“I need a vacation from my vacation.”
We’ve all said it; we’ve all felt it: the blanket of exhaustion that unfurls upon our return from what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, the disorientation tinged with melancholy that always seems to take us by surprise. Imagining and fantasizing about a trip is energizing. Researching and planning is exciting. But as months of anticipation turn into weeks and then days of preparation, the logistics of extracting ourselves from our busy lives loaded with responsibilities can be daunting and leads to a phenomenon that I have come to call, “the pre-vacay crescendo.” Work, kids, packing, dogs, mail, passport, newspaper—whatever your particular moving parts—putting them all on hold for a while takes considerable energy, and the days and hours leading up to departure inevitably feel like a mad rush to get it all done. I often find myself saying, “I’ll relax when I’m on the plane.”
But, is this scenario really inevitable? Must every vacation be bracketed by depletion? Is it possibly to have a truly restorative vacation? When a colleague handed me a press release about Rancho Bernardo Inn’s new Wellness Rooms, it sounded like a perfect laboratory for an experiment. One of Southern California’s most renowned spa resorts has taken several guest rooms near the spa and refashioned them with a focus on wellness. Each room was adorned with calming lavender scented candles, house-made body scrubs, neroli water spray, in-room yoga mats, exercise balls and fitness DVDs, plus a 15% discount on spa treatments and exclusive access to the exclusive spa pool. I booked a room, packed a bag, and headed down the coast.
The word vacation comes from the Latin root vacare— to be empty; free. As I drove the nearly two hours from Los Angeles to San Diego, I emptied myself of all the things that usually demand or capture my attention, so I was free to be present in my exploration of personal restoration. I did my little “presenting practice” of systematically taking inventory of my physicality and the accompanying sensations, repeating each observation twice, like this: “Hands on the wheel. Hands on the wheel. Wrists relaxed. Wrists relaxed. Elbows gently at sides. Elbows gently at sides. Butt in the seat. Butt in the seat.” By the time I hit the 405, I had left my life behind and was making a list of what typically gets in the way of a relaxing vacation. Here’s what I came up with:
Failing to Downshift
Like it or not, most of us move at mach speed through our very busy lives. We are required to be master multi-taskers. With our devices perpetually in our hands, our attention is almost always fractured. It’s practically not a choice anymore; it’s what we must to do—who we must BE—in order to function effectively in our fast-paced, hyper-stimulating, über accessible, urban world. Without realizing it, we tend to maintain this energy level even when we could be slowing down. Vacation is a time to get off the Autobahn and take the scenic route.
“Fear of Missing Out” is a term I only recently heard. I wasn’t late to this party; I just didn’t know what the fete was called. We are blessed to live in the Land of Opportunity and we like to make the most of every one of those opportunities. When it comes to vacations, Travel Channel and TripAdvisor have brought the world into our homes and heightened our awareness of all the extraordinary places to visit and experience on the planet. I often find that in planning a trip, I make an impossibly long list of everything I want to do and see. Self-imposed pressure to not miss a thing is a roadblock to my relaxation.
I’m not sure what it is about our society—or maybe it’s just me—but it seems like we feel guilty when we relax. Productivity is paramount, and with everyone manifesting all over the place, it can be tough to give ourselves permission to drop out of the production line. I am sure every European takes the customary month of August off without a shred of guilt. It’s time to let ourselves off the hook. Our kids, co-workers, and pets are fine without us. And if they are not, they are developing coping skills.
Unplug. For realz. Enough said.
