Going Away and Going Within: How three popular retreat centers in the US size-up



Whether you’re feeling over-worked and over-stressed and need to check out for a few days or weeks, new to solo-travel and are looking for a place to join a group, ready to learn more about yourself, or just interested in exploring a new place in a safe and nurturing environment, a retreat center can be the right choice for you.  As yoga has gained popularity in the past decade, retreat centers have become an increasingly popular means of escape. Here you’ll find information about how three of the most popular retreat centers in the US– Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen– compare.

Kripalu, Western Massachusetts

Located in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Kripalu (http://www.kripalu.org) offers year-round retreats and yoga-teacher training opportunities. Browse the catalog of classes and you’ll find a variety of offerings suitable for all levels of experience


Meditation Sanctuary Pond at Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York. Omega offers a variety of opportunities for personal growth in spring, summer, or fall.

Meditation Sanctuary Pond at Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York. Omega (www.eomega.org)  offers a variety of opportunities for personal growth in the spring, summer, or fall.

Esalen (http://www.esalen.org/), located in beautiful Big Sur, California offers striking views of the Pacific, serene sunsets, and a variety of class offerings year round.

Esalen (http://www.esalen.org/), located in beautiful Big Sur, California offers striking views of the Pacific, serene sunsets, and a variety of class offerings year round.

1. Getting There

All three retreat centers offer shuttle service from nearby airports, Amtrak centers, and/or bus stations for a reasonable price. Traveling from my home near Boston, both Kripalu and Omega were an easy ride west along the Mass Pike. Free parking is available on campus. If you are flying to Esalen, a shuttle service is available from the Monterey Airport.  Be warned that the drive to Esalen loops upward into the mountains along the coastline. If you’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean from Big Sur though, the beauty of the surf below will be enough to take your mind off the hairpin turns.

2. Accommodations

Dorm Room Accommodation at Omega

Dorm Room Accommodation at Omega

All three centers offer a variety of accommodations to suit your comfort level. At Kripalu you can stay in a dorm room that sleeps between 5 and 22 guests, a shared room with two beds, or pay extra for a private room.  In the four times I’ve visited Kripalu, I chose the dorm sleeping option. In both large and small dorm rooms, bathrooms are shared and a short walk down the hallway. Larger rooms sometimes have a private, single-person bathroom. The rooms are simple although sometimes stuffy in the summer time. You’ll find fans, safes, sheets, pillows, blankets, alarm clocks, night lights, bureaus, and an occasional desk.

Omega, a former summer camp, offers the largest variety of accommodations from camping to a private cabin room. Campers bring their own tents and sleeping supplies and use shared bathroom facilities on campus. A step up and still sleeping under the stars, the “tent cabin” offers a small wooden structure with a pointed roof. Be sure to bring insect repellent if you’re choosing this option as there are openings in the top by the roof. Like Kripalu, Omega also offers dorm rooms with shared baths. Unlike Kripalu though, your bed and bureau are separated from other guests by a door with a lock. You might find eight doors along a long hallway and not much space to move around within your room, but the privacy is an added bonus at a convenient price. More expensive single or double cabin rooms are also available.

Somewhat a medium between the two, Esalen offers space for sleeping bags in meeting rooms as the lowest price option. Although you’ll have a roof over your head, you may be cramped into a coed room with dozens of others and since you’ll be sleeping on the floor of a meeting room you’ll have to roll up and store you things from 9 AM to 11 PM. Showers are available for sleeping bag guests at the hot springs only. Dorm rooms at Esalen typically sleep four on bunk beds in a shared room with a single shared bathroom. You won’t have to stumble half-asleep down the hallway in the middle of the night, but you’ll also have less privacy. Premium double and single occupancy rooms are also available.

3. The Campus

One of many hiking trails on Kripalu property.

One of many hiking trails on Kripalu property.

Kripalu, a former Jesuit seminary, is one large building and a newer annex located in close proximity to a lake, miles of hiking trails, and a small labyrinth.  You could spend your entire stay indoors since the meeting areas, practice rooms, dining hall, and sleeping accommodations are all in one building. This can make Kripalu the perfect winter getaway when snow blankets the grounds and adds an extra layer of silence to the earth. The miles of hiking trails both on and off the property and nearby lake with options for swimming and kayaking are essential parts of the Kripalu experience from Spring to Fall. Spend your evenings relaxing in the Sun Room on a couch or recliner chair on the top floor of the main campus.

