I Followed Elizabeth Gilbert To India and Found More Than the Eat, Pray, Love I’d Hoped For
I relaxed onto the cold cement steps and leaned my jetlagged head against the temple wall. Across the courtyard in front of me, a brown Labrador sprawled in the grass between roller birds and dragonflies bouncing across rays of sunshine. The air in Rajasthan smelled like roses mixed with chai brewing inside a tiny kitchen nearby.
I was the only one there until two women, one with a guitar, walked out onto the lawn. After they fanned and spread a paisley blanket, they adjusted their flowing linen pants and sat cross-legged a couple feet apart.
The one with the guitar started to play with a confidence that illuminated the stony ashram walls surrounding us. She smiled through her singing, her wavy brown hair outlining the wooden curves of her instrument. The other young woman, a blond with ocean blue eyes and contentment on her face, sang backup.
At times, they’d veer off script and invent lyrics and folk melodies as they went. Looking each other right in the eyes, the duo swayed side to side— their ethereal bodies in sync.
It was the exact type of thing I’d have made fun of in high school.
With bleached hair stuffed like curly yarn in a white scrunchy, a cigarette burn hole in my cheerleading skirt, sparkly pink lipstick, and gossip cemented as my main form of communication, “high school me” couldn’t have appreciated the strength behind that kind of vulnerability.
Despite working as a television news reporter for more than a decade, at forty-three, I still battled anxiety around being exposed. In reporter mode, I hid behind telling the stories of other people. In dancing and singing mode, I risked being judged and mocked.
While a deep desire to be seen pulled me in like a magnet, a simultaneous fear of vulnerability kept me from expressing myself the way the two singing women had. I simply couldn’t make sense of their capacity to be that unguarded, right out in the open. Exhaustion mixed with emotion brought tears to my eyes that I wiped away so no one would see.
Lying in bed that night, waves of dread surged through half of my body as I wondered if the week-long all women’s Utsava Maa retreat in India was a terrible idea. The fear that tore through the other half challenged me to admit that I wanted to be on that paisley blanket, unafraid and singing into blue sky.
With a little more sleep, I softened over the next couple of days and got to know my sweet Australian roommate, Maria. A therapist from Sydney, Maria housed her hip purple hair and nose ring under a little green hat. She smiled big and called most people, “my love.” She gave off mothering energy, and even though her side of our marble room looked like someone let some dynamite off in her suitcase, I loved her straight away.
The other retreat attendees were an eclectic mix of women from around the world, most of whom registered for the conference after hearing about it on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram page —a platform that has ballooned to one-million followers on the heels of her bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t know much more than there would be guest speakers, a workshop with Gilbert, and yoga. I also didn’t know if I would meet her or if she would be ushered in and out of doorways away from the rest of us like the celebrity she’s become.
To my surprise, not an hour after I landed in India and hopped on a bus to the ashram, I found myself next to Eat, Pray, Love, herself, on a pit stop outside a roadside market. Walking back to our ride with thirty other retreat attendees, I nervously asked Liz about her flight. She said it was fine and some other things I didn’t hear due to the noise in my head over meeting her so soon. When we got to the bus, she asked my name and hugged me.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know you, Michelle,” she said. I wanted to tell her then that her book inspired me to quit my job in broadcasting to travel the world, write, and publish a memoir of my own, but I didn’t want to fangirl out just yet. I’d watched, read, and learned from Elizabeth Gilbert and didn’t know how to act around her because, while she is just a person, I’d put her on a goals pedestal in my mind.
Dumbfounded, I patted her back, wondering if she could be as sincere as she seemed. “That’d be wonderful Liz Gilbert,” was all I could muster.
About seventy of us relaxed into life on the grounds of the Shri Jasnath Asan ashram.
We enjoyed three delicious vegetarian meals a day and then moved from creativity and sustainability workshops, to yoga classes across the massive desert property.
I took chai breaks, played with puppies in the dirt, and taught some local kids duck-duck goose.
I also learned to wash my clothes in a bucket and hang them on a line over an ant hill to dry.
I colored with other women in the arts and crafts area and bundled up for freezing nights of giggling with my roommate. Our retreat coincided with India’s coldest December in 100 years, and like twelve-year-olds at summer camp, Maria and I would howl each night over the amount of clothing and head coverings we’d wear under three quilts to stay warm in our unheated room.
Emerging into the hazy orange sunlight each morning, I slowly allowed myself to let go enough to notice the magic swirling in the dirt and breeze around us. Despite the cold, an invisible comfort blanketed the ashram, inviting us to open up, laugh, and tell our stories without judgement, in that sacred place.
