An om away from home

Looking for a great vacation that can help the whole family unwind? Consider a yoga retreat.

In my few spare moments between dropping kids off for hockey games, dance classes and drum lessons, I had struggled to come up with a plan for a summer vacation that my whole family could enjoy. The usual week at a cottage didn’t seem to excite anyone. Neither did the idea of spending a few days at an amusement park or at some beach resort. I was ready to give up when inspiration sprinted home in the form of my eight-year-old son, Luca. Not usually excited about school, he chattered on and on about the Cobra, Frog and Fish — traditional yoga poses — that he had learned that day in gym class. As he bubbled with enthusiasm, I was struck by a completely new idea: what about a yoga vacation?

I had been practising yoga in a low-key sort of way for a couple of years and had read with interest about weekend and week-long yoga getaways. It seemed to me that one of these retreats might be ideal for my family. It would give us a chance to spend time together, learn new skills and get far, far away from the noisy urban hustle that surrounds us during the rest of the year.

To my surprise, even my husband, Carlo, was willing to go along with my vacation idea. Only a few years ago, I doubt he would have been so obliging. But as boomers have aged, yoga has gone from being an exotic pursuit to one of the fastest-growing activities in North America. Yoga Journal, the glossy bible of the movement, has seen its circulation surge to 310,000 per issue from 185,000 just three years ago. Heck — you can even buy a yoga mat and instructional videos at Canadian Tire.

The Web makes finding a yoga vacation easy. (See This way to nirvana for some suggestions on where to start looking.) Those with a taste for spectacular scenery can choose from ashrams located on Hawaiian beaches or by the banks of the Ganges River in India. But my family decided to stick relatively close to our Toronto home and booked a week in July at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Que., an hour north of Montreal.

Nestled in the Laurentian Mountains and surrounded by trees, the ashram was one of the most peaceful places I had ever visited. In accordance with yoga philosophy, nature has been respected here and only occasionally interrupted by low, ranch-style buildings.

I was surprised at how quickly my two kids — Luca and Laura, 12 — took to the place. They woke with minimal fuss when they heard the 5:30 a.m. wake-up bell that summoned us to a daily meditation and chanting session. We sat cross-legged on colorful cushions on the floor, following our bearded swami’s instructions to close our eyes and erase all thought from our minds. At first, I could see my kids trying desperately not to giggle. But as they saw the others in our group relax and make it work, they did, too.

Much to Carlo’s relief, we weren’t forced to sit in pretzel shapes or chant “om” all day long. Aside from a few mandatory sessions of meditation and yoga practice, we could do as much or as little as we liked. The yoga instructors — fit, middle-aged women dressed sensibly in tights and T-shirts — always encouraged us to bend or stretch only as far as we felt comfortable. Carlo had never tried yoga, but he found it easy to get into. He even joined Luca in attempting a headstand at our first class.

Our fellow guests were a mixed lot — singles, couples and families. Some had studied yoga extensively; others were novices. Campsites let outdoorsy types sleep under the stars in warm weather ($35 a night for the whole gang; bring your own tent), while those who preferred a roof over their heads could choose from shared dorm-style rooms with communal bathrooms, private suites or small wood cabins.

We opted for a private suite. It was sparsely furnished with two sets of bunk beds, but we had a bathroom to ourselves. The cost, including our meals and activities, was $70 a day for each adult and $35 a day for each of the kids, which is about the going rate at most yoga retreats in North America. With prices like that, it’s no wonder that ashrams in popular spots like Colorado and New York State have seen a tenfold increase in visitors over the past five years.

Many folks enjoy their first yoga vacation so much that they turn it into an annual event. Don and Marsha Wenig, both yoga instructors, have been taking their two children, Dakota, 14, and Kiva, 12, on yearly yoga vacations in Mexico for the past six years. “It’s a refreshing treat for everyone,” Don says. “The kids always seem to come away with a great sense of who they are as individuals outside of competing in sports or school. They’re not watching TV or sitting behind a video screen and eating junk food.”

My own kids were never bored. The ashram offered us the option of adding canoeing, mountain biking and rock climbing to our yogic fare. (In winter, you can skate and cross-country ski.) Those who preferred less structure were free to sunbathe in secluded areas of the lush countryside, swim, go for discovery walks, read or join in nightly sing-alongs by the campfire.

The only drawback to our vacation was the limited food options. Don’t get me wrong: our two daily vegetarian meals (a late breakfast at 10 a.m. and bountiful dinner at 6) consisted of generous servings of tabbouleh, sun-dried tomato pizza, tossed salad, trays of ripe watermelon slices and ginger tea. The meals were so delicious, we almost didn’t miss the meat. Almost. On the last night of our stay, cravings got the better of us and we drove to the local pizza place down the road. Veal-cutlet sandwiches and root beer all around, please. We drove back to the ashram, tummies full, and no one was any the wiser.

Carnivorous transgressions notwithstanding, we would happily do another yoga vacation. If you’re looking for relaxation, there’s nothing better. Sure, you can unwind with a piña colada by the pool, but chances are your first day back at work will wind you right back up. A yoga retreat, on the other hand, teaches you how to keep stress at bay for as long as you’re willing to spend a few minutes a day stretching, bending, closing your eyes and forgetting your troubles. To me, that’s worth more than all the umbrella drinks in the Caribbean.