Often students ask me why they should go on a yoga retreat. I answer honestly “to do more yoga”.
But this doesn’t really do justice to their sincere question. Attending a residential yoga retreat is a completely different experience to attending yoga classes on a regular basis. Below I have tried to outline a few major points about the effectiveness of yoga retreats for yoga students.
One of the major reasons for going on a retreat to study yoga is to allow complete immersion in the subject. Languages are sometimes taught using the immersion method where the teachers speaks the new language for the duration of the class rather than English. This method is known to develop students very quickly in their ability to speak the new language. Similarly, this method of learning is used on a yoga retreat so that the students develop their ability to practice yoga independently quite quickly. When students are immersed each day for a number of days in a yoga environment, doing asana, pranayama and restorative yoga, reading yoga material and conversing with other students about yoga, their knowledge of yoga and their ability to practice it at a good standard improves quickly. Students become aware of the vastness of the subject and how much there is to learn. And in learning and practising the subject intensely, they experience clear changes in how they feel. The mind becomes clearer, the spirit feels buoyant and upbeat. Often qualities like determination and tenacity immerge as students grapple with the asanas and learn to perform them well.
Absence of distractions – being in the yoga moment
When we practice yoga at home or classes, we are still expected to respond to the demands of daily life. We have to go to work, attend to duties on the home front concerning family care and housework and deal with the myriad of crises that are so common in many of our lives. Attending to all of these things naturally takes precedence over our yoga practice. Our yoga practice is relegated to a lower level of importance. It gets squeezed in when we have time but often gets left out if something of greater importance comes up.
When we are on a yoga retreat the distractions of daily life are removed. Usually the location is some distance from home so that students can’t be expected to visit home and become engaged in r issues there. There is no attendance at work so the worries of a work day are not brought into the class. Hopefully, work can’t ring you either. We minimise television and screen use so that we are not disturbed by what is going on in the world. With the absence of these things, the mind has the time to become quite and go inward to focus completely on the study of yoga. The quality of study improves as does the performance of the poses.
Establish a daily practice
Because of the distractions of work, home and family life, it can be very difficult to establish a home practice routine. It is hard enough just to get to classes for some people. Being on a retreat is the beginning of establishing a daily yoga practice. Because students are attending classes daily at the same time each day, this can help to establish a pattern of practice that students often choose to continue when they get home. It may mean making decisions to change life at home to make room for more yoga. Often students leave a yoga retreat with confidence, clarity and a commitment to establishing a yoga home practice.
Establish a pranayama practice
A complete practice of yoga includes a regular (daily) practice of pranayama (breath control techniques). Practice of pranayama is even more effective than asana practice for quietening and stilling a busy mind. Yet pranayama practice is often neglected by busy students who often only have time for asana practice. A yoga retreat includes daily pranayama which students find quietening and soothing. The more it is practiced, the more profound the effect. For example, on day one of the retreat, some people will find it difficult to be still and concentrate on the breath so that the mind remains distracted. By day four or five, often for these students, concentration has improved and the mind can stay focussed on the breath and they can manage to effect some breath control with deep smooth inhalations and exhalations. Again students often leave a retreat with a renewed commitment to carve out time in their busy lives to include a regular pranayama practice.
Deeper yoga instruction
Most yoga classes in yoga schools are short – one to one and a half hours, and this includes the time for students to set up and settle into the class. There is often not enough time to really go deeper into some of the poses. Some groups of poses are best taught with some clear foundation poses first for a half hour or so – for example backbends often come well when preceded by standing poses and some inversions to ‘turn on’ the legs and arms in readiness for the backbends. This may only leave a short time for the backbends. This is also true for twists, forward bends and hand balancing work.
At a retreat, the daily asana classes are longer allowing more to be taught each session. The teacher will also plan the retreat so that there is a continuity of practice, linking the points given from day to day. This approach allows for teaching at a deeper level and hence allows students to penetrate their bodies more deeply and improve their practice significantly. Often students who have had difficulties or have been struggling in some poses for a long time find that the retreat is where the penny drops – all of a sudden they gain a new insight into how the poses are to be practiced. Statements of “Ohhhhh, now I understand, I can do it better …” are common.
Significant de-stressing, renewal and energising
Many students don’t know that they are stressed or carry tension in their bodies, even though they may come to regular yoga classes. Because they are also dealing with the demands of daily life mentioned above, tension and stress creeps into their bodies and mind every day, yet it is only discharged once or twice per week at their yoga class.
At a retreat, the combination of asana and pranayama practice plus plenty of time to rest and sleep and the absence of daily distractions allows students to discharge stress and tension completely. They really do feel renewed and reinvigorated by the end of a retreat. I remember the first yoga retreat I attended and was amazed at the feeling of renewal that I had. It felt so much better than even going on a holiday.
A sense of belonging in a community
The last point I want to mention about yoga retreats which often gets overlooked is the bonds between people and the friendships that are made at these events – often that go on to last a lifetime. Because yoga retreats attract likeminded people, the people often instantly like each other. It is possible to have a conversation about yoga that someone else understands and wants to participate in. I first went on a retreat over 25 years ago and have continued going to yoga events and retreats ever since. I met five people on my first retreat whom I became friends with. I would catch up with them at other yoga events or classes over the years. They became my best friends – and we are still friends 25 years later.
Yoga retreats can open up a whole new world of friendships, health and peace for the mind.