Online retreats – can they really work?

We’ve all missed different things during lockdown.  For me it was going on retreat. My 22-year old son has been with me since the first lockdown and, while I absolutely love his company, lockdown has been more about sharing brunch and watching boxsets than sinking into yoga and meditation.

So when I saw spas and retreats starting to offer online versions I was intrigued. Could it really work? Is it truly possible to get the benefits of a retreat from your front room (while your son is shooting people on Xbox upstairs?). I decided to give it a go and plumped for the Evolving Woman weekend retreat with Fiona Arrigo because, if anyone can crack this challenge, it’s Fiona, a psychotherapist and healer who’s been leading award-winning retreats for over 30 years.

A parcel arrived with a scented candle, bath salts and journal plus simple healthy recipes for the weekend. I was instructed to create a ‘sacred space’ so adorned my living room with candles and flowers, and put away my phone. ‘That looks lovely,’ said my son and I wondered why I don’t do it more often.

15 of us gathered together on Zoom. I was surprised to find I felt quite nervous but then Fiona started talking and the anxiety fell away. ‘Everything is being shaken up at the moment,’ she said. ‘We really are in the thick of it and we have to learn how to give ourselves time and respect. It’s about deep care – how are you treating yourself? If you loved yourself fully what would you allow into your life?’ It’s a good question.

Sometimes we just sat and listened to Fiona; sometimes we’d be sent off into small groups of three or four to share our experiences. It’s never going to be as seamless as being with people in real life but I was impressed at how quickly we dropped our defences and talked honestly, bravely. Tears flowed.

We underwent a long, deep breathwork session and at first I felt self-conscious at making noises (knowing my neighbours might well be able to hear) but after a while I just sank into it and was surprised at how powerful it could be.

Obviously there are things you can’t replicate online. Bodywork is out and, with the best will in the world, my inner city terrace doesn’t have the charms of a Spanish finca or an Indian palace. Yet the end result was pretty much the same and, actually, there was something relaxing about not having to travel. I learned a lot about myself, relished hanging out with like-minded people, and signed out feeling both restored and deeply inspired.

I’ve also been relishing daily sessions with Gillie Sutherland, a yoga teacher who uses somatic grounding and mindful movement to bring us into our bodies.  You really don’t have to be a gymnast for these classes – we’re taught to follow exactly what our bodies want to do, no matter how it looks, no matter what our egos say we should be doing.  She also runs a two-hour workshop once a month on a different topic.  If you’re not sure about a whole retreat and especially if you’ve ever felt you couldn’t do yoga because you’re not bendy enough, this is a wonderful way to dip your toe into the online retreat world.

Even if you don’t join a dedicated virtual retreat, you can still gain benefits by setting aside a home retreat weekend. Have a digital detox, use online resources (there are loads out there) and carve out time to sit, journal, muse and meditate. If you’re stuck for ideas my little e-book The Weekend Healer (available on Amazon) offers 17 themed weekends to guide your way.

Photo by Prashant Gupta on Unsplash

A version of this first appeared in Natural Health magazine.