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So you want to run Yoga retreats?



So you want to run Yoga retreats?


Awesome!


A common goal for many yoga teachers, and also prospective teachers - at least one that people have shared often with me.


While they can be super rewarding - travel, paycheck, facilitating that feel-good magic of retreats, witnessing the building of community - there’s A LOT of what I will lovingly name as “hidden lurks” - as I believe the perks are often overhyped and the tough stuff is often lurking behind the scenes.


I am writing this to share some of my recent experiences, mistakes I have made, and to share some insights on ways that you can maybe learn from me and make your own different mistakes!


I co-led my first local retreat in the fall of 2016 In Boone, NC at the Art of Living Retreat Center, and my first international retreat in the late spring of 2017 at Jake’s in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. 


At this point - I have had to cancel/reschedule 6 different retreats. Some of these were due to low sign ups, some were due to 2020+, and the most recent one due to political protests that disrupted tourism. 


While each cancellation has a story, I feel the most recent one is the most relevant and illuminating to some of the complexities of running a yoga retreat. It also taught me some of the most challenging and painful lessons - and at the date of me writing these words - still isn’t fully resolved and probably won’t be for another few months (hopefully!). Although…that one day that Costa Rica officially closed their borders to travelers in March 2020 still stands out in my memory and the crushing feeling that came with this notification. Those of us in this business during 2020 deserve some extra love and tenderness.


Like any good story, this one started yearssss ago…email records show my first conversations with Villa Sumaya, the retreat center I booked in Guatemala, were in 2019. Obviously 2020+ happened so things were paused for a bit and revived circa 2022 when I finally booked with them for October 2023 to co-lead with my romantic/business partner. 


We did a scouting visit in February 2023, while simultaneously going through a drawn out, and unnecessarily painful break up - 0/10 don't recommend - and the rooms sold out rather quickly. After the experience, we respectfully decided it was best to not continue with the plans to co-lead and I worked through the logistics on this decision. 

Foreshadowing: I remember seeing some posters for an upcoming election and thinking “oh, look at the election.”


I threw myself into making this the BEST retreat possible with a splash of something to prove both to myself and the Universe. Everything was READY to go. My plane was set to leave on October 11th (retreat start date was October 14th) and on October 3rd I started seeing posts in a local Lake Atitlan Facebook group about building tension and lots of questions about getting to the Lake with the roads being blocked. 


DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE I went... 


I scoured every post, googled a whole lot, contacted every transportation person in my WhatsApp list, and emailed the retreat center. I spent the next few days on high alert with hopes that everything would magically be resolved in the most peaceful manner, but also according to my timeline. 


What I learned, very briefly summarized:

There was an election and the folks in power wanted to stay in power. Throughout the process much of the competition had been eliminated - maybe not in the most ethical ways - but one candidate was mostly ignored and labeled as non threatening. Welp…this mostly unknown candidate ran on an anti-corruption platform and when he won in a landslide victory. Not surprisingly, the folks who were benefiting from the corruption weren’t too happy. There were many attempts by folks in power to discredit both the candidate and his entire political party. After one particular incident where some election officials showed up to confiscate ballot boxes (in an attempt to rule the election as being tampered with)- the people had had enough and organized a nationwide protest that centered on blocking the main roads into/out of Guatemala City (where the airport is located) effectively blocking tourism.


While initially there were hopes for a speedy resolution - not so much in reality. At its peak there were estimated to be over 200 road blocks which left many travelers stuck and frantically looking for rides to the city at night from savvy taxi/transport drivers. The protestors consisted of nurses, farmers, and teachers and their tactics included fire ceremonies, sit-ins, community care of shared meals and accommodations, and obviously the road blocks. It really was beautiful and inspiring to witness - although, selfishly speaking, wildly inconvenient timing for my carefully laid plans.     


I held the burden on the impending decision until I thought I might burst; with the final straw being a Q&A session with my YTT students with everyone wanting to talk about retreats. When I got home, I phoned a friend - Anna who owns Above Yoga Retreats and runs 5-6 retreats a year. We had such a good conversation where she offered her wisdom and experiences and I felt like I wasn’t so alone. 


