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Working Retreats.

Byline: Christopher Parker

After a massage workshop at Kripalu Yoga Center, Pastor Christopher Parker quit his job and returned to Kripalu as a volunteer doing veggie prep. Three months later, he set off on a road trip, living cheaply

and deepening his practice as a yoga center volunteer. Here's his field guide to doing selfless service.

Volunteering full-time at Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, was the most valuable and transformative experience of my life. The three months I spent living and serving in the community gave me new self-acceptance and a strong practice -- a core strength that's now always available for my refreshment. Many of the people I met volunteering said that the course of their lives changed through their time of spiritual service. We worked hard, but we received much more than we gave.

Most of the larger yoga centers, ashrams, and other spiritual centers in North America offer programs similar to Kripalu where participants provide basic labor (usually housekeeping and kitchen service) while living in a spiritual community. The volunteer service makes staying at these centers more affordable for everyone, and the work is a primary spiritual practice.

Why We Volunteered

As I crossed the country sampling centers, I learned that, like me, many of the volunteers had come after burning out at their regular jobs or being laid off. Others were fresh from divorce or had lost a parent or loved one. "Everything evaporated at once," said Eric Baierlein at Mount Madonna Center, a gorgeous yoga retreat overlooking Monterey Bay in California. His words were echoed at centers across the country. People often volunteer because something breaks or needs to break.

Others, especially the 20-something set, haven't established a direction and hope that volunteering will help them find it. Sea-Anna Vasilas of Mount Madonna is a typical example: "After I graduated, I traveled for eight months, trying to figure out where I was going and what I was doing." Then she became a volunteer. Ironically, for many, a volunteer stint can make it even more difficult to live according to previous materialistic values. Some stay for further volunteering or become permanent community members.

A common experience is a deepening of spiritual practice during three months of intensive full-time focus. At Kripalu, I found that, because the volunteers got to know each other so well by working together, our yoga classes seemed more powerful than those for paying guests. That bonding and structure helped in other ways as well. Said Kripalu volunteer Lizzy Hoke, "I was looking for some structure in order to create a daily spiritual practice that I could take with me. I knew that it was very important to me, but I didn't know how to do it on my own."

The Range of Possibilities

At Sivananda ashrams, the day is disciplined, full, and everything is mandatory, beginning with 5:30 a.m. meditation. There is little or no free time. Mount Madonna offers the other extreme. There, the only requirements are one workshop and a sharing program two nights a week. Surprisingly, the totally compulsory approach of Sivananda felt simpler -- in the same way that having to wear a school uniform makes it easier to dress -- fewer choices clears the mind for other things.

The most rigorous programs are probably the Buddhist Vipassana centers, which break you in with a 10-day sitting meditation, mostly in silence. This is hard work, both physically and spiritually, and you must complete the program before you can contemplate a longer stay. A more relaxed Buddhist experience is available at the Insight Meditation retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Even more than most yogic or Christian retreat centers, the Buddhist centers make it possible for people with little means to attend -- either through work exchange, scholarships, or through simple living that keeps expenses low.

The male/female ratio is close to 50/50 in all of the programs, and most places offer private rooms. Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville houses two to three people per room, and Kripalu, which hosts as many as 250 volunteers, has large dorms. Food is vegetarian, often organic and mostly quite good, and most programs require celibacy and abstinence from alcohol.

Selfless Service

For most entry-level volunteers, 20/28 hours of work per week is required, with Kripalu's full-time requirement (35 hours per week) being the significant exception. Yogaville requires 20/25 hours a week, but drops the fee for room and board if you work full-time. In general, the longer you stay, the more you work.

There seems to be a flow to volunteering: the first month is usually a honeymoon followed by issues and suffering. One weekend, this got so intense that I fled Kripalu. My fellow volunteer Amy found full-time work to be particularly difficult when she was simultaneously concentrating so hard on herself and her practice. And she was not alone. A lot of people were exhausted -- particularly towards the end of the program, she observed.

Marlon Tarasov at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch is realistic: "When you're first serving it's really fun -- you've got music playing and stuff -- but the real practice is when it's not fun anymore." Everyone has moments of being tired and cranky and ready to be done.

Making an Investment in Yourself

It's not hard to enter this world of selfless service. Investigate the websites (right) to learn more and obtain applications. Expect telephone interviews and application fees. Except for Kripalu, most of these programs charge a fee ($250/600 per month) to cover room and board. However, the longer service programs run by denominations provide free room and board and offer a tiny stipend. Since this is a full-time commitment for an extended time, it is something to consider carefully, being sure of your motivations.

Volunteers not only give practical service, enriching themselves, but they serve a higher calling. "I'm much more able to serve the world now -- more powerfully, in a deeper truth," says Lizzy from Kripalu. Perhaps this is the best reason to take a working vacation. v

Share Your Experiences at

Every retreat center is different: settings, structures, and teachers vary from place to place. A program that works for one person may not work for someone else. You can learn a lot from websites (see page 72). We are asking those of you who have been to these centers or to others to share your experiences at Our goal is to help people locate the programs that are best for them.

