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Recharge at retreats

Wellness trips have surged, with more travellers seeking holistic healing through meditation, healthy food and exercises

Two years ago, Ms Elies Hadi, 31, was in a rut. Burnt out by her career in banking, she did "the cliche thing", she says, and enrolled herself in a five-day breathwork retreat in Perak, Malaysia.

"I wanted to discover my calling, my purpose," says the freelance life coach, who was in banking for six years.

Days at the retreat started at 7am and ended at 8pm, with one- to two-hour-long sessions of conscious breathing exercises, aimed at unlocking and releasing past traumas, as well as meditation and sharing sessions.

Participants ate a Jain diet, a vegan diet which also excludes onions, potatoes, eggplants and garlic.

After Ms Hadi returned home, she decided to try the strict diet for 40 days to challenge herself. She also quit her job a few weeks after.

"I felt very calm, like I could do anything. I learnt a lot about myselfand it gave me the courage to quit my job and pursue my dreams of becoming a life coach," she says.

A retreat is powerful because you are there to dedicate and immerse yourself in your well-being... You don't have to think about accommodation, meals or the itinerary - all of that is provided for you. You can focus completely on yourself.

SPIRITUAL PRACTITIONER AND MEDITATION COACH LUKE ELIJAH LIM, who holds wellness retreats and workshops around the world

Ms Hadi is not alone.

World travellers made 691 million wellness trips in 2015, 104.4 million more than in 2013, says the Global Wellness Institute, a non-profit education and research organisation based in Florida.

Global wellness tourism is now worth more than US$563.2 billion (S$804.6 billion), up 14 per cent from 2013, and is projected to grow by a third to US$808 billion by 2020, says the institute.

Using the World Health Organisation's definition of health, "wellness" is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, says the institute, and wellness retreats are destinations where guest wellness is the primary goal.

Ms Beth McGroarty, the institute's research director, told The Sunday Times that at first, physical health programmes such as exercise, weight loss, yoga, spa and detox over-shadowed mental well-being and happiness.

But that has changed rapidly in the past two years, she says, as the wellness industry recalibrates to help people with increasing levels of anxiety, depression and stress.

At Kamalaya, a holistic wellness resort in Koh Samui, Thailand, detox and cleansing programmes were the mainstay when it opened in 2005, but its stress and burnout programme has become the most popular offering in the past 21/2 years.

"This new focus is happening because, for one thing, mental issues are skyrocketing globally. Between 1990 and today, people suffering from depression or anxiety have increased by roughly 50 per cent, to over 600 million people, according to the World Health Organisation," says Ms McGroarty.

"We also suddenly live in a smartphone-tethered world where we are connected 24/7 to all kinds of digital noise and bombardment, so we are barraged by work, social media, news and information 24/7.

"This has decimated the work-life divide, sleep and any sense of free time or peace. People want to be close to the forces of nature - to be able to hear themselves think."

As a result, many are turning to retreats to help lead them back to nature and back to themselves, through meditation, mindfulness exercises, life-coaching, energy therapy, counselling, guided talks and specialised nutrition-rich diets.

To cater to the rising demand, even traditional hotels such as the Four Seasons Resorts are hiring yoga and mindfulness coaches to aid guests' wellness needs. These services are complimentary at some resorts, while others charge a fee.

Aggregator sites have also popped up to point travellers in the right direction.

From single-day sessions to two-week-long itineraries, travellers can easily locate the type of wellness experience they fancy through a range of dedicated wellness search and booking websites such as www.healingguide.org, www.spafinder.com, bookretreats. com and retreat.guru

While healing sessions, spa treatments or hour-long yoga classes may be helpful, Singaporean spiritual practitioner and meditation coach Luke Elijah Lim, 38, who holds wellness retreats and workshops around the world, says retreats are worthwhile for their intensity.

"A yoga class is more of a quick touch, but a retreat is powerful because you are there to dedicate and immerse yourself in your well-being, surrounded by fresh air, clean food, meditation and breathwork. You don't have to think about accommodation, meals or the itinerary - all of that is provided for you. You can focus completely on yourself," he says.

While wellness retreats can be costly, from $1,000 for a three-day retreat to upwards of $10,000 for a two-week one, travellers who have been on them say there are options for every budget if you know where to look.

Above all, look to nature, says Singapore-based Dutch photographer Esther Van Den Berg, 43, who recently returned from a week- long yoga retreat in Sri Lanka.

"In Asia, people looking for retreats often want the shiny and sleek-looking places, but I don't think that's what we need to connect, to get grounded. Rather than luxury, search for nature because nature is what we need to connect with ourselves."

Two months ago, Singapore-based Colombian Juan Sebastian Bayona, 30, felt like he needed a break from work and city life and some time to himself.

So he booked a spot in a ceramics studio in Bali as well as a few spiritual experiences there, including joining a group who sing, dance and commune with nature to let go of their ego and release stress.

"I realised I just wanted to do what I love, which is ceramics, so that is what I created for myself.

"At the end of the day, all you need is to allocate time for it," he says.


Thailand

Thailand is a popular wellness retreat destination, thanks largely to its developed tourism industry and long history of traditional massage and healing therapies.

Since Kamalaya wellness sanctuary and holistic spa resort (www.kamalaya.com) opened in Koh Samui in 2005, it has been ahead of the curve and has been regularly featured on lists of the best wellness resorts around the world.

Every guest at the luxury resort receives a health test and consultation with an in-house naturopath, who will tailor a wellness programme to the person's needs.

