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Yoga Retreats & Spas

First-Timer’s Guide to Yoga Retreats

No matter where you are in your practice, a retreat might just be the best rejuvenation vacation you'll ever have.

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Silky white sand, transparent turquoise waters, an ocean-view platform covered with graceful bodies in Triangle Pose. One look at the yoga retreat pictures and I wanted to be there, hoping that I, too, could drop back from the distractions of everyday life and step into a deeper inner awareness. Or at least have a refreshing break. At the time I was a new yogini—my practice born at the local YMCA—still fumbling and all about asana. Even though I wasn’t quite sure what it would entail, this escape to the Bahamas seemed the perfect opportunity to learn more about my yoga practice.

So I signed up for my first yoga retreat, but not without considerable trepidation. The internal questions started flying not long after I handed over the numbers on my credit card: What will the food be like? Who will I talk to at meals? Will I be able to keep up in the twice-daily yoga classes? And the biggie: Was I, as a yogini, ready for such an experience? It felt like the night before the first day of school all over again.

For anyone, especially a beginner, who has yet to experience the joys of a yoga retreat, it can be difficult to make that commitment to travel to a new place and practice with unfamiliar people or a new teacher, all the while trying to relax, fit in, and make the most of precious vacation time. The fact of the matter is that going on a retreat is a big step in anyone’s practice—one that stretches you (and your comfort level) physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Curious Beginnings

More than a decade later, I see that first retreat as my initial exposure to some yogic ideas and practices I hadn’t encountered before: I was introduced to kirtan (chanting), Ayurveda, stilling the mind for meditation, and more. Later, after I returned home, I found myself inspired to continue with my yogic studies. In short, my Bahamas retreat started me down a path that took me from cautious hatha practitioner to curious yogini ready to embrace and study all that yoga had to offer.

Angela Farmer has led yoga retreats for more than 40 years in locales as diverse as Greece, England, Florida, and Chicago, and she knows it’s not easy to dive into the unknown of a yoga getaway. She believes, though, that you’re ready to sign up for a retreat if you have an interest in spending more time without interruption on your practice and want time between classes to rest and digest it.

Sounds simple enough. Retreats provide ample opportunity to leave a lot of things behind—job, family, familiar surroundings—so you can create a space in which to explore yourself through yoga, wherever you are in your practice. “I had never been on a vacation where it really was all about you, and what worked for you, in a very nurturing environment,” says Beth Vershure, of Tempe, Arizona, about her first yoga retreat, which took her to Japan. “I found it incredibly liberating and opening. It’s traveling through yoga. You get to see a place you’ve never been to and have this practice that leaves you completely nourished.”

A retreat is a transformative experience that yogis of all levels can appreciate. Like everything else in life, it’s best not to have too many expectations of a retreat, but it is helpful to do some research and be clear about your intention—whether that’s taking your asana practice to the next level, plunging deeply into meditation, connecting with other yogis, or some of all of that. And if it’s your first retreat, be open to the newness of it all—just as you were the first time you unrolled a sticky mat.

Good Intentions

A yoga retreat is a vacation, one that can be restful or exhilarating, depending on how you go about things. Like a vacation, a retreat also requires a bit of careful planning, and it’s in your best interest to ask any questions you need to in order to set off for your adventure feeling relaxed, excited, and ready to get the most out of the experience.

Perhaps the most important pre-retreat question to ask yourself is: Why are you going? “To help ensure that you get what you came for, set an intention,” says Jenne Young, director for Retreat and Renewal and Healthy Living programs at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “Each morning renew what you want to get out of your stay, and you’re more likely to get it.”

Your intention could be as simple as committing (or recommitting) to your yoga practice, evaluating your life, or getting over heartbreak. To help set an intention before leaving town, Elizabeth Cronise of New York, 37, a veteran of about a dozen retreats, meditates on a particular area of her life that she’s struggling with or an issue she would like to resolve, like allowing herself to heal after the sudden passing of a dear friend. On one retreat, she decided to work just on inversions. “I’ve also focused on celebrating things that are going well,” she says. “I even set intentions while on retreat for how to carry forward into my daily life certain things I’ve learned.”

Trip Planner

If you have limited time off and your retreat needs to satisfy some pent-up desire for a vacation, you may want to make location the next consideration. Would you be most inspired by ocean air, majestic mountains, a vast desert, or a tropical escape? A beautiful setting and the energy of a place can have a tremendous impact, which partly explains why Mexico’s idyllic Mayan Riviera, verdant Hawaii, and lush Costa Rica attract so many yogis.

“For me, yoga comes alive in nature,” says Prana Flow Yoga teacher Shiva Rea, who leads retreats around the world, from Greece, India, and Bali to Costa Rica, California, and Hawaii. “We go to some of the most powerful places on the planet. In a retreat center, people resonate with the sacredness of that environment.” (Find out, too, about the weather: A hurricane drove me out of a retreat in Mexico four days early in July 2005; I went back later—but this time in March, when the weather is milder.)

