Amid the pressures of our technology-driven, workaday lives, it’s become more challenging to nd the ow—a state of being where the effort of the body and mind are so utterly focused on the same activity or experience, that one feels an effortlessness, a deep ease in being. A place where we try to create peak experiences like ow is on vacation—but even our vacations have become to-do lists. Instead of resting, we follow packed itineraries with a whirlwind of activities: new sights, new sounds, a new city each day. To rest well, we must retreat. 

A focused retreat experience removes us from environments that induce and condition habitual stress responses in the body, and instead cloisters us instead within a safe and healing space. As David Zimmerman, program director at the San Francisco Zen Center said to me when I arrived at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center, "We often don't recognize how much it is that we are 'holding' in our bodies and minds, the level of physical, psychological, and emotional burden and unease we carry around with us on a day-to-day basis. But sometimes we are fortunate enough to arrive at a particular location— either amidst a natural landscape, or a spiritual practice, or even simple mindfulness of the breath—in which the permission and space is offered for us to release all that we are carrying. Here we can experience the joy and ease of our true nature—our Buddha Nature, as we say in Zen." 

Retreat at night 





The increasing need we feel to nd our Buddha Nature is driving a thriving retreat industry, from thousands of day spas to a wide range of residential options including spiritual retreat centers and luxury destination spas. According to the International Spa Association (ISPA), spas are “places devoted to overall well-being through a variety of professional services that encourage the renewal of mind, body, and spirit.” Sometimes we seek this experience in a residential setting, or destination spa, described by ISPA as “a facility with the primary purpose of guiding individual spa-goers to develop healthy habits. 

Historically a seven-day stay, this lifestyle transformation can be accomplished by providing a comprehensive program that includes spa services, physical tness activities, wellness education, healthful cuisine, and special interest programming.” The R-Aston retreat in the hill country of Northern California offers what they call Bootox—bootcamp and detox experience for small groups—complete with equine staff and canine trail guides. 

Retreat centers offer a means to immerse oneself in an environment that combines more educational or spiritual programs with a location centered on a sense of refuge. Many well-known retreat centers serve a dual function of being homes for members of a spiritual community, as well as powerful places of growth for visitors to learn meditation, healthy food, receive bodywork treatments, or soak in natural hot water and mineral springs). Retreat centers in California include Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness, Mount Madonna Center near Santa Cruz, Ananda Village in Nevada City, the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, the Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage and 

Meditation Centers in Encinitas, and the Esalen Institute on the famous Big Sur Coast. Notable destination spas that have pioneered self-development through the retreat experience include Rancho La Peurta in Tecate, Mexico and the Oaks at Ojai. 

A number of high-pro le resorts in beautiful locations feature spas (and are known as resort spas). They allow people to incorporate stress-reducing treatments or even more extensive wellness programming to connect to their internal ow during their stay such as The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs, Sycamore Hot Springs in Pismo Beach, La Quinta Resort and Club, and Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. While visitors can’t sleep on the grounds, The Glen Ivy Day Spa in Corona is notable for its more than 100 year history, hot mineral water, and wide array of stress- reducing spa treatments. 

Visitors might decide on their experience based on the food (many have a ve-star reputation for spa cuisine, farm to table meals, organic food, creative chefs, or clean, weight-management meals); the location (embedded in natural settings to support relaxation); world-class tness and wellness activities and programming; or a reputation for stellar spa treatments. 

Visiting any of these locations is not simply a feel-good affair. Research reports are con rming that dropping in—whether we’re meditating or simply spending time in nature—can dramatically improve our health, including our mental health. One of the psychophysiological markers of health is heart rate variability; it is being shown more and more that meditation and other retreat-related activities can create shifts in this and other indicators of wellness. A group of researchers at the SCAN Research & Teaching Unit at the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney investigated the effects of practicing meditation at a Vipassana Retreat on heart rate variability. Not only did participants demonstrate greater heart-rate variability as a result of the engagement in practice, but the authors of the paper likened the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s relaxation response, commonly known as the “rest and digest” system) to being in a state of ow. This is only one of many studies that con rm the positive effects of retreat activities including meditation, practicing breathing exercises, experiencing nature, soaking in warm water, luxuriating in a massage, and more. 

Whatever a retreat’s focus, you can nd your own ow simply by focusing on stress relief—reduce the whirlwind of activities and you lessen the whirlwind in the mind. According to ISPA President Lynne McNees, “Spa-focused trips are increasing because spa-goers are nding that by making a spa or spa treatment the focus of a trip, you ensure that by the end of your time away you will feel refreshed.” It isn’t indulgent to focus your retreat on spa treatments themselves; it might be just the thing you need to truly let go, relax, and just be. 

Whether you’re choosing a retreat, spa vacation, or even a one-day getaway, take some time to plan before you pack. Amy McDonald, longtime spa professional and owner of the spa and wellness consultancy, Under a Tree, gives some of the following suggestions, “Be practical in terms of scheduling and traveling. For short trips it might be best not to cross time zones.” And give yourself adequate time to be there. Amy recommends a minimum of three days (not including travel time)—but better yet, ve, seven, or even 10 days in order to experience the maximum bene t. 

But once the retreat is over, can we keep the ow going at home? Barry Shingle, Director of Guest Activities and Fitness at Rancho La Puerta’s advice is to, “Continue the habits or activities that were part of the routine while on retreat in order to recreate and reconnect to the peaceful feelings experienced on vacation.” Some of his top recommendations for extending the renewal experience into everyday life include starting each day with ve minutes of meditation, getting regular exercise, and adding green vegetables to everyday meals. Many retreats, resorts, and programs offer take-home materials (videos from the Oaks at Ojai), connections to meditation groups (such as local Zen centers offering practices similar to those found at Tassajara), or online communities (Rancho la Peurta’s Ranch Circle). 

In my own recent experience unplugging at Tassajara, I was reminded of the importance of breathing deeply, looking away from a computer screen to see the stars, soaking in hot mineral water, and eating without sending a text message. Adding a retreat to our yearly rhythm offers us the ability to return to our everyday life with a greater sense of ease, and to swim in the flow.

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20 Sep 2017

By Felicia Tomasko