What does it mean to go on retreat?

If you enjoy a regular practice of Yoga, whether self or teacher led, you may be attracted to the idea of a retreat.  And certainly, Yoga and meditation and all other manner of retreats are everywhere right now, so there is plenty of choice!  But what does it really mean, to go on a retreat?

I guess we could look at going on retreat as a practice of self-care, in which case we might end up categorising it along with activities such as a massage, lighting a scented candle by the bath or taking some time out to get a pedicure.  As one of my teachers Cyndi Lee writes though, whilst all of these activities are undoubtedly lovely things to do, are any of these self-care activities ultimately ‘going to satisfy our dissatisfaction, reduce our craving, or relieve our suffering’?

Eeek, you might think, no need to get heavy on me, I just want an afternoon/day/week out to relax and de-stress, what’s wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing of course.  I myself am very partial to a spa visit and a heavenly bit of massage.  These and the activities above are all wonderful things to do, as is going on any kind of retreat.  But will they necessarily get to the route of why we might feel the need to take this time out?

To quote Cyndi again:

‘You might be right that your life is super stressful and you deserve a special treat now and then. But applying a materialistic approach to our pain, boredom, need for attention, or aching back is just a band-aid. The discomfort will cycle back up and then we will “do” another self-care activity, and then another when we feel bad again.’

When I read those words from Cyndi and as I write this blog, I get to thinking of a conversation I overheard between a fellow student and the teacher during a Yoga course.  Whilst discussing the development of our own home practices, the student asked if the teacher could recommend any specific practices to help alleviate neck tension.  The teacher replied, that perhaps what the student needed to consider, was that if neck tension is a manifestation of their response to stressors in their life, then neck releasing Yoga practices are only going to go so far.  How does 60 minutes on the mat remedy the 23 hours spent putting the tension back in?  What is needed then, is to take a wider viewpoint.

Back to retreats.  So perhaps a retreat is a ‘yummy self-care goodie’ and that’s totally ok and all well and good as far as it goes.  But how do we take it to that wider viewpoint?  Let’s take a look at going on retreat through a different lens.

The Cambridge online dictionary definition of retreat is ‘a period of time used to pray and study quietly, or to think carefully, away from normal activities and duties.’  When we withdraw from our daily activities, we give ourselves space.  I think it was Rich Roll, in conversation with Dr Rangan Chatterjee, who said that we now live in a time when we have to actively seek quiet, rather than actively seek stimulation.  Constant bombardment has become somewhat the norm.  So perhaps now more than ever we need the relative solitude and peace of retreat.  And in that space, we find a different perspective.

This different sense of perspective reminds me of one Rangan’s ten simple ways to a happier mind and happier life, which is to go on holiday every day, by which he means, gaining some of the space, stillness and time for reflection that a holiday gives you, every day.  And interestingly, the way he suggests doing this, is to have a daily practice of solitude.  In many ways then, all very much aligned with what we might practice on retreat, as we withdraw from our daily activities.

Importantly though, a retreat in this sense, although it involves withdrawing, is not however, about an escape from your life.  As Rangan writes in relation to holidays, if this is how you are viewing it, it suggests that ‘you can’t be happy: you’re not calm, you’re not aligned, and often you’re the very opposite of content.’

Instead, as Cyndi so beautifully phrased it when I recently attended a mini-retreat with her, we are not running away, but running towards our breath and our bodies.  A retreat is about taking refuge.  It is a gathering together of ourselves, even though we retreat alongside others.  To me, true retreat affords us these opportunities.  And when we know this, we come to realise, that just as Rangan suggests is true about holidays, that we can actually go on retreat at any time.  As long as we maintain a regular practice of being with our breath and our bodies, returning to the refuge that always exists within us, we find it more and more readily accessible to us.

What then, does going on retreat mean to me?  A retreat is extended practice and training, where we learn how to live in such a way that we can spend more of our time in touch with our essential self and our true nature of basic goodness.  When we know this, we can enter into a retreat in such a way that we can truly get the most out of these ‘treats’ for the self.  And then going on retreat as an escape from, or band-aid for, discomfort becomes no longer needed, as we start to realise that we can go on retreat any time, because we are already there.

© Catherine Rolfe Yoga 2022

Share what going on retreat means to you in the comments below.

Inspired to go on retreat?  I offer day and afternoon retreat sessions throughout the year.  To keep up to date with my offerings, sign up to my mailing list and follow me on Facebook or Instagram @catherinerolfeyoga