“Overall, traveling the Camino de Santiago felt peaceful. You can spend hours each day, walking and contemplating. ”
- Karen Castellon, traveler and pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James)
For millennia, people have linked spirituality and wellness, and in many cultures and traditions, people still do. Whether it is as simple as music's ability to increase dopamine, or using meditative techniques to regulate breathing and ease anxiety, there are many paths to an individual's journey to wellness. It's even possible to explore the crossroads of health and spirituality by mixing contemplative practices and visits to spiritual destinations near your home or worldwide.
According to Duke University psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig, spirituality, medicine and healthcare have been related in all populations throughout recorded history.¹ To this day, many people don’t differentiate between their reflective selves and their physical well-being. Just the most basic question, “how do you feel?” can elicit a broad array of answers. From the superficial "fine" to a mix of the emotional with the physical.
That may be why travel retreats are so popular. Some mix the physical with the meditative, others focus on one or the other. Sometimes a person’s path to wellness includes a goal to get away from it all (if only for a few days). The proverbial “it” is different for everyone. Perhaps by listening to your inner voice when it says you need a break, you can take charge of your wellness and feel better. You won’t be alone: wellness tourism is a $639 billion market.²
Healthy living through meditation and contemplation: destinations that inspire
Whether you are looking for a silent retreat locally, or you are ready to find inner peace in an Indian ashram, there are countless options to mix meditative practices with adventures. Pack your bags and cleanse your soul.
Choosing your own spiritual adventure: trek as a pilgrim
You can travel lightly. Some people only bring one change of clothes. It's not about being well-dressed. It's about being comfortable."
- Karen Castellon
Karen Castellon, a self-described “spiritual person” and mother of three, enjoys both hiking and meeting people from all over the world. Castellon has trekked through two sections of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, as it is sometimes called, is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in the world. It’s actually not just one route, but a series of western European trails that end at the tomb of St. James in Spain. The pilgrimages began in the year 813 when the tomb was discovered, and have grown to an interlinked network of paths. Walkers are called “peregrinos” or pilgrims, and can chose from many options: the Spanish route, the Portuguese route, the French route, etc.
The Camino offers flexibility. You can plan your voyage to meet your stamina and timeline. Companies offer organized tours, where everything is planned in advance by an agency. Or you can do what Castellon did, and put together ad hoc plans yourself, changing them on the fly, depending on how much walking you can do over the course of the next few days. Castellon explains, "You can pace yourself, figure out how much, or little walking you want to do each day and decide for yourself what the right length is for you. Do you want to walk the Portuguese route? Or how does starting in France sound? Germany? It’s all up to you."
Her destinations varied from very small villages to towns that she could explore. Karen, a New Yorker who speaks fluent Spanish, met people from all over the world and enjoyed the peace she felt walking the same route as others have since the 9th century. Some days she enjoyed walking alone with her own thoughts. Other days, she socialized with pilgrims from all over the world.
Castellon is already looking forward to her next adventure. This time, she’s hoping to do a full thirty-day expedition. What a way to try a new exercise routine.
Finding excitement, peace, meaning and spirituality in India
Senior Lecturer at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in Singapore, Dr. Doug Rolph is no stranger to exploration. Dr. Rolph has visited ashrams in India and lived and traveled widely across Asia. He recommends the Sri Ramanasramam Ashram.
"I find peace and deep meaning in visits to ashrams. Every part of the trip has a spiritual component. Even the healthy food, which is sometimes cooked by local families as a religious offering, brings a special spiritual aspect to the journey."
One of the most exciting and meaningful experiences has been his visit to Tiruvannamalai during the week-long Deepam festival. The highlight is when a huge vat of ghee (clarified butter) is lit on fire atop Mount Arunachala. Each evening, the ghee-fire is re-lit and people carry smaller bowls of burning ghee down the mountain, creating a train of light.
Exploring wellness and creativity in Costa Rica
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica is world-famous for eco-tourism. Its rainforests, volcanos, waterfalls and beaches make it a natural destination for visitors seeking a special experience. Educational tourism operator RoadScholar® (formerly Elderhostel) offers Walking & Wellness: Costa Rican Secrets of Longevity, where you can hear tips on how to live a healthier lifestyle. This program uses exercise to elicit positive emotions.
For a more creative approach, also in Costa Rica, artist Jennifer Schmitt traveled from her home in Maine to Costa Rica’s rainforest to attend Wide Open Writing’s retreat. "The program offered me the opportunity to mix yoga with creative writing in a uniquely peaceful setting. I found the experience very meaningful." She enjoyed getting to know other participants, whose ages ranged from 25 to 75 years old.
Finding peaceful retreats stateside
If your preference – or your budget – is geared toward a retreat closer to home, the options are nearly endless. Many organizations offer the option to create a private retreat for groups. Here are just a handful of thousands of opportunities to meditate, pray, convene with nature or just stay silent here in the United States:
Silent retreats in Massachusetts: Eastern Point Retreat House offers Jesuit-based programs, as well as directed, guided and private retreats in a picturesque setting on the coast. “In a world of constant noise, visual distractions and dizzying activity, it is difficult for most of us to maintain a focus on what is most important.” There are a variety of options for groups or individuals. You’ll hear waves and maybe birds, but you won’t hear cell phones or talking.
Exploring the subconscious in North Carolina: Ever wonder about your dreams and want to take a deeper dive into exploring their meaning? RoadScholar offers a special opportunity to do just that at the Montreat Conference Center. Take a break to explore your dreams. Hear about others’ journeys as you explore the visions of sleep. The same organization also offers an advanced yoga program, also at Montreat.
Qigong, self-acupressure and the art of meditation in California: Also under the guidance of RoadScholar, check out the Rejuvenation Retreat for Women (sorry gents). This program offers a course in restorative traditions and self-healing. You’ll also learn massage techniques with essential oils and expert-led meditations, visualizations and mantras.
Experiencing native spirituality in Arizona: For an immersive retreat like no other, check out Crossing World’s programs. With workshops, ceremonies, retreats and spirit journeys, there are many ways to explore shamanic practices and encounter Native American culture.
Whether your idea of a spiritual place of refuge is hearing organ music that rattles a church’s stained glass windows, experiencing Zen at a temple in Kyoto, Japan, or a special place under a tree outside your front door that brings joy to your soul, you can always find a special moment that brings special meaning, at home or abroad.
¹Koenig, H.G. “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications.” ISRN Psychiatry, Volume 2012, Article ID 278730.