How To Choose The Right Wellness Retreat For You

How To Choose The Right Wellness Retreat For You


The last couple of years have seen the rise of “transformational travel” as the new holiday model. Is it for you?

2019: the year lounging by the pool and R&R became passé. Since when did chilling in some beautiful destination fails to be enough?

“Increasingly, travelers are looking for experiences that will change them emotionally, physically and spiritually,” says Rebecca Cairns, editor for Compare Retreats. People now want “more than a couple of cute photos and a tourist souvenir.”

According to Juliana Casares, Senior Pilates Instructor at Flex, normal holidays are simply not doing the trick anymore. “I think people have become so stressed and realized that going on holiday and hitting the pause button is just a bandaid.”

“There is so much still going on in the back of your mind that doesn’t get addressed,” she said. “Holidays are completely different from going on a coordinated, organized retreat that makes you think about or evaluate things that you want to change in your life.”
We learn more about how to choose the right wellness retreat from facilitators and seasoned well-being professionals Juliana and Anna Serafinas Luk, Co-Director of Flex Studio.

“At Flex, we have always been great believers in encouraging regular, enjoyable exercise habits young, so that they stay with you for life,” says Flex director Heather Thomas Shalabi.

How is it different from going on a regular holiday?

This is one of the first questions to ask when starting your retreat journey: defining whether you need a retreat versus a regular holiday, and why. The next step is discerning among the options in front of you: Is what you’re looking at an actual retreat or just a resort that offers yoga classes?

“There are many resorts that tell you they run a retreat that can start any day of the week,” says Juliana. “You’re basically renting a room and joining some classes on a schedule they give you. There’s no coordinator or group going through a process together.”

“That’s what I think people need to check,” she says. “It’s not just a resort combining facilities with classes, it’s an actual retreat with a shared purpose. That’s something to look for when choosing a retreat.”

Is the environment conducive to a meaningful experience?

Covering the basics is crucial. That includes:

  • Schedule of activities: Is there a good combination of targeted activities and free time?
  • Instructors: Did you read up on the specialization, style and philosophy of the facilitator(s)? It’s key to find people with good energy creating a positive and thoughtful vibe.
  • Location: Is the place peaceful, quiet, and free of other tourists on a totally different kind of holiday or distractions that will mess with your concentration?

Does it focus on what you want to personally work on/improve?

The retreat you’re looking for should correspond to an aspect of your life that you want to target for improvement. Is it fitness and clean eating, an evaluation of your relationships, career or mental/physical health?

Last year, Anna attended a “Mother and Daughter Retreat” specifically to tighten the bond between her daughters and herself.

“Last year I attended the Mother and Daughter Retreat conducted by Juliana with my beautiful daughters. This was so special as it gave me quality time to be with my girls and to learn more about each other, and most of all to appreciate one another. I am so looking forward to going back!”

Does it jumpstart a change of lifestyle or way of thinking?
Versus escaping your issues, retreats should tackle them. As a life coach, Juliana often asks her participants what they’ve been putting off that they really want to do, and what will make them feel happier.

“What I do in my retreats is encourage participants to try going a little bit deeper in finding more fulfillment in their lives,” says Juliana. “What habits can they change?”

Does it get you to ask the right questions?
In her Mother and Daughter Retreat, Juliana organized participants to have breakfast in their own rooms. “With the breakfast, I provided a card with different questions that were conversation starters,” she says. “The feedback was phenomenal.”

“Sometimes the questions were a little uncomfortable because it was meant to go a little bit deeper and to talk about the things that you don’t normally discuss. That’s what I mean about a retreat being different from normal holidays, you want to go deeper into those things and come out feeling like it was a conscious and meaningful act.”

What should you be thinking after the process? “I got a new direction, I feel renewed, refreshed, my ideas are clearer.”

Does it support or encourage self therapy and healing?

Some people go on retreats as a form of self-therapy and healing or recovery from trauma. In 2015, Juliana recalls signing up for her first retreat after ending a six-year relationship.

“When that happened, I decided to quit my job in Singapore and go on my first real retreat,” says Juliana. “I traveled for a few months, looking for an authentic place to learn the art of meditation. That took me to the Swami Rama Ashram in Rishikesh, where I studied for one month.”

Although one should not always expect a life reset, going into a retreat with an open mind/heart and realistic expectations pave the way for a potentially transformative experience.

“Even after I left, I was in a state of joy and gratefulness for a long time,” says Juliana. “That doesn’t mean all my problems went away, but at least I was able to step back and get unstuck.”

All things said and done, don’t expect your first retreat to change your life. It’s a gradual process with each experience contributing something different. Anna encourages starting with simple expectations: “It could be a break from your usual routine, relaxation, a kick start to a new health or fitness regime, or simply a getaway,” she says.

The best thing is to take the long view and consider your first retreat as the start of a life-healing practice. You can’t immediately jump into the thick of your thorniest issues, but you take the first step here.