Arriving at Rancho Bernardo Inn with my commitment to wellness at the forefront of my consciousness, I pulled up to the valet, grabbed my bag, and handed him my keys. My plan was to slow way down and evaluate every choice by it’s alignment with my wellness. After an easy check-in, I dropped my bag in the room and headed to the spa. On the wellness-scale, a “Heaven and Hops” treatment is a no-brainer. My therapist oiled me, massaged me, scrubbed me with crushed grape seed and olive oils, slathered me with barley and hops, and wrapped me like a burrito in warm towels. When my muscles were the consistency of pudding, and my mind was sufficiently empty and free, she showered me, stuck a pint of craft beer in my hand, and then led me to my own private poolside cabaña where I stayed all day. I read a book. I took a dip in the pool. I had the pool boy bring me a salad. I watched the birds. I finished the book. I drank water. I watched the butterflies. I relaxed. Here is what I didn’t do: worry about paying bills, check my email, think about the freelance gig I was trying to land, wonder if my son was having a good day at school, try to figure out what snacks to bring his soccer game that weekend, wonder why that guy I met the other night hadn’t called yet…you get the idea. I was successfully present to what was happening in the moment.
Back at my room, I unfurled the provided yoga mat and saluted the setting sun, falling into a slow yin practice and pranayama. With each inhalation, I felt the pull to go do something: to get dressed and check out the scene at the lounge, to try one of the restaurants. With each exhalation, I let the restless energy go. It’s not that going out would have been relaxing, quite the opposite. But in that moment, with the limited time I had, what served my wellness most was stillness. I ordered in, drew a bath, and ate dinner in bed with a movie.
The rest of my stay looked exactly the same. Checking out, I found myself longing for more time. The post-vacay melancholy was making an early appearance. So I used my drive home wisely by developing a strategy for a graceful reentry. It comes down to these two things:
- Take a day or two to fully integrate (with a longer vacation, three or four days). In other words, go easy on the productivity and manifesting. Take care of business and let the chores go. Or, do some laundry, but order in dinner for a couple of nights.
- Identify a peak moment of the vacation and define what made it powerful. Use that as a basis for ritual in daily life. For me it was the experience of being swaddled like a baby during my spa treatment. As a (blissfully) single woman, I rarely have the opportunity to be held. I forgot how therapeutic it can be to have the nervous system calmed by gentle constraint. Since that moment on the treatment table, I have climbed into bed under heavy blankets to get the same effect.
What I learned in my experiment is that, indeed, it is possible to have a truly restorative vacation. I’m not going to lie… I will often choose to have a whirlwind vacation filled with sightseeing by day and bar crawling by night, soaking in as much local culture as I can absorb—the kind of vacation that leaves you physically drained but even more mentally and spiritually full. But, after seeing the restorative effects of slowing down, turning in, and simply choosing wellness, I am much more likely to schedule in some downtime during such a trip with some stillness in the midst of perpetual motion. And I will always make a plan for a mindful reentry.
8 Essentials for a Truly Restorative Wellness Retreat
1 Sleep According to the CDC, sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Sufficient sleep is the foundation of wellness. Use your wellness retreat to catch up and to feel what it is like to experience a full night of sleep.
2 Stillness Taking the opportunity to slow way down will disengage the sympathetic nervous system, allowing you to reprogram your brain. Meditate, soak in a hot tub, take a sauna, lie in a hammock, and let your brain unwind.
3 Movement Just as we tend to lack mental stillness in our daily lives, we also tend not to move our bodies enough. Go for a run, play golf, take a yoga class, or swim laps. Moving your body gets the blood pumping, increasing oxygen to your organs, including your brain.
4 Read Let your mind travel from its everyday focus, along with the rest of you. Whether you choose a novel, a magazine, or the sutras, expanding your intellectual world can offer a healthy respite from your mental chatter.
5 Nature Intrinsic to wellness is balance. Connecting with the world around us reminds us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves and puts our own struggles into perspective.
6 Nurture There’s a fine line between self-care and self-indulgence. Make choices that promote your wellness. Moment-by-moment presence will help connect with what you really need for your own care and restoration.
7 Nourish Eat clean. You know what makes you feel good and healthy. Everyone’s system is unique. Listen to your body and choose well. And hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
8 Gratitude “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” —Eckhart Tolle