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How to take a wellness-centered vacation for less
Yoga and meditation retreats are costly, but their focus on wellness can be applied to even a typical family vacation, according to experts. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Two months ago, Gabriel Schirm and his wife, Amy, were in Costa Rica, welcoming the sunrise with yoga on the beach and indulging in delicious local foods.

It was a dream vacation, and yet it wasn't the one that initially captured the couple's imagination.

"There's a very popular yoga retreat in Montezuma, Costa Rica, but we couldn't afford the cost," said Schirm, a travel writer and author of "Sunrises to Santiago: Searching for Purpose on the Camino de Santiago."

The Shirms, like many Americans, had been priced out of the market for yoga and meditation retreats as the trips catch on among the world's richest travellers. Top hotel chains like Wyndham and Westin now offer concierge wellness services, capitalizing on a crowd willing to pay hundreds of dollars a night for extra incentives to be fit, as Business Insider reported in March.

Although wellness retreats vary widely, they generally focus on equipping participants with the tools to relax and recharge. Professional teachers offer yoga and meditation classes, chefs prepare nutritious meals and, because retreat centers are often in rustic locations, cellphone reception and Internet access are limited. Some retreat centers even require participants to turn over their devices upon arrival.

Wellness-centered trips are a valuable way to strengthen your mind, body and soul, Schirm said. But the yoga retreats he researched cost around $1,500 per person.

The Schirms' solution was to be creative, planning a wellness-centered trip that suited their needs without breaking their budget.

"We made it to the location, but we did the yoga on our own," Schirm said.

It's a strategy that could serve many Americans well, according to vacation experts.

Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of ThirdPath Institute, an organization built around helping people live more balanced lives, encourages all travellers to be innovative with their vacation plans, finding ways to relax and refocus without a high price tag.

Hiking, meditation, yoga "this is all stuff people can learn to do on their own," DeGroot said. "We don't have to work extra hours to afford having someone take our cellphones away."

Re-imagining relaxation

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reported in February that 9.5 percent of U.S. adults practiced yoga in 2012, up from 6.1 percent five years before. Meditation was only slightly less popular, cited by 8 percent of respondents as part of their wellness routine.

Growing interest in practices like yoga and meditation can likely be linked to the rise of technology, DeGroot noted. These wellness activities allow people to escape, if only for 10 or 15 minutes, from lives made busier by devices that allow office responsibilities to invade every part of the day.

Retreats like the one the Schirms hoped to take in Costa Rica take these short respites from a buzzing phone or boring meeting to a much larger scale, encouraging participants to unplug from daily life by limiting access to WiFi and nurturing a culture where introspection is valued over outward achievement.

"These types of physical activity take us away from technology and send us back into a present state of mind," DeGroot said. "It's a great remedy for the constant barrage" of texts, tweets and emails.

Chrissa Pullicino, manager of external communications at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, said the wellness retreat industry's growth has been exponential.

Omega, founded in 1977, used to welcome a few hundred people each year. Today, around 23,000 people visit the Rhinebeck, New York, campus annually for programs built around visiting scholars, family therapy, or, Pullicino's personal favorite, juice cleanses.

"We're inviting people to come here and unplug and unwind to be present," she said. "We want people to take that pause, that breath they can't always take during everyday life."

The benefit of Omega's programs is that everything is designed with wellness in mind, including the food served, Pullicino noted. Even workaholics can be coaxed into healthier habits when cell phone service is spotty.

Wellness for less

The beauty of this vision of simply living is that, with a little willpower, it can be enjoyed anywhere, Schirm said. His financial limitations helped him realize that he could plan his own escape.

"(My wife and) I get the same benefits from meditation and yoga, and it's free," he said.

Schirm said people don't need to over think wellness-centered trips. Having to work around the high costs of formal retreats taught him to be open-minded about what relaxation looks like, he noted.

"Just bring your yoga mat with you" and you'll already be on the path to a great vacation, he said.

Pullicino, who often takes part in the classes offered at Omega, agreed that it's valuable to deepen your wellness practices to the point where you no longer need external motivation to complete them. Because of this, the retreat center offers instructions on how visitors can keep wellness at the center of their lives even after they return home.

"We try to offer tools for the art of living well," she said.

These tools include eating fresh food, drinking plenty of water, turning off your phone and taking walks.

Each of these practices can be used to bring a focus on wellness to regular life, Pullicino said, noting that the same could be said for more complex behaviors like meditation and yoga.

"For example, maybe when you were here you attended an open meditation class," she said. "If there is a small corner in your home, you could make an altar with flowers and a candle and commit to sitting there for five minutes each morning."

"It's about small things," like starting a journal practice or taking a daily walk, Pullicino added. "As people start to do them, they feel good and want to do them more."
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