Confession: I had been teaching yoga for ten years and practicing for nearly fifteen before I went on my first official yoga "retreat" (defined as a vacation whose primary purpose is yoga). Yes, I had chewed on and flirted with and tiptoed around the idea of going on retreats with various teachers and groups, but there was always something getting in the way--my schedule, my family, my finances. And then one day, I realized that unless I made MYSELF my priority, there would ALWAYS be something getting in the way.
So I hauled myself halfway around the world to India (I'm an overachiever, so weekend in the Midwest just wasn't going to cut it). That retreat changed my life. The yoga wasn't all that memorable. Nor were the accommodations. In fact, I can't point to one particular component that elevated it from the mundane to the sublime other than to say that the whole was undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. We transformed ourselves by practicing, breathing, feeling, thinking, eating, walking, and sitting together through an alchemy that was nothing less than magical. We laughed, cried, giggled, goggled, sweated, and breathed together until it was time to go. And we left with our memories as our souvenirs and a greater understanding of ourselves and our places in this world.
I understand if you're reading this and thinking, "Wow, a yoga retreat sounds awesome but I just can't swing it because [insert excuse here]." I've played the same soundtrack in my head too. Luckily, most of the roadblocks you're imagining are self-imposed. Once you start to dissect the reasons why you can't go, you'll probably realize that there aren't a lot of reasons why you SHOULDN'T go.
So here it is, in no particular order: the top five excuses people give when explaining why they don't consider yoga retreats as viable vacations:
1. I'm bad at yoga.
Okay, guys, REALLY? You are NOT bad at yoga. You may be a beginner, you may be stiff or inflexible or have poor balance or old injuries, but that doesn't make you bad at yoga. The only people I've seen who are "bad at yoga" are those people who aren't willing to feel and explore and try and listen. Yoga, when distilled down to its very essence, is the process of living with awareness, and the ability to put one's leg behind one's head, while impressive, doesn't necessarily elevate oneself to a higher spiritual plane--at least the last time I checked.
Assuming that you can breathe and feel at the same time, you're off to a good start. The next step is to find a yoga retreat that accommodates people at your level, whether it's beginner or intermediate or advanced. Most yoga retreats, unless otherwise advertised, have a "lowest common denominator" element designed to appeal to people who have a less than serious practice.
No one has ever gotten better at something he or she is "bad" at by avoiding it. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned yogi, a retreat can be a unique opportunity to delve deeper into your practice and afford you the opportunity to learn new skills. Take a chance. Pick a retreat that sounds accessible to whatever your level is, and dive in.
2. It's too expensive.
Let's face it--vacations aren't free. And taking any time off an income-generating pursuit for some "me" time means shelling out some dough. There are plane tickets, accommodations, meals, sightseeing, cabs or cars or gas, not to mention the hidden costs like taxes, surcharges and gratuities that bite you on the butt just when you think you've got it all figured out. If you're living paycheck to paycheck, it might not be the best time for you to invest in a destination retreat.
But assuming you have the resources to take a vacation, a yoga retreat makes a lot more sense that it might appear at first blush. First of all, retreats tend to include accommodations and at least some meals. And the accommodations might be nicer or more unusual than what's ordinarily available to the solo traveler. Traveling as part of a group allows the organizer to negotiate discounts and add bonuses and extras that are covered by the retreat fee. Even though you are responsible for arriving to the retreat (or a designated meeting point) on your own dime, your credit card will get a breather once you're on site.
Cruise and all-inclusive resorts are infamous for handing you the envelope at the end of your stay with all of the incidental charges you've incurred. Not so for yoga retreats. You pay up front and keep a little bit in reserve for incidentals--wine at dinner, a souvenir or two--without worrying about being hit with additional charges at the end of it all.
And if you're anything like me, the unquantifiable costs of vacation--the stress of planning, finding your way around, organizing, and delegating--are just not a factor. On a retreat, at least part of the day is made up of yoga. Some retreats offer additional activities or excursions--and even if they come at an additional charge, at least you don't have to figure out anything. You just show up. You have the freedom to do what you want to do, when you want to do it, and hopefully you'll choose a retreat where if you decide to sleep in one day and miss yoga, or go out on your own instead of as part of a group for dinner, no one will blink an eye.
Yoga's explosion into the mainstream means that there are hundreds of retreats offered and many, if not most, are more affordable than a non-yoga vacation might be at the same location. Don't let the up-front price tag spook you. When you consider the value of what you'll receive, you'll realize how economical a yoga vacation can really be.
