A row of people try to relax as a coach times them
Illustration by Maxime Mouysset.
Life

The Rise of the Retreat

How vacation became just another thing we’re working on.
March 30, 2020, 3:41pm

Last summer, it seemed like everyone I knew was going on a retreat. One friend had just returned from a retreat called “Radiantly Alive,” which sounded fun, if maybe a bit embarrassing. Another friend had signed up for a mother-daughter retreat for herself and her pre-teen; they would be doing yoga together, eating healthy and learning to maintain more open lines of communication with each other. My upstairs neighbor left town to meditate in silence for 10 days. Someone I had just met began aggressively promoting a retreat she was leading, spamming my social media feeds with heartfelt calls to action about taking time for myself.

Meanwhile, celebrities were at it too. Jack Dorsey meditated in silence in Myanmar just over a year ago, and Elizabeth Gilbert has been taking her “Big Magic” awaken-your-creativity show on the road to retreats all over the world. Gwyneth is hosting a Goop retreat, onboard a cruise ship in August that costs over $5,000 per person. (It’s sold out.)

Something’s up with retreats, I thought. Isn’t this supposed to be the age of burnout? Don’t people deny themselves vacation days and spend all their leisure time working on their side-hustles? How, I wondered, are retreats so popular when regular, no-frills relaxation is elusive for so many people? Maybe retreats are the future of vacations, I thought. Maybe they’re what my life has been missing.

When I booked my very first wellness retreat, at the New Life Hiking Spa in Vermont, it was the first time in years that I’d traveled alone—no kids, no husband. New Life is one of the most affordable wellness retreats on the market, and it operates more on principles of suggestion than doctrine. The meals are healthy and simple, and if you’re in the mood for a burger, you can grab a bite down the road at the pub and without ruffling any feathers. There are several hikes planned for each day, but nothing is mandatory. Many people go to New Life to lose weight but peoples’ motivations vary. A surprising number of people I met at New Life were repeat visitors; for many of them, it’s an annual tradition akin to healthy summer camp for adults.

On my first night there, I hastened to my hotel room after our healthy group dinner and took a running leap onto the Best Western duvet. (Like many retreats, New Life isn’t a permanent installation—it operates during the summer off-season at the base of Killington Mountain ski resort in Vermont, and is housed in the mountain-side Best Western.)

Mixed in with my excitement at being all by myself with no housework or care-giving to do was a nagging worry that I would let this golden opportunity for pure, uncut relaxation go to waste. I should do all the relaxing things at once, but also slowly, with great intention: take a hot shower, watch Bravo shows, luxuriate in bed, eat the chocolate I had smuggled into my room. Worrying about getting the most out of your relaxation-time, to the extent that you may be sabotaging your very ability to relax, feels like a richly contemporary flavor of self-defeating behavior, and this worry flooded my brain within minutes of my arrival at New Life. It’s exactly the sort of maddening circular thinking that makes spending a grand on a retreat seem not only appealing, but essential.

A woman sitting on a rock on the cliffs overlooking an ocean playing a wooden flute at the Esalen Institute in 1987. Photo by Matthew Naythons/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty.

New Life is one of the older wellness retreats currently in operation; it calls itself "America's original wellness retreat," and was founded in the 1970s by Jimmy LeSage, who still runs it, along with his wife Kathleen. New Life is not a luxury experience, nor is it sexily, interestingly spartan, like a fasting retreat. The menus have a homely Moosewood Cookbook quality—cooked veg, a starch, a plastic bowl of tomato soup. At any given time, there are about 50 people doing retreats at New Life, ranging in age from teens to people in their 80s.

New Life has changed remarkably little since its founding. Although it has updated its menu and programming slightly over the years, many regulars return year after year because of its comforting consistency. Meanwhile, in the decades since New Life started, the wellness retreats industry has exploded.

