In the last couple of years, I've started to question self-improvement. I'm a middle-aged person. Do I still want to chase after a new practice, mantra, philosophy, worldview? How much energy am I willing to put into being kinder, thinner, more authentic, attractive or centred? If I haven't found my true self by now, should I just wait for my next incarnation? Other times, I'm more receptive to self-actualization through yoga, meditation and listening to unfamiliar points of view.
At I stood in line to check in at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a non-profit organization that operates the retreat in Stockbridge, Mass., on a Friday night in January, I felt a little skeptical. Five hundred people had arrived at the former Jesuit seminary in the Berkshires of Massachusetts before me that day. Had I reached the epicentre of the yoga-industrial complex?
Over the course of a weekend, I came to appreciate that Kripalu is an amazing accomplishment. The retreat centre has been running for almost 50 years, long before wellness was such a thing. Staff cater to a huge number of individuals who are all seeking their own personal transformative experience. Watching how the kitchen feeds 500 people—many of them with some type of picky diet—three times a day, filled me with awe.
Guests can choose a personal R&R retreat or a group program. People on R&R can attend morning, noon and afternoon yoga classes and participate in whatever special sessions are happening that day. Activities offered might be origami and mindfulness, a guided hike, the power of mantra, a whole foods cooking demo or a concert. Some come for a multi-day program, such as mindfulness-based harmonica, mothering and daughtering, setting boundaries that stick or the art of authenticity.
Kripalu also likes to get folks outside. My three-night snowshoeing and yoga program had a light schedule. We met in the morning for a few hours of snowshoeing (snow permitting) and in the afternoon for a two-hour yoga session. Other than that, we could take part in extra yoga, attend evening programs, peruse self-improvement books at the onsite bookshop, or slip away to lounge in the beautiful fourth-floor sunroom overlooking the snowy grounds.
Two guides led our outdoor activities, encouraging silence and mindfulness as our group of 25 walked Kripalu's trails. We stopped periodically as our guides reminded us to stay in the present by focusing on our senses. Toward the end of our walks, we'd make a circle and people could talk about their experience, which mostly brought up feelings of gratitude or their need to connect with nature. Many of my mostly female fellow snowshoers were carrying a lot of weight in their everyday lives. On our last morning, one woman started crying when she thanked a guide for carrying her water bottle the day before. Usually she has to do everything for everybody, she said. I don't think she was the only stressed out caregiver trying to carve out a little time for herself in the Berkshires.
Kripalu excels at offering people affordable retreats. If you're on a tight budget, the best deal is to rent a dorm bed for $92 per night midweek or $104 on the weekend. This cost includes meals, yoga classes, evening events and use of facilities such as the lovely steam room and whirlpool and the nature trails. For more solitude, choose a private room with private bath for $329 midweek or $369 on the weekend. Shared double rooms with shared bathrooms fall in between. If you're going to New York for business, it's not too hard to get to Kripalu by car, bus or train, so consider tacking a weekend retreat onto your trip.
All the food is buffet style and mostly vegetarian. As a nod to monastic tradition, everybody eats breakfast in silence. Lunch and dinner get cacophonous in the dining room, but there's a smaller room across the hall for those who want more silence. This is an awesome place for vegetarians and vegans, with probably the most choices I've ever had. The ingredients are listed beside each dish. You can choose everything from pancakes to steamed vegetables and mung beans for breakfast. There's always a huge salad bar at lunch and dinner, and several entrees. If you need a snack in between meals, the coffee shop sells excellent cookies. Don't miss the chocolate chia. There's no espresso machine, but the coffee is good.
I really appreciated how Kripalu made space for a wide range of experiences. Folks who feel gregarious can make new friends in the dorms and dining hall. Those who are looking for peace and silence can enjoy a more inward retreat.
During my time at Kripalu, I was feeling on the less sociable side. On Saturday, I tried to get in the group spirit by joining the popular yoga dance at noon complete with live drumming. But when I peered into the room and saw 60 people paired off yelling "you're amazing" at each other and showing off amazing dance moves to their partners, well, I just didn't have it in me. But I was in luck, since Kripalu has plenty to offer the more contemplative retreatant. I found a beautiful snowy labyrinth to wander alone. My mind cleared as I marvelled at the brightness of snow.