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Holistic Retreats - Holidays for an Inner Journey

by Sharon Black(more info)

listed in retreats and travel, originally published in issue 91 - August 2003

With more of us working longer hours than ever before and stress-related illnesses on the rise, it's no surprise that we are increasingly choosing holidays to help us unwind internally, as well as externally.

No longer content simply to bake on the beach for a fortnight or trundle the time-worn tourist trail, more and more people are opting to spend their annual break and free weekends getting away from it all, in the deepest possible sense.

Author Sharon & her husband Alex at The Sun Centre
Author Sharon & her husband Alex at The Sun Centre

Holistic retreats offering themed courses designed to nurture the mind, body and spirit in tranquil surroundings are enjoying a surge in popularity.

Emily Hynes of Neal's Yard Agency, a London-based travel agency specializing in holistic breaks, says: "There seems to be a real demand among modern holiday-makers for something a bit different. Many people nowadays are looking for a holiday where they can relax on all levels, not just physically, and retreats offer a perfect formula for people holidaying on their own without it being a 'singles' holiday.

"The nature of holistic holidays is changing. A decade ago they were all a bit serious and very structured. Nowadays, they're much more relaxed and low-key. There's a huge choice too, and the attitude is very much that you can do as much or as little as you want.

"They are also becoming much more professional and mainstream. It used to be that 'retreats' were considered a bit hippy-dippy, all brown sandals and wholemeal bread. That reputation no longer applies. They are catering for ordinary people and being taken up in droves."

But while the form may be topical, retreats are not a new phenomenon. The world's greatest religions all recognize that men and women need to withdraw temporarily from their normal daily routine to attend to their spiritual selves. Moses retreated to Mount Sinai, Jesus went into the desert and Buddhists annually make a retreat. Moslems attend a day of prayer and fasting within the mosque and Hindus withdraw to the temple or, historically, wandered alone across the land.

Whatever our own spiritual beliefs, today's frantic pace of life and emphasis on material gain, rather than spiritual wealth, has heightened our yearning for inner nourishment.

To be in silent contemplation for an extended period of time – alone or in a group of like-minded people – is to open ourselves up to our true nature and innate wisdom. Meditation is not just about sitting crossed-legged and focusing on something subtle, like our breath, while clearing our head of thoughts. It can be about being wholly involved in an activity with such single-pointed commitment that we enter the gap between thoughts – the present moment. In this space, we have no concerns about the past or worries about the future, neither of which truly exist, except in our heads. As Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says: "As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out of present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care and love."

Modern man has great difficulty with silence and stillness. We are conditioned to expect noise and movement to the extent that many of us feel uncomfortable in the absence of such background 'white noise'. As a result, our minds lose focus, our thoughts and feelings become scattered and our bodies can fall ill.

Even after just a few hours of stillness, an inner consciousness opens up. We begin to slip into a slower physical, mental and emotional gear and start to think differently. We are able to take stock of our deepest priorities.

Outdoor workshops in a sunny location make a refreshing change from the usual indoor classes
Outdoor workshops in a sunny location make a refreshing change from the usual indoor classes

The physical health benefits of developing a sense of inner peace are widely documented. Reduced stress levels, a balanced central nervous system and a stronger immune system all contribute towards greater general health, happiness and longevity.

Going on retreat usually also involves taking ourselves into nature. Living in harmony with our natural environment, even for just a short while, allows us to see our own nature more clearly. Without the usual distractions of urban life, we are able to come into balance with our true selves.

But retreats are not necessarily about having spiritual experiences. Most retreats aim towards self-discovery but they can simply be about refreshing ourselves, relaxing and tuning in with our deeper self. Yes, they can even be about having fun! And you are far more likely to form lasting, meaningful friendships on this kind of holiday than during a fortnight at a tourist resort.

There are retreats to suit every taste and interest. There are the more obviously religious and spiritual options, such as Christian or Buddhist monasteries, where you can undertake solitary or silent retreats with varying levels of austerity and religious practices. Many people find lasting benefit through the increasingly popular silent Vipassana meditation retreats, which are offered at some Buddhist centres, and involve 10 days of silent, communal living, centred around long, solitary sessions of Vipassana meditation to centre the mind, body and spirit. (Information available from the Vipassana Trust, contact details at end). Guests cook, eat and look after the monastery together, but talking is forbidden for the first 10 days. During this time, the mind becomes increasingly sharp and sensitized, until a great sense of equanimity is gained. As it is quite an intense experience, participants are usually already quite deeply involved in this particular type of meditation before embarking on a retreat. If you are new to meditation, most Buddhist centres and monasteries hold monthly meditation retreats which are open to both beginners and the more experienced.

