Feeling Stressed? Treat Yourself to a Mini Retreat.

Where to try meditation, mindfulness, t'ai chi chih and other spiritual paths to centeredness.

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

The year 2017 was stressful. I often found myself binge-listening to audiobooks while driving, walking the dog or doing laundry in an attempt to avoid the latest political scandal, societal rift or outbreak of violence. The world seemed off-kilter, and as I tried to reinforce my own center, I began to seek physical and spiritual escapes from the fray. Here are a few retreats I discovered, anchored in a variety of religious traditions, within driving distance of the D.C. area.

Silent Treatment

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

Last March, my friend Jan and I booked two spartan rooms at Holy Cross Abbey—situated between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River in Berryville, Virginia—for a mostly silent weekend retreat with the resident Cistercian (aka Trappist) monks. They chant five times a day, carrying out a ritual known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.

As the sun sank on our first evening, we joined the monks for vespers, silently absorbing their lead-and-response pattern as they chanted a psalm and prayers in traditional Gregorian tones. Afterwards, during a simple but ample dinner, we greeted the other retreatants with nods and smiles, but no words.

In silence, I soon discovered, one listens closely and moves more cautiously. The next morning, walking the 10 minutes to the chapel across the abbey’s slumbering winter acres, I was tuned in to every shape and color that caught my eye: a brilliant bluebird on a nearby fence post; the upper branches of a white sycamore spread like lace against the cloudless sky. In the afternoon, Jan and I meandered to the banks of the Shenandoah, where we talked and talked. Suddenly that simple act felt decadent.

Later that day, we each signed up for a 30-minute, one-on-one with Father James, one of the resident monks. A few issues were weighing on me (our trip coincided with the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death) and he smilingly shared his gentle wisdom, along with some book recommendations.

After dinner, we walked to a prayer service in the subfreezing air, taking note of Orion’s belt shining bright among the stars. We entered the chapel to find no lights other than one illuminating an icon of Mary and Jesus in the apse. Bells rang, their bold tones startling the stillness. Soon, the monks filed in and their voices swelled in the darkened space. Filled with gratitude, I breathed in that peace.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

Summer is always hectic, between the demands of work (my busy season looms) and the fun of family vacations, but I did manage to schedule two brief escapes from the madness in August and September.

During a half-day mini-retreat at Hidden Hills Farm & Vineyard near Frederick, Maryland, mindfulness teacher Linda Naini led us through three separate meditations. (The gathering was organized by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, which also offers weekly meditation classes in various D.C.-area locations.) For the first meditation, our group of about 20 sat in a circle of chairs as Naini’s calm voice guided us through a centering exercise, with reflections on lines from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi.

For the second, a walking meditation, we strolled across the horse farm’s rolling green hills to a lush section of grapevines, where Naini encouraged us to tread mindfully and absorb the intricacies of our surroundings. I fine-tuned my senses to the nearly black bunches of grapes…the buzz of an insect…the crunch of grass underfoot…and deepened my breath.

The third and final meditation involved walking to a small hilltop, where Naini had arranged thick blankets in a circle for a 30-minute, lying-down session. I was a bit skeptical at first, but soon relaxed as a cool breeze coincided with her quiet recitation of a poem about a grasshopper. Improbably—or perhaps serendipitously—I felt a grasshopper-like weight land on my torso and then my leg before it moved on. The last line of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” sank into my heart: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

And then we rolled up our blankets and went to taste some fine wines, locally made. More of this, I thought. That’s what I plan to do!

In Slow Motion

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

Three weeks later, I found myself at the Bon Secours Retreat & Conference Center in Marriottsville, Maryland (roughly 23 miles west of Baltimore), trying T’ai Chi Chih, which instructor Sharon Sirkis likened to “taking a shower for your internal organs.”

