATION: Gray Bear Lodge | Hohenwald, TN
COST: $275-$425 (includes veg*n food, shared sleeping or you can upgrade to a cabin, yoga, and so much more)
STUDIO: They built a separate studio off in the woods that is possibly THE most beautiful yoga studio I've ever set foot in.
Their popular R and R weekends are based on our basic need to take time for ourselves. They are rooted in simplicity. During this time there isn't a specific program, but rather you'll have time to live and enjoy life exactly as you desire. Their attentive, caring staff will be there to nourish your body. Relaxation, tranquility beautiful evenings, rejuvenating days... all are waiting for you at Gray Bear.

Choose to join, or not to join as you see fit, your schedule is your own.
  • Daily morning Meditation and Yoga class
  • Luxuriate in our wood-fired sauna
  • Hike our trails, enjoy being in nature
  • Soak in the tropical paradise of our WATSU pool and stone hot tub
  • Schedule Massage Therapy, Thai Massage, WATSU or Breema
  • Spend some time journaling or just sitting in silence
  • Choose to sleep in, watch the sunrise, the stars shine and your spirit soar
INSTRUCTOR: Linda Mills was our instructor for the weekend, from Studio Mills in Kingston Springs, TN. Linda's passion of joyful body movement began in her early childhood years. Linda is now a certified yoga instructor with Yoga Alliance. She is thrilled to be able to introduce yoga and other joyful body movement and fitness classes.
CONTACT: Gray Bear Lodge

I'm going to be very honest with you... this weekend was so special, so sacred, so very my own that I'm going to have a hard time doing it justice in the review and... well... I don't want to share it completely. I feel like I'd be smoldering the magic + the mystery of Gray Bear if I gave you all the nitty gritty details. This place holds a special place in my heart, and I plan to visit them regularly. I know Gray Bear isn't all mine from the rest of the world, but in my world, it is. Does that make sense? So, I'm going to focus on our awesome yoga instructor and let you discover Gray Bear, for the most part, on your own.

I had a seven hour drive ahead of me. It was a frantic week of trying to get everything done by Thursday (with some major chaos the morning of my trip). But once I hit the road in gorgeous weather and found some really good radio stations to sing my heart too—all was well with the world.

The second I ever cross the border into Tennessee, I'm quite sure I'm home. I don't know what it is about this state that feels so right—there is no history here, short of driving through it back n forth to Florida or a couple of amazing trips to Nashville as an adult. It doesn't matter, I just feel at ease in the state of TN.

You should know there is no address for Gray Bear. It will not be in your GPS. So what I did was GPS to Hohenwald, then grabbed the directions Diann sent out. It suddenly becomes a little adventure of "take a left at the museum" and "turn right at the fork in the road". Street names, who needs them? As you get closer to Gray Bear, you will feel like you're driving on hiking paths—but it's a road and you keep following it. If you own a tiny sports car, I would recommend borrowing/renting something that can handle an off-road-like adventure. 

Diann and Adam actually greeted me at my car before I even parked. They got me settled in to my cabin and then explained a few things — where to go for dinner, where bathrooms were, etc. What little I got to see before it was dark had already won me over. 

Sacred Circle Opening
The circle of "tell us your name + say <insert instruction here>" is always a bit overwhelming for me. So many faces and names and bits of information I will never remember. But Adam started us off with some quiet centering and meditation. Then we shared a little bit of ourselves, and Diann walked us through a few of the things to expect.

Restorative Class
Linda didn't plan on doing a class on the first night, but when she offered up restorative we all jumped at it. I couldn't think of a better way to shake off the drive and ease into my first evening at GBL. It was a really nice class of gentle twists, reclined heart openers, and quality time focusing on the breath. Bliss.  

Saturday Morning Class
Before class started, I went in early to play with the Iyengar yoga wall. I've been craving some inversions and I thought I'd go in and play. Gathering more information on it now, I see I did my inversion so wrong—but it did the trick for me. I definitely wouldn't recommend doing this alone. Once I was upside down, I realized if something went wrong I was screwed for the next hour. Not smart.  