3. I'm afraid to go by myself.
Solo travel can be scary. It brings up those old anxieties left over from high school of having no one to sit with in the lunch room. If you're so traumatized by those times, there's very little I can write that will change your mind.
But if you're willing to acknowledge your fears and still consider moving forward, my experience as a solo traveler (and this is coming from someone whose lunch room anxieties are still broadcasting loud and clear after thirty five years) has been empowering, gratifying, and supremely revelatory. Stepping out of your comfort zone all alone means you're opening yourself to new experiences and encounters with fewer tethers to your everyday life.
Yogis, as a group, tend to be friendly, open-minded, honest, and warm. Chances are you won't be the only solo traveler. And even if you are, a retreat is usually structured around a combination of communal activities interspersed with some free time. Your leader will help facilitate friendships--on the mat, during excursions, and even at meals. While you won't be stuck with your retreat buddies if you don't want to be, you may find yourself included as the newest member of a group of old friends.
4. It's too self-indulgent.
Some vacations may be downright indulgent: hiking through a jungle with a porter immediately behind you carrying cool towels; traveling in a limo through Northern California for a wine tasting; flying around the world in a private jet. And there's nothing wrong with any of these. People have different motives for taking certain vacations, and as long as you have the means and aren't harming anyone, more power to you. You're supporting the local economy, creating jobs, and recharging your own batteries at the same time.
Americans are particularly squeamish about taking time off for ourselves. Maybe it derives from our Puritan heritage, but when you visit Greece, you'll meet hordes of Northern Europeans who look at you like you're crazy when you say you're only in town for a week. "A week? Next time, you need at least a month," they will exclaim in shock. And they are right. They settle in, don't rush through their days, and enjoy the small delights their time in a new place has to offer. Say what you will about gross domestic product, but there's a reason that "joie de vivre" is a French expression, not an English one.
We live in a busy world with more obligations and less time than we need. Ironically, this is the very reason you NEED to take time for yourself. You know that old trope about putting on your oxygen mask before you put on your child's? It's still around today for a really important reason--it's true! You'll function at a higher level at work, in your personal relationships, and as a human being if you take care of yourself. If you're constantly putting others' needs first, not only will you become tired and resentful, you'll actually become WORSE at the things you're trying to do better.
And in the hierarchy of indulgence, yoga vacations tend to be moderate. Even a luxury retreat involves the actual practice of yoga, a little bit of meditation, and some activities that are consistent with yoga's tenets (a nature walk, perhaps, or a lecture on local farming practices and cuisine, or even dedicated time for journaling and self-reflection).
Would you tell your best friend that a little time for herself is too indulgent? Of course not. So treat yourself with the same respect and compassion. You've earned it.
5. I don't want to give up coffee and wine for wheat grass juice and hours of chanting.
When I tell people that I'm a yoga teacher, I'm always amazed and amused by the assumptions they make--that I'm incredibly flexible (I'm not), that I take handfuls of supplements every morning (I don't), that I never yell at my kids or my spouse (I do), and that I live a lifestyle that is non-specifically "healthy"(the jury is out on that one; I'm healthier than some, less so than others). Having a yoga practice is simply just that. It may, but doesn't always, lead to changes in your life and lifestyle. And that's just fine.
Some yoga retreats ARE structured more like supported cleanses, but yoga's popularity means that there are many, many more that are more like vacations with some yoga included. If you've had your eyes open recently, you may have heard of yoga and wine ("Yin and Vin"), goat yoga, yoga with chocolate (one of my favorites!), yoga with cooking classes that are decidedly NOT vegan or ayurvedic, and so on. In short, just as having a yoga practice doesn't force you to subscribe to any particular lifestyle, neither should venturing on a yoga retreat.
Yoga retreats, by their nature, are self-selecting processes. If you want something a little more spiritual, you'll find it and be supported in an environment with others who have the same priorities as you. If you're looking for a beach vacation with a little yoga thrown in, again, you'll find others looking for the same thing. No one will judge you for your morning coffee and your evening wine because they'll probably be drinking right next to you!
The hardest thing about a yoga retreat is deciding which of the many offerings to choose. Once you're committed, you'll have the adventure of a lifetime and return home with memories more precious than any you'd collect on your run-of-the-mill vacation. And now, in a shameless plug for Ready, Set, Slow, here is a documentary made by a summer resident of Lipsi that only scratches the surface of the island's beauty and magic.