Last fall, I was commissioned to write this piece for a mainstream women's mag website. I was paid in full for the story but it never ran, and now both commissioning editors no longer work at the media outlet, so I thought I'd publish it here.
Hed: How a 48-Hour Lululemon Immersion Made Me a Better Person, Sorta.
Over the course of this year, Lululemon has quietly launched a series of Immersions—invitation-only all-expenses-paid multi-day yoga and personal development workshops where the brand convenes a hand-picked group of influencers, athletes, corporate execs, and thought leaders in far flung locations spanning Austin, Texas; Java, Indonesia; and Moganshan National Park, located about 120 miles outside Shanghai. There hasn't been any real press on these retreats, so, to be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I RSVPed "yes" to October's Immersion in Whistler (seriously, no one would tell me anything about the trip ahead of time) but I had a gut feeling that this vague and mysterious retreat would be good—or at least really weird—and that I'd definitely have something to say about it in the end.
Besides being a casual shopper and just barely following the yoga pant scandal a few years back, I had very little a priori knowledge about Lululemon. One thing I am aware of is the company's reputation for having a very specific corporate culture—"Our core values are personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, honesty, courage, connection and fun, so we attract and recruit people who share those same values," Director of Global Community Christa Hull tells me. So yes, whatever stories and mythology you may have heard about the warm, fuzzy feelings and deep devotion Lululemon inspires in its employees and community at large, well, I'm here to tell you that they're all true—and it's by design.
"At Lululemon, we prioritize our employees feeling connected to themselves and the people around them," Director of Leadership Development Susan Karda says. "Part of what we try to do is create more meaningful human connection, self-awareness, and leadership within our employees. We receive such positive feedback around our immersive experiences and summits internally that we realize it’s something that’s extremely unique to the brand."
I'd heard a lot about Lululemon brand culture—and couldn't resist the opportunity to experience it for myself—so late last month I threw all the athleisure-wear I own into a suitcase and headed up to Whistler, where over the course of 48 hours, I'm pretty sure something good happened to my insides that I still can't quite explain.
#TheImmersionWhistler Day One
Walking into the 10 a.m. yoga session at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Center, the only thing I know about our instructor Ryan Leier is a character assessment I'd gleaned from a video I'd Googled wherein he talks about how he once did a 10-minute back bend, then cried cathartically for 20 minutes afterwards. I'm worried he'll be really intense and earnest—the same way I'm worried that everyone at the Immersion will be really intense and earnest—and that I'll be way out of my depth. So I pick a spot in the back corner of the room, to hide. (The truth is, also, that I am terribly unfit and can barely do any yoga at all—I'm also worried that my pants are too tight and that I might throw up in class.) In real life, Leier is super-approachable, soft-spoken, funny, and way down to earth. And, sure, during the session he openly shared stories about his own practice, philosophy, and journey—but there's nothing preachy about it, and the practice is upbeat, energetic, and set to a singalong pop-rock-rap musical playlist. I decide that I like Ryan's brand of yoga—it somehow feels more in touch with the realities of everyday life than any yoga I'd experienced before.
At lunch, the group (there are 45-ish of us in total) split into tables. By now, we've all received the Immersion itinerary and I'm starting to wonder what's going on—after all the trouble and expense Lululemon's gone through to fly all these people here from all over the world, where are the keynote speeches, the brand messaging seminars, the staged social media opps, and product pitches? Turns out, there won't be any. In fact, I ask every single Lululemon exec I meet that day and the response is consistently the same: they want to share the experiences they foster for their team with a larger community—no strings attached. OK. So we'll just be doing yoga, hiking, and talking to each other for two days? This makes me panic a little—I work well with structure, strict parameters, and defined KPIs.
In the afternoon workshop, we're all asked to consider three questions: Who am I and what is my work? Who or what are you grateful for? And why did I say yes to coming here? Karda draws an analogy between daily life and a long road trip, where your car collects dust and debris (and bug carcasses) along the way— "The work we do at Lululemon is all about polishing and cleaning the windshield so you can see your true self," she tells us. We break into small discussion groups before reconvening to share at large—and I realize that this is the first time since college I've participated in active peer-to-peer personal growth exercises and while it feels pleasantly familiar, I'm rusty.
