Lisa Jones, a writer and long-time meditator, enjoys telling the story of how her overtly stressed-out newspaper-publisher boss, whose idea of rest was increasing his heart rate on a treadmill, raised quite a few eyebrows when he suddenly went on a meditation retreat in New Mexico. But what really shocked everyone was his demeanor upon his return.
“Beforehand, the sound of his phone ringing would make him sigh sadly and stiffen his chest,” says Jones. “Afterwards, that same ring took on celestial qualities apparently inaudible to everyone else. He would look beatifically into space for a moment – ‘mindfulness practice’, he called it – before gently lifting the receiver. He was a completely new person.”
Retreats have long been equated with escape and refuge – relief from the stress of everyday life. Certainly, physically removing yourself from daily tasks and pressures can help you relax and gain a fresh perspective on life. But beyond “getting away from it all,” retreats can also provide a unique sort of challenge – the challenge of adjusting your rhythm, abandoning your routines, and reconsidering your unconscious, default approach to daily life.
Rather than pitting yourself against strictly athletic and environmental objectives, you’re required to shift your internal gears, to examine and rebuild their mechanisms, and to refocus their energies. Instead of coming home with tales of wild adventure, you tend to come home with a clearer, more simplified view of what matters in your life, and with new tools to help you lead it.
So the next time you feel the need to “escape” from life and recharge your batteries, think twice about heading out for a white-water rafting or mountain-climbing trek that could leave you more wound up and exhausted than before. Instead, revitalize your body, mind and soul with a retreat that leaves you changed for the better.
Here, we’ve outlined the ins and outs of three types of special challenge retreats – yoga, nature and meditation – that will leave you refreshed, regenerated and renewed.
Yoga is the fastest growing segment of exercise in health clubs and is often regarded as a fantastic stress-beater and the ideal tool for active people who want to slow down. Yoga’s slow-moving and still poses help release deep-seeded tension and allow the mind to become more present – perfect for those who have a difficult time trying to relax. On the flip side, if you are somewhat sedentary, yoga is wonderful for coaxing your body back into action.
Nowadays you can experience this 5,000-year-old practice practically anywhere, from luxury spas to your living room. But if you want to immerse yourself more deeply in your practice – or if you are a relative newcomer who wants to further test the waters – then a retreat is the way to go.
“Yoga retreats are like feeding yourself good food instead of junk food,” says Sue Wiederspahn of Austin, Texas, who has relied on the recharging energies of yoga retreats for nearly five years. The depth and intensity of your retreat experience is up to you. “With yoga, it can have a small impact on you, or a huge one. It can completely change your life if you want it to.”
There are as many types of yoga retreats as there are styles of yoga. Some retreats blend yoga with other activities (horseback riding, kayaking, etc.), classes and personal-care treatments, so the actual yoga practice becomes just one part of the overall experience. “Other yoga retreats include modalities like meditation and chanting, which some people enjoy, but others may find disorienting,” says Jonathan Foust, president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. (www.kripalu.org).
If you’re looking for straight yoga, says Foust, you can find that too, but you have to do your research. The best way to ensure you are able to reap the activities and benefits you desire is to examine a retreat’s various components beforehand. “Look at the structure and schedule of the retreat,” suggests Foust. “Does one specific teacher lead it, or does the program offer different instructors? The latter may be better suited for retreat newcomers because it provides a more varied and complete yoga experience.”
Yoga retreats can vary from one day to a week or more, but Foust suggests a long weekend event (Friday through Sunday), which gets you away from home, and offers significant benefits without requiring a huge time commitment. “What’s ideal about these retreats is that they place you outside of your habitual setting,” he says. Plus, allowing yourself at least a long weekend also gives you time to adjust and decompress.
Most yoga retreats are as physically demanding as you make them. And don’t worry about not fitting in. No two yoga students have the same level of experience, and most classes you visit will have several newcomers. Plus, yoga teachers are accustomed to eclectic groups and they traditionally guide the entire class through each pose by first demonstrating and then offering hands-on guidance, so even if you are the most inflexible person there, you won’t feel left out.
Course content aside, the most pressing questions people have about retreats they’re considering are: 1) where they’re going to sleep, and 2) what they’re going to eat. It depends on your budget, and the facility you choose. Some retreats are strictly dorm settings while others offer private rooms. And while you don’t have to be vegetarian to do yoga, be mindful that good (but simple) vegetarian cuisine and organic food will probably be the cornerstone of the retreat’s fare.
Foust suggests making a list of all the concerns you may have and address them with the retreat staff beforehand, so there are no surprises. “Only then will you be able to fully relax and let the transformation experience begin,” he says.
Whichever type of retreat you choose, Foust suggests, once there, let go of any judgments of yourself and others and stop thinking so hard. Instead, just observe, feel and breathe. “Yoga can teach you to be more present in the moment,” says Foust. “When you are concentrating on your alignment and breathing in a pose it’s hard to think about work or what bills need to be paid. Don’t be surprised if you leave feeling more grounded with a desire to expand your yoga practice even more.”
What motivates someone to seek out a nature retreat? It may be getting stuck in one too many traffic jams, or spending too many consecutive weeks toiling in a windowless cube. It may be a growing sense that your priorities are whacked or that your possessions are encroaching on you. Perhaps you are going through a transition in your personal life or career. Whatever the motivation, sometimes what you really need is to hear birds singing, the wind in the trees, a brook babbling. You need to feel the crunch of branches and rock under your feet. You need to see broad vistas instead of billboards, to smell the earth and feel the sun on your face.
Let’s face it – most of us could stand to get outside more, and a back-to-nature retreat is a great way to shake off that cooped-up feeling. “When daily pressures build up, our guests find renewal here in the scenic outdoors close to nature,” says Tom Corey, of Rock Eddy Bluff Farm (www.rockeddy.com), a nature retreat in Dixon Rolla, Mo. “We think of our service as providing something like a relief valve.”
Accommodations at nature retreats can range from rustic to luxurious, but most offer some level of creature comforts. “You have unimpeded solitude on miles of remote wilderness trails with the luxury of a heated cabin at the end of the day,” said Zan Jarvis, a recent guest at the River Spirit Retreat in Parthenon, Ark. (www.riverspirit.com). “It beats wrestling in a tent in a cold, windy thunderstorm.”
Self-help and personal-growth workshops and classes are commonly offered at nature retreats, as are group hikes, river rafting, horseback riding, and local sightseeing tours. And the settings for nature retreats vary widely – from ocean-side, to deep woods, to desert, to mountaintop.
Some retreats are isolated enough that opportunities for viewing wildlife abound. “Guests can sit right on the deck and see black bear or big-horn sheep,” says Robbie Levin, owner of Sorrel River Ranch Resort outside Moab, Utah (www.sorrelriver.com). Be sure to ask about the accommodations ahead of time, and feel free to request pictures of private accommodations, common areas, as well as the surrounding landscape.
Of course, like everything else, even otherwise idyllic nature retreats can have their downside, Corey points out: “Yes, there can be bugs, and sounds in the night, and for every hill you hike down, you will likely have to hike up another one.” Still, if it’s fresh air and interaction with nature that you’re longing for, you won’t be disappointed.
Meditation retreats offer a golden opportunity to take an evolutionary look at what’s going on with you and your life. Some retreats are intensive, long-term programs, but many last just two or three days over a long weekend and include periods of informal talking, lectures, group discussions and one-on-one instruction – ideal for novices, according to Dagmar Nickerson, director of Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs, N.C. “Meditation retreats are a good way to relax in the body,” says Nickerson, “and they’re especially therapeutic for people who are facing personal crises, medical ailments or just an abundant amount of stress.”
Now, do you want to do walking meditation, guided meditation, loving-kindness meditation, contemplative-prayer meditation or some combination of these (and dozens of others)? The key to choosing the right meditation retreat is carefully considering your own comfort zone, while also being willing to challenge your entrenched attitudes and habitual behaviors. Although meditation retreats are generally spiritual in nature, they will not, as a rule, ask you to abandon or adopt any specific religious beliefs. You can choose from a variety of nonsectarian formats, or if you prefer, choose a retreat founded on a specific religion, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Christianity.
A close cousin of the traditional meditation retreat is the silent retreat. The same format of standard meditation retreats usually applies, except complete silence is observed for the duration of the retreat. If the idea of silence sounds daunting, don’t be put off: You ease into the stillness. Upon arrival, there is a general orientation where the weekend schedule is presented. Then after a light dinner, the groups meet with their respective teachers in a meditation hall for a question-and-answer period. Afterwards, everyone retires for the night, and when you awake the next morning the silent period begins and runs into Sunday afternoon.
Silent retreats have a reputation for dramatically transforming people, particularly fast-talking, go-getter extroverts, high-powered execs, and others who are continually steeped in language and mile-a-minute thought. The best way for anyone to reap the benefits, says Nickerson, is to let go of all expectations. Of course, this is easier said than done, but because meditation retreats are often located in peaceful areas – where nature sounds abound and the stimuli of everyday life are greatly diminished – you are for the most part left alone with your thoughts and feelings. Consequently, you are more likely to observe, transform and release them. The net result: Both during and after the retreat, you may experience some significant shifts and breakthroughs. “The noise in your head won’t magically go away,” explains Nickerson, but the experience will open the door to the bigger process.”