“Look at your partner and say, ‘I love you,'” our leader says. A buff, 30-something beauty in yoga pants and a tight-fitting t-shirt that exposes her midriff, she sits tall on the wooden yoga platform as the tropical night hums around us.
“I love you, Dave,” I intone, trying to control my nervous laughter. I thought this evening yoga session would be fun to try. I did not realize it would be a twenty-first century version of group encounter. There are about 20 people scattered around Dave and me across the platform, also in pairs.
“I love you, Kate,” Dave replies, smirking.
I’m in Costa Rica for a writing conference, but our B&B hostess has added extras to our stay to spice things up. We’ve gone ziplining, we’ve taken a float down the river with a wilderness guide. This yoga class is the final offering.
Of the 10 of us at the conference, Dave is the most obnoxious. He’s a big guy, in his 50s, conventionally handsome in a drunken kind of way. A former coach or investment banker or plumber, his mode is bravado. He tells us that since his divorce two years ago, he’s been bumming around Costa Rica, finding food and lodging as he can; apparently a week of writing at this Pacific coast B&B is as good an option as any. During workshop the rest of us slit our eyes at each other when Dave reads his stuff, laden as it is with gratuitous sex.
“Look at your partner and say, ‘You are worthy,'” the woman I have taken to calling Kundalini Girl instructs.
I smile brightly at Dave. Group work has never been my thing — I’m an introvert, after all — so sitting in the middle of the jungle affirming Dave’s worth borders on the excruciating. Research, I tell myself. Think of this as research.
“Dave, you are worthy,” I say. It’s a major effort to look him in the eye.
“Kate, you are worthy,” Dave leers back.
“Say, ‘You are holy,'” KG prompts.
Fuck. “You are holy, Dave,” I say, flatly. I crave a cigarette, and I don’t even smoke. Or a flame thrower. I want something, anything to interrupt what feels like the false intimacy of the moment. My skin crawls.
“You are holy, Kate,” Dave responds. I glance over at Carlos, a fellow writer. We catch eyes and he winks his support and I turn back to Dave, resigned. Should be over soon, this part of the evening, and then we can get on with practicing Kegels in order to move energy up our chakras.
The retreat itself is going fine, meaning that I’m getting a lot of writing done. But without my family I am ungrounded – a surprising insight, since the opportunity to travel alone was a major draw for this trip. In the mornings we have workshop and then we write for a while; after a modest lunch on the B&B’s open porch we’re free until five, when we gather again. In the long afternoons, the warm air crowded with the calls of unfamiliar birds, I nap in one of the hammocks strung around the property. Or I take a walk to the beach just down the way. I am exhilarated, but also deeply lonely: The fact that no one really knows me here feels like freedom, but since it’s unclear how much I really know myself it’s hard to put the whole experience into context.
When Kundalini Girl finally releases us from our torture I nod at Dave, get up and cross the platform to a space that’s in shadow so I can sit unnoticed. I close my eyes and inhale deeply, trying to clear my mind. What’s real? This man Dave, these other strangers? My writing, looped across the sweat-crinkled pages of my notebook? My family, thousands of miles away? What can I actually incorporate from this experience, make part of me? The night insects thrum in the trees. I love you, I mouth to myself, just to see if it sounds right.