Would You Spend Your Vacation in Silence?

With monastic simplicity or five-star extravagance, more travelers are discovering the wellness benefits of quietude.

Would You Spend Your Vacation in Silence?

Is the 2,500-year-old practice of Vipassana meditation the antidote to the madness of the modern world?

Photo by Homethods.com / Flickr

Tourists once traveled the globe in search of magnificent sunsets, historical monuments, and succulent dishes. Now they’re searching for something that’s become just as elusive: silence.

Meditation retreats that encourage complete or partial silence are becoming increasingly popular and often booked out months in advance. The nature and caliber of such programs range greatly, from 10-day Vipassana retreats where visitors pay nothing to meditate for 10 or more hours each day to weekend retreats at posh meditation centers with celebrity gurus.

“In a world where we glorify how busy we are and over-schedule ourselves, people are willing to pay for silence,” explains Melisse Gelula, cofounder and chief content officer of health and wellness publication Well+Good. “There’s tremendous scarcity around quiet-time, alone-time, having white-space, and doing nothing—therefore it’s incredibly valuable.”

The rise of silent retreats is part of a growing global interest in travel that promotes mindfulness and well-being.

In recent years, consumer spending on wellness travel spend grew at nearly double the rate of conventional tourism, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit advocacy group. And experiences in nature such as forest bathing, hiking, surfing, and, notably, access to natural hot springs have become huge factors when deciding travel destinations, according to Well+Good’s 2017 survey of 4,600 readers.

Although digital detoxes have long been a popular holiday concept, travelers today are searching for conditions that allow them to not only unplug but also travel inward.

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques and was taught more than 2,500 years ago as a remedy for universal ills. Today, Vipassana meditation is taught through 10-day courses for which everything—including food and accommodation—are free of charge for the student. The program is funded, in its own words, “by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit.” There are centers located throughout the world and, no surprise, many programs are reserved for months in advance.

On the other end of the scale are luxurious silent retreats offered at stunning centers such as California’s Esalen Institute and Spirit Rock and the Omega Institute in New York State.

California's Spirit Rock offers drop-in meditation programs and residential retreats from four nights to two months.

California’s Spirit Rock offers drop-in meditation programs and residential retreats from four nights to two months.

Courtesy of Spirit Rock

The Omega Institute will offer four silent retreats in 2018 and three others that incorporate some degree of silence. There has been steady demand for silent retreats throughout the years with many participants eager to test their limits for silence before selecting a silent retreat.

“It’s incredibly challenging to go on a silent retreat, and most people build up to it like training for a marathon,” says Gelula.

Not up for days of unbroken silence? The Omega team encourages their visitors to incorporate moments of silence and reflection during their travels, even outside of a formal retreat. A psychology study conducted in 2016 found relaxing vacations have the same impact on stress and immunity as a meditation retreat.

“Even if you don’t feel ready to do a full-blown silent retreat, you can still introduce silent reflection into your next trip,” says Chrissa Santoro, a yoga teacher and manager of external communications at Omega Institute.

“One easy way to practice is to make the choice to have a meal in silence, without having your cell phone, a book, or another distraction handy,” Santoro suggests. “Try focusing on the texture, smell, and taste of the food. You may notice the food feels more flavorful, or that you don’t need as much to feel full.”

Silent meals are seen as an opportunity to meditate at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist community Plum Village, which is located in the countryside outside of Bordeaux, France.

Visitors can book weeklong retreats where they take on the daily practices of the Buddhist monks and learn to meditate—and enjoy some silence—during morning and evening meditations as well as during meals, walks, and work sessions in the garden. Plum Village is a great entry point for learning your tolerance for silence before jumping into a more intense experience.

Although several factors—including an emerging global middle class, rising disposable incomes, and growing consumer interest in health and new experiences—are creating a more conscious generation of explorers, silent retreats are actually an ancient affair.

“Vipassana and silent meditation retreats have been around for ages and they will not be going away anytime soon,” says Linden Schaffer, founder of wellness tour operator Pravassa and author of Living Well on the Road.

“Our constant and unavoidable connectedness is driving a deep need for silence and reflection free of outside influences,” Schaffer says. “We are looking for a strict set of boundaries, an opportunity that forces us and gives us permission to disconnect and truly focus on ourselves.”

What’s next in mindful travel

Silent retreats are far from the only wellness-oriented vacations gaining popularity.

For example, mindful-aspirant explorers are increasingly willing to follow their favorite gurus around the world in search of transcendental experiences. Some 40 percent of Well+Good’s millennial readers would choose to travel with their favorite fitness instructor or wellness guru rather than go to a traditional spa. Spas are still more popular than the retreats, but the margin is shrinking.

“Retreats with popular wellness gurus are growing; in fact, they’re disrupting the wellness travel market,” explains Gelula.

“These retreats are led by experts like Taryn Toomey of The Class or Heather Andersen of New York Pilates who have a regular relationship with their communities in class or on social. And travelers value that trusted relationship versus risking their precious vacation time on a name they don’t know or feel doesn’t speak to them,” Gelula says.

Healing retreats for heartbreaks and other major life transitions are also expected to see growth.

“The stress and anxiety that follows major life-changing circumstances such as divorce, the death of a partner, or even becoming an empty nester, is an emotionally charged place to be,” says Schaffer. “Traveling to gain wisdom, insight, coaching, and healing is on the rise.”

Whether it’s within the context of a formal retreat, or just a quiet walk along the beach, travelers are seeking silence as means to personal reflection and relaxation around the world.

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