At a yoga center not far from where I live in the Rocky Mountains, people of all ages had spread out in a long, open room and were moving through poses. Wide windows overlooked thickly forested slopes of aspen and fir. It was the view at the far end of the room, though, that I found most interesting. That's where my 17-year-old son, Sky, was slowly expanding from Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) into Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). While I watched, he remained oblivious to me, his concentration entirely focused on the placement of his feet. As he made a small adjustment, he closed his eyes and filled his lungs with a long, deep breath.
Most people think of a yoga retreat as a solo getaway. But more yoga practitioners are discovering that taking a retreat with their families can bring unexpected benefits. The opportunity to see a child as a distinct, capable individual—as I did when I looked over at Sky—is one of the many gifts of a family retreat. With distractions reduced and everyday responsibilities temporarily suspended, family members can drop assigned roles and simply savor the pleasure of one another's company.
During our yoga outing, I noticed my son letting down his guard and enjoying the experience; we laughed when he pretended to be impressed that his over-40 mom could still touch her toes. "We forget how important play is," says Dennis Eagan, who spent many years as a wilderness guide in Alaska and who leads family yoga retreats with Echo River Trips along Oregon's Rogue River. "When we all go back to that place of having fun, it brings people together."
Of course, any kind of vacation can be fun. But doing yoga together can amplify the sense of joy among family members. On the family retreats she leads in Costa Rica and Hawaii, Jackie Long of Yoga with Love teaches a repertoire of poses to help make it happen. In Snakes Under a Bridge, one person holds Bridge Pose while other family members slither serpent-style under the bridge. The poses start off with gentle physical contact and often end with families collapsing into hugs and laughter. Some poses are interactive, like Table and Chairs: One person becomes the table, by holding a flat-backed version of Cow Pose, while the rest of the family gathers around in Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and pretends to hold a tea party. Working toward a common goal, even if it's just to stage an imaginary tea party, Long says, renews a sense of familial closeness.
"A retreat is an opportunity for the whole family to be devoted to the moment-to-moment experience and joy of life without the pulls of the parents' or the child's responsibilities," says Shiva Rea, a yoga teacher and mother who lives in Southern California and leads retreats worldwide. "Yoga helps transform the accumulated stress of householder life."
Unlike most other family getaways, yoga retreats encourage a sense of introspection that going to an amusement park might not. Because many retreat settings are remote, families often have a sense of setting off together on a shared quest. And most retreats are set up to support stillness and rest, which often means no cell phones or Internet access. By letting go of these connections to the wired world, both parents and kids can focus inward.
And just because you're on a yoga retreat doesn't mean yoga is all you do. During my time in the mountains with my son, we went hiking, ate lunch together, and had wonderful rambling discussions. Most family retreats allow time for activities like hiking, taking art or dance classes, or doing water sports such as boating or swimming. Yulin Lee, a mortgage agent in Palo Alto, California, attended one of Yoga with Love's family retreats on the Big Island of Hawaii several years ago with her husband and two children, who were five and two. In the mornings, the couple went to yoga class while the kids had a blast doing art projects or splashing around in the pool. In the afternoons, the family came back together for sightseeing and exploring the island.
Older children might not be so keen on the idea at first. My son Sky had done some yoga at home, but initially he didn't want to join me. Staying home wasn't an option, but I promised that he wouldn't have to participate if he didn't want to. Sure enough, once he arrived and started doing yoga, he became absorbed in it.
This kind of recalcitrance is not uncommon. Julie Kirkpatrick, whose brother David Life is a founder of Jivamukti Yoga, has been attending retreats with her now-17-year-old son Alex since he was 11.
"There have been times when we're there, and he doesn't want to get up in the morning," Kirkpatrick says. "I didn't want to force it, but I've made it a baseline that he will attend at least one class a day. He's actually surprised me by the number of things he's participated in. At our last retreat, he even chose to do some Sanskrit classes, totally on his own."
Sarah Powers, a Bay Area yoga teacher and the mother of a teenage daughter, says that resistance is often simply a way for older children to express themselves. "It's helpful to allow them to voice their discontent," she says. "Let them know that it's OK to feel that way." She finds that once a retreat has begun, these issues tend to fall away.
For me, going on a yoga retreat was a great way to reconnect with my busy child. I took a break from my role as the person who delivered Sky to guitar lessons, did his laundry, and gave him ultimatums about homework and chores.
This gave me a renewed appreciation for him: I remember watching him that morning moving into Triangle Pose as mountain light streamed through the windows, illuminating him from head to toe. Feelings of deep love and gratitude filled me, mingled with profound relief. At that moment, I was suddenly certain that he would be OK wherever in the world his path might lead.
Not having to clean up after dinner was just a bonus.