• Zoe Sexton

Remembering Tara Bella Yoga Retreat

In preparation for my talk and attendance at Om Rising just two weeks away, looking through my writing, I came across my first yoga retreat experience and deep dive into yoga. In 2011 I joined a weekend yoga retreat at Tara Bella in Glenn Ellen with Tim Dale, founder of Yoga Tree and Om Rising. The experience at Tara Bella was eye-opening, inspiring and heart-opening. It was a special place and lives on in my heart and a part of my soul still dances with it.

While regular yoga class attendance has not been the most consistent the last few months with school out of session and trips with family, I am reminded why taking a few days to do yoga and reset is so powerful. In fact, I have three yoga retreats calendared in 2019, including Om Rising, August 16th-19th at Camp Navarro in Navarro, CA. This will be my second retreat this year, and the only one I’ll be speaking at. It doesn’t feel accurate to say when I discovered yoga because it feels more like yoga found me. Here are the notes I took after that first retreat at Tara Bella in 2011.

Coming to Tara Bella in Glenn Ellen for a weekend yoga retreat was not something planned to do. A weekend or week of yoga had always sounded appealing, particularly when going through periods of angst, but I always thought I’d have to leave the country for it or that it would be outlandishly expensive.

Naturally, I had a daunting list of things on my plate. A yoga retreat sounded great, but shouldn’t I be working on some of the other issues I had going on in my life? Financial crisis, foreclosure, divorce, child custody and support issues would be enough for anyone; determining where to start is my challenge.

On Friday at 4:00 pm, Tim Dale, owner of Yoga Tree in San Francisco, texted me and asked if I was on my way or needed directions. Although I had confirmed the invitation to Tara Bella on Wednesday, my head still spun with indecision. Was this justifiable with everything else I should be doing? At that point, I realized I really was committed to going. In fact, I needed to go. I filled a shopping bag with dark chocolate, spring forms pans, cocoa powder and large block of French, sweet cream butter, along with my famous chocolate torte recipe and was ready to go.

The drive up to Tara Bella in the wine country of Glenn Ellen is only about 50 minutes from San Francisco with light traffic. My thoughts wandered from planning a quick escape, in case I was uncomfortable in the group, to relaxing into the experience, working on my breath, and the opportunity to focus my spirit. I thought of a translation recently imparted on me that Spirit comes from spiritus or breath, animating the body in life, connecting the mind to the soul. This is also connected to vigor and courage…something I need in particular right now.

Tara Bella rests against the hillside, high up, overlooking Glenn Ellen, facing west. The narrow driveway swooped down the hill and cars lined it. If I parked down the drive, I’d probably be trapped in, my edgy mind reminded me. I pulled down the hill. As I neared the house, my phone rang, and Tim’s name popped up. “Hey,” I answered. “I’m out in your driveway.” He walked out of the house to meet me. Shrub Oaks and Madrone populated the area, and the rocky ravine. I breathed in deeply inhaling the smells of dry grass, bay trees and rocky earth as I got out of the car. Familiar childhood memories of northern California flooded my mind as I walked up the stairs to the house; Tim greeted me softly and whispered,

“Everyone is practicing down stairs. I was just calling to see if you could stop at the store.”

“I’ll go back,” I offered. “I need eggs for the torte as well. Walked out and forgot them in my hurry.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “there is another woman on her way. She can stop at the store.”

Tim contacted her and put in the request for more items. I settled into the kitchen with Earl, a long-time friend of Tim’s, and began to help put things together for a dinner of tapas. Tim had planned a light dinner of tapas for late arrivals. The chocolate torte would be made and served at the main dinner on Saturday night.

Although I missed the first yoga session of the retreat, we had a wonderful dinner of organic tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, olives, Tim’s homemade pickled beets, fresh snapper, avocado and fresh bread.

Final count at the hewn wood table outside the studio downstairs was 15. Tim Dale, founder of Yoga Tree, Pete Guinosso, yoga instructor, Journey/Dance instructor Kiera Einhorm, and Jerusha Rhone and Jonathan Wolfe body workers, as well as the 10 co-eds, including myself were in attendance. After dinner we moved into the yoga studio, forming a circle and introduced ourselves and the reason we had come to the retreat. I spoke of my desire to become more conscious of my breath and connect with my sense of sanity and clarity. Other people had come to get help working through difficult issues in their lives, some of trauma and some just to do yoga. We stayed up late talking and getting to know each other.

Sleeping arrangements were varied. Options included tents on the property, the cabana next to the terraced pool, open air sleeping on pillow-top mattresses on the deck or private rooms in the main house. I stayed in the main bedroom facing west and the sunset. It was a beautiful hot evening, the clear night sky filled with stars, the soft humming of crickets and silence.

