In the Company of Women
I was sitting with six other women, talking away another cup of Balinese coffee after our morning yoga when we heard the echoes floating through the valley—a blend of haunting chants from a nearby mosque and screeches of bright birds greeting the early light. We enveloped the moment in silence.
I have visited yoga retreats in the past, but this one, nestled in the northern mountains of Bali, was my first women-only venture. I have nothing against men—heck, I've been with my partner, Ron, for 20 years—but there's something about being in the company of women for a length of time and sharing a love of yoga that you can't find any place else.
Most retreat organizers and teachers agree that the popularity of women-only yoga experiences has steadily grown alongside traditional yoga vacations. The reasons, say many teachers and participants, are manifold: the opportunity to practice yoga geared specifically toward women's needs; a chance to share experiences on a deeper level; and, of course, time to enjoy extracurricular activities in scenic or exotic locations.
It's no surprise that all-girl groups are in such demand, considering approximately 80 percent of Western yoga practitioners are women—a far cry from yoga's early history in the East, when it was an exclusively male activity. Retreats vary from weekend getaways in an isolated setting to one- or two-week ventures in places you need an atlas to find. The formats are also diverse—from intensive yoga-only experiences to structured programs that incorporate yoga into a range of healing, self-development, and experiential activities.
Most retreats encourage women to deeply explore their bodies. The yoga here is often taught from the perspective that women should focus their practices around their individual needs. This was certainly true at the Bali retreat I attended. Our instructor, Caroline Coggins, taught us to be more aware of our internal organs (something never addressed in the mixed classes I attend regularly). "It's important for all women—regardless of experience level—to relate to their bodies," says Coggins. "This means balancing the pushing, hard way of working with a deeper understanding of the female body and its special needs."
She also explained that gaining an understanding of "women's yoga" means rethinking traditional instructions. Even for me—a midrange practitioner—much of the yoga we practiced involved "unlearning" and refocusing the asanas to specifically relate to my body. And it worked. I gained insight into how to work with my body as a woman, rather than against it, and the experience gave me invaluable tools to incorporate into my own practice.
Anne Horsley, who teaches women's weekend residentials in Australia, encourages her participants to develop their yoga to specifically work with their internal cycles—both monthly and life. "So-called 'women's work' in yoga really has to do with approaching the practice armed with an understanding of your body and its specific needs during the transitional periods of a woman's life," says Horsley, adding that these include such cycles and milestones as menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, and even the act of gracefully aging. "This is why I emphasize teaching a restorative practice women can use when these changes occur."
But what makes these two approaches blossom, according to many retreat goers, is the special dynamic created by a women-only audience. "In these classes, there's definitely no external spirit of competition, only inwardly-directed competition in relation to individual work," says Pamela Richardson, a retreat regular. "Also, there's none of the endless questions from men about why there is a different perspective for women." There's a lot to be said for a setting that makes you feel comfortable with asking "sensitive" questions. Says Sandi Toose, self-proclaimed sporadic yogi: "In what other yoga class can you hear explicit references to vaginas and ovaries?"
Share and Share Alike
Another aspect of women's retreats is tapping into the "female energy" that such a gathering produces. Outside of yoga, retreats offer an array of creative workshops and other social activities designed for women to share experiences, explore their own spirituality, or just engage in casual girltalk. At the Bali retreat, we had daily guided meditation, pPranayama classes, and nightly workshops and discussions structured around a drawing session—which provided an innovative forum for sharing life experiences and self-discovery.
"It has been my experience that female students ask for what they need," adds Amanda McMaine Smith, who hosts a women's retreat in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, "and this seems to be more time for themselves in the company of other women. It doesn't feel so much as if men are excluded, but women enjoy and are nourished by their solitary time away from partnerships and in the sisterhood of women. I also have observed a different kind of opening occur during these workshops," she adds, "a sharing of stories, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and a flow that is truly the feminine manifest. The result seems to be the nourishment that women need."
Patricia Brown, who runs Body Prayers: Women's Yoga Retreats, which hosts long weekend retreats in Maine each spring and fall and weeklong programs in the British Virgin Islands in the winter, says her motivation is to give women an opportunity to listen to themselves—something most have a hard time doing in regular life. "The energy of the group becomes soft, safe, and conducive to reflection, and there is no energy spent in male-female interaction, which can be wonderful but also full of cultural and personal history," says Brown. "Women find they are drawn into their inner lives, and the awareness that arises from this quality of quietude often leads to life-changing shifts after the retreat."
But sometimes much of this internal "healing" comes from the simple joys of endemic laughter, endless coffee-shop talks, or, says Toose, "the freedom to strip for a massage or a swim with someone under a rocketing waterfall and not feel self-conscious."
The availability of recreation and pampering is an integral part of the overall yoga retreat experience—and gender-specific programs are no exception. In Bali, we were allowed time to sightsee, shop, take a massage, hike, and embrace the Balinese culture. For me, these extra activities helped to balance the physical lessons of yoga classes and the spiritual education of workshops.
Yet, the biggest draw for these retreats is often the inspiring and relaxing settings. Depending on your preference, you can discover getaways from the candy-coated beaches of the Caribbean to the protective mountains of Maine to the smoking volcanoes of Costa Rica—and everything in between.
Most of my fellow retreatants experienced at least one moment of nirvana during our time together. For me, it was on the fourth day, between the dawn meditation and the morning asana class. A handful of us were sitting together at a marble rotunda in comfortable silence, listening for the echoes. And it suddenly struck me how comfortable I'd come to feel with these newfound sisters. It was like we could share almost anything—and in many ways already had.