Turns out, it wasn’t a coincidence that so many people I know have been going on retreats lately: Retreats are big business. According to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit that works to support the wellness industry internationally, wellness tourism grew by 6.5 percent annually from 2015-2017, twice as fast as global tourism overall. Wellness retreats were once a tourism niche, an alternative to more mainstream options like cruises or all-inclusive vacations. Today, cruises and all-inclusives are rebranding themselves as retreats, broadening their appeal to people across class and cultural spectrums.

These modern-day wellness retreats have their roots in the 19th century “sanatoriums” that offered fresh air, curative water, and medical care for people suffering from tuberculosis, asthma, and many other respiratory illnesses. Some experimented in therapies that were then considered alternative, like electro-shock therapy and hypnosis.

Many of these were basically long-term care facilities, and they varied from luxurious resorts for the wealthy, like the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan, to the dozens of small, threadbare curative-hotels for lower-class visitors that were once scattered throughout New Mexico and Arizona, as Richard Melzer outlined in his 2014 book Sanatoriums of New Mexico.

As the “retreat” concept has extended its goal-driven structure into our precious remaining leisure and vacation time, we are clearly leaning away, and even afraid to engage with, any activity that is simply supposed to be fun and pointless, an end in and of itself.

With the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics in the early 20th century, many illnesses that had been linked to retreats began to be treated medically. By World War II, Melzer explains, health-care sanatoriums all but vanished from the landscape. But with the growing interest in alternative wellness modalities in the 1970s, a new kind of sanatorium emerged: the holistic retreat. The Esalen Institute, founded in 1962, was at the vanguard of this movement, and now stands as one of the most renowned—and most expensive—wellness retreats in America.

Esalen is located in Big Sur, on the site of hot springs where visitors can bathe overlooking magnificent Pacific shoreline cliffs. It was founded by Dick Price and Michael Murphy, two young Stanford graduates from wealthy families. In a recent article about Esalen in The New Yorker, Murphy (now 88) told journalist Andrew Marantz, “Our whole intention was, and still is, to allow people to get out of their inherited orthodoxies and into the business of discovering truth.”

Esalen remains at the forefront of the wellness movement, incorporating programming that critically engages with technology use and progress. But this level of discourse isn’t for everyone—retreats at Esalen start at around $400 for a weekend (if you bring your own sleeping bag), and range up to around $10,000 for a week.

As the wellness trend has migrated from its crunchy-granola origins to the mainstream, retreats have reoriented themselves toward today’s over-extended, overworked, anxiously entrepreneurial middle class. Their organizers are starting to promise much more than just relaxation—they are promising to help you unlock your hidden potential.

There are retreats about “stepping into your power.” Of slowing down and “moving the fire within us.” You can “connect with nature in one of the most sought-after regions in the country.” You can “fall in love with yourself and life” through the guided “removal of fear-based thoughts.” You can detoxify the body, mind and spirit. You can “re-set, re-group, and start anew. Or “journey into a life well-lived.” A service called “Retreatify” helps companies plan meaningful retreats for their employees.

It’s hard to argue with the stated goals of retreats; they all sound like noble endeavors. But as the “retreat” concept has extended its goal-driven structure into our precious remaining leisure and vacation time, we are clearly leaning away, and even afraid to engage with, any activity that is simply supposed to be fun and pointless, an end in and of itself. As we continuously “work” on ourselves, that has left very little room for us to attend to our own humanity outside of the confines of the marketplace. The retreat industry promises to give us the tools to liberate ourselves from the cages of stress and burnout that define post-capitalist life. But it operates based on the same logic of experience-consumption and self-optimization that, many argue, form the very root of our discomfort.

New Life Hiking Spa guests take on an intermediate trail, one of 21 different hikes the spa offers. Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty.

On my first morning at New Life, over eggs on supermarket whole wheat toast, coffee with milk (but no sugar) and oranges, I met a birdlike woman in her 60s from Princeton, New Jersey, who comes every summer for a few days of hiking by herself. “I love to be out in nature, but I have a terrible sense of direction, and I’m a total klutz,” she said. “My husband… does not participate in this kind of activity. So I come by myself. I love it.”

