Written by Shawndra Russell
The mountain region has a long, storied tradition of being a locale for healing—including on the spiritual level.
Western North Carolina’s reputation continues to grow as a place of healing in connection to the truly stunning natural backdrop we residents get to call home, whether for the healing power of nature on our mental or physical state. Wellness-related entrepreneurs have flocked to Asheville in particular for our yoga teacher-training programs, hyperlocal farm-to-table mantra, and above-average active community. This writer originally comes from Savannah, Georgia—where we did not have the abundance of city sports leagues that exist here or weekend warriors going mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, paddling, and (scary) road biking every chance they get—and it seems like everyone in Asheville cares about health, wellness, or at the very least, nature, to some degree.
So, for folks seeking a spiritual awakening, realigning, or healthy experience, what does our region have to offer?
Well, it turns out that the spiritual retreats in this area, and likely most spiritual centers in the world, share a few key factors: nature, clean (often vegetarian) eating, and an emphasis on self-reflection. Plenty also include yoga, guided meditations, communal living, journaling, share circles, and rustic settings. And while it could be argued that a DIY approach (aka renting a cabin alone in the woods for a few days) could be the right spiritual retreat for you since even just a hike in the woods can be a spiritual event, there are plenty of local options for those who want a more hands-on, guided, and supported journey.
For businesses that have tied themselves to self-care in some way—be it to help promote improved mental, physical, or spiritual health—they’re certainly starting to reap the benefits of this explosive industry, even if profits alone isn’t their sole mission. In fact, Shape fitness magazine reported that “self-care was the app trend of the year” for 2018. Meanwhile, CNN spoke with travel expert Sarah Casewit, who shared that her company, Naya Traveler, has “noticed