Why Wellness Retreats Are the New Vacation

Photo: Unsplash/Matthew Kane

Has your Instagram feed been flooded with photos of friends posing mid-handstand in the Costa Rican jungle, clutching a surfboard in Bali, or blissfully dancing around a bonfire in the Catskills? According to Ruby Warrington, the woo-woo goddess behind online magazine The Numinous, lunar-centric membership program Moon Club, and sober-curious event series Club Soda, that's because retreats have supplanted vacations as the off-time du jour for wellness-loving women.

Here, in this bonus chapter from her new book, Material Girl, Mystical World (out today), Warrington explains why you should take some time off from work and book that flight in favor of a transformative experience.

It’s around 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Ibiza, and I am dancing. Waving my hands in the air, my eyes closed, I am only dimly aware of the other people around me, my bare feet stamping out a steady rhythm to a heady mix of sitar-infused disco beats.

Ruby Warrington on wellness retreats
Photo: HarperElixir

In my trance, I’m beginning to lose awareness of where I end and the Universe begins, but I do know that I’m outside and up high. Having arrived here under the cover of dark, I’m not exactly sure of my whereabouts, except that I’m at a private villa in the far north of the island. Also that the dancing is happening under a kind of stone pavilion looking out, as the sun begins to rise in the sky, over rolling, pine-clad mountains for as far as the eye can see.

My dancing companions are unknown to me—I reached the party later than everybody else, and when I met them an hour or so ago there wasn’t really any time or need for proper hellos. Somewhere just outside my sleep-deprived state of consciousness, in the more logical recesses of my brain, I’m aware that this whole situation can be located approximately a gazillion miles outside my comfort zone.

But every time I begin to question WTF I’m doing here, a gentle voice guides me back into the music, back to feeling at one with the sweet, dewy sunshine kissing my cheeks and the breeze that’s licking the hair from my face, and back into the present moment.

Somewhere just outside my sleep-deprived state of consciousness, I’m aware that this whole situation can be located approximately a gazillion miles outside my comfort zone.

It’s the kind of scene that plays out on misty, mind-warped mornings like this all summer long in Ibiza—when the disco lights have dimmed and the superstar DJs have packed up and gone on to their exclusive after parties, but nobody wants the dancing to end. You find somebody who knows somebody with a sound-system and a seemingly endless supply of whatever’s been fueling the fun, and follow the Pied Piper.

But this morning is different. There was no nightclub, and there is no chemical residue running through my veins. This is day one of my first-ever yoga retreat. And as the dancing becomes more frenzied and I half-open one of my eyes to take a peek at the scene unfolding around me, the voice of reason (a.k.a. my ego) comes booming across, loud and clear: who on Earth are these people, and what the HELL have I let myself in for?

Ruby Warrington on wellness retreats
Warrington (middle) en route to Wanderlust Vermont with Healthy Crush's Jenny Sansouci (left) and Gabrielle Bernstein (right). Photo: Ruby Warrington

In the Now Age, retreats are the new vacations. Why spend all that money on a regular holiday, when you could travel to the exotic location of your dreams, soak up some rays, and sample the local cuisine—but with an order of high-vibe personal development on the side? And often in the company of whichever guru, teacher or guide is currently rocking your world.

But in my experience, I’ve come to understand that the word “retreat” can be extremely misleading. It suggests a degree of relaxation, an opportunity to recharge and regenerate as you switch off and withdraw from the world. And while most retreats can certainly offer all these things (particularly in the case of the 10-day silent meditation retreat known as “Vipassana”, where participants express not one word, not even in written form, for the duration), please don’t ever been fooled into thinking you’re not here to WORK.

In the Now Age, retreats are the new vacations.

Work on yourself, that is, because retreats are often where shit gets really real. It’s no wonder that most spiritual traditions embody the concept to a degree—whether it’s monks wandering for 40 years in the desert in the Old Testament, or Zen Buddhist centers offering practitioners a place to retreat and meditate on life.

And in the Now Age, no matter how “fun” it might sound on the website (swimming with dolphins! Four hours of yoga every damn day!), by simply removing yourself from your day-to-day with the intention of causing some kind of internal shift, you will undoubtedly confront parts of yourself you usually try to pretend you’ve never met in screaming, five-dimensional Technicolor.

Ruby Warrington on wellness retreats
Warrington (second to right) in a lithium "healing hole" during a retreat in Bimini. Photo: Ruby Warrington

Of course, some retreats will spell this out upfront. Nobody ventures to Peru to spend a week doing ayahuasca in the company of the Amazonian elders thinking all they’ll come back with are some cool photos for their FB page and a set of panpipes as a souvenir. As we will discuss elsewhere, “plant medicine” is neither for the faint of heart nor the fearful of provoking their inner demons.

And no matter what the theme of your retreat, how deep you’ll be asked to dive into your psyche undoubtedly depends on both your intentions going in, and where you’re at on your journey.

Nobody ventures to Peru to spend a week doing ayahuasca in the company of the Amazonian elders thinking all they’ll come back with are some cool photos for their FB page and a set of panpipes as a souvenir.

When I travelled to Ibiza for that first yoga retreat (also my first experience of Kundalini yoga, no less), I hadn’t yet embarked on my Numinous odyssey. I was still working in fashion, and still self-medicating (not that I’d realized that’s what it was yet) with designer clothes, drugs, and alcohol.

I’d actually been invited along to do a story, and no way was I going to turn down a free trip to Ibiza—even if this wasn’t exactly Ibiza as I knew it. The challenge for me back then was getting through a whole weekend of freestyle dancing in the company of complete strangers, without any cocktails to aid the conversation.

And yet the lightness of spirit, and the connection to the singsong serenity of my inner voice I felt by the end of the weekend, was a revelation. Somewhere deep inside, the question reverberated: Was it possible to feel this way always? Nothing to touch the profound realizations about my life and my self I’ve experienced on retreats since then, but as a window into the patterns I was using to hide from my most inner truths—the fact there even were inner truths I might be hiding from—perhaps one of the most important steps of my awakening to date.

Want to take your relaxation up a notch? Here's how to retreat like a celeb. And these are the tricks that flight attendants swear by to fit everything into that carry-on.

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