Taking Yoga Beyond the Mat
Enhance your health and get closer to nature at these picturesque yoga retreats in the United States.
There was a time when taking a break only meant going on a carefully planned holiday. Today, people want something more than just some time away from the familiar. And thus, options like yoga retreats are fast becoming a popular choice for vacations.
Here are four popular yoga retreats in the United States.
Rolling Meadows is a 40-hectare yoga and meditation retreat center in coastal Maine. The center, as it now exists in its current location, began in 2001. Surya-Chandra Das, co-founder and one of the resident teachers, says, “We had been teaching at retreats in various places around the world and also had a yoga studio. We decided we wanted to work primarily out of a location that was in a rural and quiet area in the natural world.”
Rolling Meadows’ retreats combine the physical postures of yoga with pranayama and meditation. Participants enter into silence after the meal on the evening of their arrival at the center. “We call this ‘social silence,’ and it continues until the last morning of the retreat,” says Das. “The silence is an essential aspect of these retreats.”
Seeking a retreat is a personal and individual choice, but for most people, it’s an opportunity to take a break from their busy lives. As Das says, people “often feel overwhelmed by daily demands and want to experience the physical, emotional and spiritual renewal provided in a retreat.”
Rolling Meadows serves a very diverse clientele from all over the world and from different backgrounds, comprising students, professionals and retired people. “Everyone has different expectations and different experiences,” says Das. “Perhaps, the one thing most seek is an opportunity to connect to their inner peace and wisdom, that can often be lost in their busy and demanding lives.” As client testimonials show, these retreats are often a time of “honest self-reflection” and a time to live simply. For others, this is a time for yoga with little interruption.
The most important aspect of the retreats is they offer a thorough immersion in the natural world. “The retreats have a maximum of 11 participants, which allows for individual attention, if requested by the participants,” says Das.
Four years ago, Rolling Meadows started Maitreyi Vedic Village, a retreat in Tamil Nadu. “It is a very special retreat facility built in the vedic tradition,” says Das. “It is a stunningly beautiful and quiet location, offering authentic Ayurveda treatments.”
In 1977, holistic physician Stephan Rechtschaffen and educator Elizabeth Lesser were inspired by Eastern meditation teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan to found Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. In its first year, Omega hosted only a few hundred people. In 1981, Omega expanded from its rented facilities in New York and Vermont to its current home in Rhinebeck, New York, spread over more than 100 hectares. Today, it hosts more than 500 teachers and 23,000 people each year, and reaches over two million people through its website. “This is one of the United States’ longest running retreat centers,” says Chrissa J. Santoro, external communications manager at Omega.
Each year, Omega offers dozens of programs covering the full spectrum of yoga traditions, besides workshops, retreats and teacher training, from the rigorous to the restorative. The programs usually take place over a weekend, or from Monday through Friday, though yoga teacher trainings are longer.
The institute offers yoga programs for all levels, from beginner to advanced. “The majority of our guests stay on campus, though it is possible to commute to most programs,” says Santoro. “Some want to explore yoga for the first time in a safe and trusted environment, or get back into their practice, while others come to go deeper into their existing practice or get certified to teach.”
Teachers here are bona fide yogis, with deep knowledge of their practice and experience of leading retreats. “We generally seek out the original founder of any particular discipline, if he or she is still living, rather than his or her students,” says Santoro. “We carefully read our participants’ feedback, both for evaluations of current teachers and for interest in new topics and teachers.”
Between workshop hours, guests can enjoy daily open classes in yoga, tai chi, meditation and movement; boating and swimming at Long Pond Lake, from June to August; basketball and tennis; extensive nature trails; and evening events including concerts, films and sample workshops.
A unique aspect of the institute is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, one of the first green buildings in the United States to receive both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certifications. The building serves as an environmental education center and natural water reclamation facility—treating 100 percent of Omega’s wastewater with zero chemicals and net zero energy.
Omega is now preparing to launch a new website that will be highly interactive and offer more online learning. People across the globe will be able to browse articles and videos, and participate in programs via live stream and online programs at eOmega.org.
