Julie McDonald schussed down the mountain in Bear Valley, Calif., just like she’d done hundreds of times before. This time, though, she was breaking a 15-year hiatus from downhill skiing. She’d competed in college, but as a busy film producer, wife and mom, she’d stopped skiing because of time constraints. For her comeback, she chose a mind-body adventure retreat — one that combined skiing with yoga and meditation.
“Because I’d once been a really fast skier, I was afraid I might jump on an advanced black-diamond run out of ego, and then injure myself,” says McDonald, 47. So she joined a Wild Yoga Adventure Retreat with wilderness guide and yoga instructor Dennis Eagan, who led the group in yoga and meditation before and after daily skiing.
“Meditating helped me set aside my expectations and gave me the patience to test my abilities safely,” she says. “I wasn’t in the same shape as 15 years ago, but I discovered I could have fun skiing again without injuring myself. It was a whole new beginning for me.”
McDonald’s ski-yoga vacation is just one example of the growing “adventure therapy” trend: getaways that blend outdoor adventure with mind-body practices such as tai chi, meditation, massage and yoga. These trips push your physical and mental limits, helping you safely address fears. And because there’s time devoted to introspection, they build confidence and help propel you toward your goals.
Want to try rock climbing and tai chi? Horseback riding and yoga? These hybrid trips attract people who want to layer outdoor adventure with therapeutic work for personal growth and improved physical performance — all in a natural setting.
“I loved bringing my yoga practice into proximity with the extreme nature of winter,” says McDonald, who lives in Oakland, Calif. “Yoga poses improved my flexibility and strength on the slopes, and the mindfulness practice helped me set aside judgment that would have pushed me to overreach.”
We all hit roadblocks in life, and embarking on an active outdoor vacation can help you change course. Adding mind-body elements to the mix may seem like a minor benefit, but elevated physical awareness can improve such things as balance, posture and performance. Heightened consciousness can help you recognize when fear or other emotional obstacles are holding you back.
Wild Yoga’s Eagan considers such hybrid retreats as meditation in motion. “By approaching an activity such as skiing with a curious, yet playful, attitude, you can bring the same awareness to the slopes that you bring to the yoga studio,” he says. On ski trips, Eagan emphasizes yoga poses that concentrate on key muscle groups for moving down the mountain. For instance, being conscious of the feet in standing poses, such as Warrior or Triangle, helps skiers stay grounded while making turns. And yoga breath-work quiets the mind and eases tension that can build with any adrenaline-generating sport.
“Outdoor adventures are therapeutic because you step outside the box,” says exercise physiologist Erin Leider-Pariser, whose Sports Travel Adventure Therapy (STAT) company offers challenging trips for women. “Add in yoga, and it’s magical: You come away feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.”
STAT participants hike, bike and kayak in exotic locales, including the Caribbean and the Amazon. Leider-Pariser begins excursions with a ceremony during which each woman sets an intention for the week. This ceremony, plus yoga and meditation twice daily, provides the therapeutic framework of STAT trips. “Yoga stretches your muscles, lubricates your joints and stills your mind, all of which helps you rise to the challenges of a wilderness adventure,” she says. “Mind-body techniques inform you about how your body feels. It’s all about getting in touch with yourself.”
Which is exactly why people who attend adventure-therapy outings often go alone — so they can focus on personal exploration while still sharing activities such as rafting or backpacking with others.
Tuning In, Chilling Out
Mind-body practices partner well with adrenaline-filled activities because they provide time out for relaxation, reflection and awareness. They can also give you a fresh perspective on yourself — and your relationships.
Last summer, Debi and Heath Kramer of Salt Lake City spent five days on a couples’ rafting and yoga trip organized by Holiday Expeditions. While on the Green River, which runs through Colorado and Utah, each explored something new: Heath had never practiced yoga, and Debi had never been rafting.
“It was wonderful learning yoga on the beach with the peaceful sounds of the river,” says Heath. “It really relaxed me.” ˙
Debi laughs. “Heath was so happy after the slow, restorative poses that we almost had to dig him out of the sand,” she says.
