Finding What Feels Good: What I Learned From Attending a Yoga Retreat After a Health Scare
This August, I spent a weekend tent camping at the Omega retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s taken me some time to process the experience, for a number of reasons, not least among them the events that led up to the trip.
Just before my move, I developed a dull headache and sharp, stabbing pains at the nape of my neck. When these symptoms persisted, I saw a doctor and was diagnosed with occipital neuralgia, a relatively rare primary headache disorder, according to WebMD (which my therapist has since banned me from using — rightly so).
Long story short, the first run of medication handled my pain symptoms but had a slew of nasty side effects that led my doctor to recommend I see a neurologist. The neurologist agreed with the initial diagnosis, but recommended an MRI to rule out additional potential causes of my other symptoms. Those causes? Oh, brain tumors or Multiple Sclerosis.
“Any other questions for me?” the neurologist asked at the end of my appointment.
I felt silly asking, but I had spent a lot of money, and I needed to know. “I have a yoga retreat coming up next weekend,” I told him. “Do you think it would be okay for me to go?”
“I see no reason you couldn’t go,” he replied, to my delight. Until that moment, I’d been unsure I actually was going to spend the weekend practicing yoga with Adriene Mischler, the online yoga teacher who’d sparked and sustained my love of yoga since college. Because of the pain I’d been in the past month, I hadn’t let myself believe I’d be allowed to have this experience.
The day before my trip, I received my MRI results — normal, unremarkable, just my brain doing its normal brain things. I didn’t know before that moment that your body could nearly collapse from the flood of relief.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Not only was it a relief to know nothing more sinister was lurking behind my diagnosis, but I didn’t have to worry about waiting for a call from my doctor on the retreat.
As I packed my bags and threw them in my trunk the next morning, the reality finally set in. I experienced the anticipation and excitement I’d been avoiding. I was driving to Omega. I was going to practice yoga in person with Adriene.
I let the four hour drive take me into introspection, processing the past month of pain and blood work, the MRI, and the fact that we weren’t really much closer to a “cure.”
I sat with the reality that there might not be one. That migraines can be chronic, that there isn’t a known cause for occipital neuralgia. That the new medication I was on seemed to be dulling the pain, but I still had “bad days.”
After the MRI ruled out MS and tumors, my doctor recommended taking some time with the new treatment plan to “let my body heal.” To see how things went. What better way to pause, I thought, than to do yoga.
Yet underneath my excitement was a current of fear. What little time I’d found for yoga during that past month was doing the “Yoga for Migraines” video, soft and slow and alone in my apartment. Even though “Find what feels good” is Adriene’s motto, the idea of being unable to keep up with long daily practices terrified me. I was 27 years old and had, before 2019, been nothing but the picture of health. I didn’t have the vocabulary for an invisible, chronic condition. I didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t want to be disappointed in my experience.
I made a promise as I stepped out of my car into Omega’s gravel parking lot. I would spend the weekend meeting my body where it was, learning how to be with it in its current state. If I had to spend entire practices in child’s pose, I would learn how to be okay with that. Fighting against my body wasn’t helping — both doctors agreed that stress and fear about my condition was undoubtedly worsening the headaches. I had to learn to chill out, as if people hadn’t been telling me to do that my entire life.
But oh, of course it couldn’t be that easy. While my drive was smooth, the post-arrival process was anything but. The Omega staff encouraged me to leave my luggage with them, to be delivered to my lodgings in no more than two hours’ time. Not thinking anything of it, I left my tent along with everything else. Two hours would be plenty time for me to grab dinner, explore the grounds, and setup my tent before orientation began that evening.
For someone who’s had anxiety her entire life, I’m sometimes alarmingly optimistic about my ability to be chill. As soon as my tent was whisked away, I went to check in and started immediately worrying they wouldn’t deliver my tent in time. The line took a while, and eventually I got my campsite assignment — hillside.
That’s weird, I thought, the person who took my luggage said something about how lakefront get priority.
Naturally, this increased my anxiety. Especially when, two hours later, I arrived to my site only to see that my luggage hadn’t been delivered. Not only that, but the other luggage there had different colored tags. I sped my way across campus to check, and, sure enough, my luggage was peacefully sitting in the luggage shelter for the campsites across town.