Omega, a former summer camp, sprawls across a wooded area with separate buildings for dining, classes, and sleeping and also offers a cafe, bookstore, library, and meditation sanctuary. The set up of the campus makes you feel like you are living and thriving in a community. The practice and meeting rooms are large, hardwood (unlike Kripalu which offers mostly meeting rooms with rugs), and inviting spaces. Omega is the only center of the three that offers an on campus library. The eight-sided building is a cozy place to curl up with a book along one of the window seats. The meditation sanctuary also offers an inviting reprieve. Located up stone steps and away from the bustle of the main campus, watch fish swim around lotus blossoms on the outdoor porch or sit in meditation before the beautiful wave-like stonework wall indoors.  Guided meditation classes are offered daily.

Like Omega, Esalen’s campus consists of a variety of buildings scattered across the coastal, wooded area. Here you’ll find a small, but equally as peaceful meditation sanctuary by a brook beneath a canopy of trees. Unlike Kripalu and Omega, Esalen was built to be a retreat center and it shows. Just about every building is made of simple and elegant woodwork or stone. The meeting areas are large and small, with plenty of windows to let in the California sunshine. The one amenity that draws travelers to Esalen for a mini-retreat or an evening soiree is the hot springs. Several clothing optional baths overlook the pacific ocean. You can shower while looking out at the ocean through the clear glass wall, relax in the sulfur scented warm water, or get a massage on the deck by the baths. Esalen also offers an outdoor clothing-optional pool and plenty of grassy areas to sunbathe.  A hiking trail connects to the property. Unlike Kripalu which offers hikes at a variety of skill levels, the hike at Esalen is not for the novice and should not be traversed alone.

4. Food

Outdoor dining at Esalen

Outdoor dining at Esalen

All three campuses offer a variety of healthy, mainly vegetarian and vegan buffet-style food options.  Kripalu offers slightly more meat options for those not accustomed to just fruits, vegetables, and grains. Omega’s daily food items are often inspired by a certain world cuisine. Esalen has its own organic vegetable garden on the property which provides delicious and fresh salad options at most meals.

If you’re a regular coffee drinker, your morning Joe will cost you extra at Kripalu. At Kripalu, coffee is available for purchase at the cafe, but not provided in the dining room. In all three centers you’ll find a variety of herbal teas, juices, and milks to complement the food. Kripalu’s “basics bar” offers food options for those following an Ayurveda diet or just looking to eat simply.

All three offer both indoor and outdoor dining options. At Kripalu, you’ll eat beneath beautiful paintings of Buddhas at long dining tables. Breakfast is always taken in silence to encourage mindful eating and contemplation. Omega offers a similar dining experience with round instead of rectangular tables and outdoor picnic benches. Esalen’s accommodations offer the best views by far whether you’re sitting along the wooden benches indoors and watching the sunset through the large windows or enjoying the beautiful view of the ocean on the outdoor deck. Esalen also offers a bar where you can purchase wine and other alcohol to drink by the fire that is lit on the porch each night.

5. Straight to the Point

If you’re interested in a retreat where everything is in close proximity and spending time outdoors is a choice not a necessity, than Kripalu is the place for you.

If finding silence and solitude is an essential factor in your retreat, than Omega with its private dorm rooms, library, and meditation sanctuary would be the choice for you.

If you’re looking for something more off-the-beaten path with clothing-optional spa treatment and hot spring baths and mesmerizing views of the Pacific Ocean than Esalen is the place for you.

In all three places, you’ll be provided with the perfect opportunity to check out of your day-to-day routine and check in with yourself. With limits and restrictions on cell phone use and the absence of televisions, computers, and other electronics, you’ll leave feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and a little less attached to the modern amenities we can’t seem to live without.


2 thoughts on “Going Away and Going Within: How three popular retreat centers in the US size-up

  1. John A. Johnson

    Thank you for this. I had only heard about Kripalu from my yoga teacher, drove by Esalen last week without actually visiting, and have participated in several workshops at Omega. It was nice to read a comparison of the three retreat centers.

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