“The yoga also calmed my anxiety about rafting the rapids,” she notes. “And as it turned out, because of low river levels that summer, lack of water turned out to be more of a concern than white water.”
During their wilderness experience, the Kramers were responsible only for breaking down their tent and packing their waterproof bag each morning. The guides did all the paddling, though the couple sometimes opted to kayak alongside the raft. The itinerary left them with plenty of private time, so they hiked every afternoon at their new camp. They also tried partner yoga, which got them moving together and supporting each other in two-person poses.
When mind and body work together, your outlook and physical performance can improve, as Tom Fleming of Richardson, Texas, discovered. He signed up for a kayak-snorkel-yoga trip that took him to Baja, Mexico, and the beautiful bays and islands of the Sea of Cortez. Fleming was charting new waters: Although he was athletic, he’d done little yoga and no sea kayaking before.
His group paddled three to five hours a day to reach a new island destination. They did beach yoga each morning, then repeated a restorative late-afternoon session once they’d reached their next camp. “Being in a meditative state sharpened my focus on the environment,” Fleming says. “It slowed things down, so I could look around and appreciate trees, birds and rocks that I might not have paid attention to otherwise.”
Yoga also eased the fatigue of paddling. “Our teacher taught us breathing techniques that came in handy during long hauls in the kayak,” he says. “I also could focus more on relaxing muscles that tightened while I was paddling.”
After an idyllic week of island hopping, snorkeling and watching dolphins, Fleming returned home and discovered fresh applications for his new meditative skills. He and his partner launched a company, Integrated Elements, that specializes in helping corporations motivate employees to be more engaged, leading to higher productivity.
“I keep in mind that focus I learned on my trip,” he says. “I share the experience with other folks to help them improve their enthusiastic concentration in the workplace.”
Now Fleming is training for a marathon and again tapping into lessons from Mexico. He started taking a weekly yoga class for stretching his running muscles and for controlling the rhythm of his breath. “I went on that kayak-yoga trip expecting that I’d have a good time,” he says, “but I never expected that I’d come home so changed.”
See the Web Extras! below for tips on selecting yoga-focused retreats, as well as more mind-body getaway opportunities.
Adventure on the Side
Is your vacation goal to perfect your downward dog pose? Yoga retreats let you focus on mind-body practices, but offer the option of spicing up the experience with a sprinkle of outdoor adventure. Check with your yoga studio to see if any instructors are organizing a retreat to a vacation destination. It’s fairly common for teachers to offer more intensive training in a fresh setting. Destinations range from local getaways to international locales. Browse the Internet for world-class yoga teachers who lead international retreats. Most feature concentrated yoga, meditation and philosophy talks, but there’s typically free time when attendees can hike, swim or explore. Start by researching a teacher with whom you’d like to study or by checking Web sites such as www.retreatsonline.com, www.yogasite.com/retreat.htm or www.yogaholidays.net. Research wellness retreat centers or spas. Many, like the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts (www.kripalu.org), offer yoga classes several times a day, along with optional outdoor activities. These centers are often destinations reserved by yoga teachers for their own retreats.
Have your yoga with a side of adventure.
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Massachusetts — Topnotch holistic faculty and guest yoga teachers with opportunities for canoeing, skiing and hiking. Special-focus courses blend yoga or tai chi with running, golfing, kayaking, skiing, snowshoeing and hiking. 866-200-5203; www.kripalu.org
Maya Tulum, Mexico — A yoga and wellness spa on the Caribbean with excursions such as biking to Mayan ruins and snorkeling. 888-515-4580; www.mayatulum.com
Pura Vida Yoga Retreat and Spa, Costa Rica — Rainforest spa features mind-body-spirit adventure weeks that include rafting and volcano expeditions. 888-767-7375; www.puravidaspa.com
Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, Colorado — A rustic Rocky Mountain retreat specializing in yoga, chanting and meditation with mountain hiking or snowshoe treks. 303-642-0116; www.shoshoni.org
Yoga Oasis, Hawaii — Yoga and detox and rejuvenation on the Big Island with optional swimming, snorkeling and volcano hiking. 800-274-4446; www.yogaoasis.org