Linda started us off with what she called a circle dance—it was really great. We all formed a circle, we would inhale as our arms stretched up around us (like the start of a sun salutation)—gathering all the good mojo in the room into your heart, take a few steps towards the center offering your energy to the group, and then step back to start over again. We probably did this 5-7 times? I can't quite remember. It was a lovely way to start connecting with the ladies without even having a conversation with them.

Next she did a Purna A.M. series. This was extra nice for me, because one of my favorite classes at a Yoga Journal Conference was a day-long workshop with Aadil Palkhivala (who is a Purna Yoga instructor). She followed this with some standing poses that worked up a nice sweat, and then we closed with a little bit of the restorative class we did the night before.

Sunday Morning Class
I learned a new series in today's class » The Five Tibetan Rites. It was a series of poses you could repeat up to 21 times during each pose—all the while setting an intention for your day, week, month, whatever called to you. Some of these I could do 21 times, some... not so much, but I really enjoyed this series.

We then did a 2 minute plank challenge. Lol, I lasted 45 seconds, but that was the first time I think I timed myself doing a plank, so I call that a good starting point!

Then we did a ton of partner yoga. I'm usually not a fan of this—which is just a reflection of me being uncomfortable and even more reason I should do it. Today, after this weekend, I was game for anything. We would move from partner to partner, so we got to share time with everyone doing a bunch of different poses. Working with partners is always great because they can add more resistance or help you breathe into a pose deeper (sorry, all I hear now is my friend Rich saying, "Boom. Encouragement. Yes!" and I'm cracking up... Ok, ok, pull it together Poppen).

Sacred Circle Closing
After our last class we held the closing in the yoga space—which was really beautiful. Again, Adam had us center ourselves in a circle. Focusing on our breath. Then, after some quiet time, Bliss (the reiki therapist) suddenly started singing Amazing Grace. I did not see this coming—no one did, I assume—but you should probably know a little something about me. Amazing Grace was my dad's favorite song, he whistled it every Sunday—whether we sang it at church or not. When I was a freshman in high school he actually asked if I would sing it at his funeral some day—to which I had to tell him I wouldn't be able to keep it together. So, when he passed in '98 we got a bagpipe player to play it instead—he loved bagpipes too. When Bliss started singing it this very special Sunday afternoon, I lost it. Tears. Tears. And more tears. I felt like my dad was sitting right next to me in this circle. Hugging me. Enjoying Gray Bear Lodge, right along with me. Wow. 

Other Bits of Gray Bear Goodness
Along with all of this... the food was vegan-friendly (97% vegetarian, minus one meal with fish—always with a vegan option) and SO yummy (they should do a Gray Bear Cookbook), there is wifi—but it's recommended you don't access it (you do need to ask for the password) and cell phones don't really work (you truly get to unplug from the world, or as Diann said, "plug-in to yourself"), the wood-burning sauna with a cold-plunge tub sitting in the spring water was incredible, the wood-burning hot tub they built themselves (they built pretty much everything themselves) was a beautiful way to star-gaze at night, the hammocks everywhere to read/journal/meditate/nap were bliss, the land itself was healing, and most of all... MOST of all, our hosts Diann and Adam were nurturing sages out of a dream the second I met them. They have built a very special oasis in the middle of—what I think is some sort of magical vortex—Hohenwald, TN.

I look forward to going back and enjoying some of the services they offer—Watsu was raved about most, I definitely enjoy Reiki, and who can pass up a massage ever?! This weekend I decided to upgrade to a cabin though + once you add in the gas money of driving seven hours too, I was out of funds for extra pampering. But I knew I'd be back, so I wasn't upset.

Linda, thank you for beautiful yoga everyday. All the people I met and were so lucky to share this weekend with—thank you for the heartfelt memories I will never forget. All the staff at Gray Bear—thank you for taking such good care of us. Diann and Adam—thank you for your generosity, for seeing what the world needs to heal and become stronger, and for creating what I definitely consider a slice of heaven here on earth. Namaste.

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I took so many pictures, I'm just posting the album straight to Facebook—feel free to see a little bit of Gray Bear through my eyes :)