After the call, I emailed the group and gave them a slight heads up that there was a situation that may impact our travel plans. I let them know that I didn’t know the outcome, but reassured them that their well-being was always my top priority and that I had the best people to work with who held the same values. At this point, I had to be honest with myself and others about the impending situation while simultaneously surrendering to the forces that are far greater than those that I can control. All my yoga classes that week centered on the theme of loosening our grip on all the things that we can’t control, and focusing more on the things that we can impact or influence.

Spoiler: the list of things we can actually control is wayyyyy shorter than the other list #yourewelcome


I heard from Villa Sumaya on October 10th that we would need to reschedule the retreat - yep, 1 day before my flights, as I like to arrive early and do a bit of grounding, and 4 days before the actual start. I scrambled to let my travelers know immediately about the final decision with a promise to follow up with options once I had gathered more information regarding refunds and deposits on my end. 


I ended up giving lots of options including:

Moving to a different 2024 retreat - Peru, Bali and Guatemala 2.0

Some Yoga teacher training credits

Full refunds*


*This was a major mistake on my part - from a business standpoint, and created extra stress. All of the language on my website indicated that deposits were nonrefundable, but mostly was for when/if people canceled on me - I had no protocols on what would happen if I needed to cancel or if the country/center/circumstance needed to cancel. I made this offering from my heart with my concerns mostly for my heart-broken travelers and a whole lot of trust that in doing the “right” thing I would be taken care of.  


People made choices in all directions, and while I most definitely wished everyone would have rebooked with me, I totally respected their decisions and did my best to not persuade anyone of anything, or take it personally. I only more recently sat down and did all the math, (hello, tax season) although I did quite a bit of preliminary math while in a highly stressed state. 

So let’s talk about the money involved here:

Briefly and candidly, there is/was around $15,000 of money invested, and while I was able to receive some money back from my local partners, the biggest portion of this came from the retreat center keeping their deposit. Luckily, I wasn’t required to pay in full until I arrived but this still totaled close to $10,000 of funds already paid in that will be held until the reschedule. And yes, I will eventually get that back as folks sign up for Guatemala 2.0 - scheduled for November 2024. #shamelessplug


A portion of that investment included plane tickets for myself, the scouting trip for me and my ex, and also a payout that I labeled as “peace of mind” but was basically so I could take back my retreat. I opted to pay back some portions, as I used my plane ticket to have my side adventure to the Galapagos so obviously those were for personal use. I also begrudgingly paid back the scouting trip, but ultimately calculated around $3000 in “lost” revenue - including some other items not mentioned, which I am also working on paying back. 


Sidenote: I live month-to-month and do not have funds set aside to cover these holds and/or expenses outright. Most of my larger payouts cover my credit cards from the slower months. I have been real close to getting “ahead” - whatever that means - but never quite can get to where what I do sets me up for a sustainable future. AND also, I am super grateful for the ebbs and flows of this magical lil life I've created for myself.


So let’s recap: I worked on this (so far) for 4(ish) years, am currently in major debt, put myself in major burnout dealing with fallout, and still waiting for it to happen. Cool-cool.


The ironic part(s): Sumaya means long awaited dream (indeed) and this retreat was named “It Was All a Dream” (sure was).


SHOUT OUT: to my amazing travelers who gave me space and grace in navigating this situation. Frfr I can never shout THANK YOU loud enough for everyone who worked with me, and understood my own heartache in the situation. 


