Digital detoxing, massaging strangers and involuntary face plants: A beginner’s guide to what REALLY happens on a yoga retreat
It could be said that yoga retreats are becoming a popular choice for busy professionals, the word conjuring images of being locked away to regenerate, safe from the busy mad world that we live in.
Ask Google what happens on a yoga retreat and you’ll find lots of posts about how you’ll learn to open your mind and love yourself, break bad habits and deepen your practice, which is all wonderful and true to a point.
If you are a yoga newbie thinking about trying a full retreat for the first time, what you probably really want to know is: Do I have to have to wear hemp clothing while banging on a gong at 6am? Do I have to like lentils or live off liquid? Will there be WiFi and booze? Will it be a week of my holiday allowance spent with windy vegetarians chanting around incense sticks?
Research continues to show that slowing down, looking inwards and being more mindful helps us to live and work better. The rise of new generation retreats designed with modern lives in mind means that you don’t need to journey to a mountain-top ashram to find peace anymore.
I’ve been practising yoga for five years now, initially as a way to help relieve symptoms of depression, then to help with back problems but now it’s because I love it. I’ve been to five yoga retreats, the first one I plunged into after taking part in a couple of yoga classes on YouTube and I was surprised at what really goes on, who goes and how it makes you feel – something I want to share as I know there are some weird and wonderful theories out there.
A few things you need to know about me before I start:
- I have no willpower
- I do no exercise other than yoga
- I don’t eat particularly clean and love cake, wine and chocolate
- I hate early mornings
- I hate being around people all the time
- I love my home and home comforts unless luxury is promised
Basically I was (still am to a point) an anti yogi where my lifestyle is concerned and a retreat should be my idea of fun kryptonite so if I can return LOVING IT, desperate to book more then you, a normal person should find it glorious.
So here we go:
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO SPEND ALL DAY IN CLASS
A retreat is not a school, or prison, and you won’t be expected to be bending from dusk till dawn. Often there are two classes per day, at sunrise and sunset.
And in between there is something called ‘free time’. A foreign concept to many of us, I know, and actually the thing that most challenged my yogic classmates and I during the week. But I understand now that it means a few blissful hours with zero plans doing ‘old school’ past times like reading and walking.
You won’t be expected to ditch your phone at the door. Any retreat is a business and will love you sharing social media updates but if you can limit using your phone then it will really help you unwind. I kept in contact with family but refused to look at any work emails which helped me relax no end.
Be prepared that you may spend lots of free time napping as you are so relaxed which suited me! For those that like to keep busy, there is a sense of ‘mucking in’ on any retreat so laying the table for dinner or helping chop veggies will always be appreciated.
The surroundings are generally part of the magic of a retreat, and even the more basic ones will usually be held in beautiful remote locations like Tuscany, Morocco, Mexico or Goa, which makes them a brilliant way to explore a new part of the world
- YOU WON’T BE STARVED/FORCED TO DETOX
Think you’ll be sleeping on a plank of wood and starved of all your favourite foods? Think again. There are some back to basics retreats but all of the ones I have been to have been in hotels frequented by supermodels or stately homes used for middle class weddings. Relaxing is much easier when you have soft sheets and roll top baths.
I have never been disappointed by the food at a yoga retreat; in fact I come away with different eating habits and a renewed vigour to try new recipes. I never thought I would find vegan food tasty before one retreat, I never made my own juices until another and I’d never baked figs and rasberries into porridge until the last one.
The biggest shocker will be how you feel satisfied by healthy food and don’t feel the need to snack as you aren’t facing some of the life stresses associated with ‘needing’ sugar or caffeine.
Where alcohol is concerned, it’s always been allowed, even supplied. Believe me when you get a group of (normally) women taking a break from their lives for a weekend then wine is often involved, even encouraged. Just don’t do what I did and sink a bottle of red with dinner and then wake up groggy before having to take part in an inversions (upside down) class.
- NOT EVERYONE IS BUILT LIKE KATE MOSS AND BENDIER THAN A PIPE CLEANER
You really do get a mixed group at any retreat. My assumption was that yoga attracted middle class mums that needed a break from looking after little Tarquin and were determined to restore their pelvic floor before their husband ran off with the nanny.
Well you do get a few middle class mums but also students, professional females, bus drivers and even a few men. The beauty of a retreat is, whatever your background you all have something in common – the will to do more yoga and to relax. In my experience yogis are the most peaceful and sweet group ever. I should mention that I have always gone to yoga retreats alone rather than with a friend, shared a room with a stranger and never felt awkward, and I am queen of social awkwardness.
As well as mixed backgrounds, there will be mixed abilities. I’ve had yoga teachers attending my retreats and people that have never set foot on a mat before. Everyone is there to learn and help each other.
- YOU WILL NEED SOME WILLPOWER
Unless you do escape to an ashram or hide away in a cave you will need some willpower to make your experience as effective as possible especially if you’re like me and always like to feel naughty in breaking rules.
A lot of modern retreats try to be realistic about how far students are really ready to ‘retreat’ and so will offer guidelines on food, free time, exercise and sleep, rather then an enforced way of living for the week.
Most retreats have no non-yogi guests staying in the hotel who may be glued to their phones or living it up during happy hour at the bar which really helps, plus retreats tend to be very remote so any illicit activities are limited.
