Gayle Olson is a quintessential and highly successful travelling yogi. We’ve seen that hashtag - #travellingyogi - well, Gayle is the guru! There is a developing impulse amongst yoga instructors to stay on the move, merging their skills with a demand for yoga holidays at different lodges and resorts around the world. Gayle is a pioneer and inspiration to the new stock of young yogis who are trying to make that lifestyle work. She is at the helm of Exotic Yoga Retreats (EYR), and is a vibrant star in the international yoga scene with an unmatched verve for life and new vistas.
YOGICOMM founder, Nina Butler (NB), recently joined the EYR team of yoga teachers who co-host Gayle’s retreats. Here is a snippet from our conversation with Gayle (GO).
NB: How long into your yoga teaching career did you start planning your yoga retreat business? Tell us about that time of transition from yoga teaching to ‘retreat specialist’ and how you set up EYR?
GO: I started practicing yoga at 17, teaching at 25. Back in the day (1980’s), we did not have teacher training programs… and very few yoga retreats. You learned old style… by studying with great teachers. I would travel to India every year to study Iyengar Yoga and Vipassana Meditation. My principle teachers were Mr. Iyengar, Richard Freeman, Barbara Benagh and John Friend (before John started Anusara Yoga!)
I ran my studio for 18 years and cherished every minute of it! It is very special to have a group of steady students over a long period of time — to know their bodies, their nervous systems and their emotional responses in postures. It’s such a gift to be this intimately connected through yoga over a long period. Only after leaving the studio setting and moving exclusively into yoga holidays did I appreciate how precious and rare this long term yoga relationship is. I must admit, I miss the daily-ness of working with students and watching their bodies and minds grow over time. On the other hand, retreats offer an excellerated growth that is also poignant in it’s own way for sure!
My path to leading yoga retreats happened surreptitiously. At 40, after selling my yoga studio, I moved to Italy and later France to begin my ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ decade. I taught yoga classes and privates in Siena (in Italian!), started working in luxury real estate, and eventually opened a small studio in South of France. Charmed by the big old stone villas in Italy – and the indulgent but surprisingly healthy lifestyle I was discovering in the Mediterranean, ideas and perspectives about “health” and “spirituality” started changing inside me.
I had a group of Italian friends who were curious about yoga and meditation, so I decided to curate my perfect version of a “Mediterranean-Style Retreat”, and advertised it on the internet. A handful of Europeans, plus these posh Italians, came for my first retreat. It was 2008. I hired a well reputed vegetarian chef, we did yoga outside on the old stones and we drank wine at night. I think everyone enjoyed themselves – and got a little taste of yoga! The next trip was in Corsica with my french students and a group of internationals who found the retreat on the web. We practiced yoga twice a day, swam, hiked, and then sat down about 9 or 9:30 in the evening for a long Mediterranean meal to candle light and music by the Italian composer, Ludovico Eunaudi. It was the perfect Mediterranean retreat!
All this while I had not been in touch with the yoga scene in the US and had no idea that everyone and their mother were beginning yoga retreats — I just wanted to keep bringing people together to enjoy these beautiful places, and offer up this blend of Mediterranean style yoga retreats!
NB: So you were itching to be an entrepreneur and had a love for Tuscany in particular, but what is your core motivation for offering yoga travel services? What keeps you in the game with so much passion?
GO: My motivation has changed over the years. At first I was just excited to share this blend of Mediterranean life-style and yogi lifestyle that I was living — and to keep traveling! In America I had lived quite an ascetic life centred around yoga and meditation. But it didn’t take long living in Tuscany to see how a little healthy hedonism “La Bella Vita” could balance the rigidity and righteousness from where I had come. Naturally I wanted to share the beauty and magic I was experiencing!
While my business focus is on bringing people together in “exotic locations” to practice yoga and enjoy culture… the thing that really motivates me is what probably motivates most people: the desire to spread love and peace, and to help people open their hearts and minds. My company tagline is: Open Up Your World… this is my goal on every Exotic Yoga Retreat. For me, Exotic Yoga Retreats are about expanding consciousness, broadening perspectives and opening hearts. I choose beautiful locations for my retreats because I believe ‘beauty’ helps us relax, feel the poetry in life… to connect to the magic! If you are in touch with yourself deeply you know this poetry and magic is within you and all around you in all moments. But we forget, we get busy, and stressed. When you come on an Exotic Yoga Retreat you are immediately invited into a world of beauty, belonging and inspiration. I think this is important… and if anything, it’s fun!