Let’s break down the lessons, with of course more stories woven in:

  1. I prefer to give myself at least one year lead time from when I announce it to when it begins. This means I’m working on each retreat for at least a year and a half, not to mention time spent in researching locations. I mention this as it matters because within this time span A LOT of -ish can go down - for me, my travelers, my local partners, and the local communities.  With this time frame in mind, I have learned intimate details about people’s personal lives, experienced my own fair share of monumental life-stuff, and witnessed shifts in personnel and conditions. Another example: the day AFTER I signed the contract for Peru and paid my deposit to the retreat center the news came out about the farmer’s protests and shut down of tourism.  My take is that things are going to happen and most of it is completely out of my immediate influence and/or control which leads me to…

  2. CYA - cover your (own) ass! One of my favorite life-isms was shared with me by a former mentor and restaurant manager lovingly nicknamed Frenchie. While we yoga teachers love to be in our hearts, this type of mentality has the potential for horrible business decisions aka future messes and stresses. My decision to offer full refunds, while super kind, definitely left my ass bare. Here comes the equally important…

  3. Get your sh*t in writing - and the more clear, the better. I’m going to use a loose example of prenuptial agreements, loose because I’ve never been married nor do I specifically value it as a goal, so what do I know? I share this because a prenup is definitely something I would consider IF this marriage-thing was ever for me.  Here’s why: decisions made from/when in love for/with others in a non stressed environment are typically going to be better for all parties involved.   So wait, didn’t I just say that making business decisions from the heart was a terrible idea?  Maybe I reword it slightly and add in the variable of stress and/or trauma and/or uncontrollable circumstances that often send us spinning. In my biased opinion, having set systems in place when -ish goes down frees up space for us to handle what is right there in front of us without making major decisions while in an emotional state.  So maybe we make decisions from calculated love?  Obviously that sounds just as terrible, and brings me back to the complicated mixing of yoga and business (or anyone in a spiritual/healing/teaching/sharing of gifts field). Sorry, no clever segway but it’s time to discuss…

  4. Be mindful of uneven partnerships. Group projects, oof!!, am I right?! While often partnerships can be rewarding, I have had several experiences where my energy and expertise have not been matched, and just like school - I will just do it. I can’t say that I have always been the best person to collaborate with but also sometimes I am! I have done 50/50 partnerships that worked, and I have done some where I also played the role of mentor. I have done some uneven splits that worked, and I have done some where the lessor % felt like showing up was enough, and flat out refused to market. When I am not matched, it ends up feeling icky. Currently, I am opting for special guest teacher spots where we work out a flat rate for individual classes taught. While I am not opposed to future partnerships and splits, I recently experienced the gift of a trigger when a dear friend and respected teacher offered to collaborate on future trainings. I was able to pause in the moment and identify the trigger from past pains and we had a good conversation about it - as my shift in energy was obvious and 100% not related to her or her offer. Seriously, love you BE if you read this.


And now for more miscellaneous things that also feel important to share, but don’t fit a general theme, but also I like bullet points:

  • When considering locations, I like to work with places that seem to give af about the local communities. Obviously, we are visitors, and I always try to show up with the most respect as possible. I always ask the center for their list of local offerings and try to book 1-2 options - my favorites are sound healing and traditional ceremonies. Rule #1 of travel (and Yoga) is don't be an asshole (but more eloquently we can be inspired by the principle of ahimsa - the first of the Yamas or yogic principles advocating for non harming and nonviolence). Non-harming extends to the ways that we honor and name the indigenous stewards of the lands we visit and follow their traditions. It also extends to how we treat the local flora and fauna, and not assuming pieces of nature can double as free souvenirs. Fun fact: in Costa Rica it's actually illegal to take shells home as it contributes to shifting the local landscape. There are signs with clear directionsa, and obviously people are assholes, and still do it.

  • Be prepared to put up some money, and depending on what retreat center you work with it may need to be debited from your bank account - so credit cards may not be an easy option. There may also be some transaction fees which can be included in your budget. But ultimately, you will have to pay a deposit which could be flat rate or a % of your reserved rooms prices. Some 3rd party platform will ask for 50% which in my opinion is wayyy too much, and other may ask for $0 but may offer different methods of compensation and support.

  • Spoil your guests! Chances are they already see you or practice with you back home so I do my best to let them know how grateful I am for them. And this is 100% not an empty gesture, or a ploy to get them to sign up again. I genuinely have so much love for each person that shows up, and I get giddy with excitement when I think about how the different people will mesh and interact. I also use this as an opportunity to purchase from the local community and give my travelers a gift (or two) that is unique to the location. I also create classes filled with all the fun (and maybe weird) sh*t that is also my favorite that maybe doesn't fit into the 60-minute community classes.