About half the people I met at mealtimes (which are taken communally, like at summer camp) were traveling solo, and two women were retreat veterans. “I’ve tried them all,” said Sue, a 50 year old woman from Canada. “I don’t like the calorie-restricted places, but I like spending my vacation time doing something healthy.”

Retreats are an appealing vacation option for unattached people, particularly women, who have disposable income and demanding jobs. As younger generations put off marriage until later in life (or forever), a growing number of adults are going on vacation alone. Retreats are appealing because they offer low-pressure opportunities for meeting people, and a structured schedule that takes the pressure off the traveler to fill the day with activities.

Allison Hunter, a literary agent, went solo to a wellness retreat called Miraval in Arizona last year, and loved it.

“Originally I thought I would go somewhere warm and be chilling on the beach, but I really liked Miraval because it felt like a very normal place to travel alone. It was a way to go by myself and meet people and not be alone the whole time.”

Allison found the retreat transformative in part because it forced her to change her habits. “I felt relaxed like I have never felt before. And part of that, honestly, was that they have a no-cellphones policy. It's a digital detox… I feel like I always have to be available for work. I will go on vacation, but I am very rarely off the grid—if ever. It would have been impossible for me to unplug unless it had been imposed on me,” she said.

Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed who is working on a book about millennial burnout, remarked that for young professionals working in today’s highly competitive job market, retreats offer a structure to vacation that can make them easier to justify.

“With retreats, you’re very formally spending time on yourself. For a lot of people, you have to force yourself to take time off, and retreats can operate like that. It can be helpful if they’re extreme in some way—if there’s a detox element, or a challenge of some kind.”

Conventional wisdom maintains that vacation is a time to cease working. But increasingly, people use vacations as an opportunity to work on themselves.

Among people for whom taking time off is hard, retreats can assuage guilt. “Retreats, even when they’re really relaxing, can make you feel that you’re being productive in some way,” said Petersen.

During one of our hikes, a woman from Houston who was at New Life with her childhood best friend told me they try to take a trip together every few years, but planning a vacation by oneself can be a lot of work—and then, what if it ends up being a bust? There’s a lot of pressure. “We want to go somewhere and basically not have to think, at all,” she said.

Some people go on retreats to structure their time off, or to create a sense of accomplishment that they feel they need in order to justify their vacation time. On the other side of this coin are the people who go on retreats because they have run out of ways to cope with the demands of their lives.

Janet Nicol is a yoga and movement teacher who leads retreats all over the world. “The people that I meet most often on the retreats I lead are women who are exhausted from worrying and care-giving,” she said. “They are just completely spent when they arrive. Often you’ll see amazing transformations happen to people. After a retreat they look different. They sound different.”

My friend Joseph has attended two meditation retreats, which he sees as a rare opportunity to explore new terrain within himself that his regular schedule simply would never allow him to do. On a recent meditation retreat, however, he noticed that some of his fellow attendees kept falling asleep during meditation. “They let us recline during meditation, and the snoring drove me nuts for the first few days,” he said. “It seemed like what people were really doing all week was catching up on sleep.” (Of course, there’s a retreat for that.)

In each of these cases, the rigors of daily life seem to make it impossible for people to take unstructured, un-defined time off from work. Either people work so hard that they have to be forced by a set of hierarchically enforced house rules to stop working—a week’s silent meditation, say, or a phone-free facility—or they arrive at their vacation so spent from working and giving care that they are unable to plan and enjoy time off without the facilitation (and cost) of a third party. In all three cases, the rigors of daily life are pushing people to the point where regular time off is not enough to facilitate rest and relaxation.

Conventional wisdom maintains that vacation is a time to cease working. But increasingly, people use vacations as an opportunity to work on themselves. Life lived outside of a goal orientation is hard for some of us to imagine. Even rest itself has been reframed as a “skill”—something to “practice” and “develop” based on a set of “ground rules” and principles. Rest—the very antithesis of work—can be optimized, and transformed into a goal to be accomplished or fallen short of. The growth of retreats has happened alongside this growing obsession with optimization.

