FOREST DWELLER RETREAT
A RETREAT TO NAVIGATE THE VANAPRASTHA LIFE STAGE
1 – 5 DECEMBER, 2022, COIMBATORE, SOUTH INDIA
About one hour away from the city of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, South India, nestled in a beautiful forest, you have arrived. The place is called Vaidyagrama, literally the “village” (grama) of “traditional practitioners of Ayurveda” (vaidya).
Here, everything breathes the wisdom of Ayurveda, i.e the Way of Life which kindles the body, mind, spirit and consciousness. Tonight is the auspicious night of Bhagavati Seva Puja done to restore balance and peace in the environment.
More than 50 people, men and women, mothers and daughters, healers and wanderers, have come from all over the world to gather around some important voices of Ayurveda and well-being, namely Dr. Robert Svoboda, Dr. Claudia Welch, Rose Baudin, and Dr. Ramkumar. They have come to understand, practice and embrace Vanaprastha, the third stage of life, “the way of the forest”.
(Starting at about 48 years old until 72 years old, Vanaprastha follows Brahmacharya (the age of “pure conduct”) happening until 25 years old and Grihastha (the life at home) from 25 to 48 years old. It precedes Sannyasa (“purification of everything”) starting at 72 years old (until 120 years old, according to what should be the lifespan of human beings!))
Vanaprastha refers to the retirement stage, where a person hands over household responsibilities to the next generation, takes an advisory role, and gradually withdraws from the world to embrace spiritual liberation. Interacting with Vanaprastha’s “embodiments” in our four teachers for five days, the delicate and powerful transition to a new approach of living, letting go of the main goals of the household life (wealth, security, pleasure, desires) appears to be the most enriching and rewarding time one could experience. In fact, this time helps to reintegrate the very basic truth of the living as a constant cycle of pure existence, birth, growth, maintenance, decay, and death, whether in the course of a day, an hour, a week, a month, a year.
In a way, we’ve all experienced Vanaprastha already, those quieter moments when the sun starts to go down or when winter approaches. Understanding your life from the cosmic perspective helps connect with the wisdom of time, the rhythm of life and the beauty of the moment from an entirely different realm. Ayurveda is the application of universal principles into human life. There is no concept of duality, in fact it is all about understanding the microcosm of your body as the mirror or the macrocosm of the universe. (The body structure is made up of the five elements and the functional aspect is governed by three biological humors or doshas. Ether and air together constitute Vata; fire and water make up Pitta and water and earth create Kapha.) Similar to the laws of the cosmos constantly balancing for peace and harmony, human bodies should constantly attune to the right combination of doshas for optimal body, mind, spirit and consciousness alignment.
Embracing the third stage of life in the best way possible is first and foremost reconnecting with those universal life principles, across ages and generations and the divine flow that derives from them. The Indian teacher of yoga and author B.K.S Iyengar once said: “I always tell people, live happily and die majestically.” These five days together dwelling in the forest of Vaidygrama was the most insightful attempt at manifesting it.
Shakti, the matter, the mother.
Garden at Vaidyagrama
At the source of it all is Shakti, the ”energy, ability, strength, effort, power, capability”. On every plane of creation, the primordial cosmic energy manifests itself into all forms of matter. Like the most exhilarating scent, the fragrance of the Earth permeates every single cell of the body. As Dr Claudia Welch noted, it is worth noticing that matter is closely linked to the latin word “Mater”, “Mother”. Ultimately, you’re embraced and fed by the cosmic mother, from all aspects of your being and environment. Surrendering to it is what brings wholeness and therefore peace.
You are what you eat.
Garden at Vaidyagrama
“Your body is like an inner fountain you constantly have to replenish.” Like the gardener’s duty is to water the plant daily, the only life practice one should engage in is the one of nourishment, with pure food promoting health, strength, energy and life.
The 5,000 years old science behind Ayurvedic food and especially the one served at Vaidyagrama shows the powerful effect it can have on your body, from the grossest aspect to the most subtle one.
