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Inner Getaways

Silence your stress at five spiritual retreats within two hours of the East Bay


Rachel Weill

WE ALL NEED A STRATEGIC WITHDRAWAL from life now and then. Although most of us would be loath to turn down a romantic weekend or a family vacation, sometimes you need to find a place to reconnect with yourself and with nature—a place where you can tune out the noise and find your inner voice.

That’s where spiritual retreats come in. Walking in a Japanese garden, taking part in a tea ceremony, and meditating in a beautiful building are all activities that can help you escape the demands of everyday living. A spiritual retreat lets you clear your mind—which can help you stay centered when you return to your busy world.

Spirit Rock: West Marin
Wild turkeys, circling hawks, and tall grass greet visitors at Spirit Rock, right off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Woodacre, a west Marin hamlet. Spirit Rock is a Buddhist meditation center focusing on vipassana, or mindfulness meditation.

Don’t be alarmed; vipassana just means to see things clearly. To practice the technique, you watch your mind, label your thoughts, and release them. Spirit Rock offers programs that range from daylong retreats to two months of total meditative immersion for more advanced practitioners.

At Spirit Rock, you’ll find cozy accommodations, delicious food, and a vibe that is fairly serious. “People come here to get away from their lives,” says spokeswoman Karen Gutowski. “People are really looking for a way to feel centered in themselves and quiet, because we live in a culture that’s so stimulation-oriented and information-laden. People need a break.”

Throughout the day, a gong tells you when to eat and when to meditate. Monday nights, people from far and wide flock to Spirit Rock to listen to its founder, spiritual world–celebrity Jack Kornfield, give an earthy, funny, and accessible talk.

Classes and retreats at Spirit Rock are offered on a sliding scale. Two-night retreat $185–$285, five-night retreat $360–$610. 5000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Woodacre, (415) 488-0164, www.spiritrock.org

Osmosis: Sonoma County
Osmosis is a Japanese-style day retreat in Sonoma County where you can reflect in manicured gardens, soak in rare enzyme baths, and connect with the natural landscape.

The friendly staff makes you feel at home right away, inviting you to remove your shoes on the porch. You then meet with your attendant, who takes you to a room that opens onto a beautiful Japanese garden with a pond, where you enjoy a soothing, warm enzyme elixir. Your attendant then guides you into the baths themselves—enormous wooden tubs filled with fermenting ground cedar wood, rice bran, and active enzymes imported from Japan.

You submerge into this bed of tiny particles, which are both fluffy and warm. A tangy aroma and steam rise from the mixture. Your attendant helps bury you in the mulch, and, once encased, you face a huge window overlooking nothing but trees and birds. Justas you lose yourself in the experience and the windows fog up from the heat, your attendant returns to drape your face with a cool cloth and offer you sips of an electrolyte drink. After your bath, you can enjoy a 75-minute massage in one of the outdoor pagodas dotting the grounds. You’re also welcome to stroll and sit in the serene Japanese garden in the back.

“People are really so desperate to find an antidote to the high-tech, high-stress, media-overloaded, fast-food cultural milieu that we are stuck in,” says Osmosis founder Michael Stusser. “More and more spas and retreats are being perceived as gateways to a haven that lies on the other side of this cultural trap.”

Osmosis offers group meditation sessions that include a talk and instruction given by a rotating group of teachers. These sessions are held in Osmosis’s meditation garden at 8 a.m. every Thursday from April to October. Osmosis doesn’t have overnight facilities, but you’ll find accommodations just a couple of miles down the road at the wonderful Inn at Occidental, a historic bed and breakfast where you can sit in front of the fireplace, chat with the lovely innkeeper, and enjoy being alone with your thoughts.

Osmosis, enzyme baths from $80, bath with massage from $170, 209 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone, (707) 823-8231, www.osmosis.com . The Inn at Occidental, rooms from $199, 3657 Church St., Occidental, (707) 874-1047, www.innatoccidental.com

Esalen: Big Sur
The road to Esalen, marked only by an obscure sign on Highway 1, leads to an enchanted world of transformation. The retreat center has the Pacific Ocean as its constant soundtrack, and it has been a leader since the 1960s in what’s been called the human potential movement—the belief that tapping into people’s untapped potential ultimately leads to societal change.

Today, Esalen offers 500 workshops a year, attracting visitors from around the world. A stunning coastal setting, stone baths fed by geothermic hot springs perched over the sea, organic gardens, a heated outdoor pool, and delicious, healthy food are all big draws.

Esalen offers two- or five-day workshops in yoga, massage, psychology, meditation, and Buddhism, among other options. It also has a quirky policy of opening the baths to members of the public from 1 to 3 a.m. if they have reservations.

Accommodations are a bit Spartan, but you won’t spend too much time in your room. Don’t miss out on the famed Esalen massage, which can happen inside or outside at the baths, above the roaring Pacific.

The cost of workshops includes lodging and meals. Weekend workshops start at $515 for a shared room with a bunk bed. Seven-day workshops start at $1,715. 55000 Highway 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-3000, www.esalen.org

Rachel Weill

San Damiano: Danville
The bronze statue of St. Francis, with arms open wide to welcome visitors, says it all. Those who travel to San Damiano, a Franciscan retreat center nestled in the Danville hills right here in the East Bay, will find huge oak trees, an abundance of flowers, and a warm, welcoming feeling.

The priests of San Damiano are Catholic, but the center’s mission is to offer people of all faiths a place to slow down and contemplate life. Once ensconced at the center, you can visit the chapel for silent reflection, walk the 55 wooded hillside acres, and discover private meditation areas amid the grounds.

San Damiano offers several styles of retreat, enabling you to choose one that works best for you. Among the selections is a personal, nondirected retreat for solo introspection. Also available is a directed retreat, which includes a session with a spiritual director—such as a Franciscan priest or a member of the lay community—who helps you address a specific question or choice, or just provides you with general spiritual guidance.

Another option is to enroll in one of San Damiano’s organized retreats led by Franciscan teachers and lay people with expertise in fields such as counseling and therapy. These structured programs include talks on specific themes, such as prayer, grief, or recovery from addiction. This May, the center is offering a Mother’s Day weekend retreat (May 11–13), which will focus on the lessons and graces of motherhood. Because San Damiano offers weekend, midweek, and weeklong programs, there’s something for every schedule. Accommodations include 78 recently remodeled bedrooms with private baths.

Retreat prices include lodging and meals, and start at $75. 710 Highland Dr., Danville, (925) 837-9141, www.sandamiano.org

Green Gulch: Marin Coast
You’ll find Green Gulch just north of San Francisco by following winding Highway 1 toward Stinson Beach. When you turn left at the wooden sign onto the eucalyptus-lined drive into the valley that is Green Gulch, you’ll feel your stress melting away.

Part of the San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch is a Buddhist practice center offering training in Zen meditation. Once here, you can spend your time meandering around the amazing organic garden (much of the produce ends up in Bay Area restaurants, such as Greens), hiking to the ocean, or contemplating life in the building’s quiet zendo (meditation hall).

For a more guided experience, take one of Green Gulch’s programs, such as the half-day or full-day meditation workshops, tea gatherings, and edible plant walks. Every Sunday, the center opens to the public for meditation (if you come early, you’ll be introduced to the technique), followed by a lecture, tea, and lunch. Should you want a longer stay, accommodations range from a guesthouse with a shared bathroom to a private cottage with a kitchenette.

Room rates start at $85 and include three vegetarian meals a day. 1601 Shoreline Hwy., Muir Beach, (415) 383-3134, www.sfzc.org/ggfindex.htm 

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