America’s best meditation destinations

Kevin Gray
Esalen hosts yoga retreats on its seaside lawn. (Photo: Brad Coy / Flickr)
Esalen hosts yoga retreats on its seaside lawn. (Photo: Brad Coy / Flickr)

"You probably think you're mentally on top of your game," says Jack Kornfield, a 68-year-old former Buddhist monk who now advises the U.S. Marines on mental training. "But email, cellphones, TV, your job, your family – all these things are messing with your neural circuitry and hindering your potential." Members of the Marine Corps aren't the only acolytes lining up behind gurus like Kornfield. Meditation retreats have become mainstream destinations as devoted to cleansing the mind as they are to perfecting the body, all amid high-end spa settings.

In addition to unplugging and de-cluttering your brain, these five retreats – from Big Sur cliffside hot springs to a Hawaiian silent sanctuary to boardroom-boosting mental exercises in the Berkshires – round out their spiritual curricula with adventure activities like hiking, skiing, and kayaking. "To be a really strong person, you have to make time for inner development," Kornfield says. "You have to work out the mind as hard as you work out the body. That doesn't happen on its own."

Esalen Institute, Big Sur, Calif.

Hot springs set on cliffs above the Pacific are what sets Esalen apart from all other retreats. Used for healing rituals dating back 6,000 years to the Esselen Native Americans, the springs are a singular adventure, combining Big Sur's stunning views with an awe-inspiring, 119-degree soak (night bathing, from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., is $25 and includes silent tubs for meditation). Inhale the salty mist and immerse yourself in the retreat's breathtaking beauty – 120 acres of paradise on a remote coastline.

Founded in 1962, Esalen has hosted rebels like Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and Jack Kerouac – although these days, you're more likely to spot celebrities like Penélope Cruz or Orlando Bloom blissing out before its panoramic sunsets or taking in daily yoga, meditation, and tai chi classes. Weekend workshop rates include room and board and run the gamut from sleeping-bag accommodations all the way to high-end luxury in the three private cliffside Point Houses. Unlike most of the center, which has no cell coverage, these rooms have Internet access and a landline as well as private decks with outdoor claw-foot tubs for soaking in the moonlight – for $1,750 a weekend. From $405 for weekend workshops; esalen.org

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Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, Mass.

A 150-acre former Jesuit sanctuary in the Berkshire Mountains, Kripalu excels at meditative exercises meant to ensure success – in the boardroom. "From aerospace engineers to overworked Wall Streeters, these workshops have helped hundreds improve their capacity for leadership roles," says Kripalu's coordinator, Carol Bosco Baumann, about the center's emphasis on "positive psychology" and punishing workouts. On the shore of Lake Mahkeenac, Kripalu offers classes in meditation through exercise – techniques to improve balance, weight transfer during sports, and better flexibility for mental focus – taught by leading Buddhist instructors like Jack Kornfield and board-certified staff neurologists, psychologists, and dietitians.

The retreat rounds out its meditative curriculum with hiking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing. "The landscape is inspiring," says Baumann, "owing to the lake, the wooded trails, and the fact that Native Americans once walked here." While there are 800 different workshops to choose from, try the weekend-long Men's Yoga for the Soul program – a combination of relaxation techniques with classes on healthy living and meditation – before hitting one of the whirlpools at night. From $196 for the weekend; kripalu.org


Breitenbush Hot Springs, Detroit, Ore.

Hidden in a remote Oregon forest two and a half hours southeast of Portland, Breitenbush is for those who don't like being told what to do in group classes – it lets you design your own experience around its 20 miles of trails, natural hot springs, and meditation workshops. With ancient fir trees and single-room pine cabins, Breitenbush is a low-key getaway in truly rural country (the nearest city of any size, Salem, is approximately 65 miles away). Go for early-morning jogs and then read a book amid the solitude and natural silence of its 154-acre site, spread out across the Willamette National Forest in the Oregon Cascades.

If you feel adventurous, try the 4,528-foot guided ascent to Devil's Peak or a meditative workshop like the monthly Inipi Ceremony, an hours-long traditional Lakota sweat-lodge ritual, in which participants sit among hot stones in a blanket-covered sapling dome while sharing life stories. But the main draw is the (clothing-optional) 101-degree hot springs themselves, a natural wonder. Glassy, secluded, and surrounded by wild vegetation, they attracted Pacific Northwest Indian tribes for centuries – a wintertime soak beneath a snowy sky is alone worth the trip. From $56 a night for a dormitory-style room; breitenbush.com


Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Muir Beach, Calif.

It's not unusual for backpackers in Muir Woods National Monument, north of San Francisco, to wander onto Green Gulch's 115-acre valley and book a room for the night. Located on the Pacific's boulder-strewn sand, the Gulch, as everyone calls it, sits at the nexus of dozens of trails and offers workshops in foraging – but don't let the idyllic setting fool you. "A lot of the Zen students here are runners, swimmers, and bikers," says Shokuchi Deirdre Carrigan, a Buddhist priest-in-training and coordinator at the center. "They are people who like to challenge themselves." Whether you're a banker who runs marathons or a doctor who does Tough Mudders, Green Gulch bets you like intensity in your meditation – and thus offers a seven-day sesshin: a silent, seated Japanese Zen style of intensive meditation that lasts from 5 am until 9 pm each day. "It's its own kind of marathon," says Carrigan. "Sitting still for a day is a physical and mental discipline like biking a long distance." From $90 a night; sfzc.org/ggf


Shambhala Mountain Center, Red Feather Lakes, Colo.

Surrounded by the 814,000-acre Roosevelt National Forest in the Rocky Mountains, Shambhala pairs Buddhist meditation techniques with outdoor adventure activities to achieve an unorthodox ideal – high-energy peace. "The idea of meditation is not to become some supernaturally calm person," says Michael Gayner, a martial arts black belt and the center's executive director. "It's about exertion and having the pumped-up energy to reach a place where you're fully engaged and experiencing things more directly."

With access to 15 miles of wooded trails, 600 acres for snowshoeing, and top teachers like Lama Tsultrim Allione – one of the first Western Buddhism teachers – guests can choose from more than 100 classes, including Shambhala's signature three-day program, Waking Up to the Wild: Mindful Hiking. The class employs exercise, restorative yoga, and solo hikes to help you focus on the simplicity of your breathing, the sharpness of your senses, and the subtle movements of your body. "It's meditating on your feet," Gayner says. From $99 a night; shambhalamountain.org

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