Despite my letting go, I did more listening than sharing those first few days, worried my story wasn’t as interesting compared to others. This idea that I’m boring is another fear I’d brought with me from California. I also fell back on my humor with the yogis and extra spiritual attendees who made me nervous.
One night at dinner, a shaman named Lilya told me she could see my anxiety. Her insight irritated me, and I didn’t know what to do with her words because she “saw” right.
With each workshop and conversation, my skepticism melted into curiosity and a desire to sing in the grass with those two angel people. Soaking up the sun one afternoon on that same stretch of lawn with other women relaxing nearby, I contemplated the singing as well as whether it would be weird to just eat the beef jerky in my bag in a vegetarian environment. That is until Liz Gilbert appeared and laid down in the grass about three feet away from me.
One gal read her book behind me and another one to my right pretended to write in her journal while simultaneously moving her gaze from me, to Liz, to fake writing in that journal. I wondered if I should go talk to Liz or give her space and be cool. Knowing the opportunity might not come again, I took a deep breath, grabbed my stuff, and made my way over.
“Permission to approach?” I asked, leaning over Liz who maybe had fallen asleep? “Liz?” She finally opened her eyes and blocked the sun with her hand to see me hovering above her.
“Oh, hi,” she said softly. I felt like a freak but slowly sat down beside her anyway.
“I wanted to talk to you if that is all right? I related to something you said in that circle yesterday.” I picked grass as I spoke in an attempt to hide my shaking hands.
“Really?” She rolled over to face me. “Tell me about it.” Her words felt like an exhale. And so, I did, she listened, and I finally relaxed. Then, she shared her own stories, and we started to talk like real people who’d walked through similar land mines.
Laying in the breeze with Liz, trading experiences about grief, love, god, and dating apps, I let my doubts fall away. With that chubby brown Labrador enjoying our ear scratches between us, I learned that Elizabeth Gilbert is as kind as she presents in media and her writing. Her openness flows like a river she broke a dam on. The waters of her heart wash over the people around her clearing out the walls that protect and keep us apart. Listening to her confide fears of her own, my intuition told me the retreat was not only a good idea, but something that would alter the way I saw myself.
Over the course of the next several days at the ashram, I heard more from the souls of other women than anywhere else in my life. Our heartfelt sharing of stories, whether at tea, together in a circle at sunset, or in a rooftop yoga class, reminded me that I’m not alone in my pain, my triumphs, my depression, and my feelings of unworthiness. I don’t know why I’ve had to relearn that lesson so many times, when I already know the answer: we connect through our wounds. They don’t separate us as much as they bond us.
At breakfast the following morning, I found the courage to sit next to the guitar-playing goddess from the courtyard. Prema Love is one of those people who radiates light so bright, it’s like she can see through you. She kind of can, but I will get to that in a minute. We introduced ourselves and I told her about my experience watching her sing that first day.
“I feel like I am more vulnerable than ever here,” I said. “But my God, singing like that, I have to hand it to you.”
“Thank you for telling me that,” she said, light beams seeming to gleam from her teeth.
“The truth is, I wish I could do it, be intimate like that, but I get so self-conscious,” I told her. And then I cried. Like a true all-women’s retreat in India participant, I sobbed on the steps of the dining hall and let ‘er rip until Klara, the other singer approached with another smile that could beacon ships. I felt foolish, but also safe to say whatever came up.
Prema asked me to tell Klara about my experience watching them sing and soon we were all hugging. Klara admitted that she was scared too because she’d only met Prema the night before. I would never have guessed that through my cloud of assumptions that afternoon. Prema then told me she did healing sessions and I asked her to sign me up.
The two of us met the next day on that same special stretch of grass and she tapped into the pain I hold close. She closed her eyes, inhaled, and said that fear is the main thing holding me back.
“I want to quit telling myself that I am not enough,” I said. “I want to believe that it’s OK not to do what people think I should be doing.”
“You are enough,” she said. “You are coming into your power, but you can’t see it yet. Your light is bright.”
Over the next hour, I followed Prema’s lead while she held me, chanted, and moved her songs through the air like a generous wind supporting us both. Closing my eyes, I saw the hurts I couldn’t shake— I took a break from my immediate family to heal some pain on my own and now I’m afraid they hate me. My dad’s death and disagreements over money severed my relationship with my little brother and I’ve seen him only once in twenty years. I sometimes grab the fat on my stomach as hard as I can and sob. I quit drinking eight years ago and the decision still makes me feel a bit broken. Time helps, but all of these busted parts of me creep in and tell me I’m too much. At one point, Prema screamed with me as loud as we could, and I tried to release the residual mud that still forms dry cracks inside my heart. I prayed that I could love the mud as much as my light.
