‘Yoga Retreats for *ummies’

I cracked open a copy of ‘Business Plans for Dummies’ years ago when I first contemplated starting my own yoga studio. For a right-brained, seat of the pants kind of gal like me, it proved to be really helpful. I had a $500 start-up budget, unlimited optimism, rose-colored glasses, and a husband who’s job it was- and still is- to keep my feet planted on something resembling terra firma. Luckily, Martin’s inherent caution and my propensity for throwing it to the wind combined to create a good plan with a solid vision statement. 

As part of the preparation for the upcoming yoga retreats I will be leading, I am writing a little guidebook. It’s a kind of ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ for those who want to go on a yoga retreat, whether it’s for a 1/2 day, 3 days, or a week. It is put together from the perspective of someone who has attended retreats, assisted at retreats and led retreats. By next year, I should have more to say about taking the longer leaps into month-long (and beyond…) inner adventures.

Let us start with Desire, Intention and the all-important Reality Check.

  • Why does the idea of a ‘yoga retreat’ appeal to you?
  • Do you lean towards being social and gregarious, or are your more internal? Can you allow for other aspects of your personality to come through? If you need solitude, or a good conversation, can you communicate that to the people around you?
  • Does time away feel like a treat, a reward, a necessity?
  • Can you step away from your regular routine and allow those staying behind to take care of the things you normally see to, in their own way, and let go of needing to have it all done your way?
  • Are you hoping to learn something new about yourself or about your yoga practice? Can you articulate those desires to your retreat leader, or the staff, in a timely fashion such that your ideas are taken into account and perhaps integrated into the retreat curriculum?
  • Can you leave the physical comforts and routines of home and be flexible with the retreat center’s facilities?
  • Can you make allowances for a potentially tough re-entry, and take care of your needs while balancing the reality of what awaits you back home?

Checking in with your intentions and desires in the weeks prior to going on a retreat encourages a more ‘realistic’ mindset for your time away. Know that you might have some surprising or challenging thoughts when you unhook from your usual ‘roles’ and are allowed to marinate in your own juices. You get to look at a kind of emotional spice rack, and sprinkle in some seasonings you haven’t tasted in awhile, or even used before. Do some mental prep work beforehand. It’s every bit as important as making sure you’ve washed and packed your favorite yoga pants.

Then we move on to the Body: 

  • Are you currently engaged with a regular asana practice?
  • If you aren’t, are you injured or recovering from injury? Can you make the commitment to practice at home or to attend some yoga classes prior to the retreat, so that your body won’t go into shock? People who get injured on yoga retreats tend to be the ones who are not practicing regularly, or who have hopes that this event will jump-start their practice. Set reasonable expectations for the body you have today.
  • If you do have a regular practice, are you looking to deepen your understanding of your current approach to practice, or to learn new poses, more physically challenging poses, or conversely, poses to support the changes your body might be going through right now?
  • Are you ready to focus more on breathwork and meditation?
  • Are there foods, supplements or medications that you need to stay healthy, balanced or ‘regular’? If so, pack some travel-sized containers of necessities. A weekend retreat is not the time to make huge dietary changes, but it can be a time to eat more slowly, enjoy meat-free dishes, abstain from alcohol (or caffeine, or sugar, or potato chips) without putting yourself in a risky situation.
  • Can you sleep in a room with other people, most of whom you’ve probably not shared bedroom space with before? Always let the retreat leader and staff know if you snore or have sleep apnea. Let them know if you want to be roomed with a particular person or group, or if there is someone you would prefer to not be housed with.

Take the time beforehand to ready your body for the physical rigor of 2-3 hour yoga classes. You probably won’t be moving in and out of asanas that entire time, but you will be constantly re-engaging in a sustained linking of body, breath and intention, as well as paying attention to the teacher. It can be simultaneously exhausting and enlivening. If you are coming in injured, or recovering from injury or illness, it is especially important to let the leader know and to monitor yourself honestly. Pack any necessary medications and make sure the support staff knows who to contact in case of emergency.

Thirdly, let us come to the Heart, the Soul, and the Emotions:

  • How is the state of your heart and your soul? Do you journal or paint or dance or sing, or have in place a spiritual or mindfulness practice that encourages a regular ‘check-in’?
  • Are you having any emotional challenges or difficulties at the present time? Are you under psychiatric care and/or on medications for issues that could present challenges to the retreat leaders and your fellow retreaters if something goes awry?
  • Are you on the verge of making a big decision? Or not at the verge quite yet, but understand that some kind of profound change is potentially imminent? Is retreat time a way of quieting yourself so that the deeper voices might be heard?

I have seen some profound emotional shifts and openings happen on yoga retreats; I have also seen breakage, splintering, frustration, and unexpected sorrow and joy occur in the short course of 3 days. We might come with Great Expectations, and leave disappointed because we still feel mired in our old ‘stuff’. We might come for the good company, and leave with a deeper appreciation for someone we finally got to have that long conversation with.

Every retreat gets a site-specific ‘Packing List’, and includes things like flashlights, slippers, and bedding, as well as clothing and gear for seasonal activities. We usually include a map and driving directions and try to link up those who want to carpool. This coming year, I will be sending out another packing list as well. This one will require a bit of introspective homework and will include a kind of ‘map’ for the emotional body. It will suggest ‘tools’ that might come in handy if you get stuck: a journal, a favorite copy of the yoga sutras and perhaps some other book that serves as a spiritual or moral guide. Like working with yeasted dough, working with our inner self requires a bit of time in the right setting to let all the ingredients go to work and do their thing effectively. A little bit of preparation for a yoga retreat goes a long way toward a richer experience, especially if you are willing to gather many of the ingredients ahead of time, and then just sit and let things ‘rise’.

Next chapter: ‘How to Maintain Your Rosy Post-Retreat Afterglow’


3 thoughts on “‘Yoga Retreats for *ummies’

  1. This is the single best piece of instructional writing that I have read in many weeks. It has been 9 weeks since my last dog dog due to morning/midday/night sickness. Breathwork= stronger than ever. Sitting/Meditative practice=learning how to just sit with the nausea. Physical Asana= nada. TONIGHT, I shall simply keep a bucket at the head of my mat and stay low to the ground. THANK-YOU FOR THIS prompt to overcome my own inertia as I consider the logisitcs and possiblities with my capacity to participate in a retreat in the coming months!!


  2. My list making self loves this post. I have been all about bringing the essentials to a yoga retreat — toothbrush, yoga mat, water bottle. Liza, what I love about your retreats is that you think of the what-might-at-first-seem-like-non-essential essentials. A little rug, candles, a statue, a tree branch pregnant with flowers, these things did not seem important to me until I saw how a few items as a centerpiece can create a sense of peace and well being, so essential to a retreat. I am rethinking my camping list and my “what to bring to retreat” list, so that at the top is intention and next in line something that means something to me, that brings me peace & comfort, as essential as the toothbrush.


  3. In my experience, when I want to drink more fully of retreat time, I come prepared with some things that are ‘familiar’, say the socks and blankets that signal ‘comfort’ to my nervous system. The process of diving deeper is enhanced by not having to move through all that external unfamiliarity. And doing the preparatory ’emotional’ work helps, too, especially some meditation, some asking of yourself, simply, ‘what is my question?’


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