As someone who craves adventure, enjoys learning different languages and writes about food and fitness trends from far corners of the world, it might surprise people to hear that I’ve never traveled alone. Previous trips to France, Hong Kong and the Philippines were always with family or friends. And work trips usually had colleagues or other familiar faces waiting for me on the other end. That is, until I was sent to Montego Bay, Jamaica this past December on a four-day press trip commissioned by the Jamaica Tourist Board.
My mission: To run and cover the Reggae Marathon. (The race weekend includes a marathon, half-marathon and 10k. I picked the 10K option, and considered it in the bag.)
My editor added one more important demand, though, before I left: “Relax.” It dawned on me that I hadn’t taken a day off since early summer.
With an itinerary packed with yoga, rafting and visiting cultural landmarks, now would be my chance. What I didn’t expect was the impact it would have on a personal, self-care level. Here are some of the biggest lessons I learned about going on a wellness retreat.
5 Unexpected Things I Learned on a Wellness Retreat
1. You need to be alone to practice self-care.
I have to admit: The idea of traveling alone was a little intimidating for me. Being an introvert, you might think a five-day solo trip in paradise would be a dream come true. But I was nervous about traveling with other journalists I had never met and being placed in social settings where I would be put on the spot to make small talk. But being around strangers actually forced me to address my own needs and seek time alone. (And this isn’t rude, mind you. Studies show that being alone is how many introverts “recharge,” so to speak.)
If I had been traveling with family or friends, I would have felt obligated to spend all my time with them. Instead, I went on walks at the end of the day to gather my thoughts. I started my mornings early enough to sit down and have breakfast-for-one at the café downstairs. Or, I’d sit on the balcony of my room to meditate for a few minutes each day. Research shows that people who practice self-care are able to better cope with everyday stresses. (Like making more small talk with strangers!)
2. A different setting can challenge your body in a new way.
On our first day staying at The Cliff resort in Negril, we took a Kundalini yoga class held in a gazebo overlooking Jamaica’s most beautiful turquoise coastlines. I’ve taken some immersive yoga classes that try to incorporate a peaceful setting into a New York City studio, but none of them beats actually being there.
Soaking in my natural surroundings will all my senses gave me a new perspective on how to use my breath and engage my muscles in challenging ways. Because the class was held outside and we didn’t play music, I felt more in tune with my body and the movements. I held onto the poses a little longer than usual and tried the more difficult progressions of the poses. As I sat in the stillness of lotus pose and listened to the rustle of trees and waves crashing into shore, it played like an outdoor symphony, giving me cues for when to inhale and exhale. And by my fifth downward dog, I also lost the urge to compare myself to others. I was too captivated by the sights and sounds of nature around me.
3. Solitude can help you practice gratitude.
It’s cliché, but it’s true: Spending time away from my family, friends and boyfriend made me appreciate them more and miss them more, too. Sometimes, we equate being with people as time that’s meaningful, but the time you spend with yourself matters just as much. And experts concur: Studies show that solitude can help you think more deeply and improve your concentration and productivity. Being alone also gave me the opportunity to process thoughts and feelings I hadn’t tapped into in way too long. And yes, it helped me relax and channel positive thoughts, too.
4. Slowing down can make you more productive.
Throughout my time in Jamaica, our schedules were booked visiting one local spot to the next and doing social activities in between. This didn’t leave me much time to be in front of my laptop reading emails and catching up on work. But unplugging made my experience richer, and I was also able to do a better job of reporting since I had to fully immerse myself into the trip. The nice change of pace gave me more energy in the end to get work done and focus on specific tasks at hand. After all, our minds are designed to think about just one thing at a time. In fact, single-tasking can help you get more done in less time.
5. It isn’t always about crossing the finish line.
Oh right, I also had a race to run. Since the trip came together last-minute, I didn’t have much time to train for the 10K. As someone who has trained diligently for every 5K or half-marathon I ran in the past, I felt out of my zone running a race on a whim. But it didn’t discourage me from doing my best. I figured it was time to surprise myself with how strong and resilient I really am.
Any time I wanted to give up (seriously, would anyone notice if I slipped away to the white sand beach?), I reminded myself I was more than capable of eking out six miles. Sure, it was an early race — we lined up in the corrals around 4:30 a.m. — and I didn’t feel rested enough from all the activities the night before. But as the Jamaican sun slowly rose over the famous 7-Mile Beach, I crossed the finish line to the tunes of Bob Marley and a crowd of happy faces. I knew I had no worries, and the real reward was the feeling that I could go another mile or two.