What You Should Know Before Going On A Retreat

meditation black and white

Summer is over, and if you’re the proactive kind, you’re already starting to plan winter and early spring trips. There are two kinds of people: those who seek out every opportunity to go on a retreat, and those who aren’t sure that signing up for an adult camp that promises relaxation and recharge (in the company of strangers) is right for you.

As someone who has organized and attended retreats from Thailand to India, Nicaragua and New Jersey, I can say that if you go to a retreat with an open mind, I am almost certain you will have a life-changing experience.

There’s something refreshingly liberating about traveling on your own to a totally new place, with a group of people you’ve never met. You get to face the version of you that has been tucked away under the pressure of routines and social norms. And oh my… that can be eye-opening.

“Vacation is about escaping. Retreat is about arriving.”

If you’re ready for a reset, check out Soulsparked Yoga Retreat with Abbi Miller in Nicaragua and Goddess retreat in Brazil with Jaycee Gossett.

Last week I went on a women’s full moon retreat with New Jersey-based yoga teacher and healer Summer Quashie, and here, she explores a fascinating question: “How is retreat different from vacation?”

tulum yoga retreat

Photo: callainmotion.com

As written by Summer Quashie and seen on tedxnavesink.com

How could slowing down enough to trace your finger through water, waking to watch the sunrise or sitting to meditate in a new place actually cause faster activity, development and progress? I live at and operate Seven Arrows, a retreat center in Locust, NJ. Each year, several hundred people visit for a weekend away from their busy lives to slow down, eat good food, meditate, do some kind of mindfulness practice and spend time in nature.

I also lead week-long retreats to beautiful places during the winter and participate in rigorous meditation retreats every year. Some people I see once a season, once a year or never again, but each person leaves refreshed, connected and joyful. However, it’s the positive feedback I receive months later and my personal experience with retreats that inspires this writing on acceleration.

How is a retreat different from a vacation?

Julianna Takacs, a fellow yoga teacher, and I posed a question to a group we recently took to Rincon, Puerto Rico, and we gave them a week to think about it. “How is retreat different from vacation?” Kevin Baxley, a participant in this winter’s retreat, who sat for hours looking out at the sea. His reply to the question, re-posed on the last day of retreat, was, “Vacation is about escaping. Retreat is about arriving.”

We arrive in the seat of ourselves on a retreat. We all have a connection to this life, whether we call it nature, the divine, or the lack of belief. We are all alive, and subject to death. Feeling the fullness of being alive is the connection to the seat of ourselves. Some folks come to take a break from a major project, to honor an anniversary of a friend’s death, to rejuvenate from care-taking, to ask, “what’s next in life,” or simply to allow things that have been brewing to have time to be seen and heard. Whatever the need is, arriving in the seat of oneself is the cure.

A good retreat creates a balance of pause and practice.

A break from regular routine—work emails first thing in the morning or alcohol and/or TV every evening— provides purification of the senses. Pause is also present in the personal time available on retreat. To try a new activity, like surfing, ignites courage and confidence. To construct a beautiful piece of art from found materials in nature that will soon be destroyed by the ocean invites in our childlike creativity. To sit and watch the horizon or stare at the sand and observe the fluctuations teaches the wisdom of impermanence.

Nine yoga and meditation sessions in six days can really light a fire for daily practice upon return. Engaged mindfulness practices, like yoga, tai chi and meditation, provide an accumulation of positive energy in our lives. This brings flexibility not only to our body, but also our minds. With tools like creativity, confidence, wisdom and flexibility, discovered outside of habitual patterns, many challenges can be solved. While all these things could happen with family on vacation, if the motivation is right, there are two more elements that a retreat offers to accelerate our sense of presence.

Diverse community and facilitation don’t happen on a vacation.

What you won’t discover on a vacation is the practice of stepping out of familiarity’s stage to live in community, which is guided by an experienced teacher. The creative group who attended the Rincon retreat worked on music, beautiful impermanent art in nature, local farm to table meals and had a week of living in community. You could take two yoga classes a day on vacation, but you are not engaged in conversation or observing silence at all your meals with your teacher and fellow students. One of the best ways I know how to expand tolerance and perspective is to share a meal with others. In our social media saturated world, it’s a rarity to get real slow time with a group this frequently.

To share a bathroom or a bedroom with a stranger can be the most intimidating part of retreat for some. What if you just don’t vibe with one of the participants? This is where the common thread of the teachers and the mindfulness practice weaves the community into a tapestry of awareness.

Challenges will surface on retreat. Signing up for retreat means you’ve signed up to purify the negativity that arises and practice mindfulness in living. As a facilitator, it is my job to energetically hold the space around the retreat, speak when it feels necessary, and remind the group that this is a practice field for real life. If we can break the habit of frustration with others and practice mindful communication with people on retreat, imagine what could happen in our daily lives. It’s not all challenges, however. Lifetime friendships, business partnerships and inspiring commitments are the more frequent scenes on a retreat’s tapestry. Discovering the lives of people doing mindful practices gives me hope about our world.

Softer, Kinder, Warmer, Brighter

When I return from a retreat, I have a ton of emails, phone calls and projects to tend to, but there is a joy, clarity and ease with which I approach my work. Time feels more vast and available. After returning from Rincon this time, I’ve accomplished more in four days than I have in three months. I’m eating healthier, have cut out the sugar and coffee, and have found a sweet balance of work, family and practice. But what is most significant is the feeling of being in and operating from the seat of myself. The glass ceiling that delineated the way I maneuvered life before retreat, has been shattered. It feels as though anything is possible. Slowing down to taste the salt in the air and meditate with the rising sun has accelerated my awareness of boundless space, thus allowing creative, diligent and authentic action to spring forth.

If you were to attend a retreat and arrive in the full embodiment of who you are, what would accelerate for you?