Saturday, after a light breakfast, yoga started at 9am and went until 11am. Scenarios of departing and unfinished business continued to spin in my head. Perhaps I could leave after dinner and making the torte today, I thought. But first, I was needed as a participant in this morning’s class. Pete Guinosso, a long-time instructor at Yoga Tree had designed a progressive weekend starting the evening before with a grounding practice that focused on stability. The yoga studio at Tara Bella opens with four glass doors swinging out to the sunlit patio and decks. The wood floor is golden and all 13 of us were able to squeeze in on mats facing the mantle and burning candle set out for offering. Pete began directing us immediately to center our focus and look inward.

My experience with yoga goes back about 19 years, but I have never thought of it as a “practice.” I always thought of it as a tool for releasing the stress of life, tuning into my body, and treating my body with care and attention. I was a drop-in yogi. I was someone who thought of it as a treatment to counter the tension of other athletics like running or lifting weights. But yoga and the ‘practice’ of yoga are much deeper than that. It entails looking inward, focusing on the body and the emotional experience that holds it back in tension. It is about discovering the body’s energy centers and their relationship to health and wellness.

Today was focused on breathing into the lower body, moving up from the grounding to the core and opening the hips activating the internal baggage we carry inside of us from trauma, experiences, and emotions held in over the years.

Pete started by introducing Brahmeri, or the Bee intended to reduce stress and connect the breath with the body through vibration breathing. I am a quiet person and the idea of making vibrational humming through my breath in different audible tones was not appealing at all. Pete demonstrated the sound as higher pitched when it was focused on the top of head, then deepening as the next breath moved down into the sinus/eye area, and further down to the throat, the chest, abdomen and pubis. The first few sensations with the exhalation humming seemed out of sync, but as we practiced, and moved back up through the core again, I began to feel the vibration in my body and the loosening intended. The oxygenation and awakening began as I connected with the various parts of my body. Pete referred to it as “sparkling up” the body, a term which made it more appealing.

From there we moved into the poses. Pete and Jerusha moved quietly through the class, gently massaging, putting pressure and releasing tense constricted muscles so students could open into the pose.

“Opening the hips, also gives preparation for back bends”, Pete explained.

I felt hands on my hips, thumbs pressing gently into my lower back as I pushed into downward facing dog, and my hips pulled back allowing my back to straighten absorbing the full extension of the pose. “Breath, breath,” Pete’s voice kindly reminded me and brought my attention to my own breath. I realized throughout the two-hour session that I actually paused after each inhalation and exhalation, and that the lack of flow was an obstruction in my process and ability to focus.

Throughout the morning session, the poses got more difficult as we moved into a vinyassa flow and began to sweat. Jerusha’s hands were soft or firm, sensing what I needed at the moment, as she focused her complete attention on each of us. Pete guided us with his voice and his support easing our bodies out of our unnatural states of tension and into positions that opened our hips and bound emotions. Students expressed the release of tension in various ways, as I heard laughter, sobbing or groans expressed throughout the room. My realization of the deep work that was occurring, and gratitude at the willingness to express humanity and be human in front of others came as a complete surprise.

It’s easy to understand why Pete has such a following in his practice and teachings of yoga. His constant attention to the individual needs of each person in the room, and the support he offers physically and mentally is something I have not seen before. With Jerusha encouraging us in the same way, it was a true demonstration of human kindness and moved me deeply. I knew then I was staying for the rest of the retreat and joining this group to practice and experience humanizing among other humans.

After the session, we broke for brunch at the large table of the night before. A frittata of salmon, zucchini, and feta cheese served with a fresh tomato cooked salsa, sliced cucumbers and cranberry oatmeal was satisfying and delicious. After brunch six of us joined Tim on a hike through a private vineyard, the redwoods and a secluded magical swimming hole up the canyon. Reminded of my breath, I inhaled the warm sweet air and the memories the smells brought to mind. Dry oak, tangy bay leaves and the musty smell of moss drying in the heat were childhood hikes in the Dry Creek Valley. We turned off the road on the walk back to a narrow trail up the canyon. Cut out from the side, the path was steep and slippery, but we reached the rocky pool safely. The clear water was enticing, and Tim promptly began to remove his clothes while Greg climbed up to the top of the pool above the waterfall and moved fluidly into several poses, a poetic imprint in the natural environment and dappled light filtering through the towering redwood and bay trees overhead.

In excitement, we plunged into the icy water, one at a time, dousing our heads and feeling cleansed as we emerged. After dressing, we walked out of the canyon, the summer air and the coolness of the spring water was soft and light against my skin. “It’s amazing,” I said to Tim, as we walked out of the canyon. “My skin feels so open and natural now.”

“It’s a sacred place,” he said softly. “I’ve been coming here for years and have never seen anyone.”