Food should be simple, nourishing, juicy and soothing. That is exactly what we were served with during our time here. The level of care, thoughtfulness, love and excellence behind the preparation of every single meal at Vaidyagrama is like nowhere else I have seen. A dance of healing spices, organic vegetables from the garden, fragrant rices, delicious curries, vibrant fruits and golden buttermilk courtesy of the cows in-house. Every intake of food made that way almost becomes like an act of devotion. As one transitions out to the third stage of life, incorporating the right amount of moisture and liquid such as soups into the body slowing drying up becomes essential. How you nourish yourself also takes more subtle forms of intakes, especially during that time of life when your constitution further connects to finer forms of energy, such as the breath and the environment.
There are multiple kinds of food: food that is edible, food that is sensory (the music you listen to, the oil you apply on your skin, the scents you’re indulging on), food as your motivations and intentions, food as your relationships, your environment, the state of your consciousness. All is food equally serving the purpose of health, strength, energy and life. Food has to be chosen so wisely.
“Good company makes a man great”.
Some of my most cherished moments at Vaidyagrama are the fire rituals, happening at least twice daily before the sunrise and sunset prayers. They purify the environment to restore balance wherever mistakes have been made and to pray for everybody’s well-being. Most importantly, they ignite a deep sense of belonging. As beautifully related by Dr Robert Svoboda, developing any kind of relationship with the fire is probably one of the most rewarding practices one can have. Tending the fire like you would do of any relationships, with others, with yourself, the devas or heavenly beings, your ancestors, the five elements, just unveil new realms of understanding and love. Contemplating the transformative nature of fire energy, like you would do of the sun and its effects on plants and flowers is almost like watching the act of rebirth. Reactivating and pacifying the fire inside of you through breathing (one of our daily Pranayama exercise with Rose Baudin was Bhastrika, literally referring to the bellows used in a furnace), through the food you are eating or any other specific healing modalities is often the very first step in correcting the root cause of any diseases. Fire, primarily known through the sense of sight, helps us see the world entirely differently, unveiling new colors and forms, shaping new realities.
You are what you see
Shape shifting whether it happens cosmically (the worship of gods and goddesses have varied greatly across time), physiologically (women start losing their bone mass at around the age of 35 and more intensively when approaching menopause) or through the senses (sight, hearing slowly get impaired with age) may bring up uncomfortable realizations of oneself.
I was especially touched by Dr Claudia Welch’s sharing about that very moment at 46 years old when she felt the lightning of her rib cage and her transition into a new phase of her life more connected to the ethereal than the profoundly grounded nature of her life then. The perception of what it means to have energy evolves too. Is it true that you have less energy or just energy for something else, like sitting and watching the window? Is the tiredness merely stress slowly consuming up from the inside?
The reflection of a misalignment between your activity and what you are truly meant to bring forth with it at this stage of your life? I was moved by Rose Baudin’s stories of grace and compassion towards herself and the world, as well as Dr Robert Svoboda’s entirely new living arrangements as part of his entrance into the fourth stage of his life. All shared about the absolute “fantasticness” of what is meant to actually shape shift, perceiving things from one whole being to another whole being, allowing the opportunity to entirely change and rearrange your life, blessed by loopholes and unexpected beauty coming from everywhere. Could cliff jumping, provided “you’ve considered in your heart that the outcome will be a good one”, actually be the safest route to take? “We are all going to die” were Dr Robert Svoboda’s first and opening words of the event. “Fire” also happens to be the first word of the first Veda (most important religious text in Sanskrit). Fire and death are indeed very connected. Seeing death through the light of the fire is also seeing the power for rebirth. Like the fascinating Indian city of Benares Dr Claudia Welch and Dr Robert Svoboda would often bring us to, death and rebirth, Lord Shiva, life and transformation are all equal tools for liberation.
Beyond energy, nourishment and transformation, the rhythm of the breath became like a recurring sound of the retreat. The English word “Rhythm” and the Sanskrit word “Ritam” sound indeed very similar. Ritam means “whole truth”. From a functional and biological perspective, Vanaprastha connects further to the mobile nature of the wind energy. When balanced, this opens new doors for creativity and expansiveness, as well as restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, weakness when imbalanced.