This coming August 22-25, Anna and Juliana are hosting their first joint retreat called “Re.Shape, Re.Create, Re.Treat” at The Ark in Bali. Click here for more information.

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On a normal holiday, you might get distracted and then you come back home and didn’t get anything just relaxation.

Do you really need a facilitator or can you work on your issues on your own?
It doesn’t have to be one or the other; there is no single correct way of doing a retreat. You can be in a moment of your life where you need to be alone and sort through issues by yourself. Or, you might be best benefited by a professional life or fitness coach, or a combination of both.

Juliana considers her solo travel diving trips as her own tailor-made personal retreats. “I bring my yoga mat when I travel by myself and go on these ‘liveaboards’ where you live on a boat and scuba dive around four times a day.”

For her, going into the water is going into samadhi, or total surrender – a spiritual experience where your mind goes completely blank. “I combine that with my yoga practice,” she says: “doing my sunrise and sunset meditation practice as my everyday ritual.”
If it takes a while to figure out what works for you, that’s alright. The journey to find that is and important part of the process.

Questions for Anna:

  1. What is it you really want to achieve from your retreat?
  2. You should consider what benefits you will receive from the retreat, for example on our Retreat at The Ark in Bali you can expect to benefit from focused practice of both Pilates and Xtend Barre, you will be getting away from your daily routine and focus on healthy eating as well as relaxation in a beautiful environment away from it all! It’s a unique blend of exercise and leisure which is designed to leave you refreshed and rejuvenated.
  3. I have 2 memorable retreats!! The first retreat I ever did was our Flex retreat in Kamalaya Koh Samui, Pilates classes were taught by my Flex Co-Director Heather and Michelle Ricaille taught the yoga. I felt so rejuvenated and it was a total escape from the norm. Kamalaya is a little piece of heaven on earth! I didn’t want to leave!
  4. Retreats are different from being consistent with your normal routine because you take the exercise out of the box. For example, at the Ark, the studio is not a conventional exercise studio but a beautiful outdoor covered space or ‘Shala’, therefore it already gives a sense of freedom and a unique and special environment to workout in. You benefit from focused practice and have time to work more on what matters to you and you will feel the benefits of daily exercise which will help to improve your flexibility and focus of mind.
  5. What to expect from our retreat.
    Expect to meet like-minded people, you will improve your practice in both Pilates and Xtendbarre, you will have time to focus on yourself and find a renewed energy and vitality, you will eat delicious plant-based locally sourced food, you will have time to relax in beautiful, lush surroundings and finally you will benefit from new health and fitness routines that will stay with you when you get back home feeling recharged and refreshed!!

Questions for Juliana:

  • What advice can you give people shopping for their first wellness retreat? Or for retreats in general?
  • For me, what I like it’s to be in a place where there are no tourists; where it’s just the retreat happening so that’s why I prefer a retreat center rather than doing a retreat in a resort. When you do a retreat in a resort there will be other people there on holidays and it’s a totally different vibe, so on your free time you go by the pool and you know maybe there are families or there are people on a different vibe. And then also breakfast, it’s different. When it’s a retreat center the people there are normally the retreat will book the whole thing; the organizer. That’s what we’re doing at the ark now, we’re booking the whole space. Nobody else is there distracting you there’s no outside energy. All the meals are organized and thought for the activities we’re doing everyday. And the food is super healthy because on a resort you will probably have continental breakfast, there are some really detox oriented resorts I know but it’s not so tailor made. I like the idea of tailor made, intimate. It creates a totally different experience

  • What factors should people consider when choosing a retreat that’s right for them?
  • I think it is important for a retreat to be successful to have a nice schedule of activities, a good combination. Also to have something unique, different. The instructors are crucial… you need good instructions, people who come to retreats generally do their practice at home and already know what’s good. You need to have instructors with good energy…
    The location – a place that is peaceful, quiet. That’s what i love about the ark, it’s surrounded by rice plantations… (see link). It’s an eco lodge, and all the rooms have a view of the forest (most, if not all). It’s super quiet, close enough to ubud town that you can walk in around 20 min or take a taxi…. But far enough to be super quiet in the area. Ubud these days can be very noisy and busy, the traffic can be horrible. Here we are not too close but not too far.
    You need to have enough activities to make it interesting but also quiet time. People wanna chill and read a book by the pool.

