This past winter Jen Howell, owner of Sutra Studios on the 5th floor of Mill No. 5 led two spiritual retreats for those new to retreating and those with previous retreating experiences. Jen has been leading retreats for the past ten years and while the studio offers various forms of retreating each year, these two groups ventured out of downtown Lowell for what Jen calls “lighter” spiritual retreating. Usually, she leads groups in what is considered authentic components of spiritual retreating where you experience solitude with no distractions. When partaking in spiritual retreats, the location is chosen for its spiritual refuge such as Bali or Peru. This time, the locations were Mexico and Hawaii.
For each retreat there was time set aside for physical practice and time to disconnect from habitual, daily distractions of life’s busywork and focus on mindfulness. What can normally happen on vacation is that we bring those distractions and busywork with us. Always having to plan our activities or our meals, and staying up to date on social media or work doesn’t allow us to have an opportunity to really disconnect. What makes these retreats different from a traditional vacation is that the primary intention is to work on mindfulness and to check in, rather than check out.
In January the first group traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico due to its beauty and proximity for travel but more so because of the very high spiritual element within the area in the way that people live – outside of the resorts of Cancun.
“Mexico has just an amazing, rich, cultural tradition of people really being connected to nature, and I feel like it’s really present in some of the spiritual practices they have in that area, so we go to Mexico quite a bit. Twice a year which is a lot for a yoga studio.”
While in Mexico, in addition to the yoga and meditation and the Dharma (the yoga philosophy), the participants were encouraged to include an aspect of Seva, which is what the Yogis call service. They partnered with an animal rescue organization called Refugio meaning refuge on the island of Holbox. They were encouraged to interact with the dogs or to donate to help in their rescue efforts as part of being of service. “Mexico is not a very affluent country so the animals have a hard time if people can’t even look after themselves. It’s a very emotional situation, but it teaches empathy and our fellow inhabitants of planet earth also deserve (that) empathy. “
The big island of Hawaii was the location for the second retreat in February. The intention was the same as Mexico; to evolve within one’s own introspection and provide space for mindfulness with the ability to check in instead of check out. The trip was spent equally on both sides of the island with time to restore and decompress on the beach and time to connect with nature by visiting Volcano National Park. It was the first time for many in the group to visit the state and the first time to try snorkeling and surfing. They also had the opportunity to tour an organic coffee plantation owned by a small family with the intention of learning about plants and flowers that came to Hawaii and to also support local organic farmers.
Jen encourages anyone who is looking to do any sort of self-development to consider participating in a retreat, even if you have never traveled before. Retreating with others is a nice opportunity to travel and experience new places with people that are like minded. If you are someone who wants to try solo travel but are not quite ready yet, traveling with a group such as this can be a great way to feel like you are traveling alone but still feel safe and connected.
Those who are part of the Sutra community, both as part of the teaching team and the community as a whole, are a diverse group of individuals inspired by music and art and have an interest in the philosophies of yoga. “(Our clients are) really anybody that’s interested in living a happier life.” Jen says. “Although we are a yoga and meditation studio that offers primarily physical practice, we are a very inclusive community at Sutra. While we have classes that can teach you how to get very strong and teach you to stand on your head and improve your wellness physically, I think really that our primary goal is to help people figure out how to take philosophies of yoga and integrate it into the rest of their lives.”