Are Yoga Retreats Really a Life-Changing Experience?

As the sun rises, morning surf pulls at the shoreline, taking away sand into the shallows. In addition to the echo of waves and crying seabirds, you can hear a vibrating om being chanted. A group of yoga students have gathered on the beach to offer their daily tribute to the crack of dawn, a sacred flow and ritual known as sun salutations. Their minds, bodies and souls are on a different kind of trip, a reflective journey.

This is how I have always pictured morning at a yoga retreat and like plenty of people, have often dreamed of going to one. With so many different yoga retreats to choose from it’s essential to understand which one is right for you and whether the investment is worth it! While they have the power to be transformative, are yoga retreats really a life-changing experience? And even more importantly: how can you get the most out of them?

Making the most of a yoga retreat

Yoga retreats can leave a lasting impact on your life, but it’s all about managing expectations. “The best way to get the most out of a yoga retreat is to be open to the experience. It’s what you make of it. If you go in wanting to make some changes in your life, then that’s what you’ll do. If you go there wanting to master a headstand then that’s you’ll get out of it,” says Davida Lederle of The Healthy Maven, a wellness entrepreneur and yoga teacher who completed her YTT 200-hour training earlier in 2018. A little over a year ago, she attended a breathwork yoga retreat in Sonoma. 

Davida Lederle of The Healthy Maven practices her breath work on the mat

Breathwork plays an important role in Davida Lederle’s daily practice | ⓒ Bettina Bogar

Katie Shim, a yoga instructor who teaches at Kind Yoga by Heart, believes that everyone will get something different out of a yoga retreat and that it depends on the person.”Not everyone is going to come out thinking oh my gosh, I have a brand new point of view and everything is different. Usually, it’s you that changes, not your life.

Shim has been to a number of yoga retreats in varying lengths, but her first one was in Ubud, Bali back in 2015. She says that “parts of my retreat really inspired me and the steps I took at the time which in turn led me to where I am in my life now. Being at a yoga retreat planted a seed within in me to be more aware of what other options are out there in life and things that I can pursue.”

Alex Grant, a mindset coach and former athlete recently attended to a silent meditation retreat with yoga in Thailand. She wanted an experience where she could dive deep into her mind and be still. “If you go in with a clear intention and know that there’s work ahead and are open to the work, you learn a lot about yourself. By putting yourself in an environment made for self-discovery, I learned more about myself in a week than I have in the past five years of my life. Because I had time to sit there and think and reflect on myself for seven days without any interruptions.” 

A girl sits on a swing on a beach looking out into the sea

Alex Grant wanted an experience where she could dive into her mind and be still | Courtesy of Alex Grant

While being open to the experience is essential to getting the most out of your trips, Lederle also agrees that being in an environment without any distractions while engaging in activities at a yoga retreat plays an essential role in impacting your life. I’ve done full intensive days of yoga in an insulated environment, but that wasn’t the same. Coming back from the yoga retreat in Sonoma I was a little mindblown by how great the experience was. It sparked a lot of creative ideas for me.” 

The difference between practicing yoga at home and travelling to a retreat

Although practising yoga frequently has a positive impact on our lives, Lederle feels that going to a retreat is an entirely different experience. “Yoga is about more than the physical practice. Yoga has eight limbs, or pieces to it that build on each other, asanas and physical practice are just one of the eight pieces. The aspects that make it life-changing go beyond the physical practice. You can do yoga daily, but you still have to deal with work, relationships, etc. Retreats are intense, but what’s special about them is being able to experience all eight limbs of yoga in a short amount of time without any distractions.” 

Distraction free, time at a yoga retreat is often spent on the mat but also taking part in group experiences and other activities that facilitate reflective journeys. They might, for example, include, Reiki, Ayurveda, or acupuncture, the one that Lederle went to included sound healing and journaling as part of the experience. Some have a greater focus on travel, where you take a flight or join a tour at a destination that offers surfing, hiking, and other adventurous and cultural excursions alongside yoga. Others are more wellness orientated, yoga functions alongside healthy food, spa treatments and self-pampering. Many retreats centre on spirituality, devotees go on a pilgrimage usually to India or another destination in the world where they can explore the philosophical elements of yoga more deeply. You could even go to a silence and meditation retreat, and while the primary emphasis at these won’t be on yoga, stillness and breathwork are a big part of the practice.

Shim was studying in Singapore when she went to Bali for a yoga retreat because she wanted to take some time out for herself. “When looking for a yoga retreat, it’s helpful to know what you want from it. Why are you going? What are you seeking from it? If you have clarity of that, then you’ll know which yoga retreat is right for you!”

