Inside Passage
These days the spa destination of choice is a journey within

By Valerie Finholm

The settings can be spectacular—an estate in the Berkshires, a seaside hideaway overlooking the Pacific, a secluded cabin in the Rocky Mountains. But the room accommodations are basic—a single bed, a desk, a bathroom down the hall. Meals are simple and eaten in silence. There is no alcohol, tobacco, in some places, even no caffeine; no cell phones, no laptops. You visit these places not for a vacation, but more aptly, for a retreat—from stress, obligation, routine, the familiar. Days are spent in quiet contemplation intended to create distance from daily life.

If this sounds good to you, you're not alone. Across the nation, increasing numbers of people are seeking solace at retreats and monasteries. They include people like Patty Robertson, a 44-year-old business consultant and mother of two, who recently passed on a spa trip and opted instead for a solitary getaway at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. She wanted more, and less, than the pampering she would get at a spa, something she could only describe as "a simplification thing."

Robertson, who lives in affluent Lexington, Massachusetts, found what she needed at Kripalu. She described her experience as similar to "visiting a foreign country where you end up re-evaluating how you live and what you need.'' Her fellow visitors—a Princeton professor, a widow in her late 50s, a woman who runs a construction company—were in similar stages of questioning. One valuable lesson Robertson took home was the importance of slowing the gallop of life, taking the time to focus, to be present in the moment. "Everything goes so fast,'' she says. "But I learned that I can slow down. Now I take a little more breath than I used to."

Why this growing desire for retreat? "Our culture is so oriented toward productivity and business that people are questioning whether there is more to life," says Anne Luther, executive director of Retreats International, an organization of 364 retreat centers with headquarters at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The number of people visiting retreats has been gradually increasing during the past few years, she says. In 1999, more than 2.5 million people were guests at retreats affiliated with her organization. That, Luther says, is an all-time high. "People are really hungry for something that satisfies, challenges, and inspires," she says.

"We're talking about spirituality, not religion..." Retreats range from faith-based—Christian, Jewish and Buddhist, for example—to those that focus on personal growth and spiritual development without attachment to any organized philosophy. Some, like Kripalu, use yoga as an entry point but also offer classes on spiritual practices and exercises that promote well-being, such as meditation and relaxation techniques. Many of the religious retreats focus not on doctrine but on common threads of belief. "This is not about proselytizing," says Sister Genie Guterch, executive director of the Mercy Center of Madison, a center for renewal and human development run by the Sisters of Mercy of Connecticut. "We're talking about spirituality, not religion—about how they seek out God, or truth."

At Mercy Center, which operates out of an estate on Connecticut's Long Island Sound, guests are offered a menu of courses, such as "Healing Power of Music" and "Knitting Shawls, Weaving Prayers." Some of the center's most popular retreats are spent in silence, though they are not for everyone. "You can't come and be a Chatty Cathy in the middle of all this," says Sister Genie.

To Mary Fischer, a speech therapist and longtime retreat regular, the reason for the surge in demand for such retreats is obvious. "There comes a point when you just have so many diamond heart pendants and you think there must be something else. And you look within," the 60-year-old says. This is not about navel gazing or self-absorption. Instead, it's about going deeper, about looking at the greater issues of existence, and taking that understanding and compassion and applying it to the day-to-day.

During the past five years, Fischer, who lives in Madison, Connecticut, has noticed an increase in people in their middle years—women and men—who were once rarely seen at retreats. "These are people who have reached a stage in their lives where they realize they need something more," she says.

The trend toward spiritual nurturing has not gone unnoticed by traditional spas, many of which now offer classes on matters pertaining to the spirit alongside aerobics, swimming and stone massage. Canyon Ranch, with facilities in Tucson, Arizona and Lenox, Massachusetts, offers yoga and meditation as options for calming the mind while working on the body.

Gerald Celente, director of The Trends Research Institute, based in Rhinebeck, New York, says spiritual retreats represent an evolution of the voluntary simplicity movement, in which Americans seek to enhance the quality of their lives by spending less money on material objects and more time on personal growth. He predicts a "sea-change over the next few years as people of all faiths continue their spiritual quest to find answers to age-old problems."

"The stuff is for real," says Celente, who has visited the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and the Omega Institute in his hometown, two bastions of alternative thought and education, once destinations of the counterculture, now draws for the middle-aged masses.

Back at Kripalu, a former seminary, business reflects the growing trend. "Essentially we are filled every weekend and most of the time during summer and fall," says Kripalu President Jonathan Foust. Last year more than 23,000 people visited the sprawling retreat, the largest yoga and health center in North America. "We don't have all the answers," he says. "We just provide the space and the experiences to help our guests slow down and reflect on what it means to be fully alive."

That combination of space, experience and setting is transformational for many clients who attend Kripalu searching for deeper meaning in their lives. Vida-Wynne Griffin, who was talked into spending a weekend at the retreat by a friend, found this meaning unexpectedly. The Rhode Island woman, who lost her husband suddenly to cancer in 1999, initially thought the visit was a mistake. Disappointed that her plans to go snowshoeing had been dashed by a lack of snow, she resigned herself to the last-minute switch and, after examining the program schedule, signed up for a yoga class that met as the sun rose. The yoga instructor began by reading these words written by Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist psychotherapist, meditation teacher and author:

Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
Today is a gift.
That's why they call it the present.

"That struck a chord," says Griffin. Maybe it was being out of her environment, surrounded by beauty, relaxed and in a contemplative state of mind. But the experience brought about a profound shift, a realization: "I've been mired in the past, like a truck caught in mud. I saw that I really need to be in the present again."

Valerie Finholm is a features writer and editor at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut.