Essay and Collages by Kimberly Sheridan 

“Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.” – Rumi

P was a captivating yoga teacher. He led us through thoughtful sequences, incorporated different yogic lineages, and meditatively paced the flow of his classes. He had the Guru Look: messy shoulder-length brown hair, a long beard braided with gray that hid his mouth’s emotions entirely, sharp eyes, slow speech, and mismatched outfits. A Brooklyn Jesus who didn’t live in Brooklyn full-time but had a charming old house in upstate New York dubbed “Heartland”. He’d commute the two hours down in his rickety old car and stay on someone’s couch for a few nights while he taught at local studios.

In 2011, I was weighing the pros and cons of doing an independent yoga teacher-training with P versus signing up for a traditional training at a studio. His training would be a full twelve months, but without a studio affiliation and without the standard 200-hour certification that might ensure credibility and the future ability to teach. P’s response to my analytical gymnastics was, “Your transformation is your education.” His words sounded a bit like a Zen koan, a solution-less riddle that’s meant to provoke doubt and show the inadequacy of logical reasoning.One popular koan is called A Cup of Tea: A university professor visited Nan-in, a Japanese master. Nan-in served his guest tea and kept pouring after the glass was full. The professor finally exclaimed that the cup was full and no more was going to fit. Nan-in replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

P’s one line resonated deep in my chest and spoke to a tamed and rigid part of me that wanted to get unstuck. I didn’t know what my transformation would be exactly, but I listened to an inner voice unmotivated by practicality or security; I chose him and his independent training.


Our intimate group of eight met one weekend a month at P’s house and had a mini-retreat away from the incessant sensory overload of New York City. The weekends felt like a rewilding, in place, in body, in spirit. The house was large and old with doors that wouldn’t shut all the way, an eclectic collection of decorations and instruments, and crinkled posters like War Is Over! on the walls.I learned quickly to revel in simplicity there; I felt as if I’d never known it. We made hot tea in the yellow kitchen and wandered to morning practice in the chilly yoga room. We sipped our tea while warming up on our mats, resting under thick blankets, or sitting in meditation. We made kitchari and delicious dishes with vegetables fresh from the property’s garden. We had long slow dinners, savored the food, and talked at the large wooden table covered in glowing candles. We roamed around outside, watched dogs run freely, or read Hafiz poems to each other in the living room. We chanted along with the harmonium, journaled, and sat by the fireplace or bonfire. There was no to-do list or strict schedule to adhere to.

Heartland’s yoga room was enchanting: worn wooden planks; large windows; strips of colored paper nailed to the ceiling in a circular mandala-like design; a heavily utilized shrine with Krishna postcards, candle wax, and dried flowers. It felt millions of miles away from the overcrowded subway, from banal and severe problems, from life. It’s why retreats have an appeal that doing the same work on home-base does not. Stepping outside of my usual routine, I experienced a different kind of blueprint for living.

We had one mid-year retreat in Rincon, Puerto Rico. We hiked to a waterfall. We moved our bodies in the sand, in the heat, in the house, on the patio. We sat cross-legged on the quiet beach on scarves and blankets at sunset. In silent meditation, we watched the waves roll in and the orange sun sink below the watery horizon. After so many years on a concrete island, this planetary evidence of my place in things was notable. When was the last time I was somewhere flat and building-free enough to witness a full sunset, to truly notice we live on a dynamic breathing earth? As I started to unearth a rare joy, I wondered how I could drag its luminance into the daily and mundane.

I’d later come to realize that there’s a fine line between getting free and running away. Retreats and spiritual communities give seekers space, perspective, and can be a crucial catalyst for revelatory shifts. They can also be dissociative havens for rainbow-chasers who don’t want to face life, and the responsibility it asks of a person, head-on. Maybe our true nature is bliss—and maybe we’d also do well to remember the Zen Buddhist phrase, “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” Daily life will always be our primary teacher, the place we return to, aim to stay present in, and where the translation of our experiences needs to be integrated.

There are a variety of useful tools on the path but once we’re overly attached to them, they become crutches. Once we’re living in the memory of a high or trying to recreate an experience, we’re probably in another trap. Psychedelics can be another form of spiritual escapism. Ram Dass, spiritual teacher and author of Be Here Now, famously found his entry point through LSD in the ’60s but it was only the initial inspiration for his enduring journey. He traveled from Harvard to India and found a guru who advised, “These medicines will allow you to come and visit Christ, but you can only stay two hours. Then you have to leave again. This is not the true samadhi. It’s better to become Christ than to visit him – but even the visit of a saint for a moment is useful. But love is the most powerful medicine.” Ram Dass devoted the rest of his life to becoming love.


