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Jan 18
Opinion Pieces
Staying Healthy on Retreat

A natural approach to wellness while on retreat
by Silas Rosenblatt, R Ac

Anyone who has spent any time at a group retreat or meditation program is likely to be familiar with one of the many obstacles that arise in practice – getting sick. Back pain, boredom and drowsiness are mild irritations compared to trying to meditate when you are feeling unwell. However, sniffles and sneezing in the shrine room don’t need to be the usual harbingers of doom if you arrive at retreat prepared.

Offered here are a few simple suggestions that can help to keep you healthy while on retreat, or at least lessen the suffering if you do get sick. Much of this discussion is based on the folk wisdom concerning health inherent in Shambhala teachings as well as in Chinese medicine. The immune system is complex and dynamic with both physical and energetic aspects. According to eastern thought the strength of our defense system relates closely to our personal sense of vitality or lungta. Our vital energy literally forms a barrier around the body, preventing exogenous influences from entering.

The sages of the past had no knowledge of viruses and bacteria, but believed sickness was a result of environmental influences like wind and cold entering the body. In Tibetan Buddhist terms sickness is considered a type of dön, or obstructing spirit that prays on weakness. The energetic barrier around the body must therefore be fortified through various means to protect oneself from attack by the dons or infectious diseases.

Entering well
It is said that the best medicine is no medicine, which points to the role of prevention and how one prepares to enter retreat. Sitting meditation is a rigorous practice and can take tremendous energy and effort, particularly in the beginning. For this reason, it is much better to begin retreat practice on a full tank of gas.

Extra self care two weeks before a retreat can do a lot for keeping healthy. One can prepare mentally and physically for intensive practice by getting adequate rest, reducing stress or complications at home, exercising, eating well and taking supplements to boast immunity. Doing a little extra practice (or any!) at home prior to going away can also get your body acclimatized for the shock of sitting still for 8-10 hours a day.

Supplements for immune support
Everyone has their favorite remedy that seems to work for them, but makes no sense to others. The important thing to remember is to bring what works for you to the retreat and use it, preferably before you get sick. Some remedies are good to take as a prophylactic before you get ill.

Vitamin C can be taken in moderate doses (1000mg – 2000 mg) daily for prevention or up to 1000mg per hour at the initial onset of a cold. Reduce this amount if you get loose bowels.

Vitamin D3 is an important co-factor for the immune system produced by exposure to sunlight. In the fall and winter when sun is scarce it is helpful to take 1000iu – 3000iu of vitamin D3 daily to prevent the flu.

Herbs that increase vitality and boast the immune system tend to invigorate yang or warming energy in the body. These herbs include Maca, Panax Ginseng, Reishi mushroom, Cordyceps and Astragalus, which can be taken prior to and during the retreat as prevention. Echinacea, Goldenseal, Propolis, Elderberry extract, Grapefruit Seed Extract (nutribiotic) and oil of oregano are some good products to choose from to take after one has contracted a cold or flu.

Good hygiene
The infectious period for colds and the flu begins two to three days before the onset of symptoms. After this time, viruses and bacteria are transmitted through sneezing, coughing and other discharges. Regular hand washing with warm soapy water is universally considered the best protection. Hand sanitizers are the second best option though may be ineffective against viruses. Try to avoid touching your face when in public venues. If you do get sick be sure to cough or sneeze into your elbow crease rather than your hands to prevent transmission.

Dress for success
Many retreat centers are in rustic settings and are close to the elements. Often people arrive unprepared for such environments and fall ill as a result. Be sure to pack adequate bedding and warm cloths, including a scarf and rain gear with a hood. According to Chinese Medicine the neck region from the nape to the occiput is a vulnerable entry point for exogenous influences. Keeping this area of the body covered from wind is a good first line of defense. In cold climates to preserve yang defensive energy, many Asian cultures use what in known as a hara belt. The hara refers to the lower abdomen region just bellow the navel, which is traditionally thought to be where our life force energy is stored. Yogis of the Himalayan plateau would use woven wool meditation belts. For our purposes a thin silk or cotton scarf wrapped around the midriff can help to increase yang energy in the winter. This is especially important for the elderly and slender people to help them retain heat.

Eat for success
Food can be either a source of nourishment or neurosis when on retreat. With intensive meditation practice, craving for certain foods often becomes heightened. In particular, the consumption of large amounts of simple carbs, sugar and caffeine provides some temporary entertainment, but at the cost of health. Sugar in its many forms weakens the immune system and fuels the growth of pathogenic organisms and is best to avoid. This includes limiting the intake of fruit juices and so-called natural sugars.

Try to stick to lean protein, fresh veggies and small servings of grains while on retreat, and avoid over-eating. Pungent herbs like garlic, peppers and ginger stimulate the immune system. However, some traditions consider these as banned foods because they are said to stimulate desire and aggression.

Rouse your energy

Gentle exercise during your retreat can stimulate the immune system. Often, with long hours of sitting meditation the vital energy of the body can become stagnant, causing fatigue, pain and moodiness. Qi gong, yoga, lujong, pranayama, and Tai chi are some contemplative exercises that cultivate and circulate life force. Generally, it is best to avoid strenuous exercise during retreat as this can deplete your energy and lower immunity.

In the Shambhala tradition, there are many ways for rousing energy or lungta to meet and overcome obstacles on the path. Windhorse practices and attention to personal decorum offer helpful methods to rise above sickness. Performing a lhasang or smoke offering is another particularly powerful way to purify döns and connect with greater vision.

Through long hours on the cushion we begin to tune into the electric quality of lungta in the body. With this awareness it is possible to cultivate an inner strength not only for health, but ultimately for progress along the path.

Silas Rosenblatt, R Ac is a register acupuncturist and wellness coach in Victoria, BC with a practice focused on chronic pain and addictions. He was recently the acting health and wellness coordinator for Pacific Northwest dathun in Shawnigan Lake, BC in December 2011.

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2 responses to “ Staying Healthy on Retreat ”
  1. Laura Burnham
    Jan 24, 2012

    Hello, Silas! Thank you for this article, and it’s good to hear of you. I recall you warmly from our Sutrayana Seminary at SMC…remember all those afternoons cleaning the shrine room tent together?
    Sending warm wishes,

    Laura Burnham

  2. Well said!

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