Ready to Retreat

Jane Lanza featured in Yoga Journal
(Formerly Jane Jarecki)

“For students, retreats are an opportunity to develop or deepen their devotion, revive their practice, or get a rich introduction to yoga. For yoga teachers, they’re an opportunity to reach students without feeling that you have only an hour to achieve balance and bliss. But leading your first one can seem daunting. How do you know if you’re ready?

Most experienced yoga retreat leaders suggest doing an internal check first—how passionately do you feel about doing this? “The knowing may come in several ways,” says Barbara Voinar, an Inyengar, Anusara, and Angela Farmer Yoga instructor in Berkeley, California. “You feel the desire to deepen your teaching skills and be in community with fellow yogis for an extended time, you visit a beautiful place that you would love to share with your students, or your students repeatedly ask you about going on a retreat.”

If you feel you’re ready, start hatching a plan. Here’s a handy guide to get you started.

What are you offering to students?

One of the real benefits of retreats is that they provide an opportunity for students to go deeper, away from the distractions of everyday life. “Ideally, each class at your yoga studio is like a mini-retreat, an opportunity for people to leave behind where they came from and where they’re going,” says Jane Jarecki, a Kripalu Yoga instructor in Burlington, Vermont. “A retreat is an opportunity to literally leave behind work and responsibilities and to vacation while extending the yoga practice into a longer experience. There’s great freedom and insight available from changing external environments; even if the postures look the same at home and on a retreat, inside, the experience may be very different.”

Helping students to explore yoga and themselves is part of the job of retreat leader. That’s why Emily Garrett, a Kripalu and Vajra Yoga teacher based in Burlington, Vermont, says she “tries to prepare classes that can build on each other, that encourage discussion and questions. I offer suggestions for students to explore the yoga throughout the rest of their day and to use the support of each other to talk about what comes up. When we do weeklongs, I encourage students to keep a journal.”

What’s the retreat theme?

You’ll need to develop a focus, whether it be R&R or an eco-adventure experience. A retreat is also the perfect chance to combine yoga with other interests. Garret organizes retreats combining yoga and surfing in Costa Rica and yoga and snowshoeing (snoga) in Maine. After getting sore from surfing one weekend with a group of friends, Garett remembers spontaneously doing yoga on the beach together. “We had such a great time that we felt like we wanted to pass on the experience to others,” she says. “So ‘yogasurf’ was born.”

What should you teach?

Garret doesn’t believe there’s a “should” or an “always” in retreat planning. “The whole process is an experiment, and as teachers lead more retreats, they’ll get a sense of what works and what doesn’t work for them. It may be helpful in the beginning, however, for instructors to focus on what they love to teach. If they love kirtan, that could be part of what they incorporate into an evening session. If there are themes that they think are important for their students to explore, perhaps the yamas and the niyamas or the alignment of Down Dog, then incorporate those themes into the retreat. Use retreats as an opportunity to expand your teaching and to play with themes that are relevant to you.”

Where is the venue?

Sticking close to home is a good idea on your first time out. “I highly recommend starting with a crawl before you try to walk or run,” says Jarecki. Think of those baby steps as building valuable experience for future endeavors. “Teachers who lead daylong retreats near home will have greater experience to later run a successful weekend or weeklong retreat that’s in a foreign place,” Jarecki says. This also eliminates the added effort of coordination in a completely new setting.

For international locations, pick a place you know well, since students consider their teacher their local compass. “Give students all the information you can to make the trip go as smoothly as possible,” says Voinar. Make a checklist and then provide the information to your students to help them plan their trip. Include information about:

  • visas needed
  • flight connections that work
  • airlines you recommend and whether they offer a group discount
  • arrival information with directions to the retreat site
  • arrangement for airport pickup
  • check-in time and date
  • class start and end times
  • how many meals are provided each day
  • how many nights of lodging are provided
  • departure times

How much will it cost?

Is it enough for you that the money you make teaching covers the cost of the trip? Or do you prefer to get paid to teach, over and above covering your travel costs? In the beginning, you might decide that breaking even is acceptable just to have the experience.

As your retreats become more exotic, you may decide to charge a bit more to be sure all your costs are covered, or more than covered. Voinar has been offering retreats in Mexico for years at the Maya Tulum Resort in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. As the leader, she’s financially responsible to the resort to cover the costs of bringing a group. “You sign a contract to rent X amount of rooms, and you pay a deposit that’s not refundable.”

Will you need any help?

Helping a retreat run smoothly and making attendees feel taken care of may require more than a single pair of hands, no matter how well trained you are. However, it may be a financial decision in the end, says Voinar. “Hiring an assistant to work with the logistics is helpful, and they can be compensated at an hourly cost or for a trade,” she says. Or you could consider offering a willing assistant a free retreat.

How long will it last?

For the novice, keeping retreats short at first makes it easier to troubleshoot logistics and other problems. “I think it’s best to keep the first retreat short and test the waters,” says Garrett. “Often there are unexpected tasks and needs that you didn’t prepare for but will be able to prepare for better the next time. If it’s only a couple days, you won’t feel stuck in a situation that you may not have anticipated.”

When hosting longer retreats, it’s important to build in downtime for everyone, including teachers. “In every retreat, give your guests some free time and a chance to explore. Build this openness into the schedule, as well as some structure, since most students are on a retreat for both,” suggests Jarecki. This is where an assistant can help, too—handling questions while you get a break from the 24/7 needs of students. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your students,” she says.

Who’s doing the paperwork?

Be prepared to handle administrative details such as registration, waivers, and organizing travel and lodging. Cancellations, rain checks, and refund policies should be explained on your registration form. Safety—yours and your students’—is also a foremost concern. “You must be insured and have everyone sign a waiver accepting their own liability,” says Jarecki. “Have everyone return their signed waiver to you before the trip, then a signed copy of the return policy when their original deposit is submitted.”

How will you promote the event?

Word of mouth is great at first, but it can limit the number of people you’ll entice once you want to expand. To cast your net further, Jarecki suggests fliers, social media (Twitter, Facebook), advertising in yoga-related print magazines or a local publication, and posting retreat photos and testimonials on your website.

The best way to become retreat-ready is to experience a few yourself and take notes. “Make sure you’ve personally attended a few retreats before planning your own,” says Jarecki. “Know what you like, what you don’t, and how retreats can run smoothly.”

And remember, as much as you need to plan, you also need to go with the flow. “Retreats, like yoga practice and life, are each unique and ever-changing, no matter how many times you’ve done them before,” Jarecki points out. You can gain control and feel better prepared by planning ahead what you want to achieve through the teaching. “And once you’re actually there, allow for some moment-to-moment spontaneity as the flow unfolds,” says Jarecki.

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