Hands up if you’re dreaming of escaping the grind right now?
The rise of the 'wellness warrior' means there are now more healthy holiday options than ever and yoga retreats are becoming especially popular (where to go retreating is the most common question I get asked) but the number of choices can be dizzying, especially for beginners.
Where do you want to go? How long have you got? How much will you have to spend? Who do you want to be sharing a room with? Do you even want to be sharing a room? How deep do you want to go? Are you ready for no booze? For vegan food? No WiFi? No men? No talking?!
Or are you really looking for a holiday with a bit of yoga thrown in?
Choosing a 'chill out’ break suddenly sounds more stressful than staying at home! But it doesn’t have to be.
With a little help from some expert yogi friends we've created a guide to picking the right retreat for you right now.
Gorgeous yogi Rebecca Poyurs, Studio Manager at Yoga West and one of my favourite teachers in London suggests starting by carving out a bit of time with your favourite tunes, a glass of wine (there's a reason she's my favourite teacher) and really focusing on your intention for wanting to embrace the experience of a yoga retreat.
She says: ”There are so many brilliant retreats now to choose from, most in exquisite locations brimming with energy and led by respected yoga teachers. So many in fact that the process of picking a retreat could become a relatively stressful process.
“But if you ask yourself the right questions from the start, you will be able to narrow down your options and, in doing so, realise what it is that you are really seeking by going away for an immersion into the practice of yoga."
THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: THE WHO, WHAT, WHERE and HOW OF CHOOSING A YOGA RETREAT
WHO - aka THE TEACHER?
The teacher is the most important factor in any retreat (yes, even more important than whether you’ll be eating mung beans all day), and unless it’s a teacher you already know it’s important to do a bit of homework.
Yorkshire girl Kat Webster headed up my first retreat and I’ll never forget the support, kindness and grace she offered at her space in Bilbao, Spain (Bilbao Yoga Retreats) a couple of years ago. I only spent three days with her, but under her (very patient) guidance morphed from an uptight, slightly terrified beginner into a yoga fan for life.
Because of that experience, now yoga - both the practise and philosophy - is a vital part of my life. It was a proper game-changing weekend and I will be forever #grateful to Kat and her yoga family.
Kat, who I first met in Ibiza before she quit a ten-year career in the magazine industry to open her studio in the Basque Country says: "Going on a yoga retreat is an intense experience, one in which you'll practice, eat and hang out with a yoga teacher and other yogis a lot. If possible get to know the teacher, whether this is by attending their classes, following their Instagram feed, watching their You Tube channels or reading their bios.
"Chances are, if you like the teacher's vibe, you'll like the students they attract and feel well-suited. Email them directly and see how the conversation flows, if you feel a sense of connection you're probably at the right place."
And Caroline Sylger Jones, retreat specialist and the founder of Queen of Retreats (www.queenofretreats.com) agrees that attending classes beforehand is the best way to decide whether you connect with the teacher: "Whether you gel with a yoga teacher is crucial to the success of your yoga holiday. Ask lots of questions before hand, but do try a class with the teacher concerned if you can too - it's the only way you can really tell if you'll like their voice, their pace, their style and their general vibe."
WHAT - Yoga Retreat vs Yoga Holiday?
Ask yourself, do you want an all-immersive yoga retreat or a more casual yoga holiday?
Rebecca says: "Are you looking for regimented, scheduled days with a specific programme throughout your stay or would you prefer to have your own time between classes to explore your surroundings?
"Some retreats offer morning and evening sessions and the rest of the time free, while others offer a full immersion with not only a physical yoga practice but also time set aside for studying the theoretical and philosophical practice of yoga further. This could include chanting (kirtan), pranayama (breath work) and meditation sessions."
It's worth thinking about the food situation. On one Formentera retreat I went on we were staying at a hotel with other non-yogic guests which meant all the temptations of hotel buffets at meal times and the bar after dinner. Not great if you don't have immense willpower.
Rebecca says: "Food is a very important consideration on a yoga retreat. As you will likely be doing more yoga than usual it is important to be nourished and fulfilled. A yoga 'holiday' can be less strict when it comes to the food and drinks provided, for example there may be wine available at dinner and coffee in the mornings. This may not be the case on a more immersive retreat where meals may be more strictly vegan. And nearly all retreats follow the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) with vegetarian meals."
And away from the buffet table Kat says be careful of trying to fit too much in to your break: "If you're really interested in learning about yoga I would recommend choosing a retreat that simply focuses on yoga and meditation. There are many retreats out there that combine surfing, hiking etc but from my own experience, when the schedule is jam-packed there is less time to allow the yogic teachings and their benefits to sink in to your body and soul and create lasting memory in your muscles and mind. You need some downtime between classes and activities to reflect and absorb."
For time-strapped people the location is often the main draw of a retreat, and holidays like this are a great way to combine wanderlust with a bit of self-improvement.
Being in Bilbao on my first retreat meant I could spend any time off exploring a new city, which I loved. I’ve also been to retreats in Ibiza and Formentera, which meant the opportunity for reflection at the water’s edge, and Thailand where the spiritual elements of the practise felt much richer.
Rebecca says: "A yoga retreat not only gives you the benefit of a nourishing and uplifting experience on holiday it also allows you to direct your energy to a country you have always been particularly attracted to visiting. Or you may discover a new found interest in a country you may not have considered before. I have had a new spark ignited when learning of a yoga retreat in Ubud, Bali recently."
The Healing Holidays travel company specialises in wellness retreats and breaks, covering trips for all levels, all around the world, and their Wellness Sales Expert Tracy Wilson has recommended three destinations for Detox|Retox readers looking to try yoga for the first time:
Tracy says: "Kamalaya is a great destination for beginners offering a personalised programme in the form of their Personal Yoga Synergy programme which includes one-on-one sessions with expert yoga instructors meaning you get the exact attention you need. Whether it’s getting to grips with the basics, establishing a routine you can continue back home, or targeting a specific goal, your retreat will be tailored to help you get the most out of it. In addition to your yoga practice you’ll also receive different Ayurvedic treatments and enjoy access to the daily holistic activities, ensuring you leave Kamalaya an all-round healthier person."
*note from Toni - This is possibly my favourite place on the planet. I’ve visited twice already under my own steam and am currently in discussions with the husband/bank manager re whether I can go again next year. I can vouch that it is absolutely magical (and there's a great review over on the Luxury Spa Edit).
Tracy says: "Absolute Sanctuary is renowned for its yoga offering; in fact this is where yoga teachers themselves come to train. However, you don’t have to be an experienced yoga master to come here, beginners are just as welcome and there are retreats that cater to all abilities.
"We love the aptly named Yoga Programme which gives you the chance to try out several different styles of yoga including Ashtanga Vinyasa, Yin, Hatha, Hot, Pranayama and Meditational. This retreat is a great way to learn under internationally-trained teachers and discover which style of yoga is right for you."
Tracy says: "Located in Spain, Shanti-Som Wellbeing Retreat is a great option for those who don’t want to travel too far for their yoga retreat. As a beginner you may not be ready to commit to a longer break further afield, so heading somewhere like Shanti-Som can be a great way to test the waters.
"On the Shanti-Som Yoga Retreat you’ll benefit from two group classes of yoga per day, with group sizes limited to ensure you get the attention you need. There are also yoga workshops on offer and a real emphasis on yoga not just being a physical activity, but one that benefits the mind and soul too."
HOW - MUCH TIME AND MONEY?
Kat agrees that shorter breaks are great for people looking to try a healthy holiday for the first time. Her company Bilbao Yoga Retreats has been offering weekend breaks to stressed-out nine-to-fivers for the last three years and she says: "We've had great success in the Basque Country, especially San Sebastian and Bilbao, as the flight is under two hours from the UK and not only can you enjoy the hippy-esque escapism of waves, fresh-air and yoga but there's also loads to do in the city.
"People like the fact they don't have to take too much time off work and the cost is more economical.”
And - as I can attest - even three days can be life-changing.
Kat adds: "While the weekend is totally laid-back the passionate focus on yoga as a lifestyle, meditation as a path to peace, and healthy and simple eating for three days really do uplift and inspire our students. Many return time and time again and we continue to feel blessed to be able to help people move away from the masses of everyday struggles into a more heavenly way of life, even in a short time."
And when it comes to budget, the sky’s the limit (hello Chiva Som!) but there are also really basic options that can still offer a beautiful experience.
Rebecca says: "You can spend anything from £500 to 2,000 for a week long retreat, depending on the destination and level of luxury of the accommodation provided. Be warned: most retreats do not include flights. Most do include airport transfers, meals and snacks though. Make sure you check what is included and what is not to avoid unpleasant surprises and to ensure the whole experience is as seamless as possible."
Rooms at retreats are often shared with one or more strangers - sorry - new friends (I've even shared a bed). So she suggests planning a budget for a single room if you would like to preserve some privacy: “This is an important consideration for yoga retreats as it is such a deeply personal experience. It’s definitely worth checking the room and bathroom layouts beforehand ensure you are choosing the option you personally feel most comfortable with.”
SO... READY TO BOOK?
The fact you are even thinking about a yoga retreat means you are already listening to some part of yourself that is looking for a new way, or at least a new way to holiday.
A yoga retreat is a brilliant way to recharge but also to take a step back from the daily drill and reconnect with yourself, so once you have processed all of the above from the experts and created a shortlist my best piece of advice is to listen to your intuition, to yourself and go with your gut feelings about a place.
Kat says: "Yoga retreats are very much about opening your heart and sharing your living space, inner emotions and past experiences so make sure everything about the retreat, including the way they respond to your queries and emails, make you feel safe, loved and excited to evolve."
So be prepared to try something new: consider sharing a room, going veggie, visiting a new time zone, digital detoxing...
Yes you will be pushed out of your comfort zone but in yoga - as in life - that is where the magic happens.
- For more information on spa and wellness retreats contact specialists Healing Holidays on 020 7843 3597 or at healingholidays.co.uk
- To connect with Rebbeca Poyurs visit her site RevkahYoga.co.uk
* CELEBRATE THE NEW YEAR WITH BILBAO YOGA RETREATS *
Twice daily yoga, plenty of time to rest and digest, sunny coastal walks and homemade healthy foo. Start 2017 as the best version of yourself.
December 27th - January 2nd: £695 all inclusive of accommodation, meals, yoga, food, drinks and support.
BILBAO YOGA RETREATS 2017 DATES (weekends £319, weekly Crete trip £695)
- January 2017: 12th - 15th with Stewart Heffernam (Basque Country)
- January 2017: 26th - 29th LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE with Kat Webster (Basque Country)
- February 2017: 16th - 19th (Basque Country)
- March 2017 - SPRING AWAKENING - 23rd - 26th (Basque Country)
- EASTER SPECIAL April 2017: 15th - 21st - One-week in Crete retreat.
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