Three Days as a Volunteer

At Kripalu Yoga Center...

I wake at 5:30 for yoga class at 6:00. Afterward, breakfast is in silence. My work shift starts at 8:30. I am in "veggie prep," chopping lettuce, green peppers, kale, and so forth (most of it organic and from local farms). Others serve in maintenance or in the kitchen, or by preparing program rooms. We have an hour for lunch and good conversation at a table in the corner of the big dining room. I have just enough time to grab a short walk with another volunteer (like all these places, Kripalu is in a beautiful spot). Afternoon shift drags on until 3:45. It's hard work chopping all day. Yoga class with other volunteers is at 4:15. It takes willpower to show up, but afterwards I'm in blissland and not quite ready to face the buzz of the dining chapel. There's an evening workshop with one of the yoga teachers. Other days it could be a concert, dancing, or an escape to the sauna. At 9:00, quiet hours begin. I've spent all day with cool people, working, studying, eating, and sharing the time in between as well.

At Sivananda Ashram...

The bell rings at 5:30. I walk down the hill to 6:00 a.m. satsang, which is more or less equivalent to a worship service, beginning with meditation and then moving to mantra chanting and Sanskrit kirtan singing (see It might look strange if someone hasn't encountered this devotional tradition before. I let it wash over me. Yoga postures (asanas) follow at 8 a.m., with breathing (pranayama) and relaxation (shivasana) mixed in. Now I'm really hungry. I go through yoga class in a bit of a fog. Brunch at 10:00 is Indian food -- simple, vegetarian, and good. The work day starts at 11:00. Chopping a downed tree and moving it with a tractor is the assignment. Afternoon yoga class, outside on a wood platform, is at 4:00. Dinner at 6:00. At 8:00, we have evening satsang, which begins with a talk and goes on quite a while with meditation, chanting, and Sanskrit kirtan once again. Lights out at 11:00. I'm fading before the satsang has finished.

At Mount Madonna Center...

Yoga classes are offered four mornings per week. There is breakfast and dinner. Leftovers are set out for lunch and we drift in. Work schedules vary more than other places. Typical is a split shift: a two- to three-hour morning shift in housekeeping, a break for one to three hours, then an afternoon dish shift, and evening meal service. Some days work is in bigger blocks: a three-hour recycling shift, a half-hour break, and then a four-hour kitchen shift. People are on their own a bit more here, taking more walks and working on their own projects. Sometimes workshops are offered or kirtan and other devotions are scheduled. Twice a week there is an evening class and discussion or check-in circle. Otherwise, evenings are free.

Centers with Residence Programs

Yoga Centers and Ashrams

Ananda Ashram, Monroe, New York;

The Expanding Light, Nevada City, California;

Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, Pennsylvania;

Kashi Ashram, Sebastian, Florida;

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Lenox, Massachusetts;

Mount Madonna Center, Watsonville, California;

Salt Spring Centre of Yoga, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada;

Satchidananda Ashram (Yogaville), Buckingham, Virginia;

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp, Val Morin, Quebec, Canada;

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm, Grass Valley, California;

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, Catskill Mountains, New York;

Yasodhara Ashram, Kootenay Bay, British Columbia, Canada;

Buddhist Meditation Centers

Dorje Denma Ling (Shambhala Buddhism), Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, Canada;

Gampo Abbey (Shambhala Buddhism), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada;

Insight Meditation Society (for new and experienced meditators), Barre, Massachusetts;

Shambhala Mountain Center (nonsectarian), Red Feather Lakes, Colorado;

Vipassana Meditation Centers (Vipassana meditation), U.S. and Canada;

Spiritual Centers

The Abode of the Message (Sufi), New Lebanon, New York;

Camphill Villages (Rudolf Steiner/based);

Esalen Institute (the birthplace of the human potential movement), Big Sur, California;

Harbin Hot Springs (spa treatment, diverse workshops), Middletown, California;

Kalani (educational nonprofit refuge), Hawaii Island;

Omega Institute (variety of workshops), Rhinebeck, New York;

Pendle Hill (Quaker), Wallingford, Pennsylvania;

Rowe Camp and Conference Center (variety of programs), Rowe, Massachusetts;

Christian Service Programs: Brethren Volunteer Corps (Church of the Brethren);

Catholic Network of Volunteer Services (multi-denominational), directory of 200-plus member programs;

Catholic Worker Community (Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded for social justice work), various locations;

Habitat For Humanity (includes Americorps), U.S. and overseas;

Jesuit Volunteer Corps (Catholic), throughout the U.S.;

L'Arche USA (mental handicaps/focused), 15 U.S. communities;

Lutheran Volunteer Corps, 10 U.S. cities;

Mennonite Central Committee, 50 countries including the U.S. and Canada;

Sojourners Community (evangelical Christian) Washington, D.C.;

Purposeful Travel Resources

Case Foundation's Resource Page (U.S. and overseas),

Christopher Parker is a freelance writer, teacher, and pastor living in Brattleboro, Vermont. He blogs at
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Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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