Our First Bhakti Yoga Winter Solstice Retreat
The winter season breezed in, adorned with frost that clung to the edges of the windows, and snow that spread a charming crystal blanket across the grounds. While this can often be a sluggish and sleepy time for the rest of the world, for the New Vrindaban community it becomes a time to take advantage of the long winter nights with cozy gatherings where we can share and gain insight from our reflections in the company of like-minded, sincere, and dedicated souls.
This year, with that goal in mind, we hosted our first Bhakti Yoga Winter Solstice Retreat. The five day retreat was led by Gloria Baraquio, a bhakti yogi and highly accomplished yoga retreat leader with a heart-warming personality. She found yoga in 2006 after healing from a personal tragedy which ultimately inspired her commitment toward serving each practitioner that she meets by helping them work through not just physical blocks but emotional and mental ones as well. With a 200-hour certificate from Yoga Hawaii and a 300-hour certificate from Ragunnath Cappo and Radhanath Swami at the Govardhan EcoVillage in India, she is a bright soul who loves kirtan, and is dedicated to guiding others so that they may live their highest potential with love, peace, gratitude, and well-being.
Gloria was accompanied by her friends and fellow yogis, Alex, Rachel, and Max. Alex and Rachel often co-taught classes during the latter days of the retreat, giving an active meaning to the community building aspect of Bhakti Yoga, a principle which underscored the entire retreat experience. Max, who is a full-time volunteer at Ratna Ling, a retreat center in Northern California, spent every day of the retreat doing an astounding six to eight hours of cleaning and various other services in and around New Vrindaban! The team of four consistently showed by their own example the transformative power of entering each new experience with an open heart and a service driven mind-set.
The power-packed retreat began on Wednesday December 18th, where, after checking in, an intimate group of participants came together for an early evening yoga class and an opening circle where they set their intentions for the duration of the retreat and received an introduction to the program. The night finished with a kirtan that added the perfect amount of sweetness to the end of the day.
In addition to the many yoga classes and bodywork sessions offered each day, the retreat goers participated in seminars and special events which made this retreat package even more unique. Thursday began with a session that introduced the group to bhakti yoga and offered a deeper understanding of New Vrindaban and its cultural, historical and spiritual relevance.
Thursday evening, stalwart New Vrindaban community members Lila Sukha Devi Dasi, Jesse, Renee, and Thakura presented a Lila and Kirtan evening in the Yogashala, filled with improvised movement and dance set to music, story-telling with musical accompaniment, bhajans, and of course the sweet and soulful sound of the chanting of the Holy Names.
Friday dawned with a mantra meditation session where the group learned how to chant japa and engaged in discussions designed to develop long-lasting, good meditation habits, and heart-centered focus to gain the most from these quiet, contemplative moments of personal prayer. Later, the group went on a parikrama of the New Vrindaban grounds. After such emotional and spiritually charged meditation sessions, it was beautiful to see the wonder and enchantment in the eyes of both the retreat goers and leaders as they wandered the marble halls of the Palace of Gold in a guided tour which concluded their nature walk.
Friday evening, they donned aprons and hair-nets for an ayurvedic cooking class facilitated by Anuradha Dasi, where they learned to make kichari, the perfect healthy dish for colder months. They examined the basics of cooking in Bhakti Yoga, focusing on cleanliness and consciousness, making sure that as they cooked, their minds were present not only on the task, but also on the meditation of cooking for the pleasure of the Lord and His devotees. The group also made chapatis, but the highlight was saving many of the chapatis in order to feed the gorgeous cows of New Vrindaban. Before eating, they made a collective offering of all the bounty to the deities and then shared a sumptuous meal that was brimming with love.
Saturday, the group gathered in the temple room for a special Solstice Ceremony, where they held a yagna and prayed fervently to Lord Nrsimhadev for protection and guidance at the very moment that the seasons changed. The ceremony ended with a fantastic kirtan led by Bhaktin Monique as the participants sang and danced joyfully, basking in the loving glances of the Deities.
Each day, there was time set aside to spend with some of New Vrindaban’s most adored and well-known community members, the cows. They fed them, brushed them, milked them, cuddled them and learned about go-pujas, giving further validation to one of the newest and most adorable forms of anxiety and stress-reduction techniques: cow-therapy.
By Sunday, there was a palpable change in the air. What had begun five days earlier as a group of individuals coming together, perhaps to tackle some of their own personal blocks and emotions, had now transformed into a family group, a community, filled with support, encouragement, and healing, held together safely by the unbreakable back-bone of Bhakti Yoga.
It was a sad day as the retreat came to a close, but it was clear that although the retreat participants may have left the sacred grounds of New Vrindaban, they took the essence of the New Vrindaban community, a life dedicated to devotional, mindful, soul-centered living with them.