Retreats Revive Mind, Body, and Spirit

From taking a spiritual retreat to unplugging at home, escaping from everyday distractions can help restore balance to your life.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 22, 2008
6 min read

Ever since she enrolled in massage school 15 years ago, Erin Susan Parks has been regularly taking spiritual retreats to replenish her soul and recharge her body.

“The most impactful has been the silent retreat,” the Atlanta resident tells WebMD. “I’m somewhat of an information junkie, so going inside and allowing myself to turn off the inflow has let things settle, given me time to reflect and make decisions.”

Parks is not alone in her desire to find greater harmony and balance through periods of structured retreat. As our lives become ever faster, increasingly complex, and more demanding, reducing stress levels and maintaining a healthy mind and body is critical for our physical and mental well-being.

Since the beginning of time, humans have used time away from the world and its distractions as a way to deepen perspective, gain understanding, and revive spirit. Jews have long reserved the Sabbath for reflection; Trappist monks have a tradition of reflection and renewal that dates back to the 11th century.

At the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., more than 80,000 visitors a year seek out the pax -- peace -- of its serene grounds. Brother Callistus says a retreat from the normal course of life is a chance to “unwind, hit the delete button, and leave behind garbage. Ours is an experience of solitude and contemplation.”

Parks says when she’s on a retreat, the goal is always the same: “To move into my own center, slow down, open my attention and, ultimately, go back into the world having retained something for myself, my clients, my friends, my family, and others.”

Though many retreat centers are affiliated with religious organizations, there are also many secular options, such as the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. The largest and most established educational retreat center for yoga and holistic living in North America, this nonprofit educational center in Stockbridge, Mass., attracts more than 28,000 people a year to its campus. It was founded in 1965.

“Kripalu means ‘compassion’ or ‘grace,’” says Cathy Shamir, spokeswoman for Kripalu.

The center offers more than 700 experiential programs. But regardless of the specific program, the results are similar: rest, reflection, and rejuvenation.

“Our mission is to help people produce more balance in their lives, to feel more alive from the foundation of a yoga practice,” Shamir tells WebMD. “A retreat is a chance for people to get away from everything, to refresh spiritually and physically and re-evaluate their lives. Afterward, they are more relaxed, happy and balanced, and their relationships are better.”

(How will you find balance in your life this summer? Talk about it on WebMD's Health Cafe board.)

As we’ve become more stressed, a lucrative industry -- ranging from deluxe spa-based getaways and meditation retreats to yoga vacations and tools for mini at-home breaks -- has sprung up to show us how to slow down and take stock.

But one of the simplest, most effective, and free ways to revitalize mind and body is to rediscover the great outdoors.

Spending countless hours in our offices, cars, and houses, many of us have lost touch with nature, and consequently, ourselves. Simply being outside, inspired by the scenery, fosters contemplation and changes perspective. Fresh air, trees, and bird songs are all deeply restorative; no wonder retreat centers are situated in beautiful natural mountain, forest, or ocean settings. But it’s not always possible to get away from it all. Fortunately, most big cities have escapes -- botanical gardens, nature preserves, and parks -- that offer a respite from hectic lives.

Parks is especially fond of the silent retreats she has taken at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center in North Carolina, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, and Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta. She also carves out regular time for mini-nature retreats at Stone Mountain Park and the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, both in the metro-Atlanta area. The attraction? Reconnecting with nature.

“Whether I’m strolling the grounds at Kanuga or walking the trails at the Chattahoochee, communing with nature in silence and stillness is restorative. I live amidst this [environment] and it’s just as valid as going somewhere exotic. I give myself over to what’s exotic in my own neighborhood.”

Many people seek out mind-body retreats to jump-start a “personal retreat” program they can incorporate into their everyday lives at home. Do-it-yourself retreats range from self-care and yoga, to meditation and aromatherapy, breathwork, journaling, and mindful living.

For the time-pressed, learning to "unitask" vs. multitask might represent a retreat. For the uber-connected, unplugging electrical devices can provide renewal. For the office-bound, spending time outside is replenishing. For those who usually eat on the run, a meal prepared with fresh ingredients, served on beautiful china and consumed at leisure, could provide a much-needed respite. For harried office workers who sit in front of a computer all day, a cooling eye mask and headphones to listen to a favorite aria is a sensory vacation.

“Many people use a retreat as a springboard to make permanent changes in terms of getting balance back into their lives,” Shamir tells WebMD. “Part of going somewhere is going somewhere without distractions, to think, to focus on a goal, whether it is to make a big decision -- many people are at a crossroads -- or get some rest.”

But how can you sustain the wisdom gained at a retreat -- even after the day-to-day craziness of life has crept back in?

“When we get ahead of ourselves, we burn out and can’t sustain,” Shamir says. “We rush to yoga to relax! You have to decipher what is practical for you.”

The secret, experts say, is having a sense of purpose. It’s about slowing down. Successful retreats, whether you fly off for a weekend or take 15 minutes out of your day, is about being, not doing. Retreat is all about intent and regularity.

“You can create a sense of retreat in your everyday space by having little rituals that work for you,” Shamir suggests. “Light a candle. If you are a mother, take an undisturbed bath. Go to a movie where you don’t have to do anything. Drink a cup of tea slowly and read a book. My expert advice is to find these stolen moments in your every day instead of trying to block out time on the weekend.”

Edwige Gilbert is a wellness and energy coach in West Palm Beach, Fla., and author of the book The Fresh Start Promise: 28 Days to Total Mind, Body, Spirit Transformation. In addition to designing stress management programs for Smith Barney, CitiGroup, and MTV, Gilbert has helped many individuals maintain emotional balance and create joie de vivre with home-based techniques.

“It is far more challenging to create a spa atmosphere at home, but also much more rewarding than going to a spa,” Gilbert says via email. “You retreat inside yourself wherever you go, so going on vacation to a spa may not be nearly as relaxing and will not teach you how to recreate that tranquility when you’re back in your day-to-day life, which is what you really need.” She recommends a host of possibilities, from meditation and visualization exercises to spa-like treatments, such as mud packs, to a picnic.

Whatever the activity, the keys to a successful retreat are relaxation, clearing, and centering.

Marlene Chism, a personal development expert based in Springfield, Mo., has a ritual of uninterrupted reading, journaling, and meditation before she begins her day. It’s a practice she also recommends to her clients.

“I created a room specifically for this practice and it has made a tremendous difference in my relationships, my well-being, and my career,” she says via email. “There are four specific benefits: The practice keeps me centered and focused throughout the day; my creative ideas come at this time of stillness; I have more energy and less stress; and I have a heightened sense of awareness that helps me to eliminate negativity.”

Parks agrees.

“Our culture applauds us for taking things in, thinking on our feet, and constantly being in motion. Retreat is the antithesis of that. A longer retreat tends to bear more fruit, but all retreats are fruitful. There’s nourishment in stillness.”

No matter where or how you find inner peace, Naples, Fla., psychotherapist and author Caryn Sabes Hackers underscores the importance of making retreats a regular part of your life.

“To allow the important physical and chemical changes that occur during relaxation is a key element to its success. It’s a tough world. Honor the marvelous machine that is our body -- allow it to recharge.”

Show Sources


Erin Susan Parks, massage therapist, Atlanta.

Brother Callistus, monk, Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Ga.

Cathy Shamir, spokeswoman, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, Mass.

Edwige Gilbert, wellness and energy coach, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Marlene Chism, personal development expert, Springfield, Mo.

Caryn Sabes Hacker, LLC, psychotherapist and author, Naples, Fla.

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