I Went On a Wellness Retreat As a Last-Ditch Effort to Get Healthy
I was lured by the idea that one week of self-care in paradise would be just the medicine I needed.
I'm lying on a yoga mat, surrounded by couples, my bare feet in the lap of a very nice woman who works at the spa (occupational hazard of flying solo at a couples' resort). It's day one of Beloved Playa Mujeres' Wellness Week (in Playa Mujeres, Mexico) and we're learning about reflexology: The foot is a map of the body. The pad of the heel is the sciatic nerve. The bones below the pinkie toe are the arm and shoulder, and the tip of the big toe connects to the brain. Because I'm positioned just steps from the Caribbean Sea, essential oils dabbed on my wrists, my partner's thumbs pressing the section of my foot that corresponds to the heart, wellness seems to be within reach.
In most ways, I am well, but sometimes I can't see past the unfixable. My ailments aren't a broken leg or strep throat, so they don't have standard treatment plans. They don't respond to over-the-counter medicine, resolutions, willpower, or lifestyle changes. They're problems that I feel guilty for having because I should have been able to solve them by now: years of neck pain, a tendency to slide down depression's black hole, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) that makes me scream. Worst of all, I've been suffering from insomnia since 2003, back when I was graduating from my master's program and staring down the barrel of The Actual Adult World. I have tried all the things I've been told to try: a sugar-free diet, meditation, pills, supplements, herbs, acupuncture, yoga, psychotherapy, light therapy, mantras, and even a shaman or two.
Last fall, I realized I had a few options. I could think, Okay, I'm an insomniac. I'm a depressive. I'm vaguely unwell and might be forever. I could think, I'm lucky in the grand scheme of things; many live with far worse. Or I could say, I'm taking a week off from life, because damn it, I'm going to fix this.
Before receiving an invitation to Wellness Week, I'd been stuck in low-grade despair for months, haunted by terms like "chronic" and "genetic disposition" and "gets worse with age." There was something almost satisfying about surrendering to self-pity. But all I had to read were the words "…join us for Wellness Week…" and I was suddenly bulldozed by hope-the way I felt the last time I fell in love, the way I felt once when an acupuncturist relieved me of neck pain for a good eight hours. The word "wellness" seduced me-the scientific and holistic connotations of it, the balance of the mind, body, and spirit. It sounded like freedom from all of my problems. Wellness Week would be my chance to heal; maybe this time something would stick.
And I had reason-scientific evidence even-to believe that it would work for me, because everyone was doing it. Globally, wellness was a $3.7 trillion industry in 2015, with $563 billion allotted to wellness tourism. And those numbers are constantly growing. "Taking care of the mind and body have permeated popular culture," says nutritionist Carlene Thomas. "People are investing in wellness." As a travel writer who receives her fair share of press releases, I knew exactly what she meant. In addition to the invitation from Beloved, I also learned of an "integrated wellness program" at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch and a "wellness getaway" at Grand Velas Los Cabos. A quick Google search will turn up endless options: the Arrigo Programme in England where "deep nurturing and rest" are the mainstays, The Art of Living Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Ultimate Retreat Company that runs "inspiring luxury health and wellness retreats in Spain," 10-day silent meditation retreats in Buddhist temples, yoga retreats on beaches, fasting retreats in the woods, and, like Beloved's Wellness Week, vacation resorts offering wellness-themed mini-trips.
Back at Beloved, my reflexology partner has to wake me up to tell me that the workshop is over. I suppose it's exhausting to take an ocean-view yoga class in the "wellness palapa" on the beach and then take a Pilates class and then lie down for a foot massage, but I think I could probably get used to it. I'm hoping that I'm so exhausted, I'll sleep through the night. Hours later, after dinner, I do fall asleep immediately (someone has spritzed my pillow with essential oil, dimmed the lights, and turned on spa music), but then I pop awake at 3 a.m., same as always, my thoughts racing. One thought is: This is your only chance to achieve wellness, so you'd better get back to sleep right now so you don't mess up your day tomorrow. This kind of thinking-pro tip-isn't helpful.
On day two, I get to do a water "journey" in the spa that culminates in a neck massage. And by day four, which includes a yoga class on paddleboards in the ocean and an aromatherapy workshop, I am pretty sure that I'm never going to find the motivation to work again. Who wants to sit in front of a laptop when there's an ocean to zone out on, massages to be had, a Tibetan bowl meditation to attend? Who wants to string sentences together while hunched over a computer, further damaging an already damaged neck, when there's a happiness workshop to enjoy, a vegan chef to teach me how to cook, and a juice bar to frequent? I even sleep for six straight hours a couple of nights in a row. Maybe the appeal of wellness vacations is a lot like the appeal of any vacation. For a few days, you get to shift your priorities and do whatever you want and whatever feels good. A relaxing vacation can turn even the most wound-up workaholic into a Jimmy Buffett song personified. "At the very least, de-stressing does the skin, digestive system, and immune system a world of good," says Phoebe Lapine, author of The Wellness Project. "[Wellness retreats] give you the opportunity to press the reset button. Getting to rest and restore in an exotic location doesn't hurt morale, either."
But now what? What do I do with this stress-free feeling? Move to Cancun and become a paddle-board yoga instructor? Probably not. For one thing, I have no such skill set. For another thing, I remember in some distant part of my brain that I have my own responsibilities and goals and life. (All the deadlines I'm blowing at the moment, for example.) "While a wellness retreat can be wonderful for opening your mind to new things, to encouraging you to break old habits, it's the daily decisions you make that most impact your overall wellness," says Jessie Snyder, a plant-based blogger. "It's easy to embrace good habits when you're away from your routine and everyday temptations, but choosing wellness practices in your regular environment will make you stronger in the end." (Related: How to Plan a Staycation Wellness Retreat at Home)
In the end, even though my wellness week didn't cure my insomnia or depression, I felt a deep sense of peace by the last day, and I vowed to take a week off from my life more often. Most importantly, I left Beloved feeling motivated to pamper myself...or, at least, I felt reminded that I should. When I got home, I bought a class package at a local yoga studio. I went to the grocery store and stocked up on nuts and veggies and fish. I started being more diligent about treating my insomnia, activating my meditation app the second I woke up in the middle of the night, preventing anxiety from descending. Now, the negative news cycle remains a nightmare, my deadlines still loom, and my neck still hurts, but I've remembered how to take care of myself. When there's no cure, I still have self-care. And self-care is excellent medicine.