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A quick escape to an Alabama mindfulness retreat

ID: Retreat
Caption: Author Jessica Fender practices meditation during a four-day mindfulness retreat in Alabama’s Cheaha State Park.
Author Jessica Fender practices meditation during a four-day mindfulness retreat in Alabama’s Cheaha State Park. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

In my hotel room, I am a whirlwind in search of yoga pants.

Oh no! I’m so late, I think, growing frantic. Not a great first impression. This is a mindfulness weekend, and I’m going to show up flustered. Perfect. Oops, can’t forget my mat. Am I even ready to do yoga? Where are those pants?!

Welcome to the cacophony inside my head, where you’ll typically find a half dozen thoughts pinballing off one another at once. Even at my most relaxed, music plays in there. (Lately, it’s been “Walking on Sunshine.” Please help.) Only recently did I discover that some folks can turn off this endless, sometimes stressful internal monologue. So I’ve come to a mindfulness retreat in the mountains of Alabama’s Cheaha State Park to learn how. 

At this point—early 2020—the pandemic has yet to take hold in the U.S., so I’m still blissfully focused on self-improvement, rather than outright survival.

For the next four days, I’ll meditate, journal, practice restorative yoga, and even—gulp!—spend a day in silence, alone with my own thoughts. All of this is completely new to me. I haven’t tried yoga in seven years, and I’ve never meditated. But Kim Drye, cofounder of Birmingham’s Here Now Yoga, which hosts the annual retreat, assured me weeks ago that I could do this. 

“There’s no judgment,” she’d said by phone. “Our practice meets you where you are.”

So, here I am.

lodge mindfulness retreat

The lodge where author Jessica Fender participated in a mindfulness retreat. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

I blow into the lodge’s grand, wood-and-stone hall to find about 30 people poised on yoga mats awaiting orientation. There’s one empty spot in the back row. As I grab foam blocks, blankets, and a dense cushion from the supply table, I scan the room. 

At 37, I’m comfortably middle of the pack, age-wise. The word “retreat” had conjured images of impossibly bendy twentysomethings in topknots and trendy leggings. Instead, I find that the retreat has a rustic, summer camp feel. Warm meals, art projects, and nature hikes are interspersed throughout our schedule. People wear T-shirts, not crop tops. The woman to my right is a retiree. 

Up-front, Drye and cofounder Becca Impello run through some of the ground rules: two yoga sessions per day, meditation morning and night, no cell phones or other distractions, and please wash your own dishes. 

kim drye

Kim Drye (pictured) is the cofounder of Birmingham’s Here Now Yoga. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

Before I know it, it’s yoga time. Early on, my neighbor and I are debating whether we’re tilting our pelvises correctly, when Drye says something I’ll think about all weekend: “A lot of this is simple, but not easy.” 

That certainly holds true the next morning in the wooded area behind the lodge. The sun shines brightly; the air is invigoratingly fresh. Despite the stunning view, I’m staring down at my feet and the lichen-kissed boulders dotting the small loop I’m treading. 

In this walking meditation exercise—one of several methods we sample over the weekend—we’re supposed to clear our minds of distraction by noticing the small things, like how our bodies move as we stroll. But whenever I try, my movements gradually become cartoonishly exaggerated. When I catch myself swinging both arms in unison, gorilla-style, I settle instead on a mantra to keep focused.

I am walking. I am walking. I am walking, I repeat silently with each step. (I didn’t say it was a creative mantra.)

meditation walk

A solo (and silent!) meditation walk through the woods allows time for reflection. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

But when our bodies talk, our brains don’t always listen. We might have a general sense of anxiety, for example, but not realize it’s coming from a physical sensation. Mindfulness helps open that channel of communication, among other benefits. Research shows it can reduce stress and anxiety, improve memory, and lower blood pressure. In the last decade, schools, athletic organizations, and even the U.S. Army have started offering meditation training.

“It’s about noticing when your mind wanders and bringing it back,” Impello says. “It
takes practice.” 