NB: People seem to resonate with this impulse - to have a 'holiday' that feeds the soul and has the right balance of routine, health and play. Yoga travel is exploding! Where and how do you see EYR developing?
GO: I am in a moment of expansion – inside and out! I love Exotic Yoga Retreats and will keep growing exotic travel based yoga trips around the world. I am adding a few new categories of retreats: relationship and divorce (metamorphosis) retreats, corporate retreats for team building, and retreats for people 50+ who are interested in making a difference in the world and living this next big chapter of life to it’s fullest. It’s an exciting time!
NB: It can’t be all smiles and smooth sailing all the time? What are the challenges involved in running EYR?
GO: My greatest challenge at the moment is marketing my retreats in a google market that is dominated by new “yoga portals” that take up the market share of online searches. My company used to rank in the top one or two spots on google searches for yoga retreats. This has completely changed in the last two years as a few online companies who list thousands of retreats and pay for google ranking take the market share in google searches. But such is business and growth… I now need to find new ways to reach out and grow.
Part of my philosophy for Exotic Yoga Retreats is having an intimate group of people from around the world. I personally value multiculturalism and feel that part of opening our world is meeting people from different back grounds, views and values. Keeping the diversity of cultures represented in my retreats is important to me. So I just need to get smarter in marketing, and find additional ways to reach people worldwide
NB: Yoga teaching is often conceptualised as an act of giving and sharing. It is often expected that this is somehow removed from being a business-minded person. The stereotype of an 'ideal yogi’ is not someone who deliberates over budget forecasts and prudent marketing campaigns. Do you experience a gulf - emotionally, mentally - in teaching yoga and being the boss lady of a yoga business? Or are you able to mesh the two together amicably? If so, how?
GO: I find it very difficult to wear both hats — business leader and yoga teacher. I enjoy the business bit and feel blessed to be an entrepreneur. And there is nothing as rewarding as teaching yoga! But it’s very difficult to do both at the same time because the parts of our brains and the way we use our mind in each activity are totally different. The left brain runs the business - the right brain brings us into a “being” state where we can feel our body, our breath and a sense of timelessness. In order to do both I believe you have to have a lot of discipline in separating these “jobs”. I have not found a great balance and thus, have moved recently away from teaching and have focused more on the business side. Fortunately I have developed a wonderful team of yoga teachers to lead Exotic Yoga Retreats … Nina being the newest member of our team!
NB: It's an opportunity I am grateful for and relish! I better do my homework given the incredibly high standards set at EYR - what are the essential ingredients to hosting/running a fulfilling and successful yoga retreat holiday?
GO: Start a retreat business if you love business. Don’t start a retreat business if you just want to travel and teach — in this case I recommend offering one or two retreats each year in a new destination that would be exciting for you and your students. Running retreats is a hospitality business, and making money is not easy. You need an impeccable attention to detail, event planning and hospitality, strong yoga teacher and group leader … and a gorgeous destination helps!
NB: What advice would you give yoga instructors who want to teach full-time and are starting out on their careers?
GO: Develop your own studio - I think it’s the only way to make money (unless you are an exceptionally charismatic teacher working at a studio large enough to bring volume income). The satisfaction of having your own studio and long term relationships with students I found highly rewarding. But I do realise times have changed and competition is great. Another great option is to teach yoga for love, joy and health — and to make your money in a different way!
NB: We gotta know - you've been just about everywhere, but what is your top yoga holiday destination and why?
GO: My Umbria retreat… it is the quintessential Mediterranean lifestyle retreat. I think most of us could use some “pure” indulgence, beauty and down-time to balance our hectic and overly controlled lives. This retreat offers the truest experience of La Bella Vita I have ever come across!
NB: Share a treasured memory with us from EYR’s many past retreats please.
GO: This is hard … every trip has it’s magic, every group has it’s unique spark and every location is exotic and beautiful. There are so many poignant memories… on every single retreat. Instead I’ll share one of the funniest memories I can recall. Back on that very first retreat in Tuscany, my Italian friends told me “Gayle, it’s impossible to offer a vegetarian event. People cannot come to Tuscany without eating our Tuscan beefsteak”. We went back and forth on this and I assured them I was perfectly confident that everyone would enjoy a week of vegetarian meals, even if in Tuscany! So I found this great vegetarian chef and we created a perfect week of vegetarian menus together. Then after lunch on the second afternoon of the retreat all the Italians went off to Siena for an excursion… unbeknownst to me they headed straight to the local butcher shop! That evening at dinnertime our chef came to the table to tell us about our evening menu, all the while avoiding eye contact with me. Well, you can guess what he served on our vegetarian retreat!