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Serenity Now

Spiritual Retreats

When it’s time to step away from the distractions of everyday life and get back in touch with your inner self, you don’t have to go far to go deep.

Spiritual Retreats

— Blend Images/Getty Images

St. Gertrude's hosted more than 1,000 retreat participants last year. It offers peace and quiet, spiritual direction, an extensive library, and a museum of the history of northern Idaho. Most retreatgoers stay in the new $3.4 million Spirit Center, which has 22 double-occupancy rooms with individual bathrooms and either two twin beds or a full bed for couples. Most rooms have views of the surrounding prairie, which is covered with rivers, lakes, and ponderosa pine, fir, and spruce. Accommodations are also offered at the Farmhouse, a large single-family home that sleeps 14 and is perfect for group retreats, and the Solitude House, which serves as the chaplain's residence but has four bedrooms with full beds, a kitchenette, and a living room area for guests.

When she is not participating in a formal retreat at St. Gertrude's, Copeland-Payton enjoys filling her time with walking the monastery's grounds, praying, eating, and talking with the devout sisters. Mostly, the minister loves deepening her own spiritual understanding through the ideas and perspectives of a different tradition. "Retreats help me discover more of God's possibilities," she says.

Finding the Real You... Nonreligious Retreats

For those who are not necessarily looking to strengthen their relationship with God but to strengthen themselves, secular retreats provide comfort and support. They are likely to target specific challenges like forgiveness, addictions, or the courage to face life-threatening illness or otherwise trying times. Some promote personal growth in general.

At The Ashram, in the Santa Monica mountains near Los Angeles, guests undergo a weeklong intensive physical schedule and limited diet to help them tap their innate power to overcome life obstacles. The days have a spartan simplicity: an hour of yoga in the morning; a five-hour hike; classes in weight training, Pilates, water aerobics, or dance; more yoga; then bed. The meals are organic and vegetarian (a typical day's fare: fruit salad, eggs, and raw yogurt for breakfast; salad, hummus, vegetarian sushi, or organic tacos for lunch; and raw-food soup, spinach salad, or coconut curry for dinner). The austere conditions are described as "simple spirituality and loving punishment" by the organizers.

The Ashram has been dubbed "boot camp to the stars," and its guests have included Oprah Winfrey, Dan Aykroyd, Shirley MacLaine, and Cindy Crawford. It attracts people who are willing to spend a lot of money ($3,800 a week) and energy to develop inner strength. Only 12 guests a week are accepted, and they stay in either one of the three private rooms or four shared rooms, each with two queensize beds. None of the rooms have televisions, phones, or private bathrooms.

Not all the guests at The Ashram are celebrities, and for some, it offers an ascetic environment to sort out the competing demands in their busy lives. Chris Coates's import business-she distributes Australian hardwood flooring in Novato, California—was just beginning to take off in 2001 when the events of 9/11 made her take stock of her lifestyle. "I had wanted to run my own business so I'd have more time for myself and my family. Instead, I had less." A firm believer in the mind-body connection, Coates, 48, decided that a week combining physical exertion with inner reflection at The Ashram would help her find the right balance between her personal and professional lives.

The program's short rations were not a problem for Coates. "Getting skinnier is good," she says. And she found that the 10- to 14-mile daily hikes provided a form of meditation. "There's nothing to fill your head but the sound of rustling leaves, chirping birds, and your own hard breathing as you climb into beautiful scenery." At the end of each day, says Coates, "I reveled in knowing I had the physical and emotional strength to complete that day's task." Since her first visit in 2001, Coates has been back five more times, and she credits the stays with helping her manage her growing business while still carving out private time for herself as well as family time with her five nephews and nieces. "When problems come up, I handle them like I handle those hikes—one step at a time."

Last year Richard Wilson, 59, who lives near Atlanta, decided it was time to figure out why his life wasn't working and extricate himself from toxic patterns of behavior. Among other things, he was mired in debt and aware that his job as a food-service manager would be ending soon. He decided to visit The Crossings, a retreat center and meeting place in the Texas highlands outside Austin. Set on a 200-acre campus, The Crossings features a hot tub, sauna, steam rooms, and à la carte spa services, as well as walking trails and a chapel-like building called The Sanctuary adorned with symbols of all the world religions.

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