What Happens in a Men’s Retreat?

Last week, I was the lead assistant at a Men’s Retreat called Ascending the Sacred Mountain, led by Christopher Sunyata. It was an honor and a gift to assist this workshop after years of preparation by participating in and leading many men’s and couples’ workshops.

Throughout the week, staff at the event center where our retreat was hosted mentioned that they had no idea what we were doing together, in contrast to the usual women’s yoga groups that pass through the same venue. I also receive similar questions from people in my life. One friend even wondered what the benefit of a retreat with the same gender was. Why wouldn’t teachings on meditation, purpose, sex, and death be of benefit to all people regardless of their gender?

Why are men spending time with men seen as confusing or threatening?

It’s my strong opinion that everyone benefits when men spend time with men in a container of growth, introspection, and reflection. Every retreat I have been part of has been unique. Some focus on giving men space to learn to speak their emotions and feelings safely. Others focus on spiritual development through meditation and enlightenment practices. Finally, there can be a focus on relating to women,  finding one’s purpose, and many other permutations.

One of Christopher’s gifts is that he is very attuned to the needs of the men in the current group, and there is no prescripted curriculum. Instead, each evening our staff would meet and brainstorm and plan the following day based on the current state of the men in the retreat. I won’t speak to the specifics of any exercises because the element of surprise and novelty for the men participating is essential. However, there are several key areas that we work with:

Posture, Breath, and Presence:

Most men are unaware that their trustability in the world, whether with a potential intimate partner or business partner- is rooted in their posture, breath, and presence. What happens when they are unaware of their body, breathing shallowly, and their head is pushed forward such that their ears are no longer over their shoulders? I’ve witnessed men being ‘tuned up’ by teachers and the other students – simple things like rolling shoulders back, bringing their ears over their shoulds, and having their weight balanced over their feet suddenly appear to be a completely new man, and rated as much more trustable.

Relaxation:

Many men hold an incredible amount of tension in their bodies. This can create health and sexual performance problems, which is not a comfortable way to be in the world. Working with men to open their hips, relax their breath, release body tension, and move and live more freely. This is often achieved through slow, relaxing yoga sequences.

Death and Purpose:

Being present with our mortality and impending death is a way to become immediately present, whether with a lover, our families, or alone. A relationship to death can bring our true purpose into the light and prevent continued procrastination and distraction.

Sex and Relationships:

Sexuality and relating to partners and families are big themes for men. Therefore, understanding the basics of masculine and feminine polarity and how to communicate through their bodies and words maintains this polarity for attracting the partner a man seeks or enriching sexual experiences and intimacy in a current relationship.

Meditation and Enlightenment Practices:

The capacity to sit comfortably and deeply inquire into who we are and why we are here is deeply connected to masculine presence and growth. Therefore, offering men meditation techniques, helping them find a comfortable physical posture, and exploring silence together is a critical part of any men’s retreat I’m participating in.

 Brotherhood:

I recently heard that in our 20s, men tend to have a similar size or even more extensive friend networks than women. By our 40s, this plummets, and men often find themselves with very few male friends outside of those they work with. Discovering that other men are seeking to live a more fulfilling life, men that have similar struggles and pains is deeply healing.

 Wholeness:

The above sections are a very rough outline of what happens – there is so much more. So many men are broken today – for a variety of reasons. The sheer act of taking a week of their lives and investing in themselves in the company of other men is a process towards becoming more whole, embracing all parts of themselves, and becoming better human beings that can serve their partners, their families, and their companies and their societies.

To conclude, I want to share one of the more touching moments of this past retreat. On the fourth day, I led the men on a walk through the woods to the neighboring retreat center, the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram. This day auspiciously fell on the new moon, the most masculine day of the lunar cycle. At the ashram, the men participated in a fire ceremony, paying homage to the Mother and offering a part of ourselves to be relinquished at her feet. After the formal ceremony, as we were offered delicious chai dahl, a woman who also attended the ceremony approached our group. Visibly shaking, she bowed and expressed deep gratitude towards our group of men. Then, in a very devotional tone, she shared how much it impacted her to see a group of men transforming themselves, and she saw our work as a beautiful gift to the world. Many of us felt very validated and honored at that moment.

Thank you, Christopher

Thank you, all the men who participated

Thank you, all of the men who pioneered this work

Thank you, all of the men doing this work

Thank you, to everyone supporting this work.

Incubating and Creating

** Overdue update! In late April, I left Mazunte, Mexico, and spent a beautiful month in Portugal visiting a lover in Lisbon and exploring the country’s northern half on a solo backpack. While there is a lot to say about my time in Portugal, what is most alive is what is happening now in Boulder. In early June, I returned to the US and rented a room in a beautiful home with a close friend, my first permanent-ish home since spending the last two years at my Zen Monastery and then abroad.

