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A Spiritual Retreat

Body+Soul, April/May 2005

Maybe your next vacation should be a journey inward.

On the path to the hot springs at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, I begin a kind of walking meditation, a continual awareness of what I am doing right now. Now I am crossing a footbridge to the baths, now I am taking off my flip-flops, now I am standing in front of an altar and reading the calligraphy: "With all beings/I wash body and mind/free from dust/pure and shining/within and without."

"Guess my name," says the little girl who shares the Japanese-style outdoor pool with me.

"Okay. Emma," I say.

"Do you know her?" her mother asks, puzzled.

"No," I say, "she just looks like an Emma."

I'm not clairvoyant, but at retreat centers people converge in unexpected ways. Beyond the pool, past the sun-bleached sycamores on the far side of the creek, seven naked women in sun hats carefully wind their way upstream. There's something mischievous about them as they wander in haphazard single file. I try to give them a context: Are they workshop participants hunting for wild mushrooms? Who knows? I think of the Zen notion of beginner's mind, ready for anything, open to everything...and, silently, I thank Emma and the naked women for being here, for opening my mind.

In my mid-30s, I became an inveterate retreater. With two small kids, time to myself seemed a thing of the past. So I began to take week-long breaks, alone and seeking contemplation, at cabins, in farmhouses, on islands. Along the way, I discovered one retreat that offered me contemplation as a way of life shared by an entire community. Tassajara is the place I return to year after year.

Slowing way down is the first gift of Tassajara, and slow is the only way to drive the 14-mile dirt road that climbs through the Los Padres National Forest and over a 5,000-foot ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains to the retreat. I stop and look down the steep descent through firs, sugar pines, tanbark oaks, and madrone into the canyon cut by Tassajara Creek. I exhale deeply, sloughing off my half-day drive south from San Francisco and a few layers of anxiety that have accumulated since my last visit here -- the war and its threat to all of us with draft-age children, my divorce driving its way toward finality.

An open gate leads travelers to Tassajara, also known as Zenshin-ji (Zen Mind Temple), founded in 1966 by Japanese Soto Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the San Francisco Zen Center. The first Soto Zen monastery outside of Asia follows a traditional monastic schedule during the fall, winter, and early spring, then opens for guest season from late April through early September.

At Tassajara, where electricity is largely confined to the dining room and kitchen, cell phones don't work, and a single public telephone is more trouble than it's worth, guests are offered another way -- the way of retreat. Here, the scheme of things is clear. One's small place in it, uncomplicated.

Whether here or elsewhere, there are a number of ways to have a retreat. Retreats are times to turn inward, to quiet down, to let your own needs take precedence. At Tassajara, free from cars, buses, jobs, and family responsibilities, you simply bathe, eat, sleep, sit in meditation (or not, as you choose), swim, hike, read. You might venture to the massage kiosk to be kneaded, tapped, stretched, and unblocked. The day's big excursion could be swimming some laps in the spring-fed creek-side pool, or hiking a mile downstream to a tumble of large boulders and small waterfalls you can ride down to the local swimming hole. Feeling more energetic, you might hike one of the trails -- my favorite being up the mountain to the Wind Caves, where you can sit inside shallow, white-sand-floored pockets in the granite cliff face and behold the top of the world. You can return for the organic vegetarian meals, a cuisine pioneered by Tassajara's Ed Brown and Annie Somerville, the chef of the Zen Center's San Francisco restaurant, Greens.

Another way of visiting Tassajara is as a workshop participant. "Zen and Yoga" marks a turning point in my retreat life -- a threshold to greater community, one that adds structure to my retreat time. With my daughter away at college and my teenage son spending every other week at his dad's, I no longer crave alone time as I once did. Instead, I'm looking for ways to realign myself in relationship to others. In this context, retreat becomes an active verb.

My workshop takes place in the meditation hall, or zendo, where over the next three days we will examine how sitting meditation and the practice of yoga postures, or asanas, inform and enhance one another. It's taught by Victoria Austin, a long-time Zen priest and yoga teacher who is also president of the San Francisco Zen Center. The afternoon we arrive, Victoria introduces us to the statue of a sitting Buddha that dominates the altar in the middle of the hall. When a fire destroyed the old zendo some years ago, the stone statue exploded into hundreds of pieces. Painstakingly reconstructed, the Buddha is almost exactly like the original, but not quite. "This Buddha is like practice itself," Victoria reminds us. "You're always putting yourself back together, each time a little differently." I can relate to that; we all can. Practice reaches far beyond the yoga or meditation mat to include, ultimately, each moment of our waking lives.

After restorative yoga, dinner, and an evening plunge in the hot springs, I'm as relaxed as I've ever been, in a comfy bed in my roomy turn-of-the-century cabin, lulled to sleep by the sound of water tumbling over creek stones. I'm awakened before dawn by the boom of a mallet striking a wooden block, calling the entire community to meditate in the zendo. An hour of sitting sorely reminds me of all the muscles it takes to sit that long, that straight. After temple cleaning, my workshop group continues with asana practice, all 25 of us spread out over the zendo, assuming Mountain, Tree, and Triangle poses, the Warrior series, and all the standing poses to fully awaken.

Famished, at breakfast I have a hard time choosing between the offerings: polenta with fresh strawberries, kiwis, and bananas, and the pancakes with raspberry compote. I sit at a table in the dining hall overlooking the creek with three women stem-cell researchers from Stanford University, a woman running for county supervisor, and a Minnesota man who founded a successful marketing firm. Busy lives and type-A personalities are a common bond for many people attracted to retreats.