The 75-room resort - which requires a minimum three-night stay, with rooms starting at 6,000 baht (S$240) a night - is often fully booked during its peak season from December to April, with 35 per cent returning guests.

Guests can book a wellness programme in advance, such as the emotional balance and embracing change programme; healthy lifestyle and optimal fitness or sleep enhancement; detox; or the resort's most popular programme, stress and burnout. The all-inclusive wellness programmes start at about 63,000 baht for a three-day detox.

Kamalaya has been dedicated to mind and body health since its beginning, with in-house guides who specialise in translating ancient wisdom into contemporary language to coach and prescribe a treatment programme for each guest based on his needs. And with a ratio of nine staff to every two guests, guests will receive plenty of pampering.

Kamalaya's owner John Stewart lived in an ashram in Nepal for 16 years before opening the resort. His wife Karina is a registered traditional Chinese medicine practitioner.

For travellers looking for a more targeted approach, head north to Chiang Mai for a counselling-based retreat led by The Life Change People (www.thelifechangepeople.com).

Run by internationally trained counsellors, the organisation specialises in one-on-one life coaching holidays and couples' retreats.

Participants stay at the tranquil five-star Puripunn Baby Grand Boutique Hotel and meet for daily, up to three-hour sessions with life coaches who provide guidance on a guest's specific challenges. For the rest of the time, guests can relax at the hotel, enjoy yoga and cooking classes, market tours and visits to the nearby Buddhist temple.

At the end of the counselling holiday, guests will receive three months of continued support from the coaches to make sure their steps to overall wellness continue at home. A seven-night stay, airport transfers and the Life Change Programme costs about 48,000 baht, depending on the time of year.


South Asia

India - the birthplace of yoga, meditation, ashrams and ancient wellness traditions such as ayurveda developed more than 3,000 years ago - is home to numerous wellness resorts and retreats.

Among the best is Ananda (www.anandaspa.com), a luxury, multi-award-winning destination spa resort located at the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India.

Surrounded by gardens, forests and lakes on a 40ha estate of a maharaja's palace, Ananda overlooks the spiritual town of Rishikesh and the Ganges river valley.

Its wellness programme includes daily yoga classes, inspirational talks, meditation, forest walks and weekly treks.

Guests can also opt for one of nine wellness programmes, such as yogic detox, ayurvedic rejuvenation and weight management.

They can also indulge in the spa's more than 80 body and beauty treatments, which integrate traditional Indian practices, ayurveda and yoga in its expansive 2,300 sq m facility.

There are 24 treatment rooms, a gym, an outdoor temperature- controlled swimming pool and hydrotherapy facilities.

Packages, which last seven, 14 or 21 nights, start at US$680 (S$970) a night.

For a more back-to-basics approach, head to Ulpotha (www.ulpotha.com), an ayurvedic yoga retreat in central Sri Lanka.

A three-hour drive from Colombo, the forest retreat offers small groups of guests the chance to disconnect from urban life.

Accommodation consists of clean, comfortably furnished mud-floor huts with thatched roofs and no electricity. At night, rooms and pathways are lit by lamps. There is intermittent phone service, no Internet and only one solar panel on the property, at which guests can charge their phones.

A two-week stay that costs US$2,940 includes meals, accommodation, a health assessment by an on-site ayurvedic doctor and twice-daily yoga classes. Guests can also sign up for more multi-day ayurvedic treatments starting at US$200.

Guests spend their time practising yoga, meditating, eating ayurvedic food, receiving personally tailored spa treatments, swimming in a nearby lake and talking with one another. The result? Pure, calm bliss.


Bali

There is a reason Bali continues to rank among the top 10 wellness travel destinations in surveys conducted around the world. Not only is the Indonesian island home to numerous award-winning wellness resorts and retreats, but some people believe the island itself has spiritual and healing properties.

Mind and body guide Per Van Spall, 46, who is based between Bali and Singapore, says the island is a unique environment because of its people and geology.

"In Bali, people pray three times a day and almost every house has a temple, which gives a spiritual energy and density to the air. People feel this. Bali is also very green, with lots of trees, so there is a lot of oxygen in the air. I also believe there is something in the magnetism of the island. The constant stream of lava under Bali does something to the attraction."

Mr Van Spall (pervanspall.org) is a sought-after freelancer who promotes physical and emotional healing through a type of qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of focused intention, energy and breathing techniques. He leads wellness retreats in Bali and around the world, often working out of the renowned Como Shambhala Estate (www.comohotels.com/comoshambhalaestate), a lush, holistic health retreat located 20 minutes north of Ubud. Rooms start at US$550 (S$785) a night.

Travellers looking for a more adventurous and high-energy retreat can turn to Chosen (chosen experiences.com) tailored retreats, which combine physical, social, intellectual and emotional challenges to push participants outside their comfort zones to become the best version of themselves. An all-inclusive, double-occupancy seven-day retreat costs US$4,900.

Though high-energy fitness workouts are a key component of Chosen retreats, they are not bootcamps or weight-loss centres. The goal is a retreat where participants eat well, train hard, learn new skills and meet interesting people in an inspiring setting. Besides Bali, Chosen holds retreats in Guatemala, New Zealand and Iceland.

And for wellness travellers who do not want to meditate on all of their vacation days, try half-day, full-day or weekend transformational retreats such as the ones offered by Kirsty Ka (www.kirstyka.com/journey).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Recharge at retreats'. Print Edition | Subscribe