So do backbends, I find, like the one I hold for five long breaths the next day. Impello’s promise that, like pancakes, they would improve with each attempt turns out to be true. I’ve thought more about my own joints and muscles in the past 72 hours than I have in my entire life. And Camel Pose—kneeling with your back arched backward, fingers planted on ankles—would have been impossible for me as recently as this morning. 

But over the course of this yoga session, Impello methodically built toward this pinnacle pose. We’d started by identifying and activating key muscles in the shoulder, hips, and core. Then, we spent the majority of class in poses that stretch and strengthen those muscles. 

My past yoga experiences amounted to watching more skilled practitioners flow quickly from pose to pose while I struggled. Not only does Drye and Impello’s slow, deliberate approach give me time to catch up, but I feel as though I actually understand what my body is doing.

On break a little later, I grab a spot on the patio near Sue Givens, a fitness instructor in Tuscaloosa. She’s glad yoga is starting to make inroads in Alabama but says it can be a tough sell. Turns out, I’m not the only person who doubts their yoga abilities. 

Read more: Looking for other ways to improve your health? Check out our list of 8 healthy ways to kick-start new habits in Alabama.

yoga at mindfulness retreat

The author meditates in silence with other retreat members. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

“I get it all the time. People say, ‘Yoga? Oh, I have to get in shape for yoga,’” Givens says. This is her first retreat, and she plans to come back to train in this teaching style. 

“People think it’s what they see on Instagram and on magazine covers,” she says. “They think they need to get flexible to do it, not that yoga is the path to flexibility.”

Guilty! So far, I’ve done better than I expected. But as the clock strikes 9 that night, the start of 21 hours of silence, a moment of panic ripples through me. 

Ahh! We should have come up with signals! One cough for “yes,” two coughs for “no,” I think, dramatically, before remembering that nodding exists. How will the world survive a day without these deep thoughts being expressed?

The next morning, rain trickles from the lodge’s eaves in tiny waterfalls. Birds “weee-do weee-do” in the distance, accompanying Drye’s 2-year-old daughter, who’s “dee dee deeing” at the hearth. Gera Nissen, a yoga teacher who’s on her second Here Now retreat, wafts by with a smoking stick of palo santo in her hand.

All around are the sounds of 30-plus people sniffing, throat clearing, creaking along
floorboards—all the telltale signs of human activity save one: voices. 

By my last sip of coffee, I’m dreading this less. Sure, silence means I can’t speak. But it also means I don’t have to. And after three days of meeting new friends, a break from small talk feels like a luxury. 

art activities at mindfulness retreat

The retreat offers activities such as journaling, nature hikes, and painting. | Photo by Kerry Maloney

For the first time, I notice a set of stairs and follow them up. Above the main hall, a long table full of art supplies—coloring books, grease pastels, markers—has been hiding up there the whole time. I curl up in an overstuffed recliner and try to “check in” with myself, putting some of my recent mindfulness skills to use. Today my lower back feels a little worn and my chronically tight shoulders are sore.

The retreat is winding down and I use these same “check-in” tools to examine the personal improvements I’ve made in these four short days. Like much of what we’ve learned, they’re subtle, but important.

On the plus side, I’ve set some healthy boundaries with my cell phone. And my low-key Netflix addiction seems thoroughly in check. I’ve also rested better this weekend than I have in months. It suddenly hits me that I’ve actually been sleeping on my back, something my tight shoulders and neck usually make far too uncomfortable. 

Cool, I think to myself. Probably wouldn’t have noticed that before.

The day after I return home, my city shuts down and my life—along with the lives of 7.6 billion others—changes completely. I come to rely heavily on the mindfulness skills Impello and Drye taught me in the frightening months to follow.

Quieting stress in the face of unprecedented uncertainty becomes a daily necessity. Being present and comfortable along with my thoughts? Essential, as I quarantine alone for months on end.

Today, when I think about how worried I was about being late to that first class, I can’t help but laugh. I really did get there just in time.

When she’s not going a mile a minute, Jessica Fender chronicles her adventures in New Orleans and across the South at travelerbroads.com.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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