As I stood at the top of my yoga mat in tadasana on day one of a weeklong, all-women retreat, the music changed from mellow instrumentals to the upbeat sounds of Michael Franti’s “I’m Alive.” Gone was the vinyasa flow from moments earlier. Instead, I was simply instructed to close my eyes and dance.
This may sound like a simple task, but since I’ve always defined myself as someone who cannot dance, these instructions were terrifying. And though I feared that the women around me might open their eyes and laugh at my movement, by the time the chorus hit, I was jumping around my mat like one of the fearless monkeys in the trees of the Costa Rican jungle surrounding me. And so began my very first women’s retreat.
But a type of trip has emerged that puts a twist on these fitness-centric getaways. Instead of focusing on a physical activity, these gatherings are driven by the magic of bringing women together—and the goal of providing female empowerment.
It’s the women who make women’s retreats so special, providing comfort, support, and serious girl-time fun.
So, as a full-time student working two part-time jobs (and in serious need of a recharge), I signed up for Pretty Brave Adventures, an all-women retreat led by body positivity guru Emily Nolan, held on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica at The Sanctuary at Two Rivers.
Just as every body is right for yoga, there is no singular “type” of woman who should go on a women’s empowerment retreat. Whether you it’s a weeklong gathering for hundreds (a la Spirit Weavers) or a smaller, more intimate weekend session (like the ones that Maha Rose North has been hosting this summer), these events create powerful sisterhoods. (And really, how could you turn down goddess camp?)
At my retreat, I was joined by 14 other women whose ages spanned nearly 20 years and occupations varied just as much (ranging from activewear entrepreneurs to photographers)—but at the heart of it all, we were all simply looking to let go of fears and insecurities and replace them with self-worth and love.
Here are four things I learned that have stuck with me, even as I resumed my sometimes-crazy life back home.
1. Bravery is beautiful
Retreats tend to bring us face-to-face with things we fear, whether those obstacles are physical or mental. (Case in point: It took just as much courage for me to take a 10-person plane from one part of the island to another as it did to share my insecurities with the group during a journaling session.)
But to be surrounded by women who are rooting for you creates an immense safety net. As my fears began to dissolve, I felt as if I was shedding dead skin. Not only was it liberating to experience overcoming my own fears, but witnessing others’ bravery—not to mention the excitement they felt—was a reminder not to shy away from things that scare me. Courage often leads to confidence.
2. We thrive in community
I’ve always taken pride in being self-sufficient. But after spending a week listening to 14 other women talk about their passions—and how they wove those passions into their lives—I wanted to soak up their wisdom.
It’s the women who make “women’s retreats” so special, providing comfort, support, and serious girl-time fun. The best part? Those relationships aren’t contained to the time spent at the retreat. I came back to New York City with incredible girlfriends—some nearly twice my age.
3. Our bodies aren’t defined by exercise
Most days you can find me on a run or on my yoga mat. Giving up stereotypical “exercise” for a week was a challenge for me—I’d gotten used to the gratifying feeling of a good sweat and an elevated heart rate.
But in slowing down for a bit, in moving my body with a purpose other than working out, I was reminded that my body is pretty special. I hula-hooped and danced (more and more after I got over that fear), did lopsided handstands under water, and lay still in a hammock. I forgot about the easy-to-focus-on calorie burn.
Doing her signature Topless Yoga, Nolan challenged us to take off our shirts and watch our bodies with admiration as they moved. Later on, we partnered up and used body paint markers to tattoo one another with all that we saw in and wished for them.
When I looked around, what I saw was not abs, arms, or a butt. I saw “receive love,” “courageous,” “unstoppable,” “self-love,” and “beautiful soul.” It was a reminder to think about movement differently: What is the purpose? Is it to honor my body, or to change or “perfect” it?
4. We have the power to change our thoughts
With lots of time built in for rest and silence, the retreat created distraction-free spaces in the day (like the morning I walked along a stream toward a waterfall in perfect silence), which allowed me to consciously take note of my thought patterns.
Not surprisingly, I’m a lot harder on myself than I realized (I was not alone in this discovery), but after sitting with the discomfort of that self-criticism, I also had an opportunity to actually hear those thoughts—and then choose to change them.
This may sound obvious, but when it resonated, it gave me goosebumps: I didn’t have to listen to my inner-critic. Rather, it is okay—and pretty wonderful—to like yourself. My headstand may not have been anywhere near perfect by the end of the week, but those shifts in mindset will last me far longer.