Connecting to the rhythm of the breath, Prana, from all aspects of your life becomes a critical anchor. All you’ve been and all you’re becoming are built on this very rhythmic melodic memorization that the breath is. Like a wave, each out-breathe and in-breathe set the way for new motions of life and transitions between realities. Ultimately, that flow is what nourishes. In French, the word Mother is translated as “mère” and the word sea as “mer”. They sound exactly the same. That flow is the arms of the cosmic mother slowly but surely carrying you forward as long as you let yourself be embraced by her.
It’s never all or nothing, rather a constant back and forth advancing towards what is ultimately your very essence. The process can be rocky and gentle, the key of it all is to embrace it rather than resisting it and to remain calm at all cost. The flow is the ease (versus dis-ease) and happiness. This is Sukha which in Sanskrit means both “joy” and “running swiftly or easily”. One can not happen without the other. Every morning Rose Baudin would guide us through the immense gift that the connection with your breath is. She would teach us through the gentle control of your breath how to move the prana throughout your body and restore the functions of elimination, assimilation, balance, purity, cleanliness and peace and stillness associated. It’s like she was teaching us the musical instrument of life meant to create the melody of our soul, such an important tool!
Chanting is another superb representation of breathing, a well orchestrated movement of the breath and body rocking together as one with the universe. Singing the Om mantra and giving gratitude to Ganapathy, Vishnu, Hanuman and all the Gods, all together as one, felt like one of the most important acts of healing of the retreat. I loved observing Dr Robert Svoboda’s articulating of each word of the prayer so perfectly, like a pure act of devotion, reflecting on Dr Claudia Welch’s closed eyes and inner journey offered as a gift to us.I could feel the care through each of their words, each of their sounds, each of their breaths touching each pore of our beings.
Emptiness as an act of courage
Vanaprastha is a constant balance between emptiness and fullness, effort and grace, wholeness in surrendering. Vanaprastha is an act of courage. Courage to do nothing and wait until it becomes clear. Courage to let go of guilt, fear, grief and thriving. Courage to detach and allow for new space to come in your life. Courage to care and live your life in service for others, your parents, the sick, the vulnerable, your family, without feeling depleted. Courage to think as “We” versus “I”, like the doctors of Vaidygrama physically living with their patients. Courage to trust emptiness and fullness, welcome birth and death with the same radiance. Courage to know that there is no better place to be than anywhere you are now.
Loneliness made sublime
Vanaprastha is also, as magnificently put by Rose Baudin, the powerful process of sublimation of loneliness into solitude. Yes, loneliness can be made noble and beautiful. Solitude can in fact become your safety space and silence, your most precious teacher.
Who am I when there is nothing? What happens when you choose to go inward versus outward? When you slowly realize that you don’t need to project externally to be internally content? As stated by Dr Ramkumar, the visionary behind this deeply essential healing movement that Vaidyagrama is, most diseases start from the constant desire to project to the world. How about being a great 60 years old, instead of desperately trying to stay 30 years old? Why is it so scary to live according to your most inner essence? There is no decision to be made except for being comfortable with who you are, for just intensively living the present. That is the only practice. Living someone else’s life is in fact such a loss, it’s cutting out possibilities from amazing changes and transformations. As Dr Robert Svoboda, author of Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution, stated, when you go with the minutia effort of aligning with your dharma (universal way of life), then nature will always support you. Wherever your intention is will determine who you are.
At the end of her class, Rose Baudin shared this prayer from Jennifer Wellwood.
“Willing to experience aloneness
I discover connection everywhere
Turning to face my fear
I meet the warrior who lives within
Opening my loss
I am given inimaginable gifts;
Surrendering into emptiness
I find fullness without end
Each condition I flee from pursue me Each condition
I welcome transforms me
And becomes itself transformed
Into its radiant jewel like essence.
I bow to the one who has made it so
Who has crafted this master game
To play it with pure delight
To honor is true devotion.”
The 8 limbs of yoga.
Yoga is the practice of uniting the body, breath and senses, mind, intelligence and self together as one. Similar to all parts of a tree, all components of the human being have to function all well together to bear fruits. From an external perspective, the Yama (ethical discipline) could be referred to as the roots, the foundation from which all the rest will grow, the Niyama (self discipline) as the trunk, the means to rise. Following a daily routine that promotes self-care, cleansing of the sense organs (the “virtuous conducts of the mind”), balancing of your elemental combinations could in fact be the most life changing and spiritual journey you could embark on. Those are your roots. Guided by the Ayurvedic doctors into the process of paying attention and care to each sense organs, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the eyes and the skin, what looks like a cleansing act becomes a true act of love. From an internal perspective and going back to that tree, the Asanas (postures) are the branches, the spiritual practice in physical form, Pranayama (control of the breath), the leaves, Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) the bark. From a spiritual perspective, Dharana (concentration) is the sap, Dhyana (meditation, contemplation) the flower and Samadhi (bliss) the fruit, all bringing the experience of the sight of the soul. Rose Baudin’s morning yoga sessions were the most inspiring introduction to the gift that engaging in this comprehensive journey of purification of the mind, body and spirit is. Ultimately, the journey, the path is your life purpose. Staying committed to that path, and always coming back to it is your practice. The key is to observe and engage with every part of the path, the “experience of the nectar”, the “nectar of the experience”. The “road to the forest” has to start with the growth of vibrant trees.
You are the forest
Vana, “the forest”, accessed through the road of the 5 elements, the 8 limbs of yoga is whatever in yourself feels stable, anywhere in yourself you feel grounded to. Vana is your anchor, your true friend and cosmic mother, what ultimately matters. Vana is your foundation, where it all begins, where it will end and begin again. Vaidyagrama and its perfectly crafted houses built using the soil from the same land, the warming colors draping the inside, the temple and gardens, the trees planted by every single patient who had visited here feel a little bit like that mother and forest.
Listening to Dr Claudia Welch’s stories of her life in the forest of Vermont sounded fascinating. Robert’s forest in the middle of the city of Bombay, India sounded as much enlightening. The point is that your forest can be anywhere and everywhere. In a busy demanding household as well as in a dreamy piece of luxurious green heaven. The forest is your mind. The forest is your body. The forest is your practice. The place you learn everything from, the place to dismember and remember. Anywhere you go, anything you do, for the sake of the divine. Vanaprastha becomes “the road to yourself”, where the true danger and lions to fight against are the self destructive energies inside and the mountains, your own internal obstacles to overcome. Pondering on Rose Baudin’s burning desire to find her guru early on (that she quickly came to meet in Sri Lanka at the beginning of her spiritual journey) as well as Dr Claudia Welch’s beautiful gems from her own guru she would mindfully sprinkle here and there, I wondered about my own guru. Who is he? Who is she? Where is he? Have I met him already? Will I meet him soon? Then, it came so clear to me: the forest in the guru. That practice you engage in every day is your guru. Anything you’re running away from is something you can not run away from . This is your guru.Simplicity is your guru.
Dances of the feet
To open and close the retreat, three powerfully alive women danced the soul and stories of heroic journeys, gods and goddesses, the divine made alive. The depth of expression through their eyes and smile, their focus and drive dancing the stages of life felt the most authentic representation of what life is all about. A path. A road. A forest. Harmony. Beauty. Transcendence. Transmutation. The Path to the forest is a healing path and the dance between the “I”, human, and the “We”, divine, the ultimate reward. Each of the women’s steps and feet moving with grace and passion drew the way to go. Captivated by their feet dancing I could not help but think about the strange coincidence of the feet injuries Dr Robert Svoboda, Dr Ramkumar, Rose Baudin and a few others were somehow all experiencing at the same time during the retreat!
It reminded me about Dr Claudia Welch’s beautiful description of her way to feel the forest at night, one step at a time. It reminded me about surrendering over the feet of the guru, whether a person, a healing journey, or just plain beautiful vulnerability. It reminded me of a seed, shaped like a foot. When Dr Robert Svoboda shared about his favorite homeopathic remedy for his foot injury called “R55”, I immediately thought about the meaning of the number 5 in Hebrew, the symbol of the seed and the promise of the totality, the unity, the sole power. Going through every stage of life and even more so the stage of Vanaprastha is the opportunity for unity and liberation. In fact, after every single group gathering we would have inside the main community room, some magical hands would come tidy up all the shoes outside, preparing our path forward. To all of them and the incredible people that joined hands and feet together during those 5 days, to Vaidyagrama, one of the most advanced places of healing in the world, to all the teachers and the Satsangam community spreading the gift of healing across borders, one can only be forever grateful.