Big Sur in California is testimony to the natural beauty the United States is famed for. The locals call it “The Island.” Located on the promontory on Big Sur coast, with hot mineral springs, is the 48 hectares of fertile land of Esalen. According to its website, Esalen is a nonprofit center for “exploring and realizing human potential through experience, education and research.” It offers various workshops on yoga, meditation, personal transformation and communication.
Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen, has a deep connection with India, having lived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry for a year and a half before starting the Esalen Institute in 1962, with his fellow Stanford University graduate, Richard Price. The primary motivating factor was a deep need to foster freedom of thought and encourage innovation in the academic, medical and sociological areas. The idea was to create a space where ideas and thoughts could flow unrestricted. Thus, Esalen sponsors pioneering initiatives and offers personal, spiritual and social transformation practices to residents, interns and workshop participants, through about 600 workshops and retreats a year.
Esalen opened its doors over 50 years ago as a center for personal and societal change, and has had more than 750,000 visitors since its inception. Costs can be a constraint, so the center offers general scholarships for student aid, and specific ones to help with workshop tuition and accommodation.
The Esalen Center for Theory and Research sponsors research, theory and action to promote positive social change and new worldviews that can be “a transformative practice that can embody it, since vision without action is lame and action without vision is blind,” says its website. Fritz Perls, co-developer of Gestalt Therapy; Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist; Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist, and many other scholars, therapists and researchers have spent several years at Esalen.
Big Sky Yoga Retreats
Big Sky Yoga Retreats blends yoga and activities like hiking, horseback riding, photography, cooking and wine tasting, for women. Different types of yoga like ashtanga, restorative and vinyasa flow yoga are practiced here. It offers summer and winter programs in the scenic mountains of Montana and in different countries like Italy and Costa Rica.
Big Sky’s exclusive Cowgirl Yoga program, a set of retreats for women with an emphasis on horseback riding, is very popular. It includes, for instance, a four-day, three-night women’s retreat in Clyde Park, dedicated to creativity, renewal and the beauty of horses. Called Cowgirl Yogatography, the retreat combines yoga, horses and photography for amateur photographers and yoginis to help them explore the horse-human connection and tap into their creative core. Testimonials reiterate how confident participants became with photography, besides feeling rejuvenated. The Luxe Cowgirl Yoga retreat is focused on horseback riding and yoga in Clyde Park. It is aimed at those yearning for “mental space to think, physical space to move, and spiritual space to reconnect with nature,” says Big Sky’s website. It isn’t about complicated poses on horseback, but rather about connecting with horses in serene settings. This realigns bodies and deepens yoga practices, in their restored barn studio on a 600-hectare Double T River Ranch.
Big Sky’s Yoga and Hiking retreat takes yoga beyond the mat to the mountains. Daily yoga and hiking are supplemented with discussions, reflection, intention setting and meditation based on themes from Richard Louv’s book, “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.” This includes a hike to the Beehive Basin, surrounded on three sides by the 10,000-foot Spanish Peaks. The Advanced Hiking and Yoga retreat includes a more challenging hike to Bear Basin, a 19-kilometer round trip with wildlife sightings of elk, birds, black bears and moose. The back, hips and core are of special focus with yoga on the trail and post-hike restorative yoga.
The Yoga and Yellowstone program is described as “the intersection of scenery and savasana.” This is held at the B Bar, Big Sky’s private 3,600-hectare ranch and an extension of the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. This also involves trekking to Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Spring and visits to the Boiling River as well as the nearby Gallatin Petrified Forest, where ancient volcanic activity buried and preserved the forest 55 million years ago.
Big Sky offers a retreat for breast cancer survivors or those currently undergoing treatment. Cowgirls vs. Cancer is a unique retreat designed to provide rejuvenation and healing for women battling breast cancer. In 2017, Cowgirls vs. Cancer and 99 other caregivers, researchers, philanthropists, advocates and volunteers were honored by the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center for their commitment to changing how people fight cancer.
Big Sky provides many other retreat options, which ensure that yoginis not only improve their health but also have an enjoyable and memorable time off from their daily routines.
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.