Healthy Escape: Art of Living Retreat Center
"MY NAME is Cat, and I belong to you.”
I utter these words to a person I’ve known only a few minutes. I say it 11 more times to 11 more strangers at the request of our instructor, Poornima. At the end of each of these exchanges comes a hug, sometimes an awkward gesture, sometimes a full embrace.
It is immediately clear from this exercise who is an extrovert and who is an introvert, who has already bought into the process we are about to undertake and who is a skeptic. In both cases, I am the latter.
We are standing in one of four Vedas of the Art of Living Retreat Center, a sprawling sanctuary at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone. Most of us aren’t exactly sure what we’ll be doing during this Happiness Retreat, but an agenda given to me at check-in tells me I will be in this room full of strangers for most of the night.
I just wrapped up an intense workweek full of meetings. This is my third road trip in seven days. I think of my bed in the hotel room and the book I brought along, and bristle a little at the thought of three days of group participation.
I consciously push this prejudice aside to make room for what’s possible. I will do this several times over the weekend.
As this first session continues, we talk about struggling to stay in the moment, the futility of worrying about the future, and regretting the past, the very limited control we have over most things in our lives. We learn the “ujjayi breath” technique—also called “ocean breath” because of the way that it sounds—and of its ability to calm the mind and bring us back to the present. “The present is a gift,” Poornima will remind us over and over. We also learn the “bellows breath,” a different breathing technique designed to energize the body.
I go to my hotel room, tidy and comfortable but otherwise unremarkable except for the view, and read until I fall into a restless sleep.
The Happiness Retreat, it turns out, is a vigorous, 10-hour program of guided breathing, group exercises, and coaching designed to help guests rediscover their innate happiness. It is one of many programs offered by the retreat center to promote spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
At 3,700 feet, the expansive retreat center is high enough to sometimes be enveloped in a quiet fog overnight, which dissipates mid-morning to reveal a softly rolling sea of mountains.
Saturday begins just like this, with early-morning yoga and light breakfast before another three-hour session.
People begin to open up, sharing their frustrations, their triumphs. We learn a mnemonic device for recalling five tips on staying happy at home. My favorite: Do not see intention behind someone else’s mistakes. We practice our breathing in unison. Soft tears fall. My throat catches, though I’m not sure why. The air is still and filled with calm. We break for the afternoon.
I spend a short but rewarding hour at the clay studio, building a small bowl before traveling downhill to the Shankara Ayurveda Spa. I go for the Ayurvedic side of things with an Abhyanga massage, in which an aesthetician rubs warm, aromatic oil into my skin in a light, sweeping motion. I’ll be searching for this kind of massage treatment closer to home, now that I know it exists.
My spa visit ends with a trip to the steam room, which I make full use of, even though it makes me late to the next part of the program. I need the few minutes to myself. I figure it’s another way to practice being in the moment.
By this third session, our group has bonded in a manner that reminds me of the friendships made at summer camp, ones forged by an intense and shared experience. We eat dinner together this time. For the second day in a row, a rainbow arches over the mountains just before sunset.
We head downstairs afterward to witness the Kirtan, a meditative chant. I intend to stay for only a few minutes, but the rich, powerful voice of a chant leader keeps me in my chair. At one point, much of our group (including, surprisingly, me) is dancing together joyfully in the back of the room in celebration of two birthdays. The air is light and filled with laughter. I go to my room, crack the window so that I can hear the rain fall, and read until I fall into a deep sleep.
Our last session on Sunday involves an extended breathing practice, followed by another round of sharing. I am surprised by tears that to others probably seem like an expression of sadness, but to me are ones of catharsis. We break for lunch, exchanging email addresses and heartfelt embraces.
Three weeks later, I haven’t written to anyone from that group yet, but I think of these people daily as I talk to friends about the work in relationships, and about relationships at work. I also failed from day one to practice those breathing techniques in full for 40 days, as our instructor requested, though I have used the ocean breath on numerous occasions to reset my mind, even in the car.
The Happiness Retreat is not a weekend escape in the typical sense. Renewal and well-being do come, but only in an active way. This took me a few days to appreciate, because I came home more tired than I was before. After a few more days, I was able to recast this investment of my busy time. Unlike a regular weekend getaway, this trip has staying power. It has given me portable tools and quotable wisdom—the present is a gift—to help me address everyday stressors with just a little more grace.
Cat Carter is a freelance writer based in Charlotte and frequent contributor to this magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The center offers a number of programs to suit a range of wellness pursuits, from spiritual renewal to nurturing relationships to creative expression. The Panchakarma Retreat, for instance, is built around spa therapies, while the “Let it Go” yoga retreat aims to help you overcome emotional roadblocks on the road to spiritual growth. There is even a Silent Retreat if you really want to disconnect and reflect inward.
Guests are free to drive down the hill and find a local restaurant or bar, but they are strongly encouraged to dine at the center’s dining hall as part of the overall wellness program and to avoid alcohol (which is not allowed on the property). The kitchen prepares vegetarian dishes—think coconut pineapple fried rice, tofu scramble, and polenta with vegetables—that can surprise even the most skeptical guest with their flavor and nourishment. Definitely try the soups.
Visit the Shankara Ayurveda spa. Tap into ancient wellness traditions with an Ayurvedic treatment, which is built around holistic body-healing principles that are more than 3,000 years old. The spa also offers a number of modern treatment options. Leave time to enjoy the steam room and relaxation room afterward.
Take a pottery class at the clay studio. Book at least two hours if you want to try your hand at the wheel. You can also build a small ceramic piece using hand-building techniques. Reservations are required.
Walk the grounds, or walk the labyrinth. Pathways and benches invite you to take in the stunning vistas from a range of vantage points, while a small labyrinth below the Main Meditation Hall invites you to take a more purposeful walk at your own pace.