Yoga Retreats: Part II


By Jodi Mardesich  |  

You’re ready to lead your first yoga retreat. You’ve chosen a gorgeous location, you’re confident of your teaching experience, and students are signing up in droves. What could go wrong?

Plenty, unfortunately. There are two more factors whose importance cannot be overstressed: planning your students’ time, and feeding them. If these sound obvious, don’t be fooled. Experienced retreat leaders say these are the considerations, outside of location, that are crucial in pulling off a successful and popular event.

Plan Your Program

When dreaming up your ideal yoga retreat, it may be tempting to focus solely on the asana and the beauty of the setting. But there’s more to programming than that. A retreat can be extremely structured or very loose, and you need to be comfortable with the style you choose, and advertise the retreat accordingly. Some teachers prefer to host combined retreats: yoga and surfing, yoga and raw food, yoga and cooking, yoga and hiking in the Swiss Alps. Others offer only yoga and basic meals, leaving the students’ free time up to their own discretion.

Many experienced teachers take a strict approach: plan out every hour of the retreat so that you’re prepared for varying levels of student experience and enthusiasm.

“Sometimes we get a group that’s 30 percent yoga teachers,” says Sudhakar Ken McRae, owner of Global Yoga Journeys, based in Columbia, Missouri. Other times, all the participants are yoga teachers but “it’s a mixed group, teachers who are really hungry and others who are reluctant. We usually have way more material than we need, so we can change the plan if we need to.” McRae, who leads yoga tours in Europe and Costa Rica with his wife, Kathleen Knipp, advises teachers to bring an assistant. “We can split the tasks. It allows us to accommodate a broader range of needs, and there are two yoga teachers to relate to,” McRae says. “Don’t try to do this by yourself.”

But even if you’re running a less structured program, and you expect your students to take off on their own between classes, you need to be aware of what else is going on in the vicinity. If the site you’ve chosen offers many extracurricular activities—for example, beach walks, hikes to volcanoes, whitewater rafting—make sure your classes don’t conflict with too many of them. Your students will want to be free to take day trips without missing the yoga they came for, says Jodie Rufty, a New York-based yoga teacher who recently held a retreat at Pura Vida, Costa Rica. Between the restricted times for breakfast and the hours at which they needed to be ready to leave for day trips, there was no choice but to hold the yoga classes at 6:30 a.m. “I didn’t have much freedom as far as when I could schedule my classes,” she explains.

Food Fights

Once you’ve chosen your setting and decided how to organize your students’ time, there’s still a consideration that, in the eyes of many, looms above the rest: the meals. Ask yoga teachers who have led retreats to name the most important factor outside of the retreat location, and they will invariably say it’s the food. “Bad food can make or break the weekend,” says Jillian Pransky, who teaches in New York and New Jersey and leads annual retreats to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Food triggers emotions, and people’s comfort levels can be tested when the variety, or quantity, or quality of food doesn’t meet their expectations. “It has nothing to do with how well you can teach a class,” Pransky advises. “You’ve become the steward of your students’ comfort.”

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the meals should be vegetarian. Ancient yogis and yogic texts advised a purely vegetarian diet. Yet today, many yogis, whether they’re experienced or beginners, eat meat. Teachers say that anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of their retreat students are not vegetarian. Chandra Easton, who runs yoga and meditation retreats with her husband, Scott Blossom, struggled with the decision to include fish on the last night at their first retreat. “Some people said they wouldn’t have come if we didn’t offer meat, which was very interesting,” Easton says. Since then, however, all their retreats have been vegetarian, because that decision feels more true to their values. Easton and Blossom want students to “clean out” and experience a few days without meat.

Ditto coffee, although here the pair has adopted a more flexible stance. At their first retreat, coffee was not available. One of Easton’s close friends attended the retreat and suffered through coffee withdrawal headaches, but at the end of the time there, she had kicked the habit. Two years later, Easton and Blossom’s mothers both attended the retreat and requested coffee. “We couldn’t say no to our moms,” she laughs.

Easton’s still coffee-free friend also participated and was dismayed to learn of the availability of coffee. But Easton had decided that the practice itself was hard enough. “If you try to cut everything out in just four days, it might be a little harsh,” she says now.

Even the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, is taking a softer stance toward both meat and coffee. For 28 of its 30 years, Kripalu was strictly vegetarian. About two years ago, however, the Center began offering coffee after weekend warriors complained of coffee headaches. Organizers began serving meat six months later, and although the chicken and tuna salads always sat at the end of the salad bar, their bowls were always emptied. “People voted with their forks and their coffee mugs,” says Cathy Husid, a spokesperson for Kripalu. “People want it, they feel better, and they can get the teachings better if they feel better. There’s a fine line between kindness and violence toward yourself and others.”

The other consideration is whether or not to provide organic food. “It creates a demand for that quality, and it lets people feel and taste how beneficial it is to eat fresh, organic food,” Easton says.

Whenever possible, try the food before choosing a location or a chef. If you can’t do that, you can rely on the recommendations of people you trust. Even then, however, you may be disappointed. Rufty had this experience with the food at her last retreat. Despite good reviews from friends, she found that the site served almost the same menu every day.

You should also find out well in advance about the food preferences and needs of your participants. “On the registration form that people send in with their payment, you right away ask if they are vegetarian or vegan or if they have any allergies,” Easton says. “That will make the retreat a lot smoother.”

Next, find out if the kitchen or the chef can accommodate everyone. If the only vegetarian option is pasta, the vegetarians might have a meltdown by the final night. To allow guests to make the best choices, present a list of the ingredients at meals, so attendees will know if oil or butter is added to the vegetables, or whether the bread is made with wheat or some other grain.

Be Prepared for Anything

The most important asset in your arsenal may well be flexibility, of spirit as well as body. “When leading a retreat, it takes a lot more energy than you think it will,” Easton says. She advises planning time to rest during the retreat itself, so that you can troubleshoot any difficulties that arise but still focus on your practice and teaching. You will need clarity and patience to deal with the unexpected, from problem students (such as the woman who showed up stumbling drunk to class at one of Pransky’s retreats) to bugs and critters (McRae once found himself chasing a snake out of the yoga space at a Costa Rica retreat). Try to pass responsibilities for running things to other people, if possible, so that once you’re there, you don’t have to deal with every complaint and request. “Wake up and do your own practice so when you go to teach, you can be centered and awake to what the needs are of the group,” Easton recommends.

Jodi Mardesich lives and teaches yoga in Rincón, Puerto Rico.