What is a Retreat?

Retreats are the perfect opportunity to escape and unplug, to disconnect from the pressures of everyday life, and to reconnect with your inner self. They give you the chance to do something for yourself for a change, to dedicate time to doing something you love, to deepen your spirituality, and to learn new skills in a supportive and dedicated environment. And with the advent of modern technology and the information overload era, it is not surprising that going on a spiritual retreat, a religious retreat or other types of retreats are enjoying a renewed popularity across the world today. But what is a retreat exactly?

Religious Retreat vs Spiritual Retreat?

Retreats certainly aren’t a modern invention. Just look at the history books.
Jesus went to the desert for forty days…
Buddhists traditionally go on a retreat every year…
Native Americans have always gone into the wilderness to deepen their spiritual connection…
Even us modern westerners retreat into a nice hot bath at the end of a long hard day, explore spiritual texts or go out into nature to feel ‘at one’ with the world.

Types of Retreats?

These days, there are all different types of retreats on offer that will suit every age, background, religion, practice and even every hobby you could imagine. Writers’ retreats, artists retreats, spa retreats, foodie retreats and ski retreats to mention a few have started to appear on the web. But the best kind of retreat surely has to be the more traditional kind – the spiritual retreat or religious retreat. The spiritual retreat is the kind that I strongly believe that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. Trouble is, making sense of all the retreat options out there can be quite an overwhelming task! Therefore, to help you out, I’ve created a simply retreat planning guide that will help you understand the difference between a mindfulness retreat and a vipassana retreat, learn how much silence is expected on a Buddhist retreat, what Sufis are anyway, what to expect on your yoga retreat and much more. Enjoy!

What is a Retreat like on a Yoga Holiday?

Yoga retreats are without a doubt the most popular retreats around these days. They offer a well-deserved chance to spend time away from the madness of modern life, they’re well-known across the globe, they help you improve your yoga practice and they help you get in touch with your more spiritual side without needing to adhere to any kind of religion. Whether you’re already a yogi or you’re a complete beginner, you’ll completely immerse yourself in a daily yoga practise without the distractions of everyday life and take your practice to a whole new level.
Depending on which yoga retreat you choose to go on, which destination and even which package you choose, yoga retreats can also be quite indulgent, and regularly include massages, spa treatments, cultural events and even activities like SUP, surfing, horse-riding, scuba and more. You’re also likely to grow brand new friendships, share personal information, connect with other like-minded people and enjoy some really enlightening conversations along the way. Food is usually a highlight of any yoga retreat, ranging from vegetarian food, vegan food, raw food, juices to local cuisine. Though most Yoga Retreats tend to be vegetarian & Alcohol-free, there are some yoga retreats which combine wine tasting and delicious meat delicious. So hunt around(no pun intended) if you are not after the tee-total type retreat.
Remember that yoga retreats will focus mainly on movement and asana (poses), so if you’re looking to strengthen your meditation practice or explore your spirituality, double-check before you book a yoga retreat. Where meditation is included, you don’t necessarily need to take part if you’re not seeking enlightenment.

Guidelines for a Yoga Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: Low to Moderate
Silent Factor: Low to Moderate
Price: Low to Very High
Click here to find a Yoga retreat
Below is a video of a typical Yoga Retreat center:

What is a Mindfulness Retreat?

Mindfulness has recently become a real buzz word, with its roots in Buddhist philosophy suddenly everyone is talking about ‘being mindful’ and mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the Godfather of the recent Mindfulness movement, so if you are interested in reading more about mindfulness, you can buy his excellent book from Amazon here.
If you want to discover your inner space, increase your awareness without going on a religious retreat, a mindfulness retreat could be your perfect retreat. Of course, you could try to develop your mindfulness meditation practice at home, but on a retreat, you’ll enjoy mindfulness training delivered by experts, plus the space and time to start putting it all into practice in your everyday life.
You’ll develop greater control over your mind, body and emotions and you’ll discover renewed awareness and presence in the ‘now’. This will allow you to feel happier and more grateful for your blessings, beat stress, overcome difficult feelings and return to the world feeling like a new person.
Don’t expect a mindfulness retreat to be as luxurious and relaxed as a yoga retreat through- the focus here is on self-improvement through meditation. You’re highly likely to be woken early (think 5.30am!), long periods of silence or solitude are almost always mandatory, and you will be expected to attend all sessions offered by the retreat centre. Yoga asana is sometimes included too, but primarily to deepen the spiritual experience.
The meditation itself might be silent or guided, individual or group. The food might be omnivorous, vegetarian or vegan. The location could be urban, rural or right by the sea. Again, it’s really important to choose the right organisation and/or teacher on a mindfulness retreat.

Guidelines for a Mindfulness Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: Low
Silent Factor: Low to Moderate
Price: Low to Very High
Click here to find a mindfulness retreat
Below is a video of a typical Mindfulness Retreat center:

What is a Retreat like in a Christian setting?

