Written by: Mieke Vander Heyden, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Selecting the perfect retreat for yourself of organizing a retreat for your participants may seem easy-peasy, but there is more to it than one might think. This article shows you the 5 key ingredients to find and organize your dream retreat that aligns with your needs.
As a former workshop and retreat junky, I have quite some unique retreat experiences under my belt from over the globe. I have tried and enjoyed several kinds: dancing, spiritual, plant medicine, silent, creative, and healing retreats.
About 10 years ago, I co-organized my first weekend retreat. Since facilitating that first one, I knew this was the start of a long-lasting relationship. This retreat formula is still my preferred way of working with people.
As a psychotherapist, retreats have many benefits to the inner healing work that I want to facilitate. In the end, that’s what my participants are coming for. They get seduced by the palm trees and white sandy beaches in the pictures, but what they long for, is what that idyllic scenery represents: inner peace, space to breathe, and the opportunity to let go of that weight they are carrying on their shoulders and what’s eating them from the inside.
It’s not merely the workload that makes people burn out or go into a personal crisis. It’s about the emotional and existential undercurrents of life that are invisibly present. It’s that inner pressure, those self-critical voices, the inter-relational conflicts, not being able to fulfill one's own goals or dreams, not wanting to live up to the expectations from others anymore, and wondering who one is, deep inside and what one wants in life. This is what keeps people from sleeping during the night.
These are the same reasons why people come into psychotherapy or coaching with me, but psychotherapy has a stigma. There still is this taboo around it, depending on the culture. Whereas a retreat is cool. A retreat gives you a kind of prestige, instead of being ashamed of it. You can show the pictures of that gorgeous sunset with your new friends on your Instagram, without sharing about that deep breath work or coaching session that reconnected you with some old wounds under the surface. And that’s fine, no need to reveal the inner darkness that came to the light.
A retreat is not any random holiday
There are many kinds of retreats to choose from. It’s easy to get lost in the retreat world. However, as with everything, when you invest in yourself, it’s important to find the right fit.
A retreat is not just any random holiday trip. What makes a retreat so unique is the cocktail of several key ingredients. Not everyone is able to organize such a special gathering of a new group of people and turn it into a real transformative experience. There is much more to it than a tropical setting and a margarita welcome drink!
5 key ingredients for a transformative healing retreat
1. Your dream setting
This might not be the most important element, but it’s often what is looked at first. I don’t only mean the country or town. What I’m referring to is the kind of setting. Will you be in the jungle, at a beach, in the mountains, in a village…?
If planned out well, the organizer probably sought out this specific location for a reason. While organizing retreats, I know what kind of setting I need for a certain retreat. When I’m organizing a healing retreat or training, I look for local healing modalities to incorporate, for example, a temazcal, the local steam bath in Latin America.
Especially if you’ll have a lot of free time during the retreat, the setting is primordial. No point in being in the mountains if you are not a mountain fan. However, you can choose a retreat with a location that’s not 100% appealing to you, when your focus is on the facilitator and the program.
Check the location and feel if this area makes you dream away. Then verify the program. Does it involve local exploration of the area, or is it a program-focused retreat with hardly any free time?
2. An exciting program full of amazing activities
The title of the retreat reveals what it’s about. The program is your golden thread: what you can expect and what’s the focus. Here you can distinguish if it’s a healing retreat, a singles trip, or an adventure holiday.
For example, when I refer to my New You Retreat in January, as the title and period of the year insinuate, you can expect to work around looking back at the last year to process the unfinished business, look forward to the upcoming year, set your goals, and offer you tools to craft this new you that you want to invite in.
Certainly, every type of holiday can be transformative or mind-blowing. However, the setup of a healing retreat is different.
The nature of the activities is focused on healing. Think about certain therapies, meditation, yoga…
The build-up of the activities is done in a specific order. I can’t expect my participants to do at day one what I offer on the last day of the week. You can’t mix up the program just like this. The program is all well-thought-out and for a reason.
A transformative program includes a mixture of new or challenging activities, providing tools to increase emotional intelligence, moments for catharsis, and self-discovery.
One of the secrets of my retreats is the variety of the activities, alternating the playfulness through dynamic and creative methods, with the deeper healing modalities that focus on what is waiting to surface and be brought into movement again.
3. Inspiring retreat facilitator(s)
I don’t need to explain that every facilitator is unique, due to his/her personality and personal life history, professional background, and experience in facilitating. All will contribute to how someone leads a retreat.