Later that day, I talk to the gregarious guy from Minnesota. "I'm usually shy and standoffish, judgmental," he admits to me, "but I decided to pay attention yesterday during sharing time." He pauses to let a little cynical emphasis grin through. "I felt completely drawn to each story; it made me want to engage with everyone here." I found myself wishing I'd done that. "Funny what's possible," he says.

It's been a day of intense physical work, experimenting with yoga poses that help strengthen our meditation posture and focus our attention. Lying still, during Savasana, our last pose, Victoria says to us, "Let sounds come to you rather than pulling in the sounds." I drift in and out, aware of the sound of footsteps on the gravel path, of the squawk of the ubiquitous blue jays, but most of all of our sighing -- an ongoing chorus vocalizing the deep pleasure of exertion and release, a natural by-product of the primary work we are doing: following our breath in and out.

The next night at Victoria's dharma talk, she compares the monks' winter practice at Tassajara to one long breathing in, or refreshing the practice, and the summer guest season to a long breathing out, or giving to the larger community. I resolve to work on that out-breath.

Afterward the low light of kerosene lanterns dimly illuminates the path back to my cabin. I stop to watch the new moon rising above steep black slopes.

It is summer solstice night. Looking deeper, into the bright and scattered stars, I feel as if I'm standing in a roofless cathedral, buttressed by the Santa Lucias, part of some great force tilted upward in praise. My body tingles from the demands of the day, fledgling upper-back muscles awakened, all my cells celebrating in active communion. Attention. I whisper the word to myself, like an ancient secret. I raise my arms to the new moon in thankful salutation, take a long breath in, and sigh it westward, down the path of the year's longest day.

Getting Away From It All
The one potentially stressful aspect of Tassajara is getting a reservation, as space fills up quickly. The retreat follows a traditional monastic schedule during the fall, winter, and early spring, then opens its gates to the guest season from late April through early September.

For reservations call (415) 865-1895 or visit sfzc.org/tassajara/. There are, however, many other highly recommended retreats. Though diverse in their offerings, each will support you in restoring a run-down body, rejuvenating a tired spirit, and ultimately bringing you into greater mind/body alignment.

Canyon Ranch, Tucson, Arizona
This crown jewel of spas offers dozens of facial and body treatments, wellness services like bone-density testing and antioxidant evaluation, and an impressive roster of on-site doctors, therapists, acupuncturists, and nutritionists; canyonranch.com.

Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
The Institute, which pioneered the human-potential movement in the 1960s, now offers more than 400 eclectic workshops a year taught by experts in the spirituality, psychology, and health fields; esalen.org.

Feathered Pipe Ranch, Helena, Montana
Thousands of dedicated yogis retreat to this Montana mountain paradise to learn from the world's best teachers. Feathered Pipe also offers massage, acupuncture, Craniosacral therapy, acupressure, and energy work; featheredpipe.com.

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Lenox, Massachusetts
An open-hearted and peaceful philosophy infuses every aspect of this beloved Berkshires retreat. You'll find an unusually talented staff of bodyworkers, daily classes in yoga and meditation, and serene grounds that invite introspection; kripalu.org

Maya Tulum, Tulum, Mexico
This Yucatan resort offers daily yoga classes, an array of spa and body treatments, and water-based adventures like snorkeling and diving; mayatulum.com.

Miraval, Catalina, Arizona
This desert resort offers the best of massage and spa treatments and a dizzying number of classes in yoga, meditation, adventure, creative arts, and nutrition; miravalresort.com.

Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York
The cream of the crop from the yoga, holistic-health, and spiritual worlds come to teach workshops at this homey upstate New York center; eomega.com.

Pura Vida Wellness Retreat and Spa, San Jose, Costa Rica
Located on a lush mountaintop, you'll find tranquillity during an indulgent treatment at the Wellness Center, or simply lying on a hammock and gazing at the abundant wildlife and natural beauty before you; puravidaspa.com.

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Mexico
Travelers from around the world migrate to this unrivaled health spa for its thriving organic garden; á la carte spa treatments; classes in yoga, meditation, and tai chi; and uber-mellow atmosphere; rancholapuerta.com.

The Raj, Fairfield, Iowa
This health spa offers an extensive array of traditional techniques of Ayurveda -- an ancient medical system of preventive care and purification. The Raj promotes inner and outer cleansing through daily detox treatments, yoga and meditation classes, and meticulously-prepared and super-healthy meals; theraj.com.

Red Mountain Spa, St. George, Utah
Specializing in hiking, biking, and rock-climbing trips among the area's stunning rock formations, Red Mountain also offers spa treatments to indulge in after all that exertion; redmountainspa.com.

Purple Valley Yoga Centre. Goa, India
Purple Valley, on the western coast of India, caters to nomadic spiritual seekers. After taking a class at the center's charming yoga studio, visitors can meander to a nearby massage hut, tropical gardens, or meditation center; yogagoa.net.

Samasati Nature Retreat, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Claim your bungalow at Samasati, an eco-resort and retreat center on 250 acres of tropical rain forest overlooking the Caribbean; samasati.com.

Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
This Rocky Mountain refuge offers yoga retreats, personal getaways, and workshops on Buddhist meditation and philosophy. Travelers flock to see the 108-foot Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a sacred architectural wonder; shambhalamountain.org.

Tensing Pen Hotel, Negril, Jamaica
Receiving an oceanside massage, eating in an open-air kitchen, and sleeping in a thatched-roof cottage are all highly likely scenarios at this Tibetan-influenced getaway on the western tip of Jamaica; tensingpen.com.

by Nora Isaacs