The concept of a retreat might not be remotely new in the field of transformative travel, but it is evolving and combining its angles. Active retreats can now put the focus on psychological wellbeing as much as on physical health – if not more so. These trips are often immersed in nature (combatting how increasingly urban modern life is becoming), with outcomes encompassing group bonding, female empowerment, community building and giving back to nature.
“Living a life rooted in healthy play, adventure and mindful activity is critical to my wellbeing and general happiness. It’s pretty much non-negotiable, and wherever I am, I aim to make the time to move my body, and connect with nature if I can,” says Sophie Everard, founder of Mad To Live, which organizes world-renowned surf retreats in Costa Rica, Bali, Portugal and Morocco.
Everard discovered just how crucial outdoor sports were to her wellbeing when she stopped taking an interest in them, during her teenage years, when she was grieving for her father. “I seemed to forget my love of play in the outdoors, the oceans and mountains. I was suffering from depression, and after a few years of fallout, I started to reconnect with the active pursuits I’d always loved,” she explains. “I was amazed at not just the physical benefits, but the cerebral ones too. Mentally and physically, I became stronger and happier – and slowly, I changed my way of living.”
Feelings of freedom and power are two of the impacts that Everard says her outdoor adventure-seeking has given her, alongside a deep appreciation of her natural surroundings. “Diane von Furstenberg famously said she always wished she could surf, because surfers experience such freedom. And that is entirely true,” she shares. “I feel my most powerful and feminine when surfing, and have been amazed at my body, Which is growing stronger with age. Whenever I have been at my lowest, the therapeutic and cathartic release of play in the ocean has nourished me unquestionably. I have experienced some of the most magical moments in my life while surfing. When you are in such close connection to Mother Nature, there is a spiritual connect that is like no other.”
Sophie Hellyer – surfer, cold-water swimmer, environmentalist and founder of the Rise Fierce collective – also says she finds therapeutic power in the water. “I think I always knew that surfing and being in the ocean was good for my mental health, but perhaps not as consciously as I do now,” she says. “When things were challenging in my childhood, I would often go and float in the ocean, because it has a magical ability to change my mood. Now I’m very aware of the benefits and I purposefully go in the ocean as a form a therapy.”
The idea for Rise Fierce first came about when Hellyer would meet with a group of friends in Ireland to take on the day together. “It was about rising up in the morning to meet the wild Irish climate with a fierce attitude,” she recalls. “But it developed into something more: rising up in life in general, against all kinds of challenges.”
The feat of doing something so physically challenging gives an invigorating feeling of empowerment. “When you realize that you’re capable of something – even something as trivial as cold-water swimming – it makes you realize that you’re capable of so much more,” Hellyer says. “I realize I’m much stronger and tougher than I thought I was. It’s enabled me to stand up and be vocal about the subjects I really care about.”
As her social-media following grew, she considered the idea that the Rise Fierce concept could benefit others too, and build a community of like-minded women. Itineraries for these retreats – which normally take place in coastal camps in Wales and Ireland – can incorporate cold-water activities, vinyasa yoga, mindfulness, meditation and beach clean-ups.
“People who come on the retreats have almost always enjoyed the sense of community, the women’s circles (which provide safe spaces for them to talk) and the energy and motivation that these provide,” she says. For Hellyer, the outcome is clear. “You can experience small or big changes, or even just a renewed sense of self.”
It was Everard’s work as a fitness instructor at high-profile London gyms that made her realize she wanted to share the benefits of adventure beyond her daily life. “I wanted to create a safe space for women to try new things, to be bold and live fearlessly, to create an environment where it is easy to connect with other brilliant women – and facilitate new friendships.”
“The feedback mirrors the amazing connections women make on the trips, how they often discover a love for a new sport, how they discover more about their own strengths and power," she continues. "Connecting with other women in a stripped-back setting, when there’s nothing but laughing, crying and supporting each other through every wave and wipeout, is a tonic not enjoyed enough.”
For anyone thinking of taking on a new active pursuit, Everard encourages them to take a bold leap. “Try to cast away inhibitions and fears if you know that you really want to give it a go, your inner voice is normally right! Do some research and, if you’re learning a new sport, I would recommend seeking out a great, certified coach to help you safely get to grips with the basics and more. Ultimately, it will really help you enjoy the activity way more with some understanding. The outdoors is there to be enjoyed by anyone.”
From outdoor adventures to holistic healing in the lap of luxury, here are four wellness retreats to try
Mad To Live
For across-the-world adventures, Mad to Live specializes in surfing (at all ability levels), sun salutes, horse riding and creative workshops against incredible backdrops.
With a collection of bonding retreats in beautiful locales, Goddess Retreats offers wellness programs and cultural activities that are combined with healing treatments.
Activities at Rise Fierce include wild swimming, surfing, vinyasa yoga, hiking, food foraging, mindfulness, meditation, women’s circles and beach clean-ups to give back to the local community.
Soul & Surf
So relaxed that it doesn't even really refer to itself a retreat, Soul & Surf serves up luxurious escapes in Sri Lanka, India and Portugal, offering surf lessons and guides alongside meditations, yoga and therapies.
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