Time off is never just time off; in a capitalist social order, it’s empty space to be filled with the best possible consumer experience we can afford. “Millennials, but also younger people, have this tendency toward optimization,” said Anne Helen Petersen. “On vacations it’s this hope that you’ve picked the right thing—and then feeling, while you’re doing it, some sort of regret: “Oh, I didn’t pick that thing.”

Gwyneth Paltrow in her commercial for Goop at Sea. Screenshot via Celebrity Cruises

I enjoyed my time at the New Life Hiking Spa. I can’t say that I left more relaxed than when I arrived, but I was pleased with having taken a break from unhealthy food and alcohol, and it felt good to spend most of every day outside.

Everyone I met at New Life had modest goals for their stay: To get back on track with healthy eating, or to get moving after a period of hard work during which they sat at a desk too long. Some people were there to lose a particular number of pounds, like a mother-daughter duo from Texas. In the van on the way to a daily hike I sat next to a woman traveling solo. The mother of two teenage sons, she was treating herself to some quiet, healthy time where she could enjoy nature without having to cater to her family’s needs (“and I don’t have to listen to them complain constantly, because they’re not here,” she added). A retreat was a structured excuse to take a vacation without her family.

New Life is unusual in its resistance to self-optimization. “All you need for wellness is to feel comfortable and be relaxed. That doesn’t really sound sexy I guess,” said Kathleen LeSage, who manages New Life’s marketing. “People come here, they don’t wear makeup, and they just enjoy nature. Jimmy’s never been one to chase after the latest trend. We don’t give things the latest buzzy name.”

Unlike many wellness retreats, it exists more or less outside the totalizing sphere of social media. Besides the hikes themselves, which take place along the nearby Appalachian Trail, the spa is not photogenic. People do not go there to burnish their personal brands; it’s not the kind of place you’d boast about.

What I found most appealing about New Life was the frankness with which my fellow retreaters spoke about their own frailty, and about their vulnerability in a world that challenges our willpower at every moment of the day. When, during our hike, a 65-year-old man cheerfully told me that he returned to the spa every summer, lost weight during his eight days of hiking, and then gradually regained it all until returning the following summer, it felt like a rare and radical truth-telling.

The struggle to cope with the stress of everyday life is one of the great ironies of life during our era of post-capitalist plenty. For many people whose basic needs are fully met, it’s still hard to feel at peace, though the concept that anything could really calm the endless restlessness of the human condition is one that retreats capitalize on as well. And as we each feel more stressed, we become less available to bear the burden of others’ everyday struggles. Social interdependence—the free, flawed, yet existentially essential emotional mycelium that runs throughout a healthy society—is eroded in a social order that emphasizes hard work and self-optimization over everything else.

Retreats give us a short break from the impossible lives we’ve built for ourselves, but it’s very hard to bring the lessons we learn at retreats back home with us—just ask the man who gains back his weight every year. If it were easier to enact retreat-life at home, retreats would become obsolete. In the meantime, we use our vacation days to recover from work in structured environments where our anxious and unhealthy habits are eased into submission by professionals.

I had a long talk with a woman around my age as we hiked back down toward the trailhead. Like many other people I met at New Life, she was a veteran of many retreats. Every one had its strengths and weaknesses; she rattled them off to me like an old hand. But they all serve the same fundamental purpose, she admitted. Some have “amenities,” some take away your phone, some encourage you to take part in “sharing circles,” others leave you alone to watch TV in your room if you so desire. “The main thing is, you don’t have to think,” she said. “You don’t have to figure out what to eat, what to do, when to do it. It’s all decided for you. It’s a huge relief. I’m just like—please, put me in your hands. I’m exhausted, and planning a vacation is so much work.”

Follow Kathryn Jezer-Morton on Twitter.