I returned from my five days at a holistic retreat centre with a number of reminders and best practices to maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit. And with a few bullets of new learning.

While I spent my days practicing solitude, listening to my body, silencing my mind, and gently engaging in Yin yoga and meditation, I detected physical changes and less brain chatter. As though I had been unplugged and rebooted. With updated software and clearer graphics.

Sitting cross-legged on a fragrant cedar deck, the birds loud in their musings, I was reminded of the power of belly breathing as a conduit to calm. We were led through rounds of ocean breathing – in yoga terms – Ujjayi pranayama. In addition to filling the abdomen, and then expanding the ribs to fill the chest, we were to hold the completed intake for three counts. I then made a sound resembling an ocean wave rolling out to sea as I exhaled while constricting my throat and vocal cords. The vibration created in the gullet stimulates our calming nervous system. It shuts down stress hormones. Settling the mind and warming the body.

Perched before us, legs folded flat on the mat, back straight, Jason guided us from learning how to breathe properly through a slow and challenging practice of Yin yoga. With eyes closed, I used only my ears and muscles to create the movements, stretch my joints, and breath into brittle tendons and ligaments as I held poses under his watchful eye and encouraging voice. He pondered aloud that we are living in a world of “Yangaholics”. Cardio workouts, muscle contractions, flows, and endurance challenges validate our fitness efforts. The opposite energy to that of Yin — a practice of slow movements, mindfulness, and nourishment for the body’s connective tissues.

I have spent most of my adult life in Yang. It’s exhausting. Not sustainable. It took to me alcohol addiction so that I could maintain the pace. I had two settings, full speed ahead and dead stop.

In recovery I continue to seek a more balanced, simple and peaceful existence.

Sitting in the great room for an evening lecture, I practice my belly breathing and repeat one of my many mantras, “keep an open mind.” The judge, jury and executioner within are on high alert as a woman with a waist-length grey braid, lined and tanned face, and yellow t-shirt atop flowing patterned pants sits in front of the massive stone fireplace, looking over a disparate group of ten women and three men. We range in age from mid-twenties to early seventies. On the whiteboard beside her, written in black marker beside her name – Joan, reads “The Magic of Aging.”

Introducing herself by the name chosen by her teachers – Ayuna, I realize that this might not be a pep talk on nutrition, supplements and daily exercise. I smile as she begins by telling us that there are three essentials for a vibrant, long life. Breathing properly — which we now know how to do, staying hydrated, and managing your self-talk. Joan spends most of the next half hour talking about our cellular biology. She recites scientific evidence that genetics are not the primary determinants of lifespan. With parents who lived well beyond ninety, both her siblings died in their early sixties. Joan prevails at seventy-three. I open my notebook to a fresh page with Joan — Ayuna’s — name at the top.

By breathing fully into our belly and throughout our chest, our cells get much-needed oxygen. Staying hydrated, every day, all day, lubricates our joints, nourishes our organs, and is essential to our nervous system. Joan let those ideas percolate only for a few minutes before shifting to what she believes is the silver bullet to longevity. How we manage what goes in our head. I notice that most of us are sitting forward in our chairs. There is a subtle shift in the energy in the room. Joan starts walking around, stopping to make eye contact with each one of us. Be a lifelong learner, turn should into could, instead of guilt trips, travel to fun places, be kind in your self-talk – negative banter sends harmful stress hormones to your cells. Use symbols, rituals and mantras to remind you of your power – don’t give it away to anyone. Ever.

As we play with soapy water and bubble wands on the deck, she reminds us to laugh and be silly. As we watch the sun catch the clear globes and turn them into kaleidoscopes floating through the air, we experience nature and our senses.

On my drive home, I had three hours to be silent and pay attention to some of my internal dialogue. As I wound through narrow passages flanked by lakes and rock faces, I decided to alter pieces of my self-talk. The story that has me predetermining how long I will live, rationalized by my parent’s ill health and early eighties deaths, has shifted. I’m going strong until at least ninety. The one that tells me to mourn lost youth. I’ve decided to age lustfully. And I’ve decided to stop “shoulding all over myself.” I have the power to choose.

At least, that is my experience.