In last month’s issue of Yoga Journal, there was an advertisement for an online yoga program you can do at home. The sales pitch was something like this: Retreat at home, because the average South-of-the-Border yoga retreat increases your carbon footprint by over 3000 pounds. The claim seems to be that going on a yoga retreat is a self-indulgent extravagance, and that the detrimental side-effects of taking such a vacation far outweigh any personal benefit you may get. Is this a valid claim?
As someone who’s gone on a number of yoga retreats, I’m personally interested in trying to better understand–and maybe even justify?–these admittedly extragavent and luxurious experiences. The claim made in the Yoga Journal ad is correct, I assume, to the extent that doing any sort of travel which involves flying is not great for the environment. (I remember when Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth came out, I went onto the website and played around with the “carbon calculator” and was shocked to see how significantly air travel adds to my carbon footprint.) But is this a good reason not to go on a retreat, or to feel guilty about having gone on one?
In general, I’d say guilt is not a good thing to be dragging around with you. I certainly don’t feel guilty for having gone on the yoga retreats I’ve gone on. However, now that I’m thinking differently about what going on a yoga retreat means, and what the impact on others might be, I will definitely think twice about going on another yoga retreat in the future.
So what are some of the considerations I might take into account? Well, there are many unintended and indirect costs associated with a yoga retreat, in addition to the thousands of dollars you personally have to shell out. Unfortunately, these additional costs are borne mostly by other people, so it’s easy to forget about them. Most obviously, there is the toll on the environment which results from all the trains, planes, and automobiles you have to use to get to and from the retreat center. Also, local workers, say, in Mexico or Costa Rica, may be paying a heavy cost in the sense that they are sometimes (although certainly not always) exploited by the retreat center or the company/organization running the retreat. It’s also unclear that all of these retreat centers really are eco-friendly in the way that many of them claim to be. After all, a retreat center is basically a kind of hotel, often times in the middle of nowhere. All their supplies usually have to be brought in from somewhere. And these places tend to produce a lot of waste, use lots of water, etc.
So is it possible to go on a retreat with a clear conscience? Probably. It’s important, though, to take into account what the retreat means to you AND to take into account what the direct and indirect costs of taking the retreat will be to others, including the environment. You can choose, for instance, to take a retreat somewhere closer to where you live. As I’ve found, sometimes places close by can offer just as much of an escape as a place thousands of miles away. And these local retreat centers are a lot cheaper/easier to get to. (e.g. I live in Southern California, and, maybe instead of going to Bali for a retreat, I can go to White Lotus in Santa Barabara.) Another thing to do is to check into the retreat center and find out what, if anything, they are doing in terms of taking care of the environment, their employees, and the local community.
Ask questions. Learn. Then decide.
Overall, I think it is possible go on a yoga retreat in a manner that’s in line with one’s yogic values. But, as with other important choices in life, the decision to go on a retreat should be informed, thoughtful, and done with the right intention. That said, constantly jet-setting around the world to go on exciting/escapist yoga retreats because we’re feeling stressed out (and because we can afford these expensive retreats) is not, in my opinion, the most mindful way of retreating.