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December 17, 2019

A yoga or meditation retreat is much more than a break, it can offer a totally new perspective, and maybe even change your life.


Want to spend a weekend with Colleen Saidman-Yee or Shiva Rea to deepen your yoga practice or learn creative expression from Elizabeth Gilbert?  How about finding your life’s purpose with Rod Stryker or learning about mindfulness from Sharon Salzberg?  You can do this at a retreat.  


A yoga or meditation retreat offers a true break from everyday life and routine, a few days of rest and relaxation, an opportunity to reconnect with yourself, and most importantly an opportunity to find inspiration and empowerment for your journey, to learn something new or to go deeper with your practice.  And sometimes a retreat can be a life changing experience.


So where to go to find a quality retreat?  In my experience, I have found that a dedicated retreat centre is a perfect destination for this, offering enriching retreats and learning programs that will transform your time away from home into a opportunity for personal growth.  


Now I am not talking about a yoga holiday, where you go to an exotic destination resort or a spa to enjoy a light program of yoga mixed with relaxation and fun.  That is a great way to spend a vacation, but not what this article is about.  


This is about dedicated retreat centres where you can escape for just a few days, (programs are usually 3-5 days long) where they offer educational experiences related to yoga, meditation or other pathways to personal transformation.  The programs may be shorter than a holiday, but more intense:  there are classes morning, afternoon, and sometimes in the evening as well, but there is always space for personal time and relaxation.


There are retreat centres all around the world so you can travel far or relatively near to find a one.  I have participated in many retreats and each one has offered personal growth, insight and inspiration for my journey.  Some recommendations to help you choose your retreat:


  • Check the retreat schedule for inspiration - explore the retreat and workshop schedule of each centre to find a topic or a teacher that inspires you, a theme that you want to explore.  The quality of the centre can be shown by the quality of the teachers they can attract.  Programs vary, you can find programs for beginners and for advanced practitioners.
  • Follow your teacher - if there is a particular teacher you follow or want to learn from, check their website for their teaching schedule and you may find they teach a special weekend workshop at a retreat centre.
  • Ask friends - the best recommendation comes from someone who has already tried it out
  • See what else they offer - a beautiful setting, hiking trails, a spa, spectacular views can all add to your experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to go solo - there will be lots of other solo retreatants so you will never feel uncomfortable, and it’s a wonderful way to focus solely on yourself and your personal journey.
  • Things to know: retreat centres typically offer a variety of accommodations to fit most budgets, from dormitory rooms with shared bath to single rooms with private bath; know also that most retreat centres offer vegetarian food only.


I've been to quite a few retreat centres, mostly in the US because I used to live in New York City, and on my quest to deepen my practice I discovered many great options a few hours drive from there.  So below are 5 fabulous retreat centres that offer very high quality programs and renowned teachers, as well as beautiful settings and a variety of comfortable lodgings. 


Then come a quick list of 3 retreat centres I'm longing to try in the western US.


Further down are a couple of great options here in Canada. If you know any other places that specialize in yoga and meditation retreats, please let me know if the comments.


And with so many options for retreats around the world, with a little bit of research you can find some options close to your own home.


Please note that these reviews are based solely on my own personal experience and opinion, and I've written these recommendations to help others find a great retreat to empower their practice and their lives.  In other words none of these centres have paid me or given me anything to write about them.


Here we go, starting with eastern US...


1. Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Barre, Massachusetts


IMS is one of the Western world's oldest and most-respected meditation retreat centres with experienced teachers offering guidance in Buddhist meditations and mindfulness. While the context is the Buddha’s teachings, these practices are universal, and the retreats are for everyone. They help to develop awareness and compassion in ourselves, giving rise to greater peace and happiness in the world.  The comfortable accommodations, great food and 240 acres of forest for walking make this a great retreat destination. The retreats at IMS are done in silence - a very insightful and enriching experience.  IMS was where I did one of my most favourite retreats and I'm on my way back in February.  Stay tuned for a post about what to expect during a silent meditation retreat.


2. Menla Mountain Retreat, Phoenicia, New York


Nestled at the end of a serenely beautiful valley and surrounded by Catskill mountains and forests, Menla has a special spirit.  It is the retreat centre of the US Tibet House, and dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture, so the tranquil, benevolent spirit of the Dalai Lama seems to permeate the place.  Menla offers year round retreat programs with excellent teachers related to meditation, yoga, wellness and healing.  One of the nice features are the hiking trails in the woods.  They also have a beautiful and relaxing spa offering a variety of Western, Ayurvedic and Tibetan healing techniques.


3. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, Pennsylvania


This is a beautiful, peaceful retreat centre that is also a non profit organization offering a variety of programs for people designed to inspire, educate and empower all those who seek to experience their full potential.  Their programs focus on yoga, meditation, spirituality and holistic health.  They also offer some spiritual excursions each year.  Profits fund a number of humanitarian missions in India, Tibet, Mexico, and Cameroon.  This centre is less well known than some of the others, but they have very well-known teachers.  I quite like the country-side location with lovely views, fire flies dotting the fields in the summer, the accommodations are really nice, and I fondly remember the home-made chai in the cafe.


4. Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, Massachusetts 


Kripalu offers over 700 excellent programs a year related to yoga, meditation, creativity, wellness, self-discovery and more, so there is always something new to explore.  Programs are often lead by well known teachers and authors.  This is a large centre with 6-8 programs going on at the same time, so not very intimate, but there a lots of places to find some time alone and to appreciate the spectacular view.  A good variety of accommodations.  Fabulous variety of vegetarian food.  And don’t miss the book store!


5. Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York


Omega Institute offers innovative educational experiences to “awaken the best in the human spirit”.  They take a holistic approach and offer a variety of programs related to mind/body/spirit, creative expression, relationships, leadership, sustainable living. As well as your chosen retreat program, there are daily open classes, gardens to discover, trails to walk, and the Ram Dass library with over 7,000 books on holistic living to browse and read.  All in a beautiful location in upstate New York, not far from Hudson.


Further west, check out the following (I've not tried these yet, they each offer a variety of unique residential retreats and workshops, and I'm hoping to get there soon):


6. Eselen Institute, Big Sur, California


7. Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, California


8. Upala Institute and Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico



In Canada:


9. Vipassana Meditation Centre, several locations across Canada and around the world

This international organization has many retreat centres around the world, with 5 here in Canada.  It's the place to learn the technique of Vipassana meditation during 10 day long silent meditation retreats.  I haven't been here, but a trusted friend has been, loved the experience, and is looking forward to going back.  Although the conditions appear to me to be rather rigorous and maybe a bit more rustic than some retreat centres, the rigour helps to create an atmosphere that is conducive to meditation and to self-exploration. It's a great way to learn Vipassana (insight) meditation or to deepen your practice.

In Ontario : https://torana.dhamma.org

In British Columbia: http://www.surabhi.dhamma.org

In Alberta: https://www.karuna.dhamma.org

In Quebec: https://suttama.dhamma.org

International: https://www.dhamma.org

10. Cedar Healing Arts Retreat Centre, Gravenhurst, Ontario


This lovely, little holistic wellness centre in the heart of the Muskokas (north of Toronto) is a completely different retreat experience from all the big centres mentioned above.  Cedar Healing Arts offers uniquely themed group retreats and also personal wellness retreats, all of which include yoga, meditation, sound baths, infared sauna and cozy accommodations, with a very personalized approach in a private setting.  It's a great place to reconnect with nature, with yourself, or to learn something new such as qi cong, natural plant foraging and dying, or start the year right with a retreat to Dream the New Year.  


Enjoy exploring as you find the right retreat for you!  



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