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Finding a yoga retreat to stretch the mind and body

Madelyn Bell, 24, of Odessa, Kathryn Watkins, 29, of Tarpon Springs and Amy Dascola, 37, of Tampa participate in a class in the Nature Classroom at Tampa's Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health in Carrollwood. There is lodging on the 4-acre property for weekend and weeklong retreats. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN | Special to the Times)
Published May 24, 2018

Before I attended my first yoga retreat on a trip to see my sister in Oregon, I did exactly zero preparation. Turns out, that's just fine, and it opened up the wider world of what a yoga getaway can give you.

With four hours of yoga classes a day, my long-nagging back pain was gone by the third day. And the mere act of being away from home freed me up to think clearly, relax and forget about my never-ending to-do list.

Now I'm in search of more such weekend retreats, both out of town and right here in the Tampa Bay area.

I try to attend yoga classes at my gym, but I hadn't been as faithful as I would have liked before heading to the three-day series of classes and talks.

I'm also such a newbie to the yoga scene that I had overlooked the notion that yoga is not just an exercise class. It's a philosophy.

"Yoga is the science of transformation," teacher Ravi Ravindra told a gathering of about 50 of us in Sisters, Ore., in April. "That is achieved through attention, intention and sincerity."

I will admit we skipped a couple of the "dharma talks" from Ravindra, a native of India who also is a Canadian professor of physics, philosophy and comparative religion. But the ones I attended were enough to help outline the bigger picture. The mind has a tendency to be anywhere but here and now, so it takes practice to develop the intention to focus.

The day started with a two-hour yoga class of stretches, poses and quiet meditation. In the afternoon we had a choice of taking a break or, as I called them, "the hippy-dippy talks." We met again at 4 p.m. for another two-hour session of yoga, followed by dinner and another dharma talk.

I was introduced to props I had never used before, such as a foam roller that I positioned under the length of my spine to allow the shoulder blades to fall around the roller and open up the chest and stretch the back.

I was in agony.

Everyone around me thoroughly enjoyed the stretch, but I couldn't maintain it for more than five minutes without having to sit up.

Turns out my stiff back needed to be stretched more often, especially in a
U-shaped curve backward. I started concentrating harder on a series of stretches, lifting the midback toward the sky like a scary Halloween cat, followed by an opposite stretch on all fours as you drop your belly and look up (the Cow Pose). It was that U shape that seemed to be doing the trick, such as a beginner's backbend called a Cobra Pose, which lifts the chest away from the floor while the legs and hips stay firmly on the mat.

So now I'm a believer in not just regularly practicing yoga, but looking for more weekends like this to serve as a boot camp. I might even stick around for more of the hippy-dippy talks next time.

STEP AWAY

Just as there are many different kinds of yoga classes (hatha yoga, hot yoga, restorative yoga), there are countless yoga retreats and resorts around the world that accommodate all types of budgets.

Val Spies, owner of Tampa's Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health in Carrollwood, has been teaching classes in Tampa for 15 years. Spies has a retreat house on her 4-acre property, but she also takes students to spring and fall retreats in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Next up are a weekend retreat Sept. 28-Oct. 1 ($552) and a weeklong immersion Sept. 28-Oct. 4 ($1,318) that include lodging, food and classes at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, N.C. (yogalotuspond.com)

"We all need that time to just step away from the busy activities of our day. Even if it's just for an hour and 15 minutes, we can see the benefits," Spies said. "On a bigger scale a retreat is more than just a taste."

She has held retreats on the beach in the Tampa Bay area, but she found that students often used their lunch break to zoom around and get errands done.

"When you are up on top of a mountain and the cellphone reception is not great and it's a 12-hour drive home, it's easier to separate. Besides, it feels so wonderful to be away. You feel like you are away at camp."

Summer camp was the model for Camp Yoga, a three-day weekend of play, yoga and fitness classes for adults that was held March 23-25 on 144 acres at the Florida Elks Camp in Umatilla, about 45 minutes from Orlando.

Owner Chesley Long, a Toronto yoga teacher, got the idea about four years ago to hold weekend events around the country, offering yoga with activities that ranged from rock climbing and archery to DJ raves and wine tasting. This year he has nine such events in the United States and Canada. (campyoga.ca)

"I feel like the yoga retreat is somewhat new to Florida, so this is a way of it seeming a little more accessible," said Long, 34, a Nova Scotia native who lives in Toronto.

Camp Yoga in Central Florida proved to be popular, drawing about 100 people who paid $350 to $650. It will be back again over the same weekend in 2019, Long said.

FIND A RETREAT

Not sure where to go? Spies' advice: Ask your favorite yoga teachers. Chances are they are participating in a retreat or can recommend one.

Another option is to check out packages at established yoga centers around the country. That's why Spies holds Lotus Pond's retreats at North Carolina's Art of Living Retreat Center, which was voted one of the best "hidden gems" by Spafinder's Wellness Travel Awards.

"You want to make sure they've been doing this awhile," Spies said. "There's a certain skill set to running a retreat. It needs a good balance of yoga practice, but not too much and not overscheduled."

Some other well-regarded options to consider:

The Kripalu Center, which is in the middle of Massachusetts' Berkshire forest and is the largest and most established retreat center in North America. (kripalu.org)

The Zen Den Yoga School in Boca Raton, which is known for its wide variety of classes. Founder Ira Schneider aims for affordable options. With retreat packages starting at $600 per person, Shape magazine included it in a recent top 10 list of affordable wellness retreats. (zendenyogaschool.com)

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., which was founded in 1977 and offers classes to more than 25,000 people a year at its 190-acre campus. (eomega.org)

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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