The Purpose-Driven Getaway –

The Purpose-Driven Getaway -

How to get what you need from a wellness retreat.

For those seeking a spa retreat, the confusion is real. From wellness resorts to ashrams and day spas, there are loads of options. But how do you find what you need? What if the “destination resort spa” you’re booking turns out to be a hotel with a massage therapist on call? And how can you know if the “meditation spa retreat” you’re considering leans more towards a girlfriends getaway?

“A key aspect of the ‘destination spa’ was that everyone was there for the spa experience; the food, in particular, was healthy food exclusively,” says Susie Ellis, chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Institute, based in Miami. That message became muddled when the travel world adopted the term “destination,” she notes. By 2019, leaders of the $4.5 trillion global wellness industry set out to redefine a retreat that focused on health and wellbeing, calling it an “immersion.”

So what’s an immersion? To answer that, Charlottesville native Tracey Vincel, a holistic physical therapist and founder of Knósis Physiotherapy and Wellness based in Manhattan, joined industry experts at the Global Wellness Summit in Singapore in 2019, where she and eight colleagues proposed an updated definition: A “wellness immersion retreat,” they submitted, is a curated experience designed to create space to reconnect to one’s sense of mental, emotional, physical wholeness.

Begin with Intention

“It’s not one size fits all,” says Erin Risius who worked with Vincel to update global guidelines for immersion retreats. A holistic psychotherapist in Colorado, Risius spent years counseling clients at Hilton Head Health, a wellness retreat in South Carolina. She recommends doing a bit of self-evaluation to identify what, exactly, you need from an immersion. Then carve out the time. “To create lasting change, you’ll need time away,” she says. “Three days is the minimum, but a five- to seven-day stay is ideal.”

Vincel suggests reflecting on something new you might want to learn—surfing, painting, meditation, or Qigong, a form of Chinese exercise. “Intentions set into motion a process that allows this change to occur,” she says. “A small shift will help you see things from a new perspective.”

When she faced an empty nest in 2014 after raising four children, Helen Perez of Manassas knew she needed more than a beach vacation. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do—surfing,” she says. Her experience at Pura Vida Surf Camp and Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica was so powerful that she’s returned four times and traveled once with the camp’s leader to Bali.

For Perez, an IT consultant, surfing was “a great way to unplug.” With each retreat, she says, her spiritual connection to the water changes:

“It gives you what you neednot necessarily what you want.” She got a lesson in humility one year when she tore a hamstring on her first ride. “Whatever life needs to teach me, I’ve received that gift every time,” she says.

At Cairn & Sky retreats in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, cofounded by Jerry Casagrande of Alexandria and Scott Taylor of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, nature is also an essential ingredient.

The five-day experience caters to men who are “at a crossroads and contemplating their next chapter,” says Casagrande, and they include hiking, yoga, and light meditation. One month before each trip, participants receive a journal with a list of questions to jumpstart their reflections. During the retreat, the journal entries inspire essential conversations among the retreat participants.

The Company You Keep

Think carefully about your travel companions, experts advise. For Perez, the decision to take her husband and children or travel solo to her surf getaways varies each year, depending on her needs. But if you’re looking to let go of weighty issues at home, inviting family or friends along means they may be hauling this baggage with them.

“Solo travel can be extremely powerful,” says Vincel, who once found herself spending a vacation alone in Mexico after a friend canceled at the last minute. When the new iPhone she’d bought before the trip wouldn’t charge, “I had no choice but to let go. Once I did, I had the most magnificent three days by myself,” she recalls. “We forget to be the navigators of our own journey.”

A getaway can deepen your awareness of wellness practices, too. At Leesburg’s Lansdowne Resort, the Harmony Rejuvenate + Recover Retreat “aligns the organ body clock, (the body’s 24-hour clock) followed in traditional Eastern medicine,” says Karen Friedouni,

Lansdowne’s wellness ambassador. Dining, too, focuses on the Eastern theory of the five elements—water, wood, earth, fire, and metal. Retreat guests receive a massage on arrival, two spa treatments, nightly herbal foot soaks, and a full roster of fitness options.

After her Lansdowne retreat, Cheryl Chotrani of Herndon has continued the program’s foot soaks at home while drinking herbal tea. The new ritual’s “soothing, tingling feeling awakens all the senses,” she says, and adds that her at-home practice provides “a mini-retreat.” She’s also looking for a nearby version of Lansdowne’s invigorating yoga classes.