A yoga community gathers for a meal at the Heart Mindfulness Retreat by Kind Yoga

The community gathers for a meal at the annual Mindfulness Retreat at Kind Yoga by Heart | ⓒ Ana Castillo

Lederle explains that no yoga retreat is just straight up yoga, in fact, yoga plays a secondary role at a yoga retreat. “The actual physical practice of yoga at a retreat is not what makes it transformative; it’s all the other things. The community and connection you get, the openness and vulnerability we feel. There are often group circles and moments where you share life experiences, and those can be powerful and show you a different side of yourself. That’s what happened to me. Of course, the physical element is there, you get your body moving, and there are ways to make that more effective, but I found the sense of community and connection you build up in a brief period to be most powerful.”

How yoga retreats can change your life

Fusing the benefits of yoga with travel in some ways is a no-brainer, and while getting on a plane and going to a new place is exciting, the most thrilling part of your retreat won’t be that. After morning sessions of Kundalini-style yoga and about eight hours of meditation a day, Grant’s journey became something else altogether. “After a few days in that environment, you realise how stimulated your mind is. When you start detoxing yourself of that daily stimulus from city life, cell phones, and other noise, you can tune in and observe your thoughts and yourself. That becomes the adventure, so closing your eyes is a whole new world.” 

A smiling girl on beach holds up a pineapple and watermelon

Grant enjoys the fresh fruit while in Thailand for a yoga retreat | Courtesy of Alex Grant

Shim feels that if you can’t find the time or resources to go to a faraway destination, look for something a little closer to home because it’s an experience worth having anywhere in the world. She goes on to say that “the environment at a yoga retreat is unique. It’s a safe space where you can explore life’s bigger questions away from the rat race of daily life. So maybe in some ways, that’s how it can be life-changing because you have time to address what’s going on inside.” 

For Lederle, the impact was professional, a year after her experience she will hold her own retreat, Camp Wellness. “I think a lot of people had some breakthroughs, whereas for me it was more of a time where I was contemplating what I wanted to do next. Seeing our teacher hold the space for everyone made me realise I was ready to be the person holding the space for others. That’s what came out of the experience for me and transformed my business and impacted my life.” 

The real journey begins at home 

How do you take what you’ve learned from your experience and apply it to everyday life? It can be easy to go on a retreat in an environment that allows you to practice yoga and meditate with support and guidance, but coming back home and integrating it all can be a challenge. Lederle recommends being patient with yourself because transformation takes time. “It might take a few retreats, or one retreat and a daily practice or one retreat and therapy, but whatever it is, it’s going to impact the decisions you make.”

A girl practices yoga smiling and happy on a pink yoga mat

Lederle believes that transformation takes time, but it will happen if you want it to | ⓒ Bettina Bogar

The tools that Shim learnt at the yoga retreat, really helped her. While she didn’t really know how to meditate before, after learning how to at the retreat, she started turning to meditation back at home. She explains that “when you are at a yoga retreat, and in that beautiful and magical space, you don’t realise how much is happening, but you learn so much afterwards. When you go back home, it will feel a little bit weird, but you can integrate your growth into your life. There will be trial and error, and frustration, but it helps to stay connected with the people from the retreat or share your thoughts with someone who has been through a similar experience as you transition out or transition towards something. There are little ways to make space in your life for the experience.”

Three girls hold up their breath bracelets to the screens

Breath bracelets help you to live more mindfully | Courtesy of Alex Grant

While staying mindful back home isn’t easy, there are little tips and tricks that you can employ to make it easier. After learning the actual practice of meditation isn’t just about sitting on a pillow and closing your eyes, Grant doesn’t feel guilty if she can’t meditate every morning. Instead, she focuses on asking herself how she can live more mindfully while walking or eating, for example. She also uses a breath bracelet as a reminder you can slow down to breathe anywhere. Lederle loves journaling, but also believes keeping yourself accountable to the feelings you felt on the retreat can help. 

So, is a yoga retreat for you? 

If you need to switch gears or are in need of some TLC, the value of going to a retreat speaks for itself. Like lots of tours and trips, yoga retreats offer much of what we love along with a greater physical and mental component. Yoga marries the mind, body and soul and invites you to be curious about yourself and the world around you. People have many reasons for why they take a vacation, but mostly it is to broaden horizons and find new ways to experience the world. Why not do that with your internal environment as well as your external environment? Because at a yoga retreat, you can do both. 

Two girls sit laughing together in nature surrounded by sunflowers

Katie Shim (RIGHT) likes yoga retreats because you can meet like-minded people | ⓒ Ana Castillo

Some of the other benefits include meeting like-minded people from different walks of life, being in nature and switching off from your phone, and focusing on yourself in a way that isn’t always possible. It’s a priceless experience that will have an immeasurable impact on your wellbeing, but the beauty of it is this is a journey that you can stay on back home.

Although very nervous at first, Lederle is glad she went to a yoga retreat because it gave her a taste of what she had heard from other people about them. “We often hear stories about yoga retreats being transformative. I’ve never met anyone who has come back from one and didn’t feel better, so I wanted to see if the story held up. For the record, it did!” 

Are you curious about yoga retreats or have you ever been on one? Tell us about it in the comments, we want to know!