Not to be confused with the more demanding tai chi—which has a martial arts component—T’ai Chi Chih is described as “joy through movement” and concentrates on helping participants feel the “chi” or life energy. The discipline consists of 19 movements—with descriptions ranging from “Passing Clouds” to “Pulling Taffy”—that you can do in any order. Over the course of two hours, our group of nine discussed the overall philosophy of the practice and concentrated on mastering three movements.

“Grounding is the antidote to anxiety,” Sirkis, a former registered nurse and karate instructor, told us as we balanced in “Rocking Motion,” gently shifting weight from our toes to our heels while lifting our hands to shoulder height in front of us. At first our movements felt ridiculously slo-mo for this day and age, but within minutes my body and breath adapted and I began to enjoy the pace. The world and my swirling mind slowed as I concentrated on moving deliberately through the air around me.

By the time we performed “Bird Flaps Its Wings” in sync, I was awestruck. I found it impossible to feel anxiety or anger while slowly repeating each calm gesture. Sirkis’ suggestion to “just try a minute a day” sounded reasonable to me. Now if everyone else would just practice that too…

Plan Your Escape

Illustration by Mary Ann Smith

Bon Secours Retreat & Conference Center in Marriottsville, Maryland (rccbonsecours.com), hosts creative events like daylong poetry and contemplative photography retreats, as well as overnight retreats. The grounds include a labyrinth to walk, a pond and a Zen garden. The T’ai Chi Chih retreat was $20 for two hours.

Ease Yoga & Café in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood (easeyogacafe.com) offers monthly Full Moon Gong Baths ($20 for one hour). There is no water involved in this form of sound therapy—only the deeply soothing vibrations of the gong, which undulate through your limbs, releasing a series of tingles.

Recharj, a meditation studio (recharj.com), also offers weekly gong baths ($18 for 35 minutes) in its D.C. location and monthly “sound bath meditation” with Tibetan singing bowls ($35 for one hour) in its new Bethesda studio.

Hidden Hills Farm & Vineyard in Frederick, Maryland (hiddenhillsfarmandvineyard.com), boasts “wines, vines, and equines” and has produced award-winning bottles, including its Bay Roan Cabernet Sauvignon. Tours and tastings are by appointment. The half-day retreat held there by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington was $45.

Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia (virginiatrappists.org), hosts silent retreats and has 16 rooms for weekday or weekend visits. There is no fee, but a suggested donation ($200-$350 per weekend; $350-$600 per week) covers food and lodging. The bookstore stocks a range of Catholic titles, as well as locally sourced creamed honey and fruitcakes.

Insight Meditation Community of Washington (imcw.org) offers weekly meditation classes in locations around the D.C. area, including Arlington and Bethesda. The group also offers a plethora of daylong, weekend or weeklong retreats at various sites throughout the region. Most include guided meditations in lovely settings. Day retreats are $75-$95. A weeklong retreat is $1,750 for a single room or $1,250 for a double.

The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda (themindfulnesscenter.org) offers a monthly Candlelight Yoga Flow ($20), along with staycation and weekend mindfulness retreats.

Sanctuary Retreat Center in Beallsville, Maryland (sanctuaryretreatcenter.com), is a nice location for those who want to organize their own retreats. The 28-acre property in upper Montgomery County includes a farmhouse, a guesthouse and a kosher kitchen, as well as a chapel, meditation garden, labyrinth, woods and campfire areas.

Veritas Vineyards & Winery in Afton, Virginia (veritasretreat.com), roughly 23 miles west of Charlottesville, offers a one-day mini-retreat of yoga, brunch, hiking and wine tasting ($150). Those craving a longer stay can book four days and three nights in the winery’s elegant 1839 farmhouse, which includes all of the above plus cooking classes, family-style meals and a wine-paired dinner ($1,000 per person, double occupancy).

Yogaworks, formerly Tranquil Space, with locations in Arlington and D.C. (yogaworks.com), offers a seasonal, 90-minute session of yoga nidra—another type of deep relaxation that many find meditative and conducive to sleep ($30).

As a new empty-nester, Amy Brecount White appreciates having the time and space to explore local retreat options.

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