You will need willpower to turn your brain off from work and to really absorb yourself in the experience. I found I needed willpower to even go to class by midweek as your muscles start to ache and the thought of one more downward dog is horrible, but I pushed through.
I find it hard to have willpower when I’m not great at something from the off – I want to throw in the towel and sulk but I reminded myself as to why I was there ‘to improve’ not be the best and it worked.
- IT DOESN’T COST THE EARTH
Yes there are some luxury retreats frequented by celebrities that are more like pamper spas but retreats can be really affordable. For weekend retreats in the UK I have only ever paid around £200-300 for 2/3 nights all inclusive (please see links at the bottom of this article). Retreats abroad can actually work out cheaper than those closer to home, the flight will often be the most expensive part.
I’ve just paid £500 for a week at www.azulfit.com and then an additional £150 for a return flight to Spain – not bad really.
There are lots of articles out there recommending retreats and sites like www.yogaonashoestring.com will help. Just make sure you go for true recommendations rather than companies that may have paid bloggers or advertisers to cover them.
- IT WILL SOMETIMES BE EMBARRASSING
Years of desk work, high heels and heavy handbags have left my body a little out of line. My tight wonky hips and shoulders did not want to play ball at all with lots of the poses that other students seem to bend into no problem, however I’m great at twisting, that was all mine and I made the most of it..
So, yes, you will suck at some poses. But you will ace others. And being able to spend four hours a day practising something means that of course you will improve – even by the end of the retreat you will notice an increased range of motion. I face planted, slipped over, stumbled and swore about fifty times a day but by the end of the weekend I did this 20 times a day – it’s all about progression.
Total relaxation + detoxification + contorting your body into new positions = often a recipe for involuntary noises to parp out. Yoga is all about release after all. Hopefully it won’t be you, but the good news is that it seems acceptable in yoga. Laughing however is not acceptable but I seem to do it every time (thanks dad for my innate toilet humour).
- YOU WON’T BE LONELY OR FORCED TO SHARE TOO MUCH
I’ve travelled alone before but I do not mix well. I like my own space and like to retreat to it when I want without some stranger being there.
Communal meals and partner work in class – including the massaging of and backbending over strangers – pushed me totally out of my comfort zone, but there was also a feeling of total acceptance and support. We were all in this together!
Each student had a different reason for visiting the retreat but each also brought an open mind and there’s something very liberating about spending time with people who know nothing about you.
No expectations or preconceptions on either side led to surprisingly deep connections very quickly, with many people sharing stories about their lives however there was also no judgement or whispering about anyone (I include myself in this) who chose to sit alone reading at times or have a cheeky nap.
- YOU WILL SEE A CHANGE IN YOUR BODY
Like most of the class, after two days of stretching and bending my body for hours at a time I was beginning to feel some aches and pains. BUT by day four suddenly there was the start of new muscle definition in my stomach, legs and shoulders that made any early twinges totally worthwhile. Even after a weekends retreat you will notice how you can bend deeper and stretch further.
And it’s wasn’t just changes to our bodies that we noticed. As the week went on the combination of regular yoga practise, serious relaxation, good food and sunshine meant that every student started looking better and better: skin improved, eyes got brighter, shoulders relaxed, we stood a little taller, looked a little happier; oh and I went to the toilet more frequently which is always a blessing.
A lot of us had arrived stressed, tired, hungover from life (and ‘maybe’ an epic red wine-fuelled pre retreat blow out) so the transformation into chilled out yoga bunnies was possibly inevitable, but nevertheless wonderful.
- YOU WILL FEEL LIKE A STONED ROCK STAR BY THE END
By day five of the retreat I felt tighter, lighter, brighter, full of energy and even excited about heading home to tackle some new challenges and incorporate what I had learned about yoga and myself into my real life.
I came away with a real sense of achievement and happiness, the realisation that I do have abs waiting to be discovered somewhere, and I definitely connected with myself and other people in ways I hadn’t before.
Yoga gives you a mad stoned floating feeling, your brain feels relieved and your mood lifted – something which is hard to obtain and hold on to in the real world.
Most retreats, include treatments meditation sessions and nutrition specials, to deliver speedy, serious benefits that students can take straight back into their busy lives so you wellbeing doesn’t stop at the door. Every retreat I have taken away lifestyle changes – not everything as I don’t want to change everything but little tweaks.
So I am a yoga retreat convert, yet I will caveat all of this by relating that retreats aren’t for everyone. Every retreat, yoga teacher, yoga style and student is different, so do research on the location, type of yoga, retreat rules and most of all think what you want to get out of it.
If you are quite new to yoga then I do recommend attending a local class or trying some on Youtube to find out which style you like and whether it’s for you. Lots of retreats vary from a day to a few weeks so start small to get a taster.
I also recognise that there will still be a majority that prefer a weeks blow out all inclusive holiday in Lanzarote to what I have described – to each their own, however I used to be that person and despite still liking that type of holiday, I now enjoy yoga breaks too and glad I tried something different as it enriched my life no end, more than unlimited cava in lanzarote does. Namaste.
Some of my favourite retreats/yoga companies/teachers on the east coast.