How to choose a yoga retreat

Considering an om away from home? What to know before you go.

The fantasy: Seven sun-kissed days in which you gorge on macrobiotic food, learn to meditate, do downward dog at dawn and finally (finally!) nail that arm balance.

The potential reality? A week in a glorified dormitory studying with a so-so teacher.

A recent Google search of “yoga retreats” yielded 1.5 million results, a dizzying array of options for anyone interested in unplugging, de-stressing and deepening his/her practice. While the experience can be profound, says Allison English, Chicago-based national manager of the Pure Yoga teacher training program, it’s important to do your homework — and a little soul-searching — before committing.

"Take the time to sit down and think about what you want and why you’re going," she says. "Meditate on it, or even write it down, which sometimes makes it easier to figure out your motivation."

If your main goal is to become a master of the mat, a retreat may not do the trick, she says; you’ll be better off signing up for a yoga intensive, which is basically all yoga, all the time. Likewise, if you’re just looking to decompress, you may be happier at a spa or resort.

"[Retreats] really make sense when people are starting to refine their life vision. There’s a moment for everyone when you start to wonder if you’re on the right path," says English. "When that starts to come up, it can be a great experience to change locales — and the yoga helps you get a little inner wisdom."

"It really can be a profound experience," agrees Jennifer Pastiloff, a yoga instructor at Equinox Santa Monica. "Doing yoga twice a day really takes you to another level, and added to that you're away from your life and job and with likeminded people."

Once you’ve committed, English and Pastiloff recommend going straight to your favorite teacher, who should be able to recommend a retreat that offers the same teaching style, even if he or she isn’t the host. The teacher will understand your skill level, and whether or not a given retreat will hit your sweet spot.

Pastiloff also suggests thinking beyond the mat and seeking out your ideal vacation. Do you want to do your sun salutations on a white sand beach or in the Alps? Would you rather spend free-time soaking in thermal baths or learning to surf? If you’re scouring the internet, English suggests using additional activities (horseback riding, wine-tasting, detoxing) and locations (Santorini, Tuscany, the Yucatan) to drill down on search terms.

And because your room, meals and scenery will make or break the experience as much as the teacher, a yoga retreat isn’t the place to skimp. "As a rule of thumb, you probably want to spend $2,000 or more for a week-long retreat," says English. "If you find one that’s much less than that, unfortunately, you will probably get what you pay for."

In other words, don’t be afraid to practice zen and the art of being slightly high maintenance.

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