Yoga Adventuring: Susan and Emily of Unity Retreats

Emily Millen and Susan Horning were teaching yoga at a small East Vancouver studio without any idea that their paths would cross. Their friendship soon spawned into a business – leading them into jungle-y landscapes, quaint farms and remote villages as part of their yoga adventures with Unity Retreats. Since 2012, their company manages four excursions annually, including Salt Spring Island, Guatemala and Costa Rica. I recently sat down with the two to talk about running a business, managing a room full of strangers, and the unique qualities they bring to the experience.

Photos by Amanda Jean Cooper

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How did Unity Retreats come to be? What sparked the idea?

Sue: “We wanted to go on vacation.” (laughs)

Emily: “I wanted to travel but work at the same time so I could be paid. I wanted to create a retreat where you’re doing yoga but you’re also experiencing where you are, the food, the culture, etc. So I approached Sue because she already runs Unity Yoga here, and I knew she was organized and could take care of the financials, which is not my forte. It was really easy I feel like you didn’t hesitate at all.”

S: “The retreats were really an excuse to get to know people more. When you’re teaching class you get these few chances to get to know the students, maybe a bit before and after. And we wanted something deeper, where we could ask people what was going on in their lives. We wanted to take them out of their environment for a couple days.”

How did you choose which locations to do the retreats on?

E: “Sue did some travelling and stopped at retreat centres along the way to scout out possible locations for us. You want to know that the food’s good where you’re going and the retreat centre is nice and safe. Sue found an amazing one in Costa Rica and one in Guatemala. Sue’s really good for me because everything she says she’s going to do – she’s not all talk – she does it.”

S: “But…the retreats were originally your idea, you were the one who was like, ‘Let’s go away! Let’s take people away!’”

What have been some of the most rewarding parts of doing the international retreats?

S: “When you go to these retreat centres there are yogis living all over the world, just doing their practice, living and existing. It’s really a global movement: people are doing yoga, practicing permaculture principles and living in a really natural way and that’s in harmony with the earth – and that’s part of our intention. That was the nicest part about starting the international retreats because we sensed that there was a shared vision between what we were practicing here in Vancouver and what people were doing overseas.”

E: “What’s so good about our Guatemala trip is that we don’t feel like were going down there and just standing outside their culture watching, especially with the local people because you’re really immersed. You’re in this little town on a lake surrounded by volcanoes, yeah there are tourists and yoga people there, but there’s also indigenous people there who don’t speak Spanish, they still speak their native tongue, they’re still wearing traditional dress.”

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How do you manage your different roles in the business and while on the retreats?

E: “Everyone that comes on our trips says that we’re really balanced. We just fell into our roles very naturally. Sue does a lot of the financials and she’s really good at that, she used to be an accountant. I do more of the particulars, the communication and the emailing and making sure everybody knows what’s going on.”

S: “We’re quite opposite but we work together really well. Emily does the marketing, she’s really good at making us look really good externally. I feel like I do a lot of the internal stuff. We  also do a lot of meetings. We meet on Friday mornings at 10 o’clock almost every Friday, before we go, after we go, working on the feedback, designing the website takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of work that you don’t see that go into the retreats.” 

Are there any challenges that have come up? How do you manage so many different personalities at once?

E: “For the most part we know everybody who comes on the retreats. There’s been a few people we don’t, so now when you sign up we have a list of questions and the last one is, ‘What’s your intention?’ so we can get a feel of what they’re going through or why they’re going on a retreat. We’ve had a few people come on a retreat for major reasons: ‘I’m taking this weekend to decide if I want to leave my husband’ or ‘I’ve just been through a major health problem.’ It’s not about us helping them make a decision, they just need to step back for a moment.”

S: “Sometimes people do lose the plot because we do a lot of yoga, and we ask a lot of hard questions in the journaling. You’re paired up in a room with somebody you might not even know. Stuff happens on retreats. It’s nice because we seem to have different compatibilities with people that come.”

E: “Yeah, I think that’s another way we work really well together is that some problems that come up with individuals. Sue’s not triggered by them whereas I’m like, ‘I can’t manage this one,’ but sometimes it’s flipped . There hasn’t ever been a time so far that both of us can’t handle it.”

S: “We joke that we have our 200 hour teacher training, but we’re not therapists, nor doctors or counselors. We hold space for people we don’t tell them what do, we let them come to it on their own:”

What do you love most about running Unity Retreats?

E: “What’s really special is that I feel like afterwards, the people that come to class that have just been on retreat – I feel like we’ve been through something together. The energy is very different. A lot of my solid girlfriends have actually come from being on retreat.”

S: “The community here is building because of it.”

It seems like the industry of yoga retreats is huge. Do you ever worry about competition? 

E: I think we try to just focus on ourselves. There’s so much that goes into why someone chooses a retreat: the location, the date, the price, or most definitely the teachers. We’re just trying to stay with our heads down doing our own thing."

S: "It's about the teachers for sure. But sometimes it isn't even about us. There’s this wisdom sharing that happens when you sit with the group on retreats, and - if I can be so bold to say -  the feng shui of the farm and the way that that sacred land that holds us. There’s this really amazing thing that happens organically, that actually has nothing to do with us. And we’re just kind of sitting there, bobbing our heads, being gentle, being kind.”

To learn more about Unity Retreats, visit unityretreats.ca. Their next adventure takes place in Guatemala from February 9 -16, 2017. An early bird rate is available if you sign up before November 30. Email letsgo@unityretreats.ca. 

Meagan Albrechtson