More people go on wellness retreats to unplug and reset

Wellness tourism is growing as more people destress and rejuvenate themselves at places such as this yoga retreat in Bhutan.
Wellness tourism is growing as more people destress and rejuvenate themselves at places such as this yoga retreat in Bhutan.PHOTO: COMO SHAMBALA

As she walked along a street in New York City seven years ago, Ms Katie Kozlowski was so upset that her boyfriend had stood her up that she did not notice the taxi before it hit her head-on and threw her across the road.

She was able to pick herself up from the gravel, deeply startled but unharmed.

The accident prompted Ms Koz- lowski to reflect on her life. After going through a string of abusive relationships and bouts of heavy drinking and depression, she knew something had to change.

"I wanted to go somewhere to figure out how to stop having these negative experiences," she said.

Not long after, she boarded a plane and joined more than 200 people on a week-long spiritual retreat in Ireland.

While there, Ms Kozlowski learnt to meditate. She loved the feeling of deep calm the group meditations gave her. "It brings awareness to what goes on inside your subconscious mind," she said.


After the retreat,  one becomes simultaneously calm and exhilarated. I was in a better position  of not only enhancing my own life, but also serving others.

PSYCHOLOGIST ANJHULA MYA SINGH BAIS, on the benefits of meditating during a 10-day Buddhist retreat.

She has since attended the retreat three more times. She said: "Each time, I left with a better understanding and more acceptance of myself."

As people report feeling more stressed - and interest in mindfulness meditation, adult colouring books and other calming techniques grows - more are turning to spiritual retreats to unplug and reset.

In the last few years, revenue for "wellness tourism", which includes meditation and other spiritual retreats, increased by 14 per cent, from US$494 billion (S$684 billion) in 2013 to US$563 billion in 2015, a growth rate more than twice as fast as overall tourism expenditures, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

Scientists from The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University in the United States found in a recent study that there are changes that take place in the brains of people who attend such retreats.

The findings, although preliminary, suggest that engaging in a spiritual retreat can have a short-term impact on the brain's "feel good" dopamine and serotonin function - two of the neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions.

The study subjects showed marked improvements in their perceived physical health, tension and fatigue. They also reported feelings of self-transcendence.

The co-authors highlighted the strong emotional responses that have long been associated with secular and religious retreats, such as "reduced stress, spiritual transformation experiences and the capacity to produce life-changing results".

Not everyone is able to access or afford a spiritual retreat, but a growing body of research has found that a daily practice of mindfulness meditation at home can also help reduce anxiety and bolster good health.

Psychologist Anjhula Mya Singh Bais experienced the benefits of meditating during a 10-day Buddhist retreat last year. She said: "I could feel the stress and cortisol melt away." Prior to her trip, Ms Bais had been struggling with several personal relationships.

"After the retreat, one becomes simultaneously calm and exhilarated," she said. "I was in a better position of not only enhancing my own life, but also serving others."

Some people who attend retreats return hungry to share what they have learnt. Ms Kozlowski is now a mindfulness teacher in Connecticut after her retreat experiences.

A lifelong nail-biter who hid her habit by applying fake nails, she realised she had stopped nail-biting after her second time at the retreat.

More importantly, she noticed that the negative thoughts she had about herself began to dissolve.

Now, seven years after that fateful night with the taxi, she said her life has changed for the better.

"I no longer have relationships with men who are verbally abusive. I also don't go out drinking in bars until I'm in a stupor," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'More people go on wellness retreats to unplug and reset'. Print Edition | Subscribe