As a newbie in the retreat world, I have attended very promising retreats and got disappointed just by the way they got delivered. Contrary to now, where I make my retreat choices based on who is facilitating. All the other key ingredients have become secondary to me. I need to vibe with the retreat leader. If I perceive this person as someone with integrity, someone who walks his/her talk, works from the heart, has developed a fine intuition and whom I can learn from as he/she has gone before me on his/her personal and professional journey, I will sign up straight away.
The above criteria are what make me feel safe. Without safety, you can’t open up and be vulnerable. This will prevent your transformational process. I recommend asking to connect to the facilitator before you sign up for any retreat and sense if you can trust this person. Ask yourself what your criteria are for being able to open up with someone.
As you develop and grow, you may notice that the selection of your teachers might change as well. You can learn from anybody, but you want to learn a lot and get challenged, so choose with more care. A determining reference of knowing if you resonate with a facilitator is your body. When your heart pounds, if your entire body relaxes, when you feel happy and smiley, you know you have found your new facilitator.
4. The power of the group
Unless you choose a private retreat, you will be participating with other participants. Each retreat targets a different audience. Make sure that you feel like one of them, so you can relate and have a sensation of belonging. Perhaps age, gender, or common interest is very important to you. It’s yours to choose!
Specifically for healing retreats, what the participants have in common is curiosity and openness for the specific theme that will be focused on. Each participant will have this common disposition to invest in his/her inner journey.
Even when age or background may be different, you will feel at home as you share on a deeper level this common factor. I call it the ‘human factor’. This is what I think many refer to as ‘we are one’, ‘we are the same’. What we all want in the end is to find inner peace, a life free of suffering, and tools to support us with this, so we may find purpose and happiness.
One of the most healing ingredients of a retreat is the power of the group. We get hurt in relationships to others, but we also heal together as a group, as a community. The latter are my goosebumps moments. This is what I’m doing it for!
At the end of each retreat, my participants said that this group was extremely special. What they don’t know is that each group tells me this! This shows me that each group composition has medicine for each group member. In a safe container, with a facilitator who knows how to manage group dynamics, the group magic does its work, effortlessly!
5. The retreat container
You sense it through the great care of all those who help support a retreat, the space that vibrates welcome home, the food that is well-presented, the small welcome or goodbye gift, that comprehensive smile from across the room after an intense session…
Is it the love that glues everything together?
In my opinion, it’s this loving presence that you feel in every corner, which allows the healing to continue in the ‘empty’ spaces, outside the workshop space, and during the breaks or excursions. Once you are part of a healing container, the healing happens during the entire retreat, whether you want it or not.
This loving container you belong to now accepts and sees you for who you are, with all of you. This is when the unexpected happens and transformation takes place. The retreat container is the incubator for your transformation!
In groups, you may get triggered, which is not necessarily a negative thing. Learn more about mastering your triggers in this article.
A healing retreat is a holiday+
Don’t get me wrong, a healing retreat is not all about deep therapy days in a row, hours per day! On the contrary, just because there are these cathartic moments, other ingredients are needed to counter-balance. It’s about getting that right balance between giving space to more challenging emotions or dynamics and getting immersed in joy and lightness, connective and relaxing activities.
Many people are more afraid of the light than the familiar darkness. There may be more healing for you in the ‘side’ activities than in those deep-dive workshops. You see, all the above ingredients are necessary. It’s just the composition, the order, at the right time that gives that extra flavor, which makes a healing retreat a holiday+. A holiday, with a transformation and extra life tools as a bonus. Who wouldn’t want to try this out?
Difficulty to decide? Perhaps this freebie may support you.
Remember, a retreat setting is extremely important, but your disposition to change and transform is as important! Whatever you put into it, you will get out of it.
Wish you happy travels and big inner transformations! Let’s heal together.m/
Mieke Vander Heyden, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Mieke Vander Heyden, a leader in Integrative & Creative Art Therapies. It’s her passion to support people to find inner peace & freedom, the key to happiness and harmony all-around. She has helped loads of people over the globe, to reconnect with themselves, support them through difficult life-crisis’s and make the needed adjustments to get on track again, dancing the waves of life. Mieke is the CEO of Moving Hearts Therapy, offering transformational & inner journeys, through Therapy & Coaching, Workshops & Team building, Creative Healing Retreats & Training. Through her own life experience, she is a go-to for nomads, expats, travelers, or people with an alternative lifestyle.