Then there are holistic retreats, sometimes grouped together under the banner of 'mind-body-spirit' or 'alternative spirituality' centres. These offer a variety of themed events, depending on the venue, usually structured around rest, relaxation and inner discovery. Yoga, Ayurveda, meditation, drumming, music and dance workshops, Shamanism, personal development, Tai-Chi and women's retreats are all popular offerings.

In the last few years there has been a huge growth in the number of activity and study courses, also sometimes described s 'retreats', due to the connection they foster with our intuitive, spiritual selves. Painting, belly dancing, pottery, walking and even clowning all help us to tap into our creative potential and bring us closer to our feelings, senses and awareness of ourselves, others and whatever your understanding of God may be.

Most retreats are set in tranquil, beautiful surroundings to allow for a communion with nature. Some are small and specialize in close, intimate groups, while others are larger and offer more of a community experience. Many are rustic with an emphasis on simple living and getting back-to-nature. Others offer a sophisticated package, more akin to hotel accommodation and service with 'alternative' extras.

At The Sun Centre in southern France, which I run with my husband Alex, we are a small family-run retreat taking groups of up to about 12 people at a time, which makes for a friendly, personal experience. I lead courses in personal development, based on the teachings of Louise Hay, aimed at clearing away the negative mental patterns that hold us back from achieving our dreams by loving ourselves more fully. Alex teaches yoga and the ancient Indian life wisdom of Ayurveda, which also forms the basis of our vegetarian cuisine. We bring in teachers to run our other courses, which include a Panchakarma detox programme, courses in mantra and mysticism and women's retreats. There is always lots of free time for relaxation and to explore the local area.

As well as specific group events, like many retreats which are open year-round, we also offer open stays where guests can come for as long as they want on a full-board b&b basis. These private retreats allow individuals, couples and even families to relax completely in a peaceful, unspoilt environment, with activities like hiking, horse riding and river bathing available on their doorstep if they wish. Because there is no set agenda, guests on this kind of private retreat are free to follow their own rhythm and enjoy quiet solitary reflection whenever they choose. On the other hand, they can take advantage of optional extras like massage, reflexology, private yoga lessons, Ayurvedic consultations and life counselling.

Most of our activities take place outdoors, overlooking an unspoilt valley of pine and chestnut trees. It's an idyllic setting for the practice of relaxation and self-discovery.

Recently we had an Irish woman staying with us for a month who was doing her own Vision Quest, a Native American-inspired solitary retreat. She camped outdoors, walked in the hills by day and cooked and ate alone at night – we barely saw her the whole time she was here. This kind of private retreat is possible at many centres, even though it may not be explicitly advertised. If in doubt, ask.

At the other end of the scale, Skyros, on the small Greek island of the same name, takes up to 100 participants at its main community of Atsitsa and offers over 200 courses, ranging from yoga, writing and relationships to salsa, sailing and ceramics. Established in 1979 by an American psychologist and a Greek journalist, it was Europe's first ever holistic holiday centre.

Here, you can pick and choose from a vast range of courses, many led by world-renowned teachers, to tailor-make your own holiday experience. During a wonderful fortnight I spent at Atsitsa several years ago, I took up wind-surfing, deepened my enjoyment of creative writing and practised yoga. Although we must have numbered close to 100 in total, we were encouraged through small daily group meetings to develop intimacy and authenticity with other participants. There was a daily community get-together and everyone mucked in with cleaning, cooking and preparing meals. We learned the benefits of a daily 'Oekos' – respectful group sharing with a 'talking stick' to encourage uninterrupted self-expression – and co-listening. The atmosphere was vibrant, open-hearted and spiritually uplifting.

Skyros also runs more specialized courses with smaller numbers at The Skyros Centre in the island's main village and, recently, they have added a community on the Thai island of Ko Samet to their brochure.

Although the benefits of travelling abroad to retreat are many – warm weather makes being outdoors in nature more enjoyable and being out of our normal environment encourages a release of our normal mind-set – you don't have to leave Britain to benefit from a retreat.

At the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Kagyu Samye Ling in the Scottish Borders, visitors can participate in temple worship, prayer and communal work. The full-time community of over 100 residents consists mostly of young people and the atmosphere is lively and warm. A large annual programme of events and courses includes directed study, talks, meditation and personal retreats. Samye Ling is a centre for the preservation of Tibetan culture, an international centre of Buddhist training and a network for international humanitarian aid and therapy, particularly Tara Rokpa therapy, which is offered at the monastery's own Tibetan medical centre. Lamas regularly visit in summer.

