At a time when complaints about stress and busyness are as ubiquitous as long drive-thru lines for your morning latte, it’s no wonder that more people — especially women — are seeking spiritual retreats. Whether it’s a weekend steeped in prayer or five days of intensive yoga and meditation, retreats offer a much-needed respite from urgent texts and emails, the demands of children and employers — and the unrealistic expectations many of us put upon ourselves.
According to the non-profit Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism, which includes spiritual retreats, grew from a $494.1 billion business in 2013 to $563.2 billion in 2015. This represents a 14 percent growth rate, more than twice as fast as overall tourism expenditures. While they may be part of a multi-billion dollar industry, you don’t need to spend a fortune for a dose of spiritual renewal. Some retreats near Western New York cost as little as $50 a night since the focus is on spiritual growth, not pampering.
Regardless of the type of retreat — and there are many within a day’s drive of Buffalo — the attraction is the same: getting away from the noise and chaos of everyday life to spend uninterrupted time focusing on what’s most important.
“I’ve had a number of women tell me, ‘When I drive onto the campus, I take a deep breath and know I’m home,’” said Nancy Askins, executive director of the Center for Renewal Retreat and Conference Center at Stella Niagara.
Operating since 1974 with the slogan of “interfaith hospitality,” the center offers 93 beds for guests who either organize their own retreats or partake of programming the center staff provides. Located two miles north of Lewiston, the grounds are replete with an outdoor labyrinth, nature trails and a peace garden for reflection. She said about 85 percent of guests are female.
“Women are sometimes uptight when they get here due to their busy schedules, but they can take a deep breath, feel renewed and refreshed by the time they leave,” Askins said. “Then they can go back to dealing with things in their life with calmness, less stress and better perspective.”
Askins has noticed an uptick in business over the last few years.
“I think people feel the need to find more meaning in their lives,” Askins said.
Likewise, the interfaith Cobblestone Springs Center for Renewal in Dundee (about a 2 ½ hour drive from Buffalo, near Seneca Lake) is full year-round with both men and women who are hungry for spiritual renewal. Since 1997, it has offered retreats along with weekly spiritual programming for the community. While men come for some programming, she said the retreat center serves more women.
“One of the hazards of current life in our country is that we get so busy, we don’t know what we’re busy for,” said Sister Anne Alderman, Cobblestone Springs director. “I think we all need time to listen to the still quiet voice inside.”
Greg Lynn Weaver, who founded PeaceWeavers at Thunder Mountain Peace Sanctuary in Bath, N.Y., said a growing desire for retreats reflects society’s increased focus on self care.
“People are starting to understand the many facets of wellness,” Weaver said, who co-founded Peaceweavers 22 years ago. “This is why people of all different traditions and faiths come to us, so we can help support them to be well.”
East Amherst resident Lisa Serota, a 50-year-old executive assistant, went to PeaceWeavers on the advice of a friend several years ago when she wasn’t happy with herself and felt it was starting to affect her family. The sanctuary offers a range of retreats; she chose a three-day juice cleanse.
“It was an awesome experience,” Serota said. “You’re out in the middle of the woods with nothing to distract you. We focused on clean eating, exercise and dealing with our individual issues.”
The days began at sunrise with meditation and included time to release toxins as well as shout out pent up issues in a sweat lodge ceremony, without the worry of judgment.
“No one was there for the same reason,” she said. “Some wanted to lose weight; others had problems with illness or personal loss.”
The communal aspect of retreats leads participants to open up, noted Michelle Gigante, founder and director of Shakti Yoga in Buffalo. She has led the Healing Journey Yoga Retreat in San Miguel de Allene, Mexico, every April for the past 11 years.
“Whether it’s fear, insecurity, the missing pieces of their lives or the blockages that are holding them back, (participants) are able to work through those issues in the shared energy and space,” said Gigante.
The group practices Vinyasa yoga twice a day in a lush garden surrounded by mountains and also spend time journaling, meditating and enjoying vegetarian meals together.
“It’s not about fixing but feeling,” Gigante said. “We’re in an era of self-improvement; everyone wants to make themselves better to match some ideal. This is self-realization work, not self-improvement. Acceptance through peace comes out of the practice.”
She limits the retreats to 12 participants to make it an intimate experience; it always sells out fast. As a result, some students requested a retreat closer to home, so Gigante organized a weekend retreat in Ellicottville in October, which was such a success she plans to offer it again in 2017.
“When you begin to commune together, you start to see unity and commonalities,” Gigante said. “You don’t feel so alone in your stuff.”
Serota said sharing with a group of strangers makes you feel vulnerable, but for her, it was worth it.
“It made me look at what I can do differently for myself and for other people,” Serota said. “I left feeling rejuvenated and confident not only in myself but in my relationship with my husband and daughter.”
Even if it’s just a weekend, retreats can provide the perspective necessary to better deal with all the complications and difficulties of life in the 21st century.
“We can never eliminate stress from life, but we can change how we react to those stressors,” Askins said. “To get away and do something different without all the noise helps us find the way.”
Spiritual retreats near Western New York
The Center for Renewal Retreat & Conference Center at Stella Niagara
Sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, Holy Name Province, the center provides a variety of spiritual enrichment and learning opportunities for adults seeking growth, relaxation, reflection and healing. Spiritual direction and retreats are directed by an on-staff certified trainer and a strategic planning facilitator. (754-7376; Stellaniagararetreats.org)
Cobblestone Springs Center for Renewal in Creation
Located on 16 mostly wooded acres in Dundee, N.Y., Cobblestone Springs is an interdenominational renewal center. It offers accommodations for individuals or groups for up to a week. It has an outdoor chapel, gazebo and trails with benches for prayers and reflection. Cobblestone Springs staff can assist in facilitating programs and food service by prior arrangement. (607-243-8212; Cobblestone-springs.org)
Christ the King Retreat & Conference Center
Located in Syracuse, New York, CTK offers several spiritual retreats for three to seven days to guests of any religious affiliation. (315-446-2680; Ctkretreat.com)
Healing Journey Yoga Retreat
Led by Michelle Gigante, director of Shakti Yoga in Buffalo, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The dates for 2017 are April 4-8, 2017. The retreat includes Vinyasa yoga practice, afternoon discussion with meditation and prepared lunch. (884-9642; Shaktibuffalo.com)
PeaceWeavers at Thunder Mountain Sanctuary
Located on 250 acres in Bath, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region, PeaceWeavers offers a number of retreats – from silent retreats to peace weekends. (607-776-4060; Peaceweavers.com)
Located on 220 acres in Springwater, N.Y., within the Finger Lakes region. It offers seven-day silent retreats, weekend retreats and day-long retreats open to all. (585-669-2141; Springwatercenter.org)
Story topics: Wellness