Breathworks Co-Founder Vidyamala Burch, on the beauty of retreats and how you can create one in the comfort of your own home. 

Part I: Why Go On Retreat? By Vidyamala Burch

For millennia, going on retreat has been seen as a powerful way to create space in life and re-gain perspective, as well as to deepen into both wisdom and compassion. Sometimes people think going on retreat is escapist and indulgent, but I would suggest it is quite the opposite. What greater act can we take than to reduce compulsive distractions, slow down, un-wind and gradually turn to face our own minds and hearts so we can learn how to be less reactive, kinder, and more open? By spending time with ourselves on retreat, we will be of much greater benefit to the world when we emerge. This is the deepest purpose.

I have been on retreats regularly for 25 years now. Many of these have been in groups but some have been ‘solitary’ retreats (i.e., retreating alone). Both types have served me well, even if it has sometimes been challenging to ‘sit with myself’ and come to terms with my unruly mind/heart. I always emerge enriched and grateful.

I have had some amazing adventures over the years: in the early nineties I spent a month in a very primitive shack on an isolated shore in North-West Scotland. I washed and collected water from a stream and gradually sank into the wonder of nature. Daylight lasted through most of the night as it was midsummer, and one night I slept on a rock that became an island as the tide rose. It was extraordinary to lie in my sleeping bag with the ocean all around me and a sea of stars above.

Over the month the surrounding creatures and I became very friendly with each other. A bird flew inside, otters visited and even a pine marten came to check out my shack. The hard edges I usually experience gradually softened into a profound sense of abundance and connectedness. I opened into waves of grief, sorrow, joy, and wonder as the mysteries and tragedies of my life gradually made their way into awareness.

I have spent several retreats in the high country of Wales at a friend’s place. He is a very deep meditator so when there, I can drop into an atmosphere that is supportive and still.

And this year I spent a month in a yurt (click here for more on that experience!). Again, it was very basic with no hot water or electricity, and I spent many hours resting into the rhythm of life all around. I kept getting the phrase in my head: 'there is a river beneath the river' which seemed true and wise even if I can’t understand it rationally. I am still living into this phrase.

Of course, the idea of being on retreat isn’t about where you go; you can create a retreat environment in the comfort of your own home.

Part II: Creating a Meditation Retreat at Home

I want to stress that you don’t need to go away to have a retreat experience.

Online group retreats for example, are a great way to connect with others and immerse yourself in meditation practice from the comfort of your own home. If this sounds appealing to you, you might like our Foundations of Mindfulness retreat starting on Friday 3rd December – you can choose whether to join just for the weekend or the full seven days.

In this article, I offer some tips as to how to ‘retreat at home’: to retreat from distraction and to move towards arriving home in the mind/heart without physically travelling anywhere.

1. Take Time to Adjust Your Setup

Environment matters. If you try and meditate in the middle of mess and chaos it will inevitably be more difficult for the mind to settle. To have a spare room you can turn into your special place for meditation is obviously ideal but not accessible for many of us. Here’s some ways you can adjust your environment to signal to your brain and heart that this is a ‘special place’ for meditating and retreating.

Add some beauty: Pick some flowers, find a beautiful image, or light a candle – whatever works for you to remind you that this is a non-functional space where you will be able to relax and settle more deeply. As you go back to this spot again and again over your retreat time, it will become increasingly resonant for you and associated with your retreat experience.

Meditation space: set up a mat on the floor near your computer for Body Scan practice. Again, attend to comfort. Choose a mat that will support your body and a pillow or cushion that is the right height for your head. Have a blanket handy to make sure you stay warm during the practices.

Water and snacks: have a water bottle and snacks alongside to make your experience as easeful as possible.

When taking part in an online retreat

Table height: make sure the height of your computer or tablet will support your posture so you don’t create undue strain over the course of the retreat.

Chair: Choose a chair that will enable you to be upright and alert and as comfortable as possible.

Audio: decide if you want to use headphones or speakers to be able to listen to the retreat guidance and participate in discussion groups with the least strain. Set this up before the retreat starts.

Digital devices (if applicable): Choose the most user-friendly digital equipment you have to hand and spend time setting it up before the retreat starts. Sometimes people ‘make do’ with joining on a phone when it might be possible to spend a bit of time at the start moving your computer into your retreat space to enhance your online experience.

2. Digital Detox

Speaking of digital devices, many of us are addicted to the endless distraction of the digital world. Be strong and make a decision to switch off your phone! Let your friends and family know you’ll be unavailable for your time on retreat. If this isn’t possible because you need to be available to others for genuine reasons (such as having caring responsibilities), then at the very least switch off your notifications.

