New Year’s Youth Retreat: Magic in the Wintertime

I’m sitting on a train, scenery flashing past outside, my heart is broken yet healthier than when I started my trip. I lean back and rest in the bittersweet pain.

Every year for the last decade at the beautiful Schloss Heinsheim in Germany there is a Winter meditation Retreat for youth under the age of 35. Put on by Sita (, it provides attentiveness meditation instruction, workshops and a touch of magic.

Part of me is sad that I missed the first 9 years, while the other part is joyful that I could start my journey on this auspicious 10 year anniversary.
I first heard about the Winter Retreat from a friend at the Ziji Collective Summit in Berlin. “Come.” She said to me, “It’s magical.” I trusted her, so I signed up. Due to both the business of everyday life as well as the mysteriousness of the program itself I had no idea what to expect when I arrived. I had no program, no plan, just an amount of time to be there and a list of things that I would need.

At the end of December I found myself on the station platform at Bad Rappenau with hands full of luggage. The transport coordinator was waiting for me with a smile, I knew him and was happy to begin with a familiar face and a big hug. I knew there wouldn’t be that many familiar faces, as the program had a record 105 participants and still had to turn down late applicants as the facilities were fully booked.

When I arrived at the beautiful Schloss Heinsheim I was swallowed up by the beauty that was the retreat. With orchards nearby, a beautiful river flowing along, and the lovely structure of the Schloss itself it is hard not to feel swept away into a fantasy land. To give you a detailed account of all of my experiences would take longer than I have here; it was a journey of meditation, magic and mystery.

Each morning we would rise up, and come down to find a new daily plan posted where we could get a peek into what the day awaited. The castle hotel where we slept, the meditation hall, and the dining hall were all separated by a short expanse of courtyard. The walk would normally be under a minute but the crisp frosty air would wake us up each time as we strolled from one building to the next.

Mornings at 7 am, those able to rise were well rewarded for their efforts with our Yoga instructor’s unique blend of yoga, Tibetan Lu Jong and Chinese Qigong. More than anything else his incredible gentleness and fluidity stood out washing over and refreshing us in the morning light.

In the kitchen our food was served by an amazing team of creative chefs who provided for all of our needs. All of the food was vegetarian, with much work put in to accommodate other dietary restrictions. The food was warm, filling, and delicious, I was always well fed and content.

Meditation in the shrine room happened twice a day, and was often accompanied by a talk. Our meditation instructor eased everyone in to the meditation like a hot bath. The meditation was attentiveness meditation, in the Buddhist tradition intended for beginners, and for all faiths. The sessions were short, well guided, and were taught with humor and gentleness.

Every day there were wonderful workshops related to mindfulness on topics such as yoga, calligraphy, dance, or silent walks through the area.

In the evenings we would gather in the ancestor’s room so named for the portraits that hung on the wall of ladies and lords from the past. A fire would burn brightly as we engaged in spontaneous music, poetry, or simply sitting there with a glass of wine and good conversation.

The coordinators were excellent, they mostly stayed behind the scenes working incredibly hard to organize everything so that the program flowed smoothly. It did flow smoothly, like a deep river flowing both slowly and terrifyingly quickly. The program flew by incredibly fast and at the same time seemed to last for eternity.

In the blink of an eye New Year’s Eve arrived, during the day there were some lovely workshops that offered us a chance to reflect on our year. In the evening the dining room was decked in all sorts of festive finery, and so were we. On the acceptance letter to the winter retreat the dress code of New Year’s Eve was described: “Wear whatever you feel most beautiful in.” Some of us were in suits, others in jeans, while others were in more comfortable clothes or even outfits that defied description. During dinner many stepped up to make offerings of music, poetry or acrobatics.

When dinner was finished we cleared the tables to the side and there was music, dancing and merriment for the next few hours until midnight approached. 11:45 many of us went to the shrine room to bring in the new year with meditation, which was an incredibly powerful experience. Honestly after spending New Year’s in such a way I think it will be hard for me to ever go back to spending New Year’s another way.

I will admit that I cried at Heinsheim. I will admit that I danced. That I cleaned many dishes. That I laughed so hard that my face hurt. That I fell in love with so many people. I felt so privileged to be there. Each day everyone opened up a little more. There was hugging. There were tears. This morning we all went our separate ways. The pain in my heart reminds me how much I fell in love with the people, the place, and the practice. I plan to return next year and until then I will carry a piece of it with me in my heart.






(Many thanks to Aaron San and Arean den Hartogh for photography and photo editing)