When we got back to the house, we were late for the next yoga session and had to push it back 30 minutes as everyone got ready. I rushed to make the two chocolate tortes we would have after dinner, melting dark chocolate, butter and eggs to a thick consistency and getting them in the oven just as the session started. After walking and taking a break from the postures, moving back into them was not difficult for the first five minutes. Then my body was feeling the resistance and fatigue. Perhaps I should have napped instead of walking, I thought. I needed more support, but soon felt the energy returning to my body. It was a short session, only an hour this time, but more people were feeling the same releasing from within. Their sounds could be heard faintly; impossible to identify the source, but together we supported each other in this exercise by being there and following the instruction of focusing inward and breathing into difficult poses.

The afternoon yoga session was followed immediately with Keira Einhorn, and her Journey/Dance instruction. Journey Dance is guided dance that awakens the body and emotions through movement, dance, visualization and ritual calls by the instructor. This was completely out of my comfort zone, but I came to learn and remove my assumptions, so I told myself just to follow instructions. As we lay on the floor and began the symbolic awakening however, I was overcome by uncontrollable laughter. My laughter brought more from the group and we lay on the floor, shaking with hilarity until tears formed. As we followed the instruction, we began to play and move our bodies like children with temper, expression and joy. Keira was dedicated to moving us through her calls and voice instruction from the beginning of awakening, the release of old unwanted energy and emotions, making space for new positive dreams and desires.

Afterward I was tired, but my internal energy was invigorated and my attention was floating. I helped prepare dinner with Tim. Fresh imported salmon, grilled vegetables and tofu, and an amazing soba noodle dish tossed in seaweed, soy, sesame oil, olive oil and shallots made a healthy dinner comfort food. As someone who rarely eats pasta, I was shocked by and an immediate fan of this fabulous dish. We had the torte for dessert, and it was a huge hit. What could be bad about rich, dark chocolate, flourless confection? From the moment it enters the mouth and the taste buds connect, recognizing the flavor, it brings a flooding sensation of ecstasy.

Sunday morning, I woke up early to write and review the last 36 hours. With my laptop on the dining table, between the kitchen and deck, I relived the last few days while overlooking the pool. A feeling of relaxation and clarity had entered my mind and body together. I felt centered and grounded, realizing the power of oxygenating the body through breath and movement. Now I wanted to do yoga every day, so I began to write. The day broke sunny and warm, yellow light flooding the back yard. The deck off the house overlooks the hillside and the pale blue pool and cabana below. A hot tub is nestled to the left side of the path wandering down from the outside dining table and patio of the yoga studio. Far off, the ridge line was clear where the evening before it had an orange glow beyond the sunset as if there had been a wild fire. I inhaled deeply; ever more conscious of my breath and the life force it brings to my body, joining to my spirit. I was beginning to feel awakened and cleansed, the layers of stress from divorce, financial crisis and child rearing peeling away.

My internal reverie ended as yogis wandered into the kitchen looking for coffee and light fare before our last two-hour session. As we filed down stairs and lined up our mats, Pete told us today we would be focusing on the shoulders and hips, hopefully ending in a back bend. In front and between the shoulders lies the heart, I thought. I’m looking forward to releasing mine.

The session was difficult as we were all fatigued by the days before, and it was harder to hold our focus. Pete gently reminded some of us to ‘come back into the room,’ or ‘focus on being here now.’

“Your breath is much better,” he told me, after reminding me several time to close my eyes. My inexperience with some of the names for the yoga poses often had me looking about to see which direction or to what length a pose was to go. Pete wanted us to trust the body and seek balance from within, tuning into our own innate ability to have internal balance.

As the morning drew to a close, the energy in the room moved to sadness at an ending soon to come and a parting of ways for each of us. We came together not knowing each other at all and found a sense of connection and humanness by stripping away the external world of our jobs, children, family and pressures. We joined together in a final brunch of banana buckwheat pancakes, crushed berry compote, whipped cream and chopped mangos. Decadent does not begin to describe it. After breakfast we joined in a circle of gratitude outside on the deck and each said a bit about our experience over the weekend. It was moving, emotional and fascinating to be part of this honesty and share a willingness to allow others to see it. I was truly grateful for the entire experience and what each person there had given so freely by their presence, kindness and contribution.

When I committed to staying the entire retreat at Tara Bella I did so for several reasons. I realized as part of the group coming in, I would disrupt its continuity if I departed. Even more important, I knew I was out of my comfort zone on a conscious and unconscious level. I was aware of what I did not know. Like yoga, breathing into the pain, strain, and difficulties of life eased my distress and allowed me to find a place of clarity and calm. In many ways, because of this experience and just two days exploring the practice of yoga, I found I was ready to face my challenges in court with a strong lucid mind and a sense of wellbeing.

#yogaretreat #omrising #omrisingfestival


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