If you live with someone, ask them to be the custodian of your phone so you can’t be tempted. Or you might like to put your phone in a box in another room and shut the lid. Putting your phone away like this will remind you of your intention every time you find yourself drifting towards your phone in moments of temptation.

If you are doing an online retreat you’ll obviously need to be connected digitally to the retreat. But if you are using a computer or tablet, make a decision to banish your phone! And try and resist the temptation to open other browser tabs or check your emails/news/social media etc. Make it a practice to only open the zoom window and nothing else. You could download a free app like Serene, or Mindful Browsing, both of which are designed to block out news and social media from your online experience.

3. Prepare Snacks

If you prepare meals beforehand, it means you can relax in the periods between meditation sessions without having to get too involved in housework. Make nutritious and enjoyable meals and snacks, and make eating them another mindfulness activity. Try savouring the taste and smell and see if you can slow down the whole process of eating your meals and snacks. For an example, you could check out some of our following meditations:

4. Connect with Nature

For many of us a retreat at home will probably be primarily indoors (although there’s no reason why you couldn’t create a camping retreat). Make sure you take time to widen your perspective and connect with nature. If you can get outdoors at least once a day, then make sure you prioritise this. It might be going for a walk, or it might be simply going out into your backyard. Remember to look up! Raise your gaze. If you live in a high rise flat or have a health condition where you can’t get outside, then spend time looking out the window at the sky above. Even if it’s cloudy there will still be a sense of perspective and use your imagination to connect with the wide, blue sky behind the clouds.

5. Expect Ups and Downs

When we spend time with our body, heart, and mind it is inevitable that some moments will feel easier than others. Maybe fatigue will come to the fore as we let go into a quieter, less hectic pace of life and a backlog of tiredness calls for attention. If this happens then I’d encourage you to allow time for plenty of rest. Sometimes when I start a retreat, I find myself having a morning and afternoon nap as well as sleeping more at night! I have come to see this as a good sign, that I’m allowing my body, heart, and mind to re-charge.

Maybe you’ll have ups and downs emotionally. Again, this is entirely normal. A good image for this is to imagine that your life is like a long goods’ train careering along a railway line. If you keep up a good speed, the carriages are all spaced out following along in a neat line. But if the train suddenly stops all the carriages pile into one another. I think stopping the hectic pace of life when we start a retreat can sometimes feel a bit like that: all the things we’ve been keeping at bay through hectic activity can pile into our awareness. If this happens for you, then see if you can meet it with kindness and care in the knowledge that you are not alone. It’s a very normal part of the retreat experience. Maybe do more Body Scans to ground your awareness, or if you feel you need more perspective, focus on a practice where you feel into the flow of experience moment my moment. Maybe spend more time outdoors or looking at the sky to get a sense of broad and open awareness that is able to ‘hold’ whatever arises.

6. Exercise and Movement

Meditation is a sedentary activity (unless you are focusing on mindful walking). Most practices involve either sitting or lying and dropping into physical stillness so the mind can also settle. This is an important aspect of meditation and valuable to cultivate. But human bodies are designed for movement and energy can become stuck or stagnant if we spend too much time being sedentary. The mind can become dull.

Introduce periods of movement and exercise into your retreat programme. This could be something like Qi Gong, Yoga or the Breathworks’ Mindful Movements. Or you might like to go for a brisk walk to raise your heart rate and energise. The main thing is to see movement as part of your retreat experience and to prioritise it within your physical capacity and circumstances.

7. Buddy Up!

It can be supportive to have someone to check in with when you are on retreat at home. This could be a friend who is retreating at the same time, or you could ask Breathworks to hook you up with a mentor.

Solitary retreat: this could be someone you talk to at the start and end, or if you would like support during your retreat, you could arrange short calls with a mentor at specific times to discuss your practice. It is good to keep this time-limited (e.g., approx. 15 mins a day) so it doesn’t take away too much from your intention to be in solitude as much as possible. Or you and a friend might decide to have a solitary retreat at home concurrently and share your experiences afterwards.

Group online retreat: you might have a friend who is doing the retreat alongside you. You could check in with one another before the retreat starts and then again at the end – sharing your experience and offering support as you come up with intentions about how to take the retreat-learning forward into your life. You might also connect with someone new over the course of the retreat and decide to stay in touch afterwards to deepen your connection and offer ongoing support.

This Community of Practice: This is a wonderful way to forge connections with a community of like-minded people. You could even put a call out for a retreat buddy to the community, as there will be many other people who are also wanting to explore ‘retreating at home’.


I wish you all the very best however you wish to explore ‘retreating at home’. It can be an incredibly rich experience and will help build courage, confidence and resilience no matter what circumstances you are navigating in your life.

Vidyamala Burch

If this sounds appealing to you, you might like our Exploring the Nervous System Retreat starting on Friday 3rdDecember. Find out more and book your place here.