Being invited to a wellness yoga retreat at a gorgeous ranch and beach club in Malibu, California, sounds like the stuff of fantasies. But when I first agreed to attend YogaOutlet’s first-ever two-day retreat, featuring classes with world-renowned instructors (I’m talking people who’ve graced the cover of Yoga Journal or have their very own workout DVDs), I wasn’t thinking much about relaxing.
Outside of taking restful, restorative yoga once or twice a week, my regular practice was fairly limited. The thought of taking Vinyasa classes that get your heart rate up by doing intense flows—along with advanced moves like shoulder stands—alongside people who do it for a living was a fairly intimidating thought. But this wasn’t a retreat for pros only. It was going to be a mix of press and pros—and being that I was game to expand my skill set as a student, I thought to myself, Hey, I’ve got this. Then I sent the “Count me in!” email.
Fast-forward to the first day of the retreat: I realized that not only were lithe, internationally famous yoga pros in attendance, but the classes were also peppered with the kinds of Instagram-famous couples who casually do acroyoga (think yoga meets Cirque du Soleil). Oof, there was no way I’d be able to keep up with them, I thought. They better keep that retreat photographer far away from me.
There’s no way even my mountain pose (which is just standing still basically) was going to look correct next to these yoga rock stars. And there was no way I wanted to be in the background of those shots, let alone take YogaOutlet’s team up on their offer to go do some sun salutations on the grounds of the ranch for an Instagram-worthy photo shoot.
Once an overweight adolescent, and now an adult whose hormonal imbalances and stress levels will forever influence her size, this was most definitely a moment which brought out insecurities around my body and fitness. Even gym classes in high school were pure torture. Though I’ve come a long way since then, I’m not beyond experiencing occasional PTSD from the days when I was a chubby 12-year-old in a stoplight-red regulation gym uniform, timidly flailing away from a dodge ball—or a volleyball or a basketball or a football. You get the picture.
But obviously, yoga is 180 degrees from dodgeball, right? In fact, it’s supposed to be one of the most mindful, body-accepting workouts out there. And yet, get me sweating around a bunch of people who seem to know what they’re doing better than I do, and there’s a chance I could have let my insecurities turn me into the unhappiest camper to ever attend a posh retreat on the Malibu coastline. Luckily, it didn’t play out that way.
During the retreat, I listened to experts in the yoga and wellness fields lead vibrant conversations on everything from Ayurvedic medicine to building a supportive social circle in an era of self-isolating digital communication. I stopped and sipped water when holding a certain pose began to feel just plain wrong on my back or shoulders. I made small talk about organic food and the beauty of Miami Beach with one of the acroyoga couples. And eventually, my guard came down.
Sure, in some circles, people who practice yoga or have an intense interest in the fitness community are more about image than wellness. They’re capturing their workouts for social media to appear a certain way—not to share their knowledge. They’re competitive, and maybe even lacking a practice, which is what yoga and fitness is supposed to be about! Practicing—and therefore, always being a work in progress.
But during the informational, sometimes emotional conversations that the retreat fostered through classes and workshops, and even in the most physically intense moments of our yoga classes, I soon realized that there is a community of people who really do get it: Fellow students who aren’t going to give you side-eye if you have to stop halfway through an intense yoga flow in a heated room. Advanced instructors who will praise you for listening to your body and knowing your limits and connecting with the class in a mindful (opposed to aggressively physical) way.
Though every instructor had a unique way of coaching and connecting with the class, the powerful message that I heard over and over again was that you bring your body but also your head and heart to the mat. And it’s that ability to connect them that matters more than any long-held shoulder stand or inversion.
Related: Does Yoga Count As A Workout?
As a kid, my fears around fitness were exacerbated by the pressure of competition. But somewhere between dripping sweat in downward dog and learning about my Ayurvedic boy type (pitta-kapha, obviously) and aromatherapy, I realized that the only person I needed to compare myself to at that retreat was myself.
Because they truly do practice what they preach, some of the most advanced yoga pros in the world ended up doing the opposite of intimidate me. They inspired me to accept myself more—exactly as I am, with all of my current strengths and weaknesses.
I learned that wellness isn’t about how hot you look on Instagram in a Lycra yoga jumper while doing some bendy move. It’s about committing to, listening to, and taking care of your heart, mind, and body—at a retreat, or wherever you can quiet that overworked mind. Hey, you’ve got this.