By: Ali Valdez
Last week, I finished co-leading my first yoga retreat with Bala Yoga owner, Michael Baiocchi. What started out as a bit of whimsy back in April, “Hey, why not do a retreat in Italy this summer?” became a master class inla dolce vita.
Some of my yoga colleagues and friends have started retreats, either short three-four day weekends, others exotic explorations further afield for extended periods of time. They seemed to be grinning gleefully; their mugshots on Facebook always aglow from the yoga and dewy from the sweat. I had only ever attended one yoga retreat in my life, a Bali retreat with Jiva Yoga founder, and the now deceased Vincent Tam. Vincent was an extraordinary yogi and incredibly loving human being. What a special friend he became and like-minded yogi in such a short amount of time. As I walked into the Ubud retreat, an unknown amongst his regular devotees from Kuala Luampur, Vincent made me feel instantly welcome, and the connection we share for our mutual teacher Edward Clark allowed me to fully integrate with the practice Vincent offered. This was almost two years ago, and still, I maintain friendships from those Bali days.
“Without the bridge of yoga, those connections would never have intuitively aligned.”
So why do a yoga retreat? Why would a yoga teacher want to step away from their regular group of students and go somewhere else? I could not answer these questions the first forty-eight hours of the retreat. Maybe it is me, but I am obsessed with details and customer service. This may be karma from my past life in sales. I just was not sure that everything was perfect, on plan, or as promised. Or shall we say, as perfect as my expectations would have assumed they should be. We had a total of 14 people rolling into a villa in Massa Lubrense outside of Sorrento and all the logistics of coordination that go with a group that size. There were people to pick up and shuttle, food and menus to plan,
(we cooked and fed people- well, it should be noted)
we also set up a couple of fabulous excursions. We did a lot more legwork than the typical yoga retreat, and I could feel it, in my legs, as I schlepped up a steep cobblestone path lugging groceries for the following morning’s breakfast. No euros? No problem! American Express, what? This town was so authentic Italia, the little nonna behind the counter just waves her hand dismissively with a smile and says, “come back tomorrow.”
I could also sense from some of our guests that they were feeling similarly. Was it me projecting? Or like me they too had to decompress and get out of regular modes of operation and just take in the moment. After all, it was Italy and nothing is going to get addressed or fixed quickly. Furthermore, deeply enthralled in scenary and reading material, I foolishly left my luggage on the Marozzi bus from Rome when we got there. Maybe that was the cause of some of my angst. Leave it to the pearls of yoga, a gift unlimited in its giving, because after the first session, it was clear, everyone was settling into a better way of being. We all decided to just go with it for six days. Long walks to the SITA bus, fussy air conditioning, restaurants without menus hidden away down winding cobblestone streets, lousy but lovable service, dinners served after midnight, even when you sat down at 10:30pm. The myriad things to be grateful for took precedence, for example, perfect weather for outdoor yoga.
“Imagine ending final meditation just as the summer sun began to yawn over the rooftop warming our faces.”
Walking back from an afternoon espresso and witnessing glorious sunsets, the winding roads to Positano, a mango gelato at Fontana Trevi, and the amazing dinners prepared by Mike, Luigi and Gabriela. The accommodations were amazing, the views awe-inspiring, the buses, apparently free, sort of, and the meals we prepared and our group time together at the table or on our mats was magical.
So why would someone like you want to venture forth on a yoga retreat? Having now been on both sides of the experience, here is what I would share:
Group Energy. There is nothing more lovely than committing to practice with a group of people (kula) over a concentrated amount of time. Even seven days, same people, same focus, same intention, can really deliver some inspiring results. I was blessed to see this just after a day or two in Italy.
Hard Work without Daily Distractions. To accomplish the ‘hard work’ of yoga on the mat, sometimes you have to create an environment of ease and delight.
“Relish the moments you can set aside to be with yourself and like-minded others against the distractions of everyday living.”
Beautiful backdrops such as Bali, Italy, or Hawaii, Greece and Thailand (sorry shameless plug for 2012 Sattva Travel Adventures) are awe-inspiring and can transport you from the dull or harried quotidian into a place of serenity and grace.
Access to Nature. If you do practice yoga on retreat, try to find an open-aired venue. Access to fresh air, natural light, sounds of nature (even roosters at 5am) and the removal of ceilings as barriers do absolutely play a powerful role in the evolution of your yoga. The city has taken away so much of these gifts of nature. On a retreat, it is simply time to receive those gifts. They are offered in abundance.
Getting out of Yoga Habits. Nothing is more comforting in yoga than practicing with your regular teacher who you love and who loves you, when you’ve acclimated to the temperature in the room, and when you know your favorite spot is there and no one but the occasional Groupon newbie would dare take your place. Add to that, all your friends are going to sharing practice with you. How great indeed! Yoga retreats allow you to challenge some old habits, finding yoga everywhere, in any situation or venue.
Once in a Lifetime Memories. Retreats create explorations of yoga in new contexts, cultural milieus and allows you to meet and make new friends. Imagine hanging out with 25 super cool Malaysians with stunning practices, practicing yoga on a platform in the middle of a rice patty field with an influx of little ants crawling all over your mat while in downward dog as the ducks go quacking and splashing about. Look up and you study sweet Vincent and others gently coming around and softly brooming them away. In this case, many of the guests don’t speak much English, and I am without any of my friends in Ubud. I cannot tell you how special those moments were to me, how much they impacted my practice.
Reconnect with Friends & Like-Minded People. Although I am someone inclined to just go for it and attend random events around the world, retreats are excellent way to get away with your friends and see an amazing place, go on a much-needed vacation, and not forget about your yoga practice. Most retreats offer a morning and evening practice with optional meditations. This gives you and your pals all day and typically one free night to wander about on your own. Many retreats offer double occupancy which is a more affordable option, so why not bunk with a buddy?
Good yoga retreats are hosted by yogis that either have some context for where they are taking their guests, or hire a concierge or local ombudsman to advocate and take care of logistics for the group.
For our Italy retreat, the hosts, myself included, had been to Italy on many occasions, knew enough of the language, cool non-tourist secrets, and could get our guests from point A to point B with confidence. In fact, when in Rome Cameron and Jaimeleigh Christian, between pounding forties (kidding!), looked to me as the subject matter expert, although Rome was not part of our yoga itinerary and I had never been there! I was the de-facto go-to. I had no choice but to make it happen! Under my naïve guidance, we still managed to find the Fontana Trevi, score amazing pizza, hit up the gelato stand and discover some amazing tucked away restaurants.
Even with brilliant planning, occasionally things go wrong. To travel somewhere and have a Wayan, Vincent, or Luigi around to help get everything squared away makes all the difference in the world– plus what a nice way to segue from the American way to a new culture than a friendly face with a broken English greeting waving a sign with your name as you clear customs. Wayan, my driver and concierge when I go to Bali is now a family friend; our children play together. We make our humble pilgrimage to Pura Tirte Empule on the Full Moon. I would trust any of my friends visiting to be in his care.
It should be noted, the Bala Italia Yoga Retreat was an extraordinary event. Wow! I cannot believe we pulled it off so well and so last minute. Just so much fun, and I just loved doing yoga and meditating outdoors. Okay, so I ate too much. Michael and I cannot wait to host it again this upcoming September 2012. Sattva can help book airfare, excursions and extended stays on any retreat, too.
And, yes, for those who are still wondering, I was able to contact the bus line, and the following day, they delivered my lost bag. Shots of Limoncello and three OMs all around for that!