How to Survive and Thrive on a Radical Wellness Retreat

In the Now Age, retreats are the new vacations. 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, please don’t ever been fooled into thinking you’re not here to WORK.

Work on yourself, that is, because retreats are often where it 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 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.

Of course, some retreats will spell this out up front. 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. “Plant medicine” is neither for the faint of heart nor those 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.

When I took my 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.

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.

I have been fortunate enough to encounter the radical wellness retreat in many different forms and guises, and there follows some insight into ways to maximize the transformative potential of your experience.

Accept your assignments. Which may well show up in ways you’re not expecting. While on the surface you might think you’ve signed up for a week of surfing and Sufi dance, or be embarking on an extreme juice cleanse with the goal of shifting that stubborn last 10 pounds, if I’ve learned anything on my adventures in the Numiverse, it’s that these external activities are usually just tools for teasing out the deeper issues simmering like hot lava beneath the surface.

Example: the time I sat down with three other women for a journaling workshop on a retreat featuring daily wild dolphin swimming in the Bahamas (I know, uh-mazing). The idea was really just to have some fun writing about our experiences with the dolphins, but we all ended up crying so painfully we had to abandon ship after the first exercise. It was like the heart-opening experience of swimming with the dolphins, coupled with the act of a directed writing practice, had tapped a direct channel to where the wild things were. For me, how my fear of swimming underwater was linked to times in my life I had felt trapped, or suffocated.

Don’t ignore the practical stuff. What to pack, who you’re sharing a room with, what’s on the menu. Because when you’re getting into the gunky stuff in the pit of your soul, you want your physical experience to be as comfortable as possible. Or at least, I do.

In shamanic tradition, there is something called a Vision Quest—aka the ultimate “retreat”—which involves heading alone into the wilderness, with no food or shelter, for anything from four to 40 days (a la Jesus Christ himself), the idea being that only once you detach fully from all material comforts, can you truly confront what resides within. There is often an optional plant medicine ceremony at the end in which to process what’s come up.

Let’s just say I’m not quite there yet, or maybe I just prefer my deepest soul yearnings to be unearthed in a more subtle way. But for me, there are certain things I know from trial and error will make for an altogether more enjoyable retreat experience.

Embrace the cringe factor. So besides the yoga and the dolphins, there will be activities in the program that your desperate-to-be-cool teenage self (who lives on in all of us to some degree, particularly those of us who work or have worked in the fashion industry), would rather be poked in the eye with a stick of smoldering Palo Santo than participate in.

Like when you get up at 4:00 am for your first 2.5-hour-long Kundalini sadhana, or get reminded to look your partner in the eye as you let your body “just move to the music the way it wants to.” Like when you revert back to the shy 13-year-old who doesn’t know where to look meeting a roomful of strangers for the first time. Or when you choose to just trust, and take a breath underwater through a snorkel for the first time.

Find out about programs with Ruby Warrington.

This article is adapted from Material Girl, Mystical World: The Now Age Guide to a High-Vibe Life, by Ruby Warrington, © 2017 by Harper Elixir.