A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

Chopra Center - A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

In mid July I took a kind of trip I’ve never done before: a week of meditation, yoga and lectures at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. My intention was to tune up my admittedly haphazard meditation practice. But the week at the Chopra Center ended up offering other benefits I hadn’t anticipated. I thought I’d share my take on the week chez Chopra in case you’ve ever wondered about going on a retreat.

The motivation

Whenever I meditate consistently, I feel more grounded and positive. I’ve even contemplated learning to teach meditation because I think it’s a practice that can bring some peace to everyone who does it regularly.

But as much as I believe in meditation, I’ve often let life (okay, excuses) interfere with actually doing it. So, although I’d heard about the Chopra Center’s Seduction of Spirit course for years, in May I finally got the intuition that I should take it.

A retreat makes for a wonderful trip, but it’s not a vacation

Founded in 1996 by Deepak Chopra and the late neurologist and mind-body-medicine pioneer David Simon, the Chopra Center is located at the Omni La Costa, an elegant golf and fitness resort about 35 miles north of San Diego.

In addition to its learning programs, the Chopra Center features a medical center focused on the ancient Indian mind-body health system, Ayurveda, and a spa (also offering Ayurveda treatments).

La Costa pool - A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

One of the eight pools at the Omni La Costa, the luxe resort where the Chopra Center is located.

I arrived a day before the course started and lounged by one of the resort’s eight pools, surrounded by golfers, tennis players, kids careening down waterslides and people on chaises enjoying adult beverages.

But that would be the only day that mirrored a conventional resort vacay. The next one brought a four hour-plus intro to Primordial Sound Meditation, a practice developed by Deepak Chopra, and culminated with each participant receiving a mantra based on her time and place of birth.

After that, the next five and a half days followed a similar routine. Mornings began with an optional 6 a.m. meditation and then yoga at 6:40, followed by a full schedule of meditation and lectures running from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The wake-up call

Chopra Center Yoga - A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

Early-morning yoga on the Terrace Lawn.

As someone who finds it much easier to catch Jimmy Fallon than the opening of the Today Show, waking at 5:45 a.m. was an adjustment. (Yes, I skipped the 6 a.m. meditation sessions.) But, surprisingly, I found the early-morning yoga sessions energizing. (Although the fact that some of the classes took place on a scenic lawn at a gorgeous resort probably helped.)

After yoga, I would usually do a mad dash to grab a coffee at the resort’s marketplace. Alas, with 320 Chopra attendees plus other resort guests looking for breakfast at the same time, the result was often a 20-minute wait for morning java. Not the most Zen-moments of the trip.

The experience

After early yoga, each day would begin with a group meditation in the large ballroom that would serve as our home base for the week.

Meditating with hundreds of other people was definitely a different vibe from practicing at home or in a yoga class. On the challenging side, there were more distractions (coughing, fidgeting, occasionally cell phones ringing and beeping – yes, even at the Chopra Center).

But there were also times when being surrounded by so many other people sitting in silence felt very powerful.

The program presenters, whether teaching a spiritual law of the day, answering questions or leading meditations were, to a person, engaging and polished. And I can say the same about the rest of the Chopra Center’s staff.

Deepak Chopra - A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

The man himself: Deepak Chopra speaking at Seduction of Spirit in July.

And then there was Deepak Chopra, who’s on a level of his own (probably hovering somewhere above the Earth’s atmosphere). He’s simultaneously down-to-earth (T-shirts and jeans made up his wardrobe for the week) and esoteric, with a wealth of knowledge spanning medicine, quantum physics, Ayurveda, religion, astronomy, and who knows what else.

He can also be abrupt. During his first presentation, he asked the crowd why we were there. One woman answered: “I just turned 40 and I’m ready for a reset.”

Chopra responded along the lines that he was looking for deeper answers, and he then answered for her: “You’re here to know who you are.” I initially felt that he was being a little hard on the woman, but, in retrospect, I get his desire to have people focus on what’s important.

Writer and über life-coach Martha Beck also made a vivid impression. She’s a very wise woman but also a little goofy (think of a spiritual master mixed with Carol Burnett), which brought some comic relief amidst the heady discussions.

Food for thought

Fueling our meditations and yoga were the lunches and dinners included in the course fee. The meals were vegetarian and reflected the teachings of Ayurveda, such as dinner being on the light side to help with digestion before going to sleep.

I’m not a vegetarian, but found the buffet-style meals very satisfying, with the lunches often themed around a specific cuisine, including Indian, Greek, Mexican and Thai.

While I eat healthy most of the time and find it pretty easy to skip meat, I had a minor headache during the first couple of days of the course. I initially thought it was due to jet lag and also taking in new concepts. But after hearing several other people also talking about headaches, I realized we were probably all detoxing. This made me wonder about the array of toxic elements in our diets beyond the usual suspects of caffeine, alcohol and food additives.

Gains from the week at the Chopra Center

Meditation on lawn - A wake-up week at the Chopra Center

On the last full day of the course we meditated under the sunny Southern California skies.

Daily yoga and meditating at least twice a day showed me how powerful meditation can be when practiced consistently. But what really astounded me was how great I felt at the end of the week.

Plus, I realized by the last day of the course that throughout the week I had felt almost no worry. Alas, a rare thing for me!

I also met some wonderful people and have never been in a friendlier group.

Is a retreat for you?

Vacation time is precious, so I understand devoting part of it to sitting on a meditation mat rather than lounging by a pool or touring Europe is a big decision.  But if you’re looking to change up your lifestyle in some way or wanting to clear your mind, the “pause” button a retreat offers can be very helpful.

As for the Chopra Center, it’s definitely a luxe environment compared to the often rustic accommodations associated with retreats. While I loved that aspect, it may not work for someone looking for a simpler environment in which to disconnect.

The course was also pricey: about $2000 US for five and a half days. But when I consider the quality of the speakers, yoga instructors and daily exposure to Deepak, I think the week at the Chopra Center was a wise investment.

At the beginning of the course several people who had attended previous Chopra programs told me that it would change my life. Being a bit of a skeptic, I questioned if it would. But as I write this, a month post course, and consider that I’m meditating daily (the longest uninterrupted stretch I’ve ever gone), I think they may have been right.


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