Trips That Will Change Your Life: Learn to… Become a Believer

If five hours of yoga classes for seven days doesn’t score me some serious inner peace, nothing will

I SAT ON a sticky mat, legs stretched in front of me, smiling contentedly while I gazed out a window to see bees zipping around a grove of pine trees. It was the last week in July, the first minute of a weeklong yoga workshop with Advanced Iyengar teacher Kofi Busia at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a New Age retreat in a bucolic stretch of New York’s Hudson Valley. I had arrived just hours ago at Omega’s rustic-but-tidy campus, which was abuzz with wizened, guitar-toting Joni Mitchell look-alikes; fresh-faced, Prana-clad Manhattanites; a handful of bedraggled international travelers; and dozens of college kids growing out their dreads. Sixty seconds into my first class, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

[sidebar]Busia, a compact, mustached Ghanaian native with an Oxford accent and wide-legged pants, walked rhythmically around the sun-dappled outbuilding, telling stories while my classmates and I — maybe 50 in all — sat on the floor, our bodies bent like uppercase L’s in a position called dandasana. I inhaled deeply, tightened my knees, flexed my feet, straightened my back, and placed my hands on the floor. If the next six days of class are this pleasant, I thought, I’ll attain nirvana by Thursday — Friday, latest.

Nirvana, enlightenment, spiritual awakening, inner peace, whatever you call it, is why I — and everyone else at Omega — was there, having left behind jobs in the city, families in the ’burbs, vacation homes at the Shore, and all manner of cell phones. (They’re prohibited in workshops and classrooms, and there’s virtually no reception anyhow.) The retreat was built in 1982, when a small group of hippie-types came to this patch of land (formerly home to a 1920s Yiddish sleep-away camp) to spend time meditating, chanting, loving one another and, perhaps most importantly, organizing like-minded luminaries willing to teach folks to do the same. It took. Today, more than 23,000 enlightenment-seekers visit Omega (and its programs around the world) every year. True, the place’s brochure doesn’t exactly guarantee total spiritual transformation. But I had faith.   

I joined about 400 guests during the hottest week of the year to begin my quest. When they’re not in workshops, people scatter about the hilly grounds, reading in Adirondack chairs by the vegetable garden or walking with their significant others around the lake. They browse the gift shop for handmade jewelry and organic cotton tunics, or silently climb the steep stone path to meditate at the lotus pond. They read in the octagonal Ram Dass lending library, sip yerba matte and soy lattes at the cafe, and dine on tofu scramble, vegetable curry, just-picked salads and farm-fresh raspberry squares at big round tables on the porch of the sprawling dining cabin. They — okay, I — book hour-long $85 aromatherapy massages at the holistic day spa. Some even venture into the coed, clothing-optional sauna, and a (very) few wear name tags that read IN SILENCE — meaning they choose not to talk for the duration of the day, or their stay. Most venture off-campus to explore the quaint and collegiate town of Rhinebeck. In other words: Not everyone goes to Omega exclusively for the yoga.

During my stay, I met a VIP on the New York state political scene, a grieving widow from Maine, an art teacher from an exclusive Manhattan girls’ school, an actor from California, and the conductor of a fairly renowned orchestra — each there for a different workshop. Throughout the season, Omega offers watercolor classes, nutritional counseling, couples’ massage instruction and tai chi, as well as rotating workshops on chanting, Spanish immersion, John of God, photography, trapeze and — during my week there — past-life therapy, one of the more popular picks. At orientation, staffers told us that 150 students had traveled across the globe that week for the sole purpose of determining who they were before they became who they are. Which, frankly, freaked me out. After five years of yoga classes, I finally believed in the possibility of transcendence of the physical self through devoted hatha practice. But to be lumped in with a passel of would-be mystics? It just seemed a little too … out there for my taste. I would stick to my own little spiritual journey through plain old yoga, thank you very much.

A spiritual journey, I should note, that was not going according to plan. Five minutes into that first dandasana, my shoulders began to cave. My thighs ached. My stomach quivered. Suddenly this once-comfortable position was more than uncomfortable: It was borderline excruciating. My teacher was serene, announcing a new pose every 10 minutes between stories about monks in India, matriarchal rule in Ghana, falling in love in London. I sat there shaking, contemplating an early return to Philly. Forget nirvana. With these raw nerves and strained muscles, I just wanted to make it through the morning. Things weren’t much better that afternoon. Or the next day. The third day might have been the worst.

But then, on day four, maybe five, I noticed a difference in myself. My mind was clearer. My muscles were calmer. I realized that I sort of understood what Kofi meant when he said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that if you can momentarily reconcile with your tight hamstrings, if you can inhale just once more in that headstand, if you can refrain from comparing yourself to your neighbor, refrain from acting at all, then you’re on your way to the peace you seek. And that’s what I did. I put my body in strange positions. I tried to stay there. I breathed. It was, I realized, not a lesson in strength and flexibility nearly as much as it was a lesson in patience. I felt okay with myself, and — amazingly — by extension, others. Heck, I even listened politely when a woman at my table at dinner announced that she was once a Roman prince.

Who knows if I’ll be able to maintain this oh-so-Omega vibe next time I’m stuck on the Schuylkill, mad at my boyfriend, or frustrated at work? But I will remember that I approached nirvana once, just by sitting there.

IF YOU GO:  Contact: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, 150 Lake Drive, Rhinebeck, New York, 800-944-1001, Get there: About three and a half hours from Philadelphia. Details: From $406 per person, per week, to camp, to $1,449 per week for a single cabin room with queen bed and private bath. Includes meals, nightly lectures or concerts, and activities. Spa treatments aren’t included; workshops are also additional. Insight into Iyengar yoga with Philadelphia’s Joan White, June 23rd-27th, $330; yoga darshana with Kofi Busia, July 28th-August 3rd, $585.

INSIDER TIP:  For a just-as-intense but not-as-far-away workshop, sign up with Queen Village’s Practice Yoga Studio for five days of Iyengar yoga with Kofi Busia, who’s in town July 21st-25th — or for three days of anusara yoga with master instructor Jimmy Bernaert, June 13th-15th;