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Austerity Is the New Luxury

Affluent peace-seekers are clamoring for ascetic retreats in pursuit of the one thing money can’t buy: personal transformation

The nonprofit Omega Institute, two hours north of Manhattan in Rhinebeck, New York, bills itself as a “university of life,” offering instruction in everything from yoga and meditation to tantric sex and flying trapeze. Twenty-three thousand people come to the bucolic 200-acre campus each year and enter an irony-free zone; people talk a lot about their “life process,” and the staff welcome you without seeming like officious automatons. There are hammocks aplenty, a hilltop sanctuary and forest air so fresh it qualifies as aromatherapy.

The blowing of a conch shell announces the start of meals in the communal dining hall, which serves vegan-friendly and gluten-free options, several types of milk and locally sourced miso. Visitors include schoolteachers and aging flower children, millionaires and celebrities like Mia Farrow. None of them seem to mind busing their own tables; many sleep in tents or rustic dormitory-style rooms with communal bathrooms. What they’re seeking is something more elusive than pleasure or even peace, and that is personal transformation.

“It’s not about who you know or what you’re wearing. It’s about escaping that regimented, masky, label-driven consumerist culture,” says Patty Goodwin, a retired Manhattan executive and Omega board member who started coming to the campus in the early 1980s, when just a few hundred people showed up each season.

In those days, Goodwin was a covert yogi. By all appearances, she was the archetypal corporate warrior, wearing the uniform of the day—dark business suit with shoulder pads, knee-length skirt and tie—and working “insane hours” as the co-founder of a strategic communications firm. No one knew her crunchy little secret. “Would I ever tell the CFO of a Fortune 500 company that I spent my vacation meditating in the woods? Absolutely not!” she says. “In the ’80s it was considered fairly bizarre to go off for a yoga retreat. Now the culture has completely shifted.”

Indeed, the personal-growth industry is booming. Yoga alone generates more than $10 billion per year in the U.S., almost double the total from 2008. But for a certain class of affluent soul-seeker, yogic retreats and gym classes aren’t extreme enough. For this group, austerity is the new luxury—and the harsher the better. “It follows very much Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founder of Indagare, a boutique travel agency that caters to very wealthy clients. “The more money and security you have, the more you think about enlightenment, enrichment, deeper satisfaction.”

True asceticism involves some trade-offs. You would never confuse the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with a tonier alternative. At its sprawling red-brick building that looks a bit like a senior center, a certificate course on “Positive Psychology” has attracted largely female, professional participants who pay $5,000 (plus room and board) over 11 months to learn what it means to be happy.

Annice Smith, a former yoga teacher who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, received her teacher training at Kripalu in the late 1990s, before the center started serving coffee and meat in the cafeteria, “when it was a lot of earthy people in unitards,” she says. These days Smith returns regularly to Kripalu for retreats. “I guess it’s not ‘luxurious,’ but for me, Kripalu is definitely a luxury,” says Smith, who has also visited the Esalen Institute, a yoga retreat in Big Sur, California, known for experiential workshops and clothing-optional hot tubs. “It’s a luxury to eat in silence. It’s a luxury not to have to clean up after my kids for a few days.”

Jacquelyn Mayfield, a leadership consultant in Manhattan, first went to Omega four years ago after visiting a yoga retreat in India. Despite the voguishness of mind-body retreats, she says her commitment is genuine. “When I’m at Omega I’m surrounded by women who are choosing to be there for what it does for their being, not because they’re following [yoga instructor] Rodney Yee and his wife, not because Donna Karan or Jennifer Aniston said it,” she says.

Many of the richest clients view these ascetic retreats as a way to escape not just the anxiety of modern life but also their money. Emily Bouchard, a partner at the Wealth Legacy Group, coaches inheritors and people whose net worth often exceeds $25 million on how best “to cope with the emotional impact of wealth.”

“I know what you’re thinking—I’d love to have that problem,” she says. “But for a lot of these ultra-high-net-worth people and new inheritors there can be guilt and shame and a lot of ambivalence about money.” Bouchard went with one of her clients, an heiress who was suffering from a chronic illness, to Rancho La Puerta, a mind-body retreat in Tecate, Mexico. “It isn’t posh,” Bouchard says. “It’s just a place where you can let down your hair and be you. Our culture so strongly identifies somebody by their net worth. To feel a bit like everybody else, to do the same exercises or to wash dishes together in the communal kitchen can really help some people gain a better perspective.”

“It’s funny, ‘exclusive’ used to be an honorific,” says Goodwin, the Omega board member who once concealed her New Age bona fides. “People used to say proudly, ‘I’m going to an exclusive spa.’ But now it’s about going to a place that’s inclusive.”

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