Part of me considered schlepping up the hill, tent and bags in tow, without bringing this mishap to anyone’s attention. But it was far away, would take me two trips, and not leave me time to set up my tent before dark. Plus, I didn’t know who was right and who was wrong — was my luggage in the right place, but my assignment wrong? Or vice versa?
As someone with society anxiety, this kind of thing can really throw me for a loop. I don’t like navigating new situations with unclear rules, and no one had told me where to go if my luggage didn’t end up where it should. Eventually, I talked my way to the right people and got a ride (with my stuff) back up to the hillside, where I hastily assembled my tent and jogged down to orientation. The rain fly, I decided, could wait.
The rain fly should not have waited. The first night, it stormed. Rain leaked in through the roof of my tent, where I cowered under the rainfly, holding my bags beneath it with me. Come morning, my clothes were all damp from the rain that leaked into my luggage. I hung it all up to dry and went down for breakfast in still damp clothes I’d held under the hand dryer in the bathroom.
It was no auspicious beginning, tent wise. A younger me might have taken this as a sign, a foreboding omen that I had gone down a path I shouldn’t have. And yet…
Between orientation and the storm, there was this: walking into the wide, open expanse of the lodge, where Adriene would host her workshops for the next two days. Seeing a quote from Rachel Carson, who attended the University where I now work, plastered up on the wall inside. “You are home” it seemed to whisper. “You belong.”
And then… Adriene herself, my guru and teacher of nearly 7 years, who I had encountered only though her videos and oh so occasional retweets online. Inviting us into the space, hundreds of people on hundreds of mats rolled out on the floor. Reminding us that to accept and navigate with the limitations our bodies might bring to the mat.
I wish I could remember exactly what she said as she acknowledged that some of us might be struggling, might be ill or not in our healthiest bodies, but I can’t. I just know that it was exactly perfect for what I’d been going through the past few months, for my fear that I wasn’t ready, wasn’t enough, for this retreat. And wouldn’t you know it? My body and me, we got through that practice just fine.
In spite of the lack of sleep and damp, I felt better than I’d expected after sleeping in a tent. Though I’d been camping a number of times, that was before the back and neck and occipital issues began. I’d doubted my body’s ability to roll with the punches of sleeping on a hard surface. And yet, roll it did.
I spent much of the retreat sitting in peaceful, quiet spaces, journaling and reflecting on everything I’d experienced in the past year. It was sitting there, hard and heavy: the back issues, physical therapy, losing my cat, moving to a new apartment, developing chronic occipital shocks, the bad reaction to my initial medication, and so on. I had been so busy going through it that I hadn’t taken much time to take stock, to thank myself for pushing forward. So afraid of what I might lose that I didn’t revel in what I had managed to maintain.
We spent hours doing yoga, long and slow and then steady and strong. That time felt so magical to me — here I was, with Adriene in person, and yet when I closed my eyes it felt just as safe as the various living rooms in which I’d practiced with her videos over the years.
I fell into the rhythm and let tears fall as I learned what my body could still do, if I let it. I had vowed to work with my body, to honor it, but I hadn’t been sure what that would mean. And yet… my practice remained unchanged in the physicality. My headaches receded on the new medication and left me be until the last day, when a few mild pains returned. I felt the best I had in a long time, and even as I struggled to tell Adriene how much her videos meant to me, I knew that those few minutes talking face to face weren’t at all the most impactful. It was the practice itself, the experience of sharing that space, that I would remember.
During our last workshop, Adriene and her team passed around Mantra cards, handcut for this group to remember our journey together. I reached into the basket and pulled out my card: I Am Healthy.
As we did our final practice of the weekend, this card sat on the corner of my mat, encouraging me to believe something I hadn’t felt in months. That I was healthy, that I could be healthy, that I would feel like a healthy person again some day.
I carried that with me on my drive home, back to my normal life. In a perfect, linear narrative, I’d be able to say that was it, that my body and mind healed, and I moved forward. In truth, after another good week, the occipital shocks would return, and another round of “new meds, wait and see” would begin. But I like to think the weekend with Adriene helped me prepare to navigate that challenge, to take stock and keep doing yoga not only in spite of, but because of my chronic pain. And so for now, I am grateful. I am healthy.
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in reading more about chronic pain, check out this essay in Invisible Illness!