Despite the beautiful and irrefutable movement towards simplicity and freedom over a span of a year, our teacher training wasn’t entirely uncomplicated. One of P’s ex-girlfriends joined us as an assistant teacher; she gave good teaching tips but wanted all eyes on her. A charming tornado and a free spirit, she didn’t listen closely or give each student equal attention. At the time, her topless headstands didn’t bother me, but her self-interest and partiality did. Healthy communes require as much self-awareness and respect as they do freedom and incense. Healthy teachers require professionalism and ethics. She reminded me of a baby anarchist I went to art school and had shared studio space with. He’d state there was no such thing as property, take other students’ paintbrushes, and then leave them dirty somewhere instead of cleaning and returning them to their desk. I saw then that actions need to back up a philosophy and give it legs to stand on: if you want a community where you share items freely and work symbiotically, you must create an environment where there’s mutual respect and things are taken care of for each other.

So even in our little group of eight, small cliques started to form. Half the group felt the training could benefit from more education and structure, while the other half seemed to equate personal evolution with weed and shared nude bathing. I leaned towards structure and education, but I was trying to become less rigid and more flexible; that’s why I was there, right?

Friends of P’s from Brooklyn who weren’t in our teacher-training would stay at the house as well. The energy was constantly in flux and this diverse group made up of designers, doctoral candidates, servers, and hairdressers was vulnerable, alchemizing, evolving. One trainee started dating P, another shift in the small-group dynamics. She never left Heartland. They now have two gorgeous long-haired kids together and she made the retreat her daily life. She made it her chop wood, carry water. Our training was human and spiritual in a multitude of convoluted ways.

I’ve always been drawn to Albert Camus’ notion that “Integrity has no need of rules.” We know conditioning and inherited morality can be empty, mindless, and hypocritical — and if we’re healthy, whole, and have integrity, we can make right and ethical decisions without overlords and rulebooks. We know there’s more nuance and gray areas than there are black and whites. However, there’s also truth in the idea that discipline equals freedom, that protocols and adherence can actually lead to liberation, and it’s why having a committed practice (like 20 minutes of meditation a day for six months) can be life changing. Paradox is an inevitable part of the spiritual path. Another complication is that not everybody needs the same medicine, and we don’t always need the same medicine forever. There are those of us who benefit more from structure and those of us who benefit more from letting go. Then, we must have the self-awareness (and good teachers and therapists) to know when the scale needs to tip the other way.

During our very first weekend at Heartland, a commotion of lights beamed through our upstairs bedroom window in the middle of the night. A director who was friends with P was finishing up final shots for his first film; it was the perfect location for a film about a hedonistic and misbehaving commune that navigates survival post-apocalypse. Some of the script was surely inspired by past events on the property and a foreshadowing of things still to come.


Back in Brooklyn, I’d observe P teach classes once a week. Tiptoeing softly around the crowded steamy studio, I’d give gentle adjustments to his students. I loved how peaceful everyone seemed after an hour of yoga. The physical practice was transformative and expansive, and a good teacher could seem like the source of the magic. Like a retreat, a class was precious time away from the daily and the hectic. There were a lot of starry-eyed students looking up to their beautiful soft-spoken guides and projecting an enlightenment onto them that they most likely wouldn’t live up to.

Guest teachers also joined us for the Heartland weekends so that we could learn from different kinds of instructors. With one Iyengar yoga teacher, I went upside down for the first time, suspending myself in a headstand. Feet over head, light-headed from the inversion, until the body adapted. Another weekend, an acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine practitioner was able to tell us what kind of yoga lineage we studied by subtle movement variations we made during our yoga flows.

In the spring, near the end of our training, a meditation teacher came to guide us. We sat on the grass under the new sun and soaked in his teachings. He talked about unlayering and how our conditioning drives the bus before we awaken. How a return to nature is not about becoming supernatural but becoming wild again. How our wild self is powerful and wise, and we need to metaphorically set ourselves on fire. My heart was blown wide open. Just as I was finishing this year of yoga training, I was about to start a new journey and embark on a nine-month meditation intensive with this bearded teacher next.

On my 30th birthday, I had my first one-on-one session with him. He told me that instead of focusing so much on right and wrong, I should think in terms of true and untrue. I’d start a new cycle of going all in, finding more freedom, and then eventually leaving it behind. I’d see how “living my truth” could be a dangerous weapon wielded by the delusional to defend their questionable actions. As the Buddhist monk Linji Yixuan said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

P was right; my transformation was my education. I moved on from Heartland, less stuck and more liberated in many ways. I never thought about the absent yoga certificate, and I never taught yoga because my goals and destination had shifted. Koans are meant to provoke doubt, not answers. I learned much in those twelve months, but instead of coming to the end of a spiritual education, I was just beginning one.






Kimberly Sheridan’s work appears in Entropy, The Big Smoke, and University of Hell’s essay collection, 2020* The Year of the Asterisk. She wrote a column Tattoo Ink for The Big SmokeUSA. Kimberly holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Eastern Washington University and served as the managing editor of Willow Springs. After many years in New York City, Los Angeles, and Spokane, she’s recently relocated to Wellington, New Zealand. Find her at kimberlysheridanwrites.com