Once you know what you hope to gain from a retreat and where you’d like to go, it’s time to start planning. Just like on that first day of school, you can spare yourself a lot of anxiety by having a good idea of what you’re getting into. Many people choose to go on retreat specifically to spend more time studying with a teacher they know and enjoy. But you can also take a chance on someone you haven’t spent much time with. If that’s the case, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the retreat leader to determine if their personality and style of practice are a match for you.

“Take a look at the classes the teacher leads on a daily basis,” says David Romanelli, creator of the Yoga + Chocolate and Yoga + Wine workshops. “Certain instructors teach kick-your-ass-type Power Yoga classes; chances are their retreats will draw people at a similar level.” If possible, take a few classes with them before you sign up for a week in their company. If that’s not possible, don’t be afraid to ask the organizer if you can have a brief conversation with the teacher and interview them about their style of practice and their intention for the retreat.

In general, though, don’t let the amount of yoga—which may well be a lot more than you do at home—scare you off. That was one of Vershure’s fears on that first retreat. “I didn’t know if I was a good enough student. The itinerary said you did four hours a day of yoga, which is more than I’d ever done in my life, and I had never done meditation.” Often, retreats will include a more physically demanding practice in the morning and a gentle or restorative session in the afternoon. This is definitely something to ask about.

If the amount or intensity of yoga is intimidating, remember that at most retreats, everything is optional. You can drop into Balasana (Child’s Pose) at any time, modify the poses, or simply forgo a class. “After the third or fourth day, I took a session off,” Vershure says. “I felt a little bit overwhelmed, so when it came time for the afternoon class, I took a walk.” Many teachers also modify classes, adjusting poses to the students’ level of expertise and past injuries, or sometimes offer sessions at different levels.

Similarly, if you get tired of communal meals or want to skip an evening satsang, or gathering, for whatever reason, there’s no retreat police to veto eating alone or heading for a hammock with a good book instead. “I showed up nervous to my first retreat,” Cronise says. “But I didn’t need to be. No one was going to say to me, ‘Don’t take a day off.’ Retreats are more intense than what I’m used to doing every day, but I never ended up sore or injured. But there were days where my body is doing things I didn’t know it could do.”

A yoga getaway is also a time to explore the subtler and deeper aspects of your practice, and, as with your practice back home, what’s most important is listening to your body, as Farmer stresses. “Students can take it deeper or stop and take a rest,” she says. “As a retreat leader, I’m there to guide them so they unravel themselves, rather than overwhelm them and make them feel more tangled up.”

Group Mentality

Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as the type to sign up for a group vacation, many yogis and yoginis say that it’s the people on a retreat that make all the difference. After two retreats, Vershure counts some former fellow retreat guests among her best friends. “I do not like to travel with groups as a rule,” she says. “But the kind of people who are attracted to a yoga retreat are terrific people. These are people who have a similar worldview, and they’re very warm and nurturing.”

The gift of a community that grows during a retreat—even a short-lived one full of simple pleasures and without the history and complications of daily life—may be a retreat’s most transformative legacy, lasting much longer than doing a new arm balance or visiting a place you’ve never been to before. Romanelli calls this phenomenon “spring break for older people.” “I always say that retreats are a different way to travel,” he says. “When you’re older, it’s harder to make friends, and what I’ve seen is that most people make friends on yoga retreats. They go on a bus together, eat together, do yoga together, and it brings you back to being a kid again. More than anything else, it’s the experience of bonding with people.”

Let(‘s) Go

In the end, a successful yoga retreat is often a lot less about asana and a lot more about being open to what happens. Of course it’s not a vacation in the traditional sense—you have to participate in it, and if you do, the dividends can be profound and might just transform you and your practice. “My advice is go with an open heart and a sense that you’re willing to take what comes,” says Cronise. “It’s an opportunity to really open up and grow.”

If you’re still unsure, consider booking a long-weekend retreat that’s closer to home, suggests Romanelli, who thinks the ideal length of time is a Thursday through Sunday, especially for someone who’s never been on a retreat before. That way, you’ll get a sense of what a retreat is like, but if it turns out not to be your style, you won’t have invested a lot of time or money.

Once you’ve done your homework, booked the retreat, and packed your mat, do what you can to stay receptive to the mystery and magic of what comes up, inside and out. After all, this can be much more than just a few days away from home. A retreat can restart your life in new ways, including some you never thought of. Or it can just be a great vacation (though never an ordinary one). “There will be a point in the retreat where we may start letting go of more and more asana, and it becomes more sublime,” Rea says. “The group energy field starts to create what’s needed. We also change according to the rhythms of the seasons of the year. That’s what retreats are about: learning to do that in the rest of your life.”