During the sharing portion of the workshop, I'm finally clued in on who else in in the room. The entire senior executive team at Lululemon—CEO and all—is there along with half a dozen elite athletes: yogi Tyrone Beverly, whose foundation ImUnique is dedicated to making yoga accesssible to a broader community; Paralympics silver medalist, skiier Josh Dueck; professional kiteboarder Damien LeRoy who, only in July, fell 150 feet from a motorized paraglider in an accident in Florida; pro-skiier Michelle Parker who founded SAFEAS, a women's avalanche-awareness and safety clinic; star snowboarder Kevin Pearce who, after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2009, founded non-profit organization Love Your Brain, to help others who've experienced TBI; and pro-snowboarder Leanne Pelosi, who's also a producer and director with Full Moon Film, which has dedicated itself to documenting and making movies about women in snowboarding. It makes sense to me that athletes are modern-day heroes. There's nothing more inspiring than willful optimism and courage to persevere—even better when someone is generous with their talents, knowledge, and experience in an effort to make the world a better place. But sometimes it's details and everyday feats that have the most profound impact on your worldview—and that morning, when I watched Dueck pull himself up into a headstand during yoga class, something shifted inside of me—and I think it was the first time in a long time I witnessed first-hand how limitations on your reality are only as narrow as you define them.
By the time Gabby Bernstein took to the dais later that afternoon, I'm super-excited—we've been work-acquaintances for ages (she's a former publicist). I knew she'd made a spiritual pivot over the past ten years—I've read a couple of her books and have lots of friends who are avid Gabby Bernstein disciples—but I'd never seen her do her thing irl. Bernstein is one of the most compelling motivational speakers I've ever seen—but when she leads us through her Kundalini practice, it's the first time during the Immersion I feel viscerally annoyed and have to consciously force my mind to relax and compel my body to do things it doesn't want to, like: hold my arms up in the air while waving my thumbs at the back of the room for minutes on end. I think, for some people, their first experience with Kundalini feels cathartic and revelatory—but at the end of the first day, I left confused and sore, glad that I'd tried something new, but without any clarity on whether I'd gleaned any benefits from the practice.
#TheImmersionWhistler Day Two
I wake up at 6 a.m. and, after carefully weighing my options (snoozing vs. scrambled eggs), I skip breakfast. The second day of the retreat mirrors the first—and we start with Kundalini at 7:30, which is extra-challenging because I'm still holding onto residual feelings about our practice the day before.
After yoga, and a mini-workshop where I hugged a stranger (something about breaking awkwardness by overcoming personal boundaries and triggering oxytocin), we clamber into a motorcade of big black SUVs and head up to Cheakamus trailhead for a four-hour round-trip hike to the lake.
There's something very obvious about immersing yourself in nature to help clear the clutter from your mind, and the solidarity of trekking for miles through the woods with a group of near-strangers, all with the same destination in mind, is pretty powerful. Sometimes along the way, you find yourself walking alongside one or two other people, telling them stuff you don't really ever really tell anyone, because you're having an out-of-body experience amongst the trees; other times, you'll be on the trail alone, which is great, though it's nice to know you have friends somewhere in front of you and somewhere behind you, just in case.
When we get to the lake, Dueck rolls his wheelchair into the water and jumps in.
That afternoon, the final yoga practice with Ryan Leier feels energetic and liberating—filled with music and storytelling—and it's almost like we're being delivered back out into the world at large with a bit of secret knowledge and hope for how life could be. Short group trips like this always feel like summer camp in a way—by the time you've settled in, gotten comfortable, and mentally pegged the people you want to spend more time talking to, it's over.
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a cynic—a lifelong New Yorker whose cold little black heart and RBF feels right at home in the cutthroat professional worlds of fashion and media. But last night, over sushi dinner and girl talk with an old friend, I was shocked to hear the words "core values" come out of my mouth in a completely unironic way. This wasn't the first time hints of personal development jargon have seeped into my vocabulary in recent weeks. When a close friend mentioned he was planning on winging a big life change, I embroiled him in a dialogue about "doing things with intention"—and I'm pretty sure he thought I'd lost my mind.
The thing is, after stepping away from the corporate grind back in July and forging out on my own to pursue my dream job of typing at home in sweatpants, my stress levels have plummeted, and I've definitely become more of a chill blob of a human. And while I found plenty of spare time to catch up on reading and dedicating myself to watching every YouTube video Casey Neistat has ever made, I didn't really have a clear vision for enlightenment or a path to growth outside the conventional office framework. Sure, I've watched a lot of Oprah in my day, and the places I've worked have all talked a big game about collaboration and team-building, but the reality of most professional environments is that they're an emotionless 9-to-6 grind, with little humanistic engagement with the people you clock in with day-in and day-out.
I've always been a huge believer in pastoral care and peer-to-peer education. But these are things I haven't thought about for nearly 20 years—not since college. Is that when personal development ends? Are grown-ups just supposed to be able to figure things out on our own?
While two days in the mountains and forests of British Columbia probably didn't drastically change the course of my life, I'm certain it's created a shift—perhaps imperceptible to others—in my worldview. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how—and what happened. But I'm fairly certain that, for me, the greatest takeaways and pivot points during the Lululemon Immersion didn't stem directly from the asanas, the workshops, or the chanting, but in feeling and fostering the sense of community and connection with a room of strangers who, all of us, let our guards down for 48 hours.