Tips on running a successful yoga retreat
It’s funny how life goes - we barely notice the passing of time until someone or something reminds us of a past event. Recently, a friend reminded me that the first Kaliyoga retreats in Europe started 14 years ago. In the world of yoga retreats, that makes us rather long in the tooth, but with age comes wisdom, although oh-boy, how we wish we had known then what we know now.
Kaliyoga was a project born of two divorcees with a shared dream of the future, but as with so many things, it was impossible to anticipate where the journey would take us, or what difficulties we’d encounter along the way. Luckily, that uncertainty did not stop us having a strong vision for the success of the Kaliyoga project.
When we first opened our doors in July 2002, our mission statement was to create a healing retreat centre with a home-away-from-home atmosphere. We had always enjoyed hosting house parties and making people feel at ease, so from that starting point we just added our love of yoga and good food.
Travelling the globe and fully immersing ourselves in every possible permutation of what a yoga retreat could be was pivotal to perfecting the Kaliyoga vision. Each experience taught us about the balance of what we wanted to offer. Neither austere, nor plush nor fancy, but something comfortable, nourishing, relaxing and fun.
We’ve watched with interest over the years as the ancient teachings of yoga have bloomed into a fully fledged industry with untold variations in style and form. We are delighted to see that what Kaliyoga offers still stands the test of time, transcending trends, and remaining true to our original concept.
Seven pearls of wisdom gleaned from running a successful yoga retreat
1. Trust the teachings
We don’t mind admitting that when we first started we were nervous about how to present the yoga teachings and we were not sure whether people would be as enthusiastic about the practice as we were. Yoga is an incredible toolkit for enlightened, healthy living and over time we’ve learnt to trust it because it really works. The power of the yoga method is its secular universality - in other words to anyone with an open, curious mind it can reveal an unshakeable faith in the unity of life, without the need for any religious belief or dogma, together with a deep understanding of what it is to be human. This freedom is available to anyone who practices yoga and that is what inspires us to continue.
We are aware that for people with religious beliefs, yoga can be perceived as pagan worship. However, although some Hindus practice yoga, it is not a religious practice, but closer to Christian contemplation and Buddhist mindfulness. In fact, the power of yoga comes from the student’s own empirical observation, not from any dogma or belief. It is important that yoga teachers should not come across as either pious or proselytising.
2. Let the group dynamic evolve organically
In the beginning we felt obliged to entertain our guests, but it ended up feeling like a comedy routine that, whilst raising a few laughs, ultimately didn’t help the group to bond. When we found the confidence to let go, each group started to assume its own dynamic, blossoming beautifully without us needing to play the host. The more we trusted the yoga experience, the more each person opened to their own authenticity, then friendships could form organically.
We found that without an agenda to micro-manage their experience, our guests got what they needed. Over the years we learnt that to maintain an idea about what a retreat ‘should be’ does a disservice to our guests. The truth is each group has a unique and fascinating ability to find its own fusion and flow, so it’s important to have faith and trust in the dynamic of each individual as well as together in a group.
3. Make it playful
There are no ‘must-do’s’ or ‘one ways’ - the path of yoga is kaleidoscopic in its scope, so we don’t push any particular set of beliefs. So many people seem to be attached to a certain system that determines a particular structure, style or outcome, but yoga is much more about being spontaneous and letting the body do what it feels like doing rather than allowing the ego to dictate to the body what it thinks it ‘should’ look like, or feel like.
We like to make the practice very accessible and relevant to every day. This allows people to free themselves from form and an attitude of ‘it has to be done this way.’ Over the years we’ve gathered a crew of experienced teachers who encourage guests to self practice by empowering them with the confidence and the tools to do so. By the end of the week the whole group is self-practicing and it feels magically creative.
We emphasise warmth, play and laughter in our yoga classes. We make it inclusive, so everyone can take something from it and can drop the idea that yoga is only about fitness and flexibility.
4. Offer unconditional love
People can seem so hard on themselves, but they crave kindness and connection. We welcome many guests that are psycho-somatically stressed because they put too much pressure on themselves to appear perfect. One of our primary aims is therefore simply offering people a space where they feel safe enough to be themselves, and to receive loving kindness from others. It’s something everyone deserves, but can be hard to receive due to feelings of unworthiness. For us and our team, nothing is too much trouble because we get so much satisfaction from looking after people really well. It creates a great sense of connection and as a result our guests feel part of a growing happy family.
5. Navigate yoga trends by offering integrity in all that you do
Wellness travel is now an industry worth billions. There are so many people offering all kinds of ‘concept retreats’, but concepts can be faddish trends, lacking in authenticity. Kaliyoga’s core is the essence of yoga, but we’ve seen the rise and fall of so many types of yoga and popular teachers who are almost a brand in themselves. We have faith that we what we offer is far more authentic than just a commercial brand. Our objective was always to establish a retreat that is rooted in loving kindness and ancient wisdom, without packaging it into a specific formula, so we have learnt not to worry too much about trending. What counts most for us is authenticity, simplicity and staying true to the teachings. In a world preoccupied with self-delusion, what people want most is to discover who they really are beyond name and form. That is the most mind-blowing discovery that anyone can ever have.
6. Practice gratitude
When you are growing a business, especially one that mirrors your way of life, it is inevitable to be confronted with challenges great and small. From the tough lessons we had to learn in the early days we’ve learnt to be thankful for every aspect of Kaliyoga. By having faith in the teachings, in ourselves and in our adorable staff, and by noticing every little thing that is propelling us in a particular direction, you cannot help but feel supported by something greater than yourself.
In a period that is divided by idealism and consumed by greed, the greatest thrill for us is to see people returning to Kaliyoga year after year which we see as proof that what we offer is nourishing and bonding.
7. Respect your limitations
For the first three years of Kaliyoga’s development we worked 17 hours a day to get the project off the ground. We did everything ourselves: cooking, teaching, massage, cleaning, maintenance, airport runs, marketing, shopping – we could not afford to pay anyone and we wanted to learn every single aspect of the job ourselves. But three years down the line we burned out.
We had to learn to respect our limitations and know when to ask for help.
The truth is there is no shame is asking for help. None of us are superhuman. Having experienced exhaustion ourselves, we are better able to identify and help guests who are struggling to maintain their energy balance. We try to impress upon them that it’s ok to feel like you’re falling apart because the quest for perfection is actually pretty futile.
The past 14 years have been incredible. We’ve learnt so much and though we may wish that it could have been less stressful at times, we could not have integrated the lessons without allowing ourselves first to fail (many times!) but always respecting those failures as a secure foundation for success.
From an interview with Rosie Miles by Kat Smith