by JORDAN BREAL
Sometimes it’s all about the soul. At Siddhayatan Spiritual Retreat, you’ll learn how to reconnect with your deepest self.
When I first pulled in to Siddhayatan, a spiritual retreat center in rural Windom, eighty miles northeast of Dallas, two monks-in-training were just returning from a Walmart run. The retreat offers dozens of programs year-round—everything from Purnam Yoga to PTSD recovery—but I’d settled on a two-day meditation workshop. Though most visitors come for just a quiet weekend, you can stay at this ranch house turned Hindu ashram as long as you’d like. Some, like the white-robed monks-in-training, have felt called to stay indefinitely. After peeling off my shoes on the front porch, per the note on the door, I followed the monks inside and was ushered to a pillow at the feet of Acharya Shree Yogeesh, the “living enlightened master” who was going to teach me how to reach my soul’s highest state, or at least to put down my phone and reboot my multitasking mind.
These days meditation has become downright trendy. The benefits of the ancient practice, which are being espoused by CEOs and click-bait headline writers alike, are universally coveted: Less stress! Better focus! Increased productivity! Despite the apps and YouTube how-to’s and Oprah’s cheerleading, I’d still been struggling to get the hang of it. So there I was, on a two-hundred-acre spread in the midst of a tiny ranching community, chanting mantras under the tutelage of the 59-year-old Indian guru with a short white beard and long black hair, who’d founded the retreat in 2008.
And I was hardly the only one. Twenty other soul-searchers had assembled at Acharya Shree’s feet as he led us in twenty minutes of rhythmic chanting to calm our brains and balance our chakras. There was a child abuse prosecutor from Dallas, a singer-songwriter from Houston, a young Midwestern couple, a Canadian ER doctor who’d driven down in his Toyota Echo, and a family of four from San Angelo with two elementary-age daughters in matching pink headbands. Many of us had come for the meditation program, but a handful of folks were there specifically to fast, including a nineteen-year-old girl from New Jersey with waist-length blond hair who was on her nineteenth day of consuming nothing but water.
Most of my companions weren’t starving themselves, though one of Siddhayatan’s primary rules is “no eating of meat products.” The homemade vegetarian meals—mostly Indian dishes served buffet-style—were as tasty as the accommodations were spartan. Many rooms have nothing more than a lamp, a nightstand, and a twin bed with a thin coverlet.
On Saturday morning, after a predawn yoga session, our first lesson on meditation began with three bold sound bites: It cannot be done. It cannot be learned. And it cannot be taught. “Meditation is a noun, not a verb,” Acharya Shree told us. “And the more you try to do it, the less it will happen.” There were, however, specific steps that would help us reach that elusive state of mindfulness. Before we could even think about not thinking, we had to “make our bodies our friends.” First, we flushed out toxins by relearning how to breathe properly: deeply and from our diaphragm. We sat cross-legged and practiced breathing like babies, puffing out our stomachs as we inhaled, sucking them in on each exhale. After several rounds of exercises, I was seeing a few stars but my head felt markedly crisp and clear, like my brain had just been given a breath mint.
If we did these exercises every day, Acharya Shree said, we’d increase the oxygen in our blood, lower our blood pressure, and never get cancer. “This is why not a single yogi has medical insurance, including me!” Although prone to sweeping statements (“In Europe there is not a single town without a yoga studio”), the guru was a funny and captivating storyteller. I wasn’t yet ready to give up all my possessions (or barbecue, for that matter) and take up residency, but the benefits of a more mindful existence were becoming apparent.
During my last meditation session, as we all lay on the floor listening to a recording of ocean waves (and the sound of someone snoring), I concentrated on my third eye, envisioning that the middle of my forehead was being pierced by a white light. When Acharya Shree’s soothing voice broke in again, I wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed—fifteen minutes? thirty?—or where my mind had drifted to. But for that long, still moment, I was a million miles away from the ranch-house ashram outside one of the tiniest towns in Texas. When my thoughts came flooding back in, the first one was “Progress!”