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Why Gayle Olson gave up silent meditation for healthy hedonism

(Photo: Exotic Yoga Retreats)


Exotic Yoga Retreats, a new retreat company based in San Francisco, focuses on getaways that teach women the healthy power of pleasure. (Not that kind.) And yet as a dedicated Vipassana practitioner, founder Gayle Olson used to meditate in silence for days, abstaining from that kind of thing almost completely.

“Vipassana is life changing in that it develops one part of our awareness,” Olson says. But after 16 years, she decided that for her, it was no longer the right path towards balance and happiness. “To have a path that develops different aspects of oneself, it’s also important to value and practice sensual experiences. My retreats bring out the more feminine practices of awareness, savoring sensual experiences, like eating with the awareness of pleasure,” she explains.

That may mean open-air yoga classes while cruising through Turkey (with massages during class!) or classes set amid olive groves in Southern Italy followed by organic wine tastings. It doesn’t sound that bad, really.

We caught up with Olson to find out more about her journey from silent meditator to healthy hedonist:

Gayle Olson

Why do you think pleasure is so important when it comes to finding health and happiness, especially for women? The pleasure element is the first thing that goes out the window for busy women. They’re taking care of their bodies, self, kids, their busy jobs. Experiences of pleasure actually give us a sense of safety that relaxes the nervous system and contributes to a concrete feeling of well-being. Physical, sensual pleasures—these experiences are really important to feeling powerful in our lives. Women feel more empowered and stronger and happier when they integrate pleasure.

So what kinds of experiences do you create on your retreats to help women feel that? I’m looking to create a balance of internal reflection with external connection. There’s yoga, adventures, cuisine, and then the value of serenity walks and downtime. I try to facilitate and create structures that deepen the possibility for people to feel connected. I choose poems and have people read them before they go on a walk; it’s about what we eat, how we eat, bringing consciousness to how we’re eating. And how all of this stimulates a feeling of connection and gratitude.

What about spirituality? Vipassana is obviously a deeply spiritual practice. Does Exotic Yoga Retreats scrap that aspect or just approach it differently? The philosophy that I live by is that everywhere around us, everything we do, the connections we have—all of these are potentially deeply spiritual vehicles. It isn’t about being on a retreat to be spiritual. I don’t talk about spirituality much, but I believe that all of us are wanting to experience life more deeply, wanting to feel more connected, and have a deeper experience of connection. So woven in to these pleasurable experiences are practices that bring ourselves deeper into our connection with life and with each other. —Lisa Elaine Held

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