I have been thrust back into community and activity in a way that has validated my decision to relocate and live here again, a place I have not entirely resided in since 2009 when I packed up after 8-years of corporate ‘do as you are supposed to do life,’ sold all of my possessions and traveled to Asia.

Last week, I co-led two workshops called | OPEN | – Authentic Relating Meets Sexuality that were so popular that we will offer a third one next Saturday that is also nearly sold out two days after announcing it. This is the fruit of a long-developing bond with the incredible human, Michaela Smail.

THIS beautiful, fierce, devotional, and focused woman has evoked a creative spark in me as I have never experienced before! I feel confident to explore, offer and create in the rich, edgy, controversial space my life has followed:  intimacy, sexuality, consciousness, and communication. Our recent collaboration convinced me that my path is collaborative, and planning a company, a movement, or a dynasty together is so enlivening! She inspires me personally and professionally to realize and actualize creating and birthing something in the world: a task that I have been hiding from and fearful of until now, preferring to play it safe and avoid potential humiliation or failure. It’s been an honor and privilege to facilitate and create alongside this legendary human.

This is just the beginning. I hope to see you at the next one! Are you in? It’s time to | OPEN |

Missionary Position

Now that I have your attention, this post does not have anything to do with sex. Sorry.

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I’m referring to the position of being a missionary, rather than missionary position. First made famous by the Christians, this attitude and practice has long been adopted by many sects, ideologies, and groups to promote their vision and ideals.

Last year the yoga community I was living in imploded after a series of sexual harassment claims were directed at the founder and main teacher. Sadly, this triggered a series of events that dispersed many in the community to far corners of the world.  I observe my friends, many trained in yoga, mediation and tantra for over a decade, attempt with varying levels of success, to build their own personal brands and offer teachings around the world.

I also have this calling – to share, to give back just a small portion of what I have received. I have been examining this impulse closely over the last months and have observed that this missionary energy is well-established inside me too. 

Where did it come from?

One of the great gifts that my yoga teacher possessed is of inspiring others to practice yoga. I cannot tell you how many people took their initial steps on the path of yoga after hearing one of his lectures. In the 500-hr. teacher training program, which I completed in 2013, there were a series of commentaries on the great Bhagavad Gita, specifically two aspects: where:

1. Action is said to be superior than inaction (promoting the path of karma yoga in the world, and teaching spirituality) and

2. Where Krishna instructs the protagonist Arjuna that of all those in the world, those who teach yoga properly are most dear to him.

Inspiring, no?

What is interesting is that my initial background in Zen Buddhism was in strong contradiction to this view. Zen is what you can call a very anti-missionary teaching. Even people who come and knock on the door of the monastery are often turned away or forced to endure some kind of initiation that proves that they are sincere seekers and not just following a fad or looking for food and shelter.

When I look into my heart and question why I want to share, I find two aspects, one is the genuine desire for others to experience the beneficial aspects of the practices that I have personally befitted and observed others benefitting from.

Then there is the shadow side of this missionary desire. The one that seeks to justify one’s own choices, lifestyle and habits by proclaiming it superior to other ones. When we make choices there often residues of doubt, uncertainty. What if I took the other path? And this can lead to a doubling-down on your choice, and missional practices.

Today I decided to actually look-up this statement in the Bhagavad Gita – from Chapter 18, the Chapter on Liberation from Swami Sivananda:

67. This is never to be spoken by thee to one who is devoid of austerities, to one who is not devoted, nor to one who does not render service, nor who does not desire to listen, nor to one who cavils at Me.

68. He who with supreme devotion to Me will teach this supreme secret to My devotees, shall doubtless come to Me.

69. Nor is there any among men who does dearer service to Me, nor shall there be another on earth dearer to Me than he.

While this can be interpreted as those who teach are very dear to God, a critical caveat is made here – that yoga should not be taught to anyone who is not interested in it or prepared for it. Therefore the Bhagavad Gita is not actually advocating a missionary-based approach to spirituality.

This is a work in progress for me – recognizing the world has changed a lot in the last several thousand years since this text was written and the original practices of yoga were unfolding.

I once asked another one of my yoga teachers “Who am I to teach” after completing a training program with him and being a novice in meditation and yoga. His response was “Who are you not to teach?”

My feeling now is that the best path is to continue deepening my own understanding, seeking community and sangha to practice with and within. Foremost a practitioner and student, secondarily a teacher when called upon by the circumstances. Following the impulse to illuminate, not the one to justify or defend.

To be continued…