  • How long have you been moderating retreats? When was your first one?
  • I started moderating retreats last year, my first one was the mother and daughter retreat. I’m a nomad myself, I’m a traveller, and it’s been always my dream to combine my passion for travel, for wellness… when I travel myself I have a yoga mat. I don’t usually go on retreats myself, ironically but my retreats are my diving holidays. I do diving holidays that are normally live aboards where it’s 4 dives a day and my yoga mat is always with me. I know my practice… if there’s no instructor I know to do it because I’m an instructor myself. When I’m on my diving holidays it could be on a live aboard or I just book a resort by the beach. I do my sunrise and meditation practice and my sunset yoga and meditation as my ritual. I do it always on my holidays and for me diving is a spiritual experience, that’s my retreat tailor made for me. When I go in the water, I go into samadhi, total surrender and it’s spiritual for me. The combination of that with my yoga practice and pilates, but mainly yoga.
    My first retreat was mother and daughter… the idea came up because I had. It started because my mom was coming to visit me and I had been able to establish a good relationship with the ark, it just clicked. They were giving me good possibilities and really flexible cancellation policies; it encouraged me to run my retreat and then I said perfect my mom is here how about doing a mother and daughter retreat? It was such a great first experience, it was so unique. I wanted to do something different, something that was not out there… many retreats out there. Mother and daughter i thought was something unique and it was more than I expected… the connection that now I have with my mom. I was organizing the activities and I didn’t have time to do everything that everyone else was doing but I can still feel the effects with how the relationship with my mom. We were always very close but now it’s just a different connection, so much deeper.

  • What was your most memorable retreat?
  • When was the first time you participated in a retreat and how was the experience?
  • Experience at the ashram and Vipassana, diving-yoga holidays tailor made as a self retreat stayed for a month in 2014
    I was the happiest person living there even when I left I was for a long time in such a joyful, grateful bliss. I remember how big and warm my heartfelt. – the vipassana center I stayed at in 2015

  • What do you think are the biggest factors contributing to the success of a retreat?
  • How are retreats different from being consistent with your normal fitness routine?
  • Going to a resort that offers yoga classes is not a retreat. In a retreat you’re there to get a deeper experience. I’m a live coach and what I do in the retreat is to try to go a little bit deeper in finding more fulfillment in your life, feeling happier, what have you been putting off that you just really want to do and that will make you feel happier? What habits can you change? So there are a lot of little things I normally do… in the mother and daughter retreat they had breakfast in their own rooms. With the breakfast I provided a card with different questions that were conversation starters and the feedback was that they loved it. Sometimes the questions were a little uncomfortable because it was meant to go a little bit deeper and to talk about the things that you don’t normal discuss. That’s what I mean about the retreat being different from a normal holiday, you want to make it different go deeper into those things and come out feeling like oh this was so meaningful. I got a new direction, I feel renewed, refreshed, my ideas clearer. That’s what i think is the difference between. There are many resorts that tell you they run a retreat they start any day of the week that’s actually you do is rent a room and they give you the schedule of classes and you join classes bu there’s no coordinator or group going through a process so that’s what i think people need to check it’s not just a resort combining faciltiies with classes, it’s a retreat. That’s something to look for when looking for your own retreat
    A form of therapy.

  • Why should people go on / prioritize retreats? What expectations can / should they have?
  • Why do you think retreats have risen in popularity in recent years?
  • I think people have become so stressed and they realize a normal holiday is not doing the trick. I think you go on holiday and your mind pauses but there is so much still going on in the back of your mind that you don’t really get done / address. When you’re on holidays not in a coordinated, organized retreat that makes you think about or evaluate things that you want to change in your life… on a normal holiday you might get distracted and then you come back home and didn’t get anything… just a relaxation.
    So I think retreats became popular because people are stressed and there is a lot of need for healing and changing habits and having a meaningful holiday reconnecting self love leaving a materialistic and hectic society these days and with a lot of rushing around and stressed. Retreats provide a safe atmosphere to explore, reconnect with yourself and your values, with the things you want to keep doing or the things you wanna change. That’s the difference between a normal holiday and a retreat. Because people are needing more spirituality, connection and self love because society and life these days has changed so much that there is no time for that or not enough for that in everyday life.

  • What’s your personal style when leading retreats? What sets you apart from other ‘retreat leaders’ or facilitators?
  • I mix yoga, pilates, my experience as a traveler and my coaching. My coaching is what really puts the icing on the cake for that; it goes a little bit deeper into changing habits and being the creator of the life you wanna have and your happiness. This is called retreat, reshape, and recreate. You’re going to reshape your body, recreate your life, that’s when coaching comes in… rethinking about where you are, where you wanna be and how you’re gonna bridge that gap and retreat yourself because there are massage options, the place is beautiful, the food is delicious… it’s self love

  • What / how should people prepare for a retreat?
  • Be willing to be out of their comfort zone and to open up and especially in the ark. It’s an eco lodge… in hong kong we live in a concrete city. In an eco lodge people will be out of their comfort zone. The eco lodge of course they don’t kill insects, all the bedrooms have mosquito nets but you might see some ants around and they don’t kill them or put anything because we are in their space. And that’s what i love… love for nature in this particular place. We go back to nature, back to the origins, to rethink who we are, where we’re gonna be and recreate ourselves.

  • What can people expect from your upcoming retreat “Re.Shape, Re.Create, Re.Treat at The Ark, Bali”?

Interview Anna Serafinas Luk about upcoming retreat:

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