In Buckingham County, weekend retreats at Yogaville, an ashram, include yoga practice, meditation, and vegetarian meals. Yogaville welcomes beginners, offering instruction to those new to meditation and yoga, while those who are advanced can deepen their practice. Silent retreats, surprisingly, are some of Yogaville’s most popular ones. They provide an opportunity to reflect and reset. “People are really dealing with some deep things,” observers Parker “Narada” Williams, vice president of programs and integral yoga academy.

During the Getaway

Embrace all of the tools your destination offers, Risius advises. An on-site wellness concierge, coach, or therapist, she notes, “can create a game plan for how to make the most of your time there.” While you may feel tempted to jam-pack your retreat schedule, don’t, says Risius, who recalls Hilton Head clients who never set foot on the island’s beaches because they’d scheduled so many classes and talks.

“You want to surrender to the program, slow down, and be present,” she says. “Downtime can feel daunting if you’re not used to it, but it’s absolutely essential to create that space. That’s where the real healing occurs.”

An experience planner helps guests at the Omni Homestead Resort in Bath County navigate their Take the Waters Wellness Retreat Package—which includes floats in the newly restored Warm Spring Pools, day passes to the spa’s Serenity Garden, Gorge Hike, resort accommodations for two, and a discount on additional spa services. Guests at Lansdowne can opt for consultations with the resort’s culinary leaders and fitness experts. At Yogaville, one-on-one mentoring sessions address all things spiritual, emotional, or psychological.

Fellow retreat participants can also play a role in your retreat’s success, says Risius. “Connections among guests can be really transformational,” she notes. “They create a sense of camaraderie so people feel less alone, more supported.” Perez, for one, has gone surfing with others she’s met on retreat and hopes to continue surfing into her 60s.

Before the weeklong retreats she leads in Costa Rica, Tara Casagrande, a certified yoga, meditation, and Qigong teacher based in Alexandria (and wife of Cairn & Sky’s Jerry Casagrande), hosts a group Zoom meeting to help fellow participants get acquainted. She says those who enter the retreat experience with an open mind are better positioned to receive whatever the time away is offering. “Show up as who you are,” she says, “and your commitment to this will all unfold,” She seeks to set a sacred space to “bring everyone’s voices into the circle,” and invites sharing without pressure, assuring participants that “ what happens during this week stays within our circle.” Once home, the group keeps in touch through group chats on WhatsApp.

With or without a sacred space, say the experts, you’ll get the most from the retreat when you fully embrace the experience. “It’s not enough to put yourself there and expect the place to do the work for you,” Vincel says. Listen to your own needs, then “go deeper and ask what you’re being called to do.”

Lasting Reverberations

While a retreat can help you de-stress and refocus, once you’re home, preparation can keep the good vibes going, says Risius who notes “winging it doesn’t work well.” Hilton Head Health offers follow-up consultations to help guests put their newfound healthy habits into practice at home.

“I always recommend people meet with someone on-site who can help with what’s waiting at home,” says Risius. A health counselor can assess your home environment, job situation, or healthcare situation to figure out what worked for you in the program and what’s reasonable to bring home—or not. “We’re not meant to do this as an island,” Risius says. “We’re meant to do this in community—and with support, especially when these clothes are new and fragile.”

Some clients plan to repeat the retreat to continue their path to wellness. After her retreats, Casagrande says participants often rebook for the following year. She also makes a point of pushing her own “reset button” by visiting Rancho La Puerta in Mexico regularly to ensure she shows up strong as a leader herself.

After his Cairn & Sky retreat, physician Neil Weissman of Annapolis, Maryland, discovered that taking time for self-care improved his ability to care for his patients. “The retreat allowed me to have a much better understanding of myself, where I am in my life, and what’s important,” he says. Rather than prioritizing intellect as many physicians do, he’s now also “leading with the heart”—one sign of a truly lasting, impactful outcome.

The 5 Elements of a Wellness Immersion Retreat

At the Global Wellness Summit, a spa industry conference, experts outlined five key components of a wellness immersion retreat.

Intention: Be clear about your needs and goals—whether it’s reclaiming your joy of movement or lowering your cholesterol. Then ask if the resort can support those goals.

Setting: Access to nature is key. So is a pleasing, purposefully designed resort space. Fitness facilities, guest rooms, dining areas, and gathering spaces should all inspire.

Schedule: Choose a program based on evidence-based research, where you’ll receive expert guidance from trained staff members and follow-up support once you’re home.

Community: Group support from fellow participants and staff members can inspire you to reach your goals—both before, during, and after your immersion.

Outcome: How will you measure success? Will you see it in improved blood work or feel a renewed inner peace? A successful immersion promotes changes that last.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue.

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