In 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: spiritplantjourneys.org), 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.
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.