Every year, the Winter Retreat in Laren (the Netherlands), provides a few days of inner stillness in between all the festivities at the end of the year. The specific purpose of this retreat is to reflect upon the past year and to form a pledge for the coming year. Various kinds of meditations, long walks and a day of complete silence help us to gain a clear insight into which lessons we can learn from the past, where we are in the present and what we want to develop in the near future. Through a proper amount of exercises we purify our body and mind and prepare for meditation practices.
Despite its apparent simplicity, many people experience meditation as one of the most difficult aspects of yoga. To sit in the same position for a while often creates tension in the body, whereas the mind gets easily distracted or impatiently awaits the end of the meditation. Hence we practised to sit with our sitting bones grounded on our seats with our spine stretched straight up and our chest open, yet in such a way that we were able to relax instead of continuously forcing ourselves to keep the right posture. Then we tried to concentrate our mind, in order to eventually also attain a deeper state of mental relaxation (emptiness or mū) – a strange paradox, which, as Mizue explained in one of her lessons, provides the key to many activities in life.
We practised four different kinds of meditation: black point meditation, where we focused our eyes upon a thick black spot on a paper hanging in front of us; breath-count meditation, where we counted the cycles of breath, from one to ten, and then again, and again, and again; gasshō meditation, where we were sitting with our hands held together in front of our chest (especially in this pose, relaxing body and mind was quite a challenge); and gotaitochi, which is not practised sitting, but as a meditation in movement, which is especially helpful for those who find it difficult to sit still. Literally, gotaitochi means “throw your body to the ground,” and so we moved from standing to lying with our chest on the floor and back to standing, on the rhythm of our own breath. Special this year was that we practised gotaitochi in two different ways: one of the participants taught us how this meditation is practised in Tibetan Buddhism, which is very different from the way it is taught in Okido Yoga. So it was interesting to experience the differences in movement and in state of mind between these two styles.
On the morning of Tuesday the 29th, before going into silence for 24 hours, we exchanged thoughts on the meaning of Oki-sensei's daily pledges, as practised during our retreat. Especially the Sleeping Pledge provoked much discussion. What we were trying to understand better was how to relate to those things one probably could have done better. Even if we did not all agree on how to interpret the phrases of this pledge, the thoughts they elicited were applicable to our own end-of-the-year reflections as well.
The last full day of the retreat we did two writing-meditation sessions: one to write down how 2015 had been for us and one to formulate our own pledge for 2016. Each time, we first sat in meditation for a short time, then took pen and paper and wrote down what came up into our mind, and then continued meditating, and so on. In this way, we could find the words we needed coming out of that deeper silence within ourselves. After that, it was time to celebrate the end of the year together. So we cooked a delicious menu: we had tofu croquettes, cauliflower tempura, quinoa salad, sauerkraut, onion butter, and a marvellous apple pie for desert. Then we settled by the fire for warm conversations.
For many participants, students and staff alike, this retreat had been quite a difficult training sometimes. Yet the warm and cheerful atmosphere on that last evening showed that many of us were already sensing its positive effects. We will carry them with us through the new year.
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