Prepare Yourself Physically for a Retreat
This is the ninth post in my blog series about recharging and resetting your life, what I call retreating.
I’ve done all sorts of retreating: yoga, walking pilgrimages, volunteering, meditation, personal growth, travel-retreating, and writing retreats. Most of them I embarked on either not knowing what I was in for or thinking I got this. Most times I wished I’d been better prepared physically; it would have made all the walking, sitting, physical labor, and mental processing easier.
Regardless of the retreat type you choose (personal or spiritual growth, volunteering for a cause, or intentional travel), programs will vary in physical intensity and, therefore, so will your preparation vary. If your retreat is longer-term (2+ weeks), take care of issues that could become a problem (e.g., root canals, strains and pains, etc.). If traveling abroad, you may need to update vaccinations or take preventative medications.
In any case, you’ll enjoy yourself more if your overall general health is good. If your retreat involves addressing a health issue, and you’re unwell because of it, you can still prepare by getting plenty of rest and proper nourishment and hydration a week or two before you go.
The best way to know what you can expect physically, and how to prepare your mind, body, and spirit, is to check the retreat website. It should describe exactly how to prepare yourself. If they don’t, call and ask. In the meantime, here are some suggestions for physically preparing yourself based on your retreat’s potential aerobic level.
Note: These tips do not qualify as professional fitness, dietary, or medical advice. They are based solely on my experience and my personal study of wellness. When in doubt, seek the advice of a trained professional before changing your eating habits or fitness routine.
Some examples of retreat programs with low aerobic exertion include detox cleansing, fasting, meditation, or spiritual study. However, these can still be physically demanding. Studying all day can tire the brain, which in turn tires the body. If the retreat requires you to pitch in (e.g., cooking or prepping meals, cleaning rooms and bathrooms), the activity level goes up.
Meditation and study can by physically challenging if you’re not used to sitting for long periods. During your retreat, take standing and stretching breaks as often as appropriate. If you’ll be sitting on floor pillows or meditation stools during retreating, practice at home every day for a week or two before you go to get your body used to being in that position. You can sit on the floor while watching television or reading, but you should also practice sitting in silence to train your brain for what’s to come. Do some light stretching exercises, too, which will limber stiff muscles.
Detox cleansing and fasting retreats require at least a week of preparing before you go (see Dietary preparations below). The retreat website should include information on how to do this. Do not take these programs lightly. While not aerobic, these activities can really test your physical stamina and even make you feel ill before you feel better (e.g., headaches, stomach aches, bowel issues, irritability). Follow the retreat’s guidelines for preparing; you’ll be glad you did.
Yoga retreating involves moderate physical activity, although depending on the type and level, it can also be highly aerobic or physically challenging. Know which practice you’re signing up for and read the retreat website to learn whether you need to be at a certain level. If trying yoga for the first time, do some on your own before your retreat. At the very least practice the foundational poses (watch online or video tutorials). If deepening your current yoga practice, prepare by extending your practice time each day to get your body used to longer practice hours while on retreat.
If you’re volunteering for a cause, physical exertion levels can range from low (e.g., teaching literacy) to moderate (e.g., dispensing treatment at a free clinic) to high (e.g., planting trees on steep hillsides). Likewise, the activity level for travel-retreating can vary. If planning your own trip, build in rest time and avoid packing too much in, which is tempting to do on shorter journeys.
Prepare for moderately active retreats by exercising at least two weeks before you go. Walking is a simple way to improve aerobic fitness and physical stamina. If you already have an exercise routine, add additional days or increase your workout time or intensity, as appropriate for you.
Examples of retreat programs with high activity include walking pilgrimages, backpacking, cycling, or programs designed to build self-confidence or improve certain skills by pushing your physical limits.
The key to preparing for these retreat types is to train. In other words, don’t think you can easily embark on a 100-mile walking pilgrimage if you barely walk a mile or two a day normally. Train over time by building up to walking at least the amount of daily miles you’ll be doing on your retreat. For other activities, train by doing whatever activity your retreat entails. Start at least two the three months before your journey by doing the appropriate amount and type of training. For example, if your retreat is learning to sail, weight training and rowing might help. Train under the guidance of a professional and adjust your food and water intake to keep properly nourished and hydrated.
Appropriate fitness training before your journey will make your journey easier physically, allowing you to focus on the emotional aspects that arise while retreating.
Nourishing your body with healthy food before your retreat can boost your physical, emotional, and brain health, as well as your stamina and ability to focus. This will help you better process the emotional and personal growth aspects of retreating. Note: Improving your diet can sometimes lead to discomfort and feeling “off” for about a week as your body adjusts. So make dietary changes at least two weeks before your retreat. That way you’ll feel more energized and well during your retreat.
Consider cutting out alcohol, sugar, processed foods, and, if possible, caffeine. These substances can make you feel sluggish or bloated or otherwise detract from your ability to be fully aware and participate. Some people do well by also cutting out meat. Note that some retreats don’t serve meat at all, so if you’re a carnivore, be warned.
Smoking and vaping can affect your brain functioning too (to say nothing of your overall physical health). But quitting just before—or during—retreating might not be the best time (e.g., mood swings). If your clothes and hair reek of smoke, your fellow retreaters will not appreciate you. And trying to cover it up with perfumes or cologne also doesn’t go down well. Just sayin’.
If you’re traveling abroad, your gut bacteria and inner plumbing can get out of whack easily. Typically, our bodies take time to cope with foreign foods, different eating schedules, and time zone changes. If you’re doing a retreat of moderate to high activity, proper nutrition is especially important while traveling abroad.
Regardless of your physical activity level, your brain can get tired from doing activities outside of your normal routine. In turn, this can make you physically tired. So choose your retreat type wisely, read the retreat website information, and prepare accordingly. Again, seek fitness and dietary advice from trained professionals before changing up your habits. And then enjoy your retreat!
For links to retreats and other resources, visit my Resources page.
Read my memoir about a two-year retreat I took in Scotland.
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