How to plan a Sabbatical: Review of a Gap Year

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By Karan Bajaj

Kerry & I took a year’s sabbatical from our lives in New York to travel, deepen our Yoga and meditation practice and write our novels. It was the best decision of our lives. Here is a balanced review of the places we lived in if you are contemplating a similar move:

1. Meditating in the Dhanakosa Buddhist Retreat Center, Scotland=2 weeks. (more info)

We started our year-long journey in this sweet flexible Buddhist retreat in the Scottish Highlands.

Pros: Ethereally beautiful with a shimmering lake in front and mountains behind; Warm, caring course organizers; Comfortable accommodations; Free—only a nominal booking fee applies.

Cons: “Spiritual Lite”—excellent for beginners but may feel a little new-agey with all the chants and gongs for someone with a serious meditation practice.

2. Traveling by road from Scotland to Turkey=8 weeks. (more info)

Next, we traveled across Europe on buses, trains, ferries and hiking with no particular destination in mind, deciding each day where to stop for the night and where to go next. Our general goal was to take the cheapest mode of transport available and stay in hostel dorms and other bare accommodations to reduce our attachment to material comforts since we both felt that our life in New York had become a little too privileged for our liking.

Pros: Everything. So many people, experiences, sights, adventures!

Cons: Hit or miss living conditions. One night we were hanging outside a locked train station with homeless drug addicts in Bulgaria, the next night we were sleeping in a villa in Greece thanks to friends we made on the road. This worked for us because our goal was to surrender completely to the road.

3. Intense Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Atala, Italy=2 weeks.

En-route to Turkey, we stopped in rural Italy for a 10 day silent meditation in the Vipassana tradition taught by SN Goenka.

Pros: Authentic rigorous training in meditation fundamentals—the best I’ve ever experienced; Non-sectarian, non-dogmatic teaching; Free lodging & food; Quaint rural location.

Cons: Tough. Ten days of complete silence; Twelve hours+ of meditation every day is both physically demanding (back pains, leg cramps) and mentally nerve-wracking; No meals after 11 a.m.

*Overall highly recommended—a life changing experience.

4. Becoming Yoga teachers at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Madurai, India=1 month. (more info)

From Turkey we went to Madurai, India for a month-long Yoga Teacher’s Training Course (TTC) at the Sivananda Ashram.

Pros: A thorough grounding in Yoga enabling a deep, fulfilling personal practice for life; Excellent exposure to ancient Vedanta philosophy; Fulfilling new friendships with fellow students from all over the world; Genuine non-cliché taste of Indian Ashram living.

Cons: Rigorous: Six days a week 5:30 a.m-10 p.m. for a full month; Bare monastic living conditions—cold showers, shared dorms with monkeys trapezing in and out; A little bit of an ideological hodge-podge—Samkhya mixed with Vedanta with Bhakti; Expensive at $1800 for non-Indians albeit a bargain for Indians at $400.

*Overall highly recommended—a life changing experience.

5. Writing at the Aranya Artist’s Retreat in Goa, India=3 months.

After the Sivananda TTC, we wrote the first draft of our novels in this unique artist retreat in Goa.

Pros: Stunningly beautiful—situated atop a hill overlooking all of Goa; Western style comfort with lovely beds, writing desks, lamps, bathrooms, an infinity pool and Yoga platform, all at an unbelievably low price; out-of-the-world cook who will make you three meals a day if you pay him well; very isolated and hence, immensely productive creatively; Goa is still magical despite the hype.

Cons: Secluded—you will need to drive a Scooty (easy to rent in Goa) to reach the closest market; This is India so you will need to jugaad and negotiate everything otherwise the cook won’t cook, the cleaner won’t clean etc.—can be a hassle if you’ve grown up in the West.

6. Redux: Intense Vipassana Meditation in Kolhapur, India=2 weeks. (more info)

Masochistic as we are, we signed up for another 10 day silent Vipassana retreat. This time we went to Dhamma Alaya Kolhapur, a bare, well organized center run by a passionate group of volunteers, four hours from Goa.

7. Tripping with Yogis in the heart of the Indian Himalayas=1 month. (more info)

Next, we made Monal, a lovely guesthouse in Uttarkashi our base for exploring the high Himalayas.

Pros: The Himalayas is the most spiritually vibrating spot on earth—and in some sense, also the trippiest. We met Yogis who had lived on just milk for 20 years, practiced austerities like keeping their left arm raised for twelve years and claimed to have walked on water. Exceptionally warm and friendly mountain folks like Deepinder and Poonam, the patrons of Monal.

Cons: Hard to reach with dangerous roads. An overnight bus from Delhi gets you to Rishikesh, another eight hours of back breaking bus/jeep rides and you are in Uttarkashi, another six hours on steep, ill-maintained roads before you arrive in Gangotri, the spiritual heart of the Garwhal Himalayas.

8. Writing at Foundation Obras, Artist Residency in Portugal=2 months. (more info)

The return journey to the US began with completing our novels at this very well organized artist residency in Central Portugal.

Pros: The vibrating, intelligent Dutch couple, Caroline and Ludger who run the residency; delightful friendships with committed artists from around the world; a remote beautiful farm setting that allows deep, undistracted creative endeavor.

Cons: Remote—city/town life is at-least few miles drive away.

So that’s the anatomy of a very special year. At the end of it, we have a passionate personal Yoga and meditation practice and a book deal with Penguin-Random House—and we can’t wait to take our next gap year.

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