Beyond the Studio: Retreats Part I

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Zack Kurland’s first retreat to Kerala, India last year sounded amazing: 10 days in the country, learning about Ayurveda from a master who makes his own oils from jungle plants, and receiving treatments and massages. Kurland, a New York-based yoga teacher and cofounder of The Breathing Project’s New York City studio, hadn’t been to the site, but he knew the guru—he had lived and studied with him five years earlier. As it turned out, the location was gorgeous, but his guru had changed his focus from Ayurveda to a more spiritual practice, and from the moment Kurland’s group arrived, things went awry.

“It was an Apocalypse Now yoga retreat,” says Kurland, “We went up-river with Colonel Kurtz. People were upset, and he was angry because people weren’t dutifully subservient enough to his will.” The students had to pay extra for things they expected as part of the fee, and Kurland lost money. “Amazingly enough, all the people are still speaking to me,” he says.

A yoga retreat can be a blissful, rejuvenating excursion for the body, mind, and spirit, for you and your students. When things go right, you can be teaching in the fresh air, timing breaths to the sound of ocean waves. When things go wrong, your students wind up submitting to a guru and cleaning his temple, rather than learning about Ayurveda as promised.

On the bright side, Kurland says if he does another retreat in India, he knows exactly what to do—or what not to do.

Get a Sneak Preview

Not surprisingly, retreat veterans advise visiting your site in advance. “I believe you absolutely have to look at your properties,” says Jillian Pransky, who teaches in New York and New Jersey and has led a dozen retreats in the U.S. and Mexico. Pransky found her first international retreat site in Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun, when she was attending a friend’s wedding. Inspired by its beauty, she has held four retreats there.

Pransky advises examining the space where you’ll practice yoga. Things you take for granted while teaching in a studio might not be available in the retreat location. A thatched roof yoga pavilion can sound charming, but what happens if it rains? “Is it temperature controlled? Can you do Savasana (Corpse Pose) and not have neon lights over your head?”

Find out what else is happening at the location, if you will be sharing it with other groups. At one of her first retreats, in Kent, Connecticut, Pransky found she was sharing a hotel with a singles group. “While we were doing yoga in the boathouse, there was speed dating next door; and when we were doing meditation, there was a softball beer bong,” Pransky says. Intoxicated and unwelcome suitors even tried to enter her students’ rooms.

It’s possible to hold a retreat in a site you haven’t visited if it’s one that specializes in yoga, or if someone you trust has held a retreat there and recommends it. Some properties, such as Hotel Los Mangoes, in Montezuma, Costa Rica, increasingly are catering to yoga teachers. A local yoga teacher, Dagmar Spremberg, takes care of the local details, from the meals to providing mats, straps, and blocks.

Fun or Profit?

Retreats can be intimate gatherings of eight to 10 people, or larger groups with upwards of 40 students. Most teachers take the base cost of the space and meals, then tack on anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per student, says Spremberg, founder and director of Montezuma Yoga. Some hotels give teachers a discount based on the number of students they enroll. For example, if at least seven people stay in bungalows at Hotel Los Mangoes, Spremberg says, the teacher stays for free.

However, retreat planning is time-consuming, and retreats are not always profitable. “If a teacher thinks they are going to go in and make on bundle on these retreats, it is not really true, as there is a lot of overhead and a lot of work,” says Paula Tursi, director of Reflections Yoga in New York, who has led retreats at Hotel Los Mangoes for four years. “But they are definitely worth it. Even if not enough students register and you break even, it can still be a rewarding experience.” In addition, teachers can supplement their earnings by offering private sessions with students during the retreat, Tursi says.

Plan Ahead for Trouble

Imagine what can go wrong, and have a backup plan. After losing her voice at one retreat, Pransky now brings a cordless microphone on such trips. (The hotel supplied a microphone with a four-foot cord, which made it impossible for her to speak and demonstrate poses.) After getting sick another year and having to bring in a well-known teacher to take her place, which dissolved her profit from the event, Pransky now also brings a teaching assistant.

After his bad experience in Kerala, Kurland coproduced his next retreat with Tursi. “Being that close to nature, the birds, the smell of hibiscus flowers…it was total magic,” Kurland says. Because the retreat ran so smoothly, Kurland and Tursi could focus on their teaching. “It allowed Paula and I to teach and offer the students who came down a depth of our yoga in a way that we can’t on a day-to-day basis in New York.”

“It’s my favorite way of teaching,” Pransky says. “Teaching sequential classes to the same group of people allows you to see changes that aren’t possible when you see students once a week in the studio. You can see the changes in their body, and you teach so much more in the moment.”

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

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