Taking home retreat is a very good thing. It’s also pretty radical. I do a lot of 4-6 hour home retreats, and see this practice as the foundation of my equanimity in the teaching practice.
If this is your first home retreat, start with a half day. If that goes well, you might get in to a routine of doing this annually or quarterly. If you practice Ayurvedic cleansing, you might take a structured half-day retreat with each purgation. After a few short retreats, it would not be unusual to take a full day retreat. If, later, you want to design a multi-day solo retreat, I can help. As of this writing, I have taken 9 highly structured retreats of 6-12 days’ duration.
It’s important to start small because this is a learning process. It does not work very well to re-condition consciousness in a dramatic or abrupt way. Think homeopathy. You want to be able to move in to, and out of, the experience with grace. If your retreat design is “hard core,” or abrupt, then the day after you may feel disoriented. But we’re going for long-term nurturance of our inherent clarity, concentration and equanimity. I think of this as giving mother nature a little extra push in the process of evolving through the medium of our minds.
I’ll distinguish two kinds of home retreat.
First is a “Zen” approach that balances periods of contemplation with sensory nourishment and creativity. The most obvious effect of this program is mental, emotional and digital detoxification. Think of it as de-fragmenting your hard drive. It’s cleansing. Do this style self-retreat first.
Second is a “Pratyhara” style retreat that places more emphasis on silence, stillness and determination. In this approach, we minimize sensory stimulation, and gently increase the duration of the sits to the degree concentration can be maintained. Think of this as pushing back the veil of unconsciousness just a little further than ever before, so that new parts of previously unconscious experience become available to the conscious mind. If you sit a little bit every day after your Ashtanga practice, eventually you may need this kind of retreat in order to open up new territory and dive a little deeper. This kind of retreat benefits from psychic support, and from having a buddy to compassionately tell you if you lose your grounding in ensuing days. Let me and any accountability partners know what’s up.
– Start by planning everything well in advance. When the mind knows that it has retreat coming days or weeks in advance, it takes subtle (possibly subconscious) measures to settle and open up for it.
– Choose your date. Block off 4 hours, starting 1-2 hours after a meal. (You could also start at 4-6 am and conclude your retreat with breakfast; this is a great way to go if it works with your sleep requirements.)
– Ensure there will be no large to-do items on your agenda the entire day. A big to-do list waiting for you can create psychic tension.
– Ask for the support of family and friends. They probably won’t do anything, unless you live with them and they truly get on board with helping you create silence and stillness for those 4 key hours. In any case, for most of us, it helps the mind concentrate when we feel specially supported in an endeavor of any kind. This also clarifies that contemplative practice isn’t purely selfish if contextualized in the right way. One of the most important uses of contemplative practice is that it makes us both less selfish, and more self-aware, in relationships.
– If you live with people or talkative, super cuddly, pets, explain to them about Noble Silence. Ask them to honor your silence both during your retreat and in the hour or two after – especially during your meal.
– In this planning period, do anything else you can to pre-emptively simplify your environment on retreat day. Plan to turn off your wifi at the source if at all possible. Eliminate any scents you can from your retreat space and clean it thoroughly. Shop for simple, sattvic foods.
– Choose your space. Less is more in this regard. One room or even corner of a room will probably be sufficient for a 4-hour retreat. Keeping the space small will focus your energy. For a Zen retreat, I suggest including outdoors space for walking – even if it’s very cold or hot outside, or if there is precipitation.
– If it’s a Zen retreat, choose a creative activity. Something that allows for chaos, like drawing, writing or dancing.
– Remind yourself of an idea that inspires you. Look to the foundational content of the Dharana course, or bring in some contemplative writings or imagery that connect you to your most idealistic reasons for practicing.
– In the days before retreat, eat simple and light to the degree possible. A day or two of kitchari would not be a bad idea, and kitchari the day of your retreat is also great.
– At least 24 hours before you start retreat, finalize your exact schedule. The schedule should begin with a dedication of your intention, using the inspirational content you’ve already gathered. The point of this is to clarify intention and purpose.
– For a Zen style retreat, follow the setting of the intention with 30-60 minute sit, with extra care to the element of concentration. Open the sit with your hatha yoga practices, then stay on your technique. For the remaining four hours, schedule alternating periods of formal sitting practice (including 5-15 minutes of hatha yoga techniques per sit, as appropriate), walking, and creative practice. Sitting periods are 30, 45 or 60 minutes long. Walking periods are 15-30 minutes long and should be outside unless you would be very disturbed by your city’s chaos. (When you’re walking, do not ruminate. Pay attention to your sensory experience only. If you’re believing instead of witnessing your thoughts, remember, it’s not practice.) Add one creative period of 30 minutes, to take place directly after sitting. The last thing you do will be a 30-60 minute sit.
[For a Pratyhara style retreat, do the same as above but take extra steps to ensure relative silence and simplicity in your environment. Eliminate the creative period and the outdoor walking period. As desired, add some 15-minute periods of gentle yoga asana between your sits. Include one sit of at least 90 minutes, increasing to 2, 3 and finally a full 4 hours. Be very careful with the physical body as you increase the duration of your sits. Elevate your cushion higher than usual if needed and give yourself permission to make occasional, non-reactive shifts in the posture.]
– The morning of your retreat, clean your space again and put your kitchari to soak if that will be the meal with which you conclude the retreat.
– DO NOT ALTER THE SCHEDULE. It’s there to support you so that you don’t have to expend most of your energy debating over what to do next. It’s the schedule that you yourself chose. One of the most important things on your first few retreats is learning to rest within the schedule.
– During your retreat, it’s fine to drink decaf tea or water between sits. But be careful, because you won’t interrupt a sit to pee; wait for your bell each time. When your final bell rings at the end of the day, there’s a moment take time to notice the effects of the practice and to remind yourself briefly why you did this. Finally, go prepare your meal. Your senses will be sharp and your movements clear and equanimous. Sit down and eat in silence, noticing the sensory experience of eating. [For a Pratyhara style retreat, don’t restrict awareness to sensory experience, but also use the witnessing awareness to gather new information on previously unconscious mental and patterning present when you eat.]
– Use the meal to digest the experience of the retreat. Savor the whole and welcome it into your tissues, into your being.
– Finally, here is a concluding mental vinyasa for strengthening resolve. Think of who (or what) besides your small self benefits from your taking practice, and consider offering the new benefits of the day’s practice to that entity or ideal. (This is sometimes called “dedicating the merit” of one’s practice, and it’s done to prevent the buildup of the idea that one is some sort of spiritual superhero.) Think of a resource, being or coincidence that inspires gratitude. Then, as a result of that thought, possibly experience gratitude. 😉 Finally, again notice the effects of the practice on a physical, emotional, energetic, mental and psychic level. Is it working? Decide now if you want to do this again some time in the future.
– Then go do the dishes.
– In a little while, find an awesome way to break your silence. With some gravitas, and with some grace.