Ah, retreat. Could there be anything more blissful? Retreats and yoga holidays aren’t only inspiring because they provide an opportunity to perfect that pesky Pigeon Pose; getting away from the everyday provides precious reflection time and can kickstart a renewed focus on health and wellbeing on your return.
While heading off on an organised retreat with your favourite teacher can be life changing, sometimes timing, budgets and, let’s face it, life get in the way. The solution? Create your own yoga holiday. It’s a fallacy that we need to spend a whole lot of money to create a rejuvenating yoga getaway. With a bit of planning and some lateral thinking it’s possible to build regular DIY retreats into your year without blowing the budget.
Before committing to a location, be honest about what you are hoping to get out of the experience: a holiday with a healthy, healing vibe or some serious spiritual insight? If it’s the former, don’t lock yourself up on a 10-day (silent) Vipassana meditation course or sign up for a long stint in an ashram (although both are great options when you’re in the right mindset). Instead, pick a small town or beachside village where you can create a yoga-oriented holiday that suits your schedule and budget.
Where to Go
DIY holidays are usually far cheaper than organised ones, so you may find that location-wise the world opens up. Start by considering the known yoga hubs such as Byron Bay in Australia, Ubud in Bali or Rishikesh in India. All will be packed with regular yoga classes—just find somewhere you like and go once or twice a day (early morning and late afternoon is ideal).
Once you’ve decided on the state or country, look for a beach destination, tranquil riverside village or vibey town that’s small enough to walk around. You may have no intentions to backpack, but noting where the backpackers settle in can be a good clue: there’s usually an expat somewhere in these areas who has set up a local yoga school (try Chiang Mai in Thailand, Mission Beach in Queensland or almost anywhere in Hawaii). If it’s a country where massage is part of the tradition (like parts of South-East Asia), so much the better, as you can add regular treatments to your self-made schedule.
Next, get online and Google “yoga + your destination” to check there are at least two places offering casual yoga classes. That way, if the first is closed (or a let-down), you’ve got a backup option beyond doing your own practice which, although highly recommended, may not be for everyone.
Lastly, find accommodation within walking distance of the yoga classes (Google Maps helps here). If you’re looking for the low-end options, like a beach hut in Thailand or Bali (off-peak season) don’t worry about booking, just turn up and choose somewhere with a nice atmosphere and an outlook you enjoy.
While away, your schedule is up to you, but to really create that yoga retreat vibe, find a daily rhythm. This could mean getting up early to meditate at sunrise before heading to a morning class; a healthy breakfast at the local cafe overlooking a beach or a river; a mid-morning walk, rest or massage before another afternoon class; a light dinner (ideally meat and alcohol free) and an early night. Multiply by four to 14 days and you’ll feel like a new person, guaranteed.
Who to Take
Given the busyness of our daily lives, a sudden hit of self-reflection time is not always comfortable. Having a friend or partner along for the ride can be fantastic if they are up for the same type of journey, but often, going solo will allow you space for contemplation without worrying that your companion is more interested in Singapore Slings than sunrise meditations. There’s a simple solution: do both. Head off early solo and ask your favourite travelling companion to meet you for a second week somewhere nearby.
What to Pack
There are no rules here. You’re setting the agenda, so if you want to load up with books, a fully charged iPod and some serious snacks, you can. Don’t go overboard though; a yoga holiday is a chance to slow down. Still, finding a balance between embracing the serenity of the location and having enough “props” to keep you content on the days when contemplating universal questions like “What is life all about?” gets a bit much is recommended. A yoga-oriented book can be a perfect companion—Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Maya Tiwari and Donna Farhi all write beautifully on yoga, meditation or Ayurveda, while Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Lucy Edge (Yoga School Dropout) have the yoga-light genre sewn up.
Try to make your retreat period both phone and internet free. If you think you can’t be this regimented without some intervention, deliberately choose somewhere where it’ll be difficult to get online and save the tapas (commitment) for your early-morning yoga practice instead. Remember also to take your yoga mat and any props you like to use—unlike an organised retreat, you can’t rely on these being provided for you if you’re creating your own yoga holiday.
Bringing it Home
Of course, if we could find the elusive balance between work, play and quiet time in our daily lives, there’d be less need to “escape” on regular yoga holidays. Nonetheless, life is a work in progress, so don’t be too hard on yourself here! Yoga holidays often prompt a healthier routine back at home, so harness the momentum and book into that class you’ve been considering, or take your once-a-week practice to two or three times.
Sue’s Top DIY Retreats
Costa Rica: After a few hard months travelling solo through Central America, I chose the beachy village of Montezuma for some yogic R&R. Arriving after a five-and-a-half hour bus ride ($12) from the capital San José, I booked into a cheap ($20 per night) room on the beach in the main town, ambled over the hill every morning to the stunning Anamaya Resort to attend daily yoga classes ($12), and spent a week in beach-side yogic bliss, all for next to nix.
India: It may be the home of yoga, but India is hectic, so unless you’re holed up in an ashram (of which there are thousands) you have to work hard to retreat here. If you don’t mind crowds, spend a week or two in Rishikesh, a five-hour train/cab ride from Delhi. Surely the world’s yoga capital, dozens of daily yoga classes and the evening aarti (prayer ceremony) by the Ganges river will leave you on a yogic high. Live in an ashram (plenty in town) or a cheap hotel (the west side of the Ganges offers tranquillity yet easy access to the main ashrams for classes). I’ve also found serenity in the McCleod Ganj region of the Himalaya. It’s home to the Dalai Lama and (less excitingly) hundreds of backpackers—staying in Dharamkot or another mountain village is most peaceful. The area is packed with yoga and meditation classes and courses of all lengths, as well as short courses in Indian dance, Indian music and Ayurveda. Down south? Try Varkala (a beach town in Kerala), or obviously, Goa, although, I believe the yoga vibe up north can’t be beat.
Thailand: Options abound here. Ko Samui and Chiang Mai both have plenty of yoga, but I bypassed these for the island of Koh Pha Ngan, a short ferry ride from Ko Samui. Before you protest, “What, the scene of the full moon parties?”, listen closely. Head to Hat Rin and take a boat away from the action to Haad Tien Bay; choose a beach-side hut (or if you’re not on a budget, splurge at The Sanctuary Thailand) for yogic tranquillity at its best. Anyone can attend The Sanctuary’s daily yoga classes ($9), or eat in its fabulous beach-side restaurant. There are numerous other cliff-hugging restaurants here, all satisfying places to while away time between classes reading or playing backgammon with new friends.
I passed 10 blissful days doing the following: morning practice on the beach, followed by breakfast and serious lolling about in one of the many restaurants, shooting the breeze with my new-found holiday friends (it’s so easy to meet people here). Afternoons involved a massage from the women on the main beach, yoga at The Sanctuary and more food, before bed in a cabin tucked among the nearby coconut grove. A recipe for serenity, all for about $70 a day.