The Mental Benefits Of Yoga Retreats Could Surpass The Physical

Courtesy Of H&M

Although there will always be a time and place for a lazy, unproductive getaway to an exotic locale (everyone needs to lay by a beach, cocktail in hand at some point), it seems travelers are consistently seeking more from their vacations these days. For this reason, wellness excursions, focusing on healing the body from the inside out are definitely on the rise. This aspect of travel has always fascinated me, so when I received the opportunity to take my first yoga retreat, I was game... but had some reservations.

To be honest, until recently, I always thought yoga-focused getaways were for, well, serious people. While I love the practice (I've incorporated hot yoga into my fitness routine here and there for years), I am by no means a devoted yogi — I still can't even manage crow's pose and my meditating habits are inconsistent at best. However, when I was invited to participate in a yoga retreat with H&M (in celebration of the brand's Conscious Fitness collection) at the Hotel Joaquin in Laguna Beach, California, I was immediately worried I wouldn't be able to keep up physically or mentally. Luckily, I quickly learned my rookie-level skills are not only acceptable for yoga retreats, but also welcome.

In fact, Heather Lilleston, co-founder of retreat company Yoga For Bad People and my instructor for the weekend, says helping new, non-traditional, or "bad" yogis experience the practice in a fresh but still enlightening way was why she chose to start the business in the first place. "I was in very serious spiritual yoga communities where everybody was vegan, people were meditating for an hour, tracking their ethical life every day in a notebook — it was a bit competitive," says Lilleston to The Zoe Report. "[My business partner Katelin Sisson and I] believe in a balanced life and in a disciplined spiritual practice, but we want to show people that you can do both. There are times for stricter discipline and times for lesser discipline."

My apprehension for the yoga-filled weekend quickly fell by the wayside with each hour and activity. In addition to yoga sessions, there were other activities to keep me busy, including a class on floral arrangements, hikes, astrology readings, down time for a little solitude, and lots of delicious meals (and cocktails!). Balance, indeed.

Have you been contemplating a yoga retreat or wellness excursion yourself? Ahead, a few takeaways that might help you take the plunge. Namaste.

Courtesy Of H&M

Yoga Retreats For Beginners: The Sessions Are Surprisingly Gentle On The Body

When I first glanced at my itinerary for the weekend, I have to admit, I panicked a bit. There were four sessions planned in the span of about 48 hours, with sessions ranging between two to two-and-a-half hours in length. That’s almost 10 hours of yoga! Now, as I mentioned before, I enjoy a calming 60-minute class, but this felt a bit excessive.

My first concern was my body. For those unfamiliar, yoga typically includes breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures that stretch and flex various muscle groups. While not as strenuous as a cardio-packed or HIIT workouts, yoga still pushes the body and can work your muscles, especially if you're holding specific poses for prolonged periods of time. Considering my experience level, I was worried the four sessions would leave me sore for the next week.

As it happens, the exact opposite occurred. To start, I should explain that not every session was strenuous or high-impact. Lilleston strategically planned each class so they felt balanced in their intensity. For instance, the Saturday morning session consisted of a steadily building Vinyasa sequence (a style of yoga where poses are strung together to form one fluid sequence of movement) with spurts of heart-pumping cardio (jumping jacks and star jumps) sandwiched in between. The two-hour evening class that same day was calmer with a lighter flow, restorative stretching, and longer meditation time (complete with some journaling and self-reflection).

It seemed all the sessions followed one of the two aforementioned formats, with slight tweaks and differences to make them feel fresh and challenging, either physically or mentally. By the final day, not only was I not sore, but I actually felt like some tightness and lower back pain I had been experiencing (I was two days into my menstrual cycle) had noticeable decreased.

Yoga Retreats For Beginners: You Don't Have To Do Everything

I think one of the biggest misconceptions behind retreats of any kind is that you have to participate in everything on the agenda. This is simply not true. While I committed to taking part in every yoga class as a challenge to myself, I opted out of a few of the other activities like hiking and astrology readings to rest and reset.

For anyone considering a yoga or wellness trip, I recommend listening to your body and intuition. If you feel like something might be excessive or too hard your body (or you simply need a break), don't do it. Take the time you need so nothing feels forced or unnatural.

Courtesy of H&M

Yoga Retreats For Beginners: The Mental & Emotional Benefits Exceed The Physical

As mentioned above, there was some considerable self-reflection included in each of the four yoga sessions. There were guided meditations in each session, albeit some longer than others. Journaling, introspective and thought-provoking philosophical discussions, and periods of prolonged silence and stillness were all on the menu. "We always lead meditation," said Lilleston. "There's always some philosophy. We're not afraid to bring that in."

As a Los Angeles editor, my days can be quite manic and packed, leaving little time for quiet (unless I’m in bed and ready for sleep!). Calming my brain is an art I’ve struggled to master for years, and have yet do so. In one of the retreat’s sessions, I actually managed to sit in a state of stillness and silence for almost 20 minutes. This may not seem like a substantial feat but, for me, it was equivalent to running a marathon. This extended moment of silence gave me a taste of the much-mentioned benefits of regular meditation. The pending deadlines and mile-long to-do list that I constantly refer to throughout the day faded slightly, as if pushed to the back of the room in my mind. I went about the rest of my workout and day a bit calmer and less distracted.

Another component to the meditation involved journaling. Lilleston encouraged us to write letters, writing as the future version of ourselves praising our present selves for our strength in overcoming obstacles and day-to-day battles. As odd as that may seem, the process was completely cathartic and healing. In encouraging oneself from a future perspective, you are able to see your issues and troubles as things that can and will be overcome. I’ve felt the residual benefits over the following weeks since the retreat, finding myself less reactive and quick to become overwhelmed. According to the Yoga For Bad People site, this sounds about right: “These meditations are always optional, but those who have committed to it for the duration of the retreat have often been able to continue the practice at home."