Prema continued to sing and move around me while I cried tears I didn’t know were still in there for people I thought I’d made peace with. Eventually, she sat down, picked up her guitar and said she knew what she was supposed to sing with me. With puffy eyes and a body that felt deflated, I listened.
“My heart is open, to give and receive. I am worthy and deserving,” she sang. Her words brought my shoulders down and made me feel safe. Prema looked right into me, and I knew this was it. Now or never. As she played, fingers strumming each chord by rote, I opened my shaky mouth, closed my eyes back up and joined in.
Our words coursed through every cell in my body, pushing against the critical voice that told me to run. I made a mistake. I’m not sure I belong here after all. But after a few minutes, my insecurity lifted up and over the plaster walls of the courtyard and into the sand outside. I looked Prema right in the eyes, her gaze holding me like a sister’s hug and started to enjoy myself in ways I wish I could have years earlier.
Several other women eventually appeared and eased onto the blanket with us where we sang with the birds in the tranquil desert air. This time, I made up lyrics and harmonies with the others. I couldn’t understand how that worked until I dove in and realized it just happens. The song waxed and waned in the directions it wanted to go and Prema played her guitar with it, remembering the parts she’d take with her to the next retreat or place where people would again heal through her music.
At one point, I floated into the clouds and watched singing me, acknowledging that in a million years would I have thought I’d be wailing in the grass with a bunch of women wrapped in linens, crystals, and pashminas. Then, I swung my new, powder blue pashmina shawl back over my shoulder, laughed in gratitude, and grabbed the hand of the woman next to me, remembering that together, we can do anything that scares us. The love permeating every inch of that space gave me permission to join a group I was too afraid to be a part of in the past. To stop worrying what people think, set high school me, free.
Our last morning together, Lilya (the shaman who said she could see my anxiety), led about thirty of us in a healing circle inside a refrigerator-cold temple. The gathering started out as a candlelit tribute to Elizabeth Gilbert’s late partner Rayya, who had died on that day two years prior. Liz left her husband for Rayya, fought Rayya’s drug addiction with her, and then supported Rayya through a losing battle with cancer.
After Liz spoke and we prayed together, the tribute segued into a sacred ceremony, where one after another, women walked into the middle of the group to share their deepest sorrows. A stunning beauty, her long black hair swaying in motion behind her, Lilya waved her elegant arms in directing the group and encouraging us to sing, dance, and embrace each other when needed.
At one point, she stripped the layers off of someone dealing with great loss: her beanie, a jacket, two scarves, sweaters, symbolic of the walls this woman had built around herself. Within minutes, the woman, with tears streaming down her face, danced in her t-shirt and sweatpants with all of us chanting around her. The heat of our bodies burning in the space we held for her, warmed the hard room around us. The experience shook me, and I wondered how Lilya knew what to do with each person brave enough to step up and share their pain. At the end, I hugged her because I understood her better and admired how she embraced her gifts. Lilya nailed it on my anxiousness and Prema was right about the fear. Leaving the temple, I prayed that I could release my twin character defects in the dirt at the door.
When friends ask me about the retreat, they want to know about Elizabeth Gilbert. After I tell them I loved her, I connected with her as a tangible person, gave her my book, and let her know how much her journey motivated me, I tell them about Prema and Lilya. When people ask about my favorite part of the trip, I tell them about singing in the sun and how my heart opened in ways I’d been waiting for.
About a month later, at a noisy restaurant back home in Southern California, I celebrated my birthday dinner with a group of close friends. While we shared cheese curds and stories, the leader of a band playing in the corner asked over the microphone if the birthday girl wanted to come sing with them. I couldn’t believe it. And then I could.
As I sat on the stage, cross-legged singing and swaying to Hey Jude, I imagined myself back in that courtyard with Prema and so many other incredible women. In a way, I found another voice there that had been waiting patiently in the depths of my heart. When we are supported, it’s amazing what we can find buried inside.
By the time the band and I got to the ending of the song, I left my body again to see myself holding the microphone and laughing through the “na-na na nas.” Then, I saw the teenager who would have made fun of me in high school sitting beside me, where she wanted to be all along.