Redoing Retreats


A retreat, in every definition of the word, may be unattainable in your corner of the world. But retreat centers are anticipating your visit in 2021.

A weeklong escape to the woods might seem fantastical right now. A retreat, in every definition of the word, may be unattainable in your corner of the world. But retreat centers are anticipating your visit in 2021.

A handful of years ago I went on a mother’s pilgrimage. The type you take when you’re overflowing with babies and need a break. When I think of that time now—yoga with a dozen or so people and open buffet dining with 30 other guests—it’s easy to believe that way of life is extinct. But Gary Palisch, the Sedona Mago Center’s marketing advisor, reminds me that there are parts of the country remote enough that partaking in a normal retreat experience is possible.

“We’re 12 miles out in the desert,” he says.

The center, located in northern Arizona, is on 173 acres of land. Currently, it’s allowing 30 people on the grounds at a time. “The rooms are pretty well spaced out, so we literally

have no chance of you running into someone,” Palisch says. The Sedona Mago Center has had to quickly adapt.

Temporarily closing the center, cutting pay, and declining large, profitable group bookings are some examples. “It’s a challenge financially. ... The key was how do we maintain a safe environment for people? Because we are out in the desert, so a lot of our teachers, trainers, and operational staff live out there. How do we make sure they’re all safe?”

The center has implemented social distancing and masks in common areas. Only couples are allowed to share rooms. Gone are buffets. Hand sanitizer is plentiful. Teachers are heard from at least six feet away through speakers. The good news, Palisch says, is “most of your time at Mago is spent outside.”

Low occupancy makes the retreat feel like a private get-away. “[It] allows the opportunity for people to go on really deep-dive personal retreats,” says Palisch. Another change is the length of stay. More people are opting for longer stays that can make lasting change in their life. “Mago really is a place that can help people who are asking, ‘What’s the next phase of my life going to look like?’”

Canyon Ranch, a luxury wellness resort with four locations, is attempting to meet the need for human connection while staying safe. The retreat has a medical facility and employs, among others, Richard Carmona, a former surgeon general. Under the guidance of its experts, it has been able to offer in-person spa services like massage. The resort is actively working on offering group experiences for corporations and social and wellness travel groups.

In the virtual space, Canyon Ranch offers videos, articles, and online coaching, and it gives guests the opportunity to continue working with health professionals they’ve seen in the past. Jim Eastburn, the resort’s director of transformational experiences, says, “I think it will be an

ongoing extension of our brand to help people stay connected through life and wellness coaching and looking at elements of telemedicine.”

In addition to the pandemic, the Ratna Ling Retreat Center, located in Cazadero, California, has had to endure the California wildfires. While the center was not directly impacted, its co-director, Rosalyn White, says the challenges have taught her patience. “I need to have patience and by that, I mean just to face the reality as it is. Not how you wish it could be or used to be, but how it is now and what we can do to help.” This has trickled down into the center’s programs.

“We’ve actually been planning to move more in a spiritual direction in our teaching. Our founder is a Tibetan Buddhist master. Most of us are long-term students and teachers who have this grounding in the Buddhist practices. We’ve been more of a yoga retreat center and we’ve been moving more toward our roots in Buddhist practice. It seems like it’s what the world needs right now.”

White says the center is working on developing programs that “go beyond Shavasana,” and the five or ten minutes of relaxing that it brings. Instead, it is hoping to introduce a deeper spiritual practice that will bring greater joy and make a difference in people’s lives. “We are going to create this hybrid something that feels good like yoga does but also helps you feel better on more an emotional level.”

Ratna Ling is planning ways to invite people back to the center safely. An option is offering personal retreats for individuals who would stay in one of 14 guest cottages and

may choose to bring their own food or have meals brought to them. Classes may take place via Zoom and guests can receive directions on how to do their own self-guided nature walks.

The center is also hoping to return to its camping roots. “One thing we’re looking at resurrecting is a camping option. We used to have really nice platforms tents and yurts. We’re looking at making those available again. It will offer different price points and be a little more affordable. We already have permission to do that in the summer months.”

Before the pandemic and its consequent financial burdens, the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado was already dealing with reported sexual misconduct by its clergy. Add in the movements in society to bring more awareness to racial and gender inequity, and the center felt called to move in a different direction. Executive director Michael Gayner says it is “focusing on community development, bringing together meditative practice and community life.”

The center, which had to be evacuated in the summer due to forest fires, has also been working on building “resilient and healthy forests. ... Any further development that we do will be anchored in good ecological and environmental standards and net-zero construction, providing energy to the grid rather than taking from it.”

Another part of the center’s plan is strengthening its online presence to reach a more diverse audience. “One of the things COVID accelerated for us is developing good online programs. Some programs will be online purely and we’re also looking to develop hybrid programs with some number of students on land and other people who could be joining elsewhere. That would also make it more affordable if people are experiencing eco- nomic challenges.”

Traditionally, the center has offered a significant number of Buddhist programs from different traditions. It has expanded that to include yoga, running, hiking, and writing retreats. All programs have a contemplative meditative element. These are held over a day, a weekend, or even a month.

What you don’t get in luxury spa offerings, he says you gain in 600 acres of nature. “The only traffic jam we have is when there’s a bunch of deer on the road. You have those kinds of intimate experiences. It’s more about being up in an incredibly beautiful, potent space exploring nature.” Gayner is excited about the changes the center is undergoing. “When part of your livelihood is to host people ... there’s a yearning for guests and friends.”

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