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The Himalayan Institute is one of many retreats where cash-strapped spiritual seekers can participate in work-study programs in which they pay typically $300 to $900 a month in exchange for a few hours a day of service, like washing dishes, cleaning rooms or weeding gardens. As the unemployment rate has risen and people have sought refuge from the harsh economy, these work-exchanges have become a hot commodity.
The Himalayan Institute received twice as many applications for its summer work-study programs this year as last — its August session is full, with 22 people, compared with 11 last year — and so did two similar retreats, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Carmel Valley, Calif., and Satchidananda Ashram in Buckingham, Va. (which is better known as Yogaville).
Yoga retreat programs can be as short as an overnight visit to Ananda Ashram in Monroe, N.Y., or can last for months or even years.
At the Himalayan Institute’s 28-day self-transformation program, the day begins with a 6 a.m. meditation and continues with a full roster of hatha yoga classes, breathing and relaxation practicums and about four hours of light chores, like making beds and chopping vegetables. The program costs $825, and participants receive a private room and three vegetarian meals a day. “It’s designed for individuals who are between jobs, on leave or sabbatical, or just burned out and have the ability to take time out,” Mr. Wolfenberg said.