If winter in San Francisco is a time to bundle up, hibernate, and skip the gym for a month or two, summer is a time to peel off the layers and see what's been lurking underneath. For some people, this means pricing hair removal options or coming to terms with the fact that Atkins was only a short-term solution. For others, it means embarking on a journey of the self that can lead to any number of places. Lucky for us, those places don't have to entail major spending or hellish baggage-claim fiascoes. There's no dearth of destinations for personal investigation near the Bay Area.
We all know city life is a merry-go-round that's hard to get off. If you are starving for quiet and contemplative surrounds, you might seek a meditation center. One of the closest to the city is Green Gulch Farm Center, just over the bridge in Marin. A Buddhist practice center in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, Green Gulch is a favorite among local nature fiends and can be visited for one-day retreats or longer. Apart from the temple, traditional Japanese teahouse, and ridge trail that overlooks the Pacific, Green Gulch is known for its organic farm and garden, which is bursting with floral activity and scrumptious edibles. Have a thumb that's less than green? Take a garden class this summer like “Lavender Crafts” or “Bees — and the Art of Living Together.”
Not too far from Green Gulch is Spirit Rock Meditation Center, dedicated to the teachings of Buddha and vipassana meditation. The Spirit Rock vibe is chill, and the center is very much about integration of the East and West, so it's a fine spot for beginning sitters. Head pounding from nonstop conversations and over-stimulation? Spirit Rock is especially known for its silent retreats. Yes, that means what it sounds like: no talking for days on end. If the thought of complete chatter extinction scares you, you can start with a one-day retreat and slowly build up your capacity for silence.
A little farther away is Tassajara, a remote Zen monastery in the Ventana wilderness about 27 miles from Big Sur. It takes approximately five hours to reach Tassajara from the city by car (there's no other way to get there), so it's more appropriate for visitors seeking longer, deeper seclusion. The scenic monastery is closed to guests during the winter, but in the summer it opens to everyone and hosts a number of workshops that range in topic from “Landscape Painting” to “Liberation Through Handwriting.” Tassajara quiets the body as much as the soul with daily yoga classes and natural hot springs.
If you like the idea of yoga and hot springs, but can do without monastic life, there's nowhere quite like Esalen. Named after the Esselen Indians who once lived and played in this indescribable 27-acre stretch of land between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Esalen Institute is visited nationwide by folks hungering for natural beauty, top-notch yoga instruction, and experimental workshops that revolve around spirituality, art, health, and dozens of other subjects. (Some examples of classes are “Fingerpainting on the Moon,” “Samba for the Soul,” and “Gestalt Awareness Practicum.”) Esalen isn't cheap — a weekend alone can cost you $550 — but there are opportunities for work-study, and if you don't mind sleep-bagging it on the floor in communal areas, you can stay for a more reasonable price.
For serious yogis who either can't get away this summer or can't afford to zip off to Costa Rica for a month of intensive down-dogging in the rain forest, there's a great opportunity to deepen your yoga practice here in the city. The true premise of a yoga retreat is concentrated daily practice with a trusted instructor, and Jamie Burke Lindsay teaches an incredible daily practice class five mornings a week at Yoga Flow in the Castro. The hour-and-a-half sunrise classes start weekdays at 6:30 a.m. and are an intricate blend of advanced asana (vinyasa- and Iyengar-based), meditation, and pranayama. Lindsay explores a different chakra each week, and the culmination of the five days occurs in a two-hour Saturday workshop. Lindsay also teaches a beginner class (for donations only) inside the stained-glass nave of the mesmerizing Grace Cathedral every Tuesday evening. (You can get his full schedule at www.jamielindsay.com.)
Another hidden in-town secret is the Sacred Space Healing Center, a little patch of serenity tucked away in the otherwise not-so-serene Lower Haight. Sacred Space offers on-site retreats (no rental car necessary — MUNI passes right by) that specialize in cleansing more than just your soul. There's a supervised fasting retreat, a sauna detoxification retreat, and a variety of internal cleansing programs as wide as the soy ice cream selection at Rainbow Grocery. Sacred Space also offers various movement classes — tai chi, kung fu, and Middle Eastern and African dance — as well as spiritual counseling based on a divination system called the Kemetic Tree of Life. Oh, and when you're feeling thoroughly cleansed, you can walk up the street to gorge on hush puppies at Kate's Kitchen.
Of course, there's also the likely possibility that what you really need is a proper vacation. Healing is good, but rising at 6:30 a.m. for vigorous yoga, fasting, meditation, or watercolors by the ocean is not everyone's cup of green tea. A historic refuge for the overworked (yet affordable enough for the underpaid), Harbin Hot Springs in Lake County is a gem. Harbin does offer activities, but the emphasis is primarily on one thing: the waters. These totally natural hot springs and cold pools flow directly from the core of the planet, and are so pure they make bottled water seem toxic. Stretch out on the redwood decks to get a full-body tan (it's clothing-optional here), and soak up Mother Earth's own amniotic fluid beneath the stars. You're certain to forget all about the small fortune you owe in unpaid parking tickets and student loans, and if it all comes crashing back the minute you hit bumper-to-bumper traffic coming home to the city, try to remember that the “re” in “retreat” probably means it's supposed to be done more than once.