According to the book of Mark in the Bible, Jesus himself retreated into the desert for a period of forty days and forty nights where he fasted, prayed and was tempted by the Devil(for more info about Retreats in the Bible, check out this link). Luckily, you don’t have to fight snakes or battle the devil to go on a modern Christian retreat. Instead, you’ll enjoy a simple and relaxing break away with like-minded people where you can set time aside for God, discover their own inner conflicts, to move away from distraction and to start living your life according to the word of God.
Daily prayer is a key part of a Christian retreat, as much of the work on this type of spiritual retreat is internal. However, there is still a strong emphasis on the community here as everyone seeks to grow stronger with God and work through their own life challenges.
There’s usually a combination of group sessions, seminars, visualisations, reflections, workshops, spiritual readings, services and presentations on offer, and often spiritual exercises or questions to work through too. They often offer time in nature too and as much solitude as you need to process the retreat.
That doesn’t mean it’s all boring though- games, exercises and activities for all age groups are usually offered too.

Guidelines for a Christian Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: High
Silent Factor: Moderate to High
Price: Low
Click here to find a Christian retreat
Below is a video of a typical Christian Retreat center:

Sufi – What is a Retreat like in Sufism?

Despite being traditional, deeply spiritual and offering the deepest intensive healing benefits, it can be incredibly hard to find out more about Sufi retreats, unless you’re a follower of Sufism, so let me explain. Sufism is Islamic mysticism and offers followers the chance to reach deep spiritual enlightenment, closeness with God, and achieve healing and renewal through meditation, breath, sound, light, magnetism and presence.
It encourages believers to spend a period in ‘khalwa’, which is a time of separation, solitude and a retreat away from everyday life to contemplate God, to pray and to obtain higher spiritual guidance.
Traditionally, this would be for a period of forty days, but these days, it can be for as little as a few hours, a weekend, a week or even more. Sufi retreats usually take place in nature, with vegetarian or vegan foods on offer, where speaking and noise are limited, and the sexes are almost always segregated.

Guidelines for a Sufi Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: Medium to High
Silent Factor: Moderate to High
Price: Low
Click here to find a Sufi retreat
Below is an example of a typical Sufi Retreat:

Buddhism – What is a Retreat like in Buddhism?

Retreats and Buddhism have a very close connection, with the Buddha often advising his followers to go off into the forest to practice in solitude. Buddhist retreats are a traditional way to escape from the distractions and chaos of everyday life and take a meaningful and in-depth journey inwards.
Whilst the focus will nearly always be about meditation and mindfulness, deepening your spiritual practice and experiencing an intense journey inwards, it’s also likely to incorporate other aspects of Buddhism such as chanting, talks and time in nature as well as workshops, silent meditation, and other activities. There are many types of Buddhism these days, with the most popular in Western countries being Tibetan Buddhism. However, there is also Zen Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and even Western Buddhist Schools such as Triratna. Each of these schools will have their own unique customs and practices. So unless you are set on a school of Buddhism, it is encouraged to explore the different types and see what suits you best.
I also love the fact that thee are often options for everyone including beginners, families and many more, which make it much more accessible to all than previously.
But don’t be fooled- these retreats are often far from being luxurious and you’re highly likely to be woken in the early hours by a monk ringing a bell. You’ll also be expected to take part in the religious observances if you’re staying at a monastery or temple, which might not sit well with some people.

Guidelines for a Buddhist Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: Medium to High
Silent Factor: Moderate to High
Price: Low
Click here to find a Buddhist retreat
Below is an example of a typical Buddhist Retreat:

What is a Vipassana Retreat?

Although, strictly speaking, Vipassana meditation is actually a form of Buddhist meditation. For better or for worse and rather like mindfulness meditation, Vipassana meditation has become its own movement without encompassing the other aspects of Buddhist meditation.
Vipassana meditation is about insight into the nature of experience rather than other forms of meditation, where the emphasis is on calming and relaxing the mind. The popular method you can learn vipassana techniques is through intensive ten-day courses which will challenge your body, mind and spirit and help you reach greater personal insight.
When I say ‘intense’, I don’t use the word lightly- vipassana meditation is all about equanimity, discipline and above all else- hard work. And it shows in their schedule.
You’ll be meditating from 4 am to 9 pm with only short breaks for meals and rest, sleeping in shared rooms and eating simple vegetarian food. It’s important to note that simplicity is key here, so they usually cannot cater for special food requirements. The sexes are also segregated to help minimise distraction and help you deepen your meditation practice.
Depending on the session, meditation will sometimes take place individually, sometimes in groups, and you will be expected to share the insights you gain over the sessions with a teacher. The rules are simple- no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no intoxicants. No writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating. And the meditation advice is also simple: observe the breath for three days and observe the bodily sensations for seven.
Interestingly, many of these vipassana meditation retreats run purely with the help of volunteers and there are no charges, only donations.

Guidelines for a Vipassana Retreat

Religious Retreat Factor: Low to Medium
Silent Factor: Very High
Price: Very Low
Click here to find a Vipassana retreat
Below is an example of a typical Vipassana Retreat:

As you can see, a spiritual retreat or religious retreat can be as varied as the people who go on them. But there is always something to suit everyone, whether they’re highly religious, seeking spiritual or just spiritually curious.
Hopefully, this short retreat guide has helped shed some light on the wonderful world of going on a spiritual retreat, so you can take your inner life to a whole new level.
Remember to check the details before you book your retreat as food, requirements, segregation, alcohol and even teachers can vary tremendously.

If you are looking for a retreat in the UK, you might find our UK Yoga Retreat Guide helpful or perhaps somewhere a little warmer? Check out our Bali Retreat Guide or our guide to Women’s Retreats

We always love to hear about your experiences about the types of retreats that you have been on, so please leave us a comment below. :-)

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