I once spent a very enjoyable week learning the art of reflexology at the Buddhist retreat of Dhanakosa in Perthshire, with morning yoga and meditation incorporated into the schedule.

It's all very well disappearing into the wilds for a week alone, you might be thinking, but what about those of us with a family in tow? Many people assume you have to be single – or at most, in a couple – to enjoy this kind of spiritual TLC on holiday.

In fact, there are many places which accept families into their midst. True, most monasteries and temples where meditation or prayer are the main focus are unsuitable for children, given the need for absolute quiet. But a number of retreats and holistic centres welcome children and may provide special activities, or even the option of childcare for times when their parents need to attend a workshop or need space and quiet. At The Sun Centre, we have two young children of our own and recognize the need for parents to be able to relax and pursue their own interests from time to time. If you neglect your own spiritual needs and brush off the calls of your own inner child, it's hard to instil the values of spiritual self-respect in your children. Guests' children are generally incorporated into our own family outings and activities during school summer holiday times. At Skyros, they run an excellent, imaginative childcare programme and employ staff purely to look after and entertain the little ones. Some retreats, such as Dhanakosa, run specific family events rather than extending a general welcome to wee ones.

There are several ways to go about finding a retreat that's right for you. A handful of agencies specialize in this niche of the market. The Retreat Company represent 500 retreat centres in the UK and Europe. They report that currently their most popular requests are for yoga holidays, followed by "getting away into nature and doing nothing at all" and, thirdly, detox programmes. The company's founder Jo Pickering reckons the reason there is so much demand for retreats nowadays is simple: "To be with yourself is the most important thing you can do because it is there that you find all the answers. We so often look outside ourselves for life's meaning and we forget that we are human beings, not human doings," she says.

Neal's Yard has around 100 venues on its books and provides a directory of retreats and holiday centres in the UK and abroad, plus a brochure and a free email holiday and events guide. Meanwhile, Tangney Tours in Kent organize retreats to various Catholic pilgrimage destinations, such as Lisieux in northern France, where participants undertake a five-day retreat of prayer-based activities at the local convent.

The Good Retreat Guide by Stafford Whitaker is an excellent book reviewing over 400 places in Britain, Ireland, France and Spain which provide the opportunity for "peace and spiritual renewal".

You can also check the adverts and listings sections in health magazines, such as this one, and alternative lifestyle publications. Notice boards in yoga centres, vegetarian cafés, Buddhist/meditation centres and alternative health clinics are another good source of flyers, posters and leaflets.

Obviously you can contact the venues directly to request a current calendar of events. You can also do a search on the internet for the particular type of venue you are interested in – most retreats, even the most rustic, now have their own website and email address.

Whatever type of retreat experience you go for, rest assured you will come home with more than just a suitcase of the local tipple and a fading tan. As Stafford Whitaker puts it: "Like our sense of hope, our spiritual beliefs need nourishing from time to time. We need to have those spiritual experiences and reflections that make us think: Yes, I remember now why I am here."

Further Information

The Sun Centre Tel: 07092 332330; sharon@thesuncentrecom;   www.thesuncentre.com
Skyros Tel: 020-7267 4424; enquiries@skyros.com; www.skyros.com
Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre Tel: 01387 373232; samye@rokpa.u-net.com
Vipassana Trust Tel: 01989 730234; www.dhamma.org
The Retreat Company Tel: 0116-259 9211; www.theretreatcompany.com
Neal's Yard Agency Tel: 0870 444 2702; info@nealsyardagency.com
Tangney Tours Tel: 01732 886666; www.tangney-tours.com

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About Sharon Black

About the Author Sharon Black runs The Sun Centre in the Cévennes mountains of southern France, along with her husband Alex Duncan. She is a qualified Louise Hay workshop facilitator and a certified leader of 'Love Yourself Heal Your Life' weekend workshops and 'Heal Your Life Achieve Your Dreams' study courses. She runs a one-week summer course entitled 'Love Yourself, Achieve Your Dreams' based on the work of Louise Hay at The Sun Centre, as well as regular weekend workshops in the UK. Her husband Alex teaches yoga and Ayurveda. The Author can be contacted for a current brochure on The Sun Centre's activities on Tel: 07092 332330; sharon@thesuncentrecom www.thesuncentre.com

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