While visiting a variety of spiritual retreats Cat Pritchard puts her body to the test and discovers that mental flexibility is also required.
The silent retreat
Vipassaná meditation, as taught by SN Goenka
It is a strange thing spending 10 days in absolute silence; stranger still sharing it with a group of people you can't look in the eye, greet or acknowledge in any way.
This is just one of thousands of thoughts and questions that will plague your fertile mind again and again during the 11 hours of seated meditation you will endure on a daily basis, starting with your 4am wake-up call.
I say "endure" because the 10 days you will spend at the centre will be both physically and mentally gruelling. It's like a reconstruction and development programme for the soul, only with stronger foundations. And yes, the silence part is all-encompassing. No technology, no talking, no reading, no writing.
Here, the outside world is irrelevant; your inner world is your only concern. It's tough but worth it.
What to expect: As a beginner, you will start with a 10-day introductory course to vipassaná meditation (as taught by SN Goenka) where the technique is taught step by step each day. Following an initial orientation period, you will enter into a vow of silence and 10 full days of meditation (in stretches of one, 1.5 and two hours), which will come to an end on the morning of the 11th day by 7.30am.
Where: Worldwide, including Dhamma Pataka near Worcester in the Western Cape.
Cost: Donation based. All food, training and accommodation is included and might include shared rooms, depending on which centre you attend.
l Visit dhamma.org
The yoga-based ashram
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta, Dhanwantari Ashram
This is not one of those "go with the flow" yoga retreats that starts with an early morning yoga class and then leaves you to potter around the gardens, contemplating life and the beauty of butterflies. It's also not austere enough to "work the Westerner out of you" either by making you scrub the ashram floors à la Eat, Pray, Love.
But routine and ritual are key. The daily schedule is compulsory and always the same, the food is the same and so is the yoga routine. And that's exactly the point. When everything around you stays the same, the change has to come from within. The only thing you have the power to change is your internal environment (especially your attitude).
What to expect: The ashram, which is based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, follows five yoga principles (proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, positive thinking and meditation) and 12 yoga postures (asanas).
You will be expected to follow a simple but structured schedule that starts with a 5.20am wake-up call and includes two yoga sessions, meditation, chanting and a lecture.
There is some free time and two delicious vegetarian meals a day and you will be expected to do a simple chore as part of a karma yoga practice.
Where: There are nine Sivananda ashrams worldwide, including one at the Neyyar dam in Kerala, South India.
Cost: The ashram at the Neyyar dam offers five types of accommodation, from tents (about R100 a day) and dormitory (about R150 a day) to air-conditioned twin rooms with a private bathroom (about R300 a day). Prices include all classes, meals and accommodation. The "yoga holidays" last two weeks and you are expected to see this through but, in the end, a minimum stay of three days is required.
l Visit sivananda.org
The charismatic guru
In the "spiritual" realm, most people will have an opinion about the guru, born Chandra Mohan Jain, but better known as Osho.
He is not known for being a quiet man with few opinions. He is a mystic whose prolific teachings in the 1970s and 1980s spawned thousands of audio and video recordings and books and garnered as many sannyasis, or followers, as detractors.
Yes, he's the guy who shifted your mom's generation's attitude towards sexuality, earning him the moniker "sex guru" in the international press.
At the heart of the controversy is the original Osho centre in Pune, India – the Hilton of the Osho centres, in price as much as prestige. Some people love it and return year after year, but it has never appealed to me.
My spiritual path usually leads me to simpler, smaller, nature-orientated centres, such as Osho Tapoban, outside Kathmandu in Nepal. There you will find a daily schedule of Osho meditations (some silent, some dynamic), exceptionally good food and a lot of nature and downtime, should you need it.
Not one for the overly charismatic arts, I was surprised that I experienced a great sense of peace, joy and elation during my week at Osho Tapoban, which is why I went back for another week and would do it again.
I came away with fewer attachments (except to the incredible food) and more childlike joy than I entered with.
What to expect: Dancing, shaking, grunting, laughing. Basically all forms of self-expression are welcome and encouraged. The daily schedule varies between centres but will include a combination of Osho meditations, including the Osho dynamic meditation, silent sitting and Osho vipassaná meditation.
There is also a "uniform". Visitors wear maroon robes in the day and white robes at night, which some people will find annoying and others liberating.
As I said, Osho has a way of getting people to form strong opinions about his practices and principles, one way or another. Definitely an interesting experience.
Where: Worldwide, including in Delhi and Pune in India, and Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal.
Cost: Varies according to centres. Osho Tapoban starts at R220 a day for a twin sharing (with bathroom) and includes all food and activities. The one in Delhi is cheaper but the Pune centre is significantly more, with most people choosing to stay outside the centre and then buy a day pass to enter.
l Visit tapoban.com
Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal
You don't have to be Buddhist to enjoy this beautiful 120 hectare retreat in the hills above the Umkomaas River. But you do have to share and respect certain guiding principles, such as respect for all forms of life and abstinence from alcohol.
Praised for its natural beauty, delicious lacto-ovo vegetarian cuisine and quality of teachers and teachings, the centre offers regular spiritual retreats in complimentary art forms such as yoga, pottery, meditation, photography and tai chi as ways to explore important themes such as mindfulness, balance, harmony, compassion and wellness.
Guests are also welcome to enjoy "self retreats" between the scheduled "conducted retreats", which usually take place every weekend.
What to expect: This is Alan Paton country at its best, so expect a beautiful, remote, lush environment that naturally encourages silence and contemplation and respects nature as much as humans.
Some retreats request that guests practice "noble silence" and all encourage an open heart and mind.
The centre itself was awarded National Heritage status by president Nelson Mandela in recognition of how it established indigenous vegetation and suitable habitats for the endangered blue swallow.
The centre is equally famous for its cuisine, which includes organically grown vegetables and farm-baked bread. If you can't make the centre, be sure to order their two cookbooks – Quiet Food and The Cake the Buddha Ate.
Where: Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal.
Cost: There are eight types of accommodation, ranging from basic single accommodation with shared ablutions (R420 a person) to a three-person bungalow (R600 a person sharing). These rates include accommodation, lectures, all meals, teas and VAT. Most retreats charge an additional R100 to R300.
l Visit www.brcixopo.co.za