  • Whatever you bring in, plan to bring out. Don’t leave behind worn out clothes (or shoes), plastic wrap from newly purchased items, or other items that may seem easy to leave behind out of convenience. Exception: some centers/communities may request/allow for some items to be brought in that are donated to local spaces and faces. I typically will be specific about these asks. Confession: I've been the person who leaves stuff behind to make room for new things to bring home. And now that I know better, I do better.

  • Take time to decompress and rest for yourself prior to, during, and after the official retreat time. While everyone is vacationing, you are still working. And being ON for 24/7 (or however long your retreat lasts) is not sustainable nor is it particularly enjoyable. Sure, it's beautiful, and you are still working. There's logistics to confirm, travelers to check in with, and of course classes to teach. I make sure to interact and check in with everyone in the group, and as a extroverted-introverted, my social battery needs time to recharge. Having OFF time is essential for me to show up as my best self the rest of the time. Protip: stay a few extra days and explore different part of your current location or see where else you can get from the local airport. That's how I ended up with plane tickets to the Galapagos Islands - which ultimately made me make more decisions but also the BEST decision to go ahead and make a different dream happen!

  • Give lots of fucks, all the magical fucks for your community and the land and the process. As challenging as some of these lessons were to experience, I truly love curating all the details, updating the spreadsheets, meeting the people behind the magic of the retreat centers, and answering all the questions. This is not the business to not give af in -  it’s detail oriented and requires your attention to soooo many moving pieces. My perfectly curated retreat plan may never see the light of day, but I LOVED the creation process, and some pieces can be recycled. While I never expected myself to become so immersed in Guatemalan politics, I learned a lot while googling and have so much respect for the ways in which they organized and selflessly sacrificed for the greater good. And it worked! Bernardo Arevalo successfully (and peacefully) became president in January of this year. #powertothepeople



And my biggest tip of all, and in my opinion the hardest part: after all the planning, and all the travel, and all the people FINALLY arriving - the best thing you can do is relax and let the Universe work its magic. I have found myself feeling super constricted when trying too hard to stick to my carefully curated schedule and have learned that it’s wayyyy better to trust in the ways that the wind blows. 


Example: Magic, Love & Yoga retreat to Costa Rica in February 2023 had quite a beautiful schedule. And then some people got together, and some conversations were had, and what had happened was a local tattoo artist arrived to spend a few days in a cabana by the pool and offer tattoos for the group. And sure - it required a bit of rearranging, but also I have a permanent memory that makes me smile every time I see it and we are still in communication. #worthit


As much as I want this story to have a pretty ending, it’s still in process.


And also - HOW COOL, it’s not the end so there’s still time for my long awaited dream to come to fruition. 


Oh the irony, but also I feel like this is the Universe teasing me and asking "do you really want this?"


I now have a rather thorough contract and policies form that I share with guests when they sign up that outlines procedures that will be easy to refer back to when/if -ish goes down. Tbh…I couldn’t tell you what they say, but I know they are there when/if I need them and that’s brain space that I’m probably pretty happy to have back. 


Travel always comes with risk, so inherently so does planning travel for large groups, but like multiplied by the number of people added to your travel plans.


I have done so much work to clear my fears and move forward with an open heart and strong boundaries - oh wait, maybe THAT’S it. 


So yes, let your heart run wild with dreams of visiting amazing places with hilarious people and share your beautiful gifts, but also cover your own ass with clear policies. Us solo entrepreneurs don’t have to do EVERYthing alone - ok writing that one mostly as a reminder to myself - we do have support in our own systems, google is our friend, and even when it feels like it’s all on you a like-minded person with experience is always a DM away. 

(And if you don’t have that person, I’m that person. I am here for you, and happy to listen - wow, did NOT mean to get sappy here at the end, and I am also aware that I probably should have ended this writing with the banger sentence two paragraphs ago, and also just like this sentence I never quite know when to quit, which some say is endearing.)


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