The meaning of retreat

cover_currentIn the November 2009 issue of Yoga Journal, the article “great escapes” describes four types of yoga retreats: home, do-it-yourself (with friends), urban, and luxury. I was relieved that they covered a variety of retreats, which mean wildly different things to different people.

The word “retreat” literally means to withdraw (source:, and I subscribe to that definition. My ideal yoga retreat would be inwardly focused, a major departure from my normal life. By “departure,” I don’t necessarily mean leaving home. The setting can be familiar or foreign (although novelty does make an impression). Rather, this departure must be mental: a separation from my everyday idea of myself.

If I want to clear my mental slate, however, normal social dynamics get in the way. Even if it’s not a crazy social scene, there is ordinary social discourse. Where are you from? Why did you move there? What do you do? Strangers ask to be friendly and to satisfy their curiosity; it is human nature to gather information, to pigeonhole, to bond.

Now, I can be sociable and inquisitive myself. But, on retreat, small talk holds little interest for me. In fact, it stresses me out. I might want to think about my life, but I don’t want to talk about it. By answering people’s questions based on today, I am labeling myself in their minds—and in my own mind. Thus, my main criterion for an ideal retreat is minimal social interaction. I want absolutely no obligation to chitchat or even to introduce myself!

Due to my predilections, I’ve been only only two retreats longer than a week. On my first, I traveled with my yoga teacher and fellow students to Pura Vida, a secluded spot in (yet disconcertingly removed from) Alajuela, Costa Rica. The setup was typical, yoga in the mornings and evenings, with free time during the day to sightsee. In Costa Rica I realized that mixing yoga (inwardly focused) and group “destination travel” (outwardly focused) is not for me. And the summer-camp/tour-group atmosphere pushed me far from any real introspection.

Five years later, I went to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, off British Columbia) with my current main teacher. The group numbered 20-something, and the location was very remote. I predicted, correctly, that it would be low-key, with more yoga and less socializing. But, due to the close living quarters in a B&B, there was still too much togetherness for me.IMG_1050

Don’t assume that I disliked the people I met. Actually I quite liked a bunch of them. The point is not liking or disliking people: it’s the socializing itself. To me, neighborly, in-class interaction is “enough”: To know everyone’s names and bodies. To help one another clean up. To exchange little jokes or smiles. That is enough. The rest of the time, I want to focus on yoga—and to find the solitude and silence so elusive in normal life.

Some might view yoga retreats as a chance to travel, to splurge at a spa, to hang out with friends, to reconnect with a sister, to heal in a supportive group, and so on. Fine for them. Bottom line: know yourself and your expectations before shelling out for that dream retreat.

Maybe my next experiment will be a silent retreat. My boyfriend might counter my professed affinity for silence, pointing to my tendency to blurt out half-baked thoughts and talk in long-winded tangents. But, I’m serious. Silence might be the ticket.


  1. You are so right about the “know yourself and your expectations before shelling out for that dream retreat.” It doesn’t even have to be a dream retreat, even a day or weekend one can have an impact.

    The one retreat I participated in was a silence retreat as part of a required teacher training cirriculum. It drove me bonkers and here’s why: my husband was on his first deployment to Iraq. I live by myself, in the country, with my two hounds and no family in the area. At the time I was a field forester and worked out in the woods. It was a time of A LOT of solitude (ended up being two years).

    Then to have to go on a retreat where I was with people and couldn’t interact? I wanted to scream! I ended up grabbing a friend, the snowshoes, and hit the lake for an hour or two so I could vent and regroup.

    So I agree, know where you are at in that moment in time and who you are before committing to any kind of retreat.


  2. I am so with you about the minimal social interaction! for a training I did at Spirit Rock in California we had to attend 3 10 day (mostly) silent retreats. I LOVE silent retreats! but even tho it’s silent, you still see lots of issues manifest. I did my seva in the kitchen and man, let me tell you what yogis are so attached to and HATE to give up for 10 days! I was amazed, simply amazed, at peoples’ behavior.

    if I had my own teacher training, students would be required to do a 10 day silent vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka tradition. what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! 😉


  3. That is the beauty of yoga retreats, and yoga in general. Everyone can find something different that works for them. In today’s world, I think that is incredibly beautiful!


  4. Of all the retreats I know of, the Vipassana silent course is the only one that *enforces* no socialization. And having done one, I will say that it doesn’t kill you (not sure about the stronger part, but I did come back alive :))


  5. I’m what I would call a gregarious hermit, that is, I can be very sociable when put in a social situation, but generally prefer to be alone or just with my wife, rather than with a group.

    Your description of what you would like on a Yoga retreat is exactly what I like in general, and especially on vacation–solitude and time with Jane. I like to read and drive around the country-side.

    When Jane arranges a dinner with new friends she’s just met on the beach, I’ll go of course, and I’ll be gregarious, because I don’t want to seem like a pill. But I would always prefer to have dinner with Jane alone.

    So I don’t think I’ll ever do a Yoga retreat, although I have to say I did very much enjoy the Lake Geneva Yoga Journal conference, which is kind of like one.

    Bob Weisenberg


  6. A very nice thing about spending time at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires is the “silent” dining room and the cards at the front desk they have available to wear letting people know that one is in silent mode during other parts of the day. Wouldn’t it be great if we could wear these in day to day life, too?


  7. Great stuff here. Retreats are amazing. I have found nothing more powerful in my life than a 5-10 day retreat in formal community setting, once or twice per year. Its amazing what happens when we step out of the normal day to day and into the flow of pure life. Love it!


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