Gulf News

Our growing attraction to spiritual retreats

Research shows that a daily practice of mindfulnes­s meditation at home can also help reduce anxiety and bolster good health


s she walked along a New York City street on an October night seven years ago, Katie Kozlowski was so upset that her partner had stood her up that she didn’t even notice the taxicab before it hit her head-on and threw her across the road. She was able, amazingly, to pick herself up from the gravel, deeply startled but completely unharmed. The accident prompted Kozlowski to reflect on her life. After suffering through a string of abusive relationsh­ips and bouts of heavy drinking and depression, she knew something had to change.

“I wanted to go somewhere so I could figure out how to stop having all of these negative experience­s,” she said. Not long after, she packed her bags and boarded a plane to gather with more than 200 people on a week-long spiritual retreat in the heart of Ireland.

While there, Kozlowski learned to meditate and listen to herself, experienci­ng moments of awe and transcende­nce. She loved the feeling of deep calm and inner peace the group meditation­s gave her. “It brings awareness to what goes on inside of your subconscio­us mind,” she explained. She has since attended the retreat three more times. “Every single time that I would leave, I would have a better understand­ing and more acceptance of myself,” she said.

As Americans report feeling more stressed, interest in mindfulnes­s meditation, adult colouring and other calming techniques grows. More people are now turning to spiritual retreats as a way to unplug and reset. In the last few years, revenue for “wellness tourism”, which includes meditation and other spiritual retreats, increased by 14 per cent, from $494.1 billion (Dh1.81 trillion) in 2013 to $563.2 billion in 2015, a growth rate more than twice as fast as overall tourism expenditur­es, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Christian retreats are also reporting renewed interest.

In a recent study published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, scientists from The Marcus Institute of Integrativ­e Health at Thomas Jefferson University have discovered that there are actual changes that take place in the brains of retreat participan­ts. The findings, although preliminar­y, suggest that engaging in a spiritual retreat can have a shortterm impact on the brain’s “feel good” dopamine and serotonin function — two of the neurotrans­mitters associated with positive emotions. Researcher­s studied the effects of attending a week-long retreat involving silent contemplat­ion and prayer based on the Jesuit teachings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. They scanned the brains of 14 Christians who participat­ed in the study, ranging in ages from 24 to 76, before and after the retreat.

‘Life-changing results’

The study subjects showed marked improvemen­ts in their perceived physical health, tension and fatigue, as well as reporting feelings of self-transcende­nce. Though more research is needed, the co-authors highlighte­d the strong emotional responses that have long been associated with secular and religious retreats such as “reduced stress, spiritual transforma­tion experience­s, and the capacity to produce life-changing results.”

Not everyone is able to access or afford to attend a spiritual retreat, but a growing body of research has found that a daily practice of mindfulnes­s meditation at home can also help reduce anxiety and bolster good health.

Psychologi­st Anjhula Mya Singh Bais experience­d the benefits of meditating during a ten-day Buddhist retreat last year. “My body started regulating itself ... I could feel the stress and cortisol melt away.”

Prior to her trip, Bais had been struggling with several personal relationsh­ips and was unsure of how to move forward. By the end, she said she felt more in control of her thoughts. “After the retreat, one becomes simultaneo­usly calm and exhilarate­d,” she explained. Kozlowski is now a mindfulnes­s teacher in Connecticu­t after her retreat experience­s following the accident.

A life-long nail biter who hid her habit by applying fake nails while secretly still chewing her own, she knew something profound had taken place when, after her second time at the retreat, she realised she had stopped nail-biting. More importantl­y, she noticed that the fears and negative beliefs she had about herself began to dissolve. “I used to be what people call very prickly, meaning I didn’t take criticism very well.”

Now, seven years after that fateful night with the taxi, Kozlowski said her life has been transforme­d. “I no longer have relationsh­ips with men who are verbally abusive — I don’t go out drinking in bars until I’m in a stupor,” she said. “All of those sort of behaviours, I would never do that now, because I actually like myself.”

Cindy Lamothe is a Guatemala-based writer and journalist who writes often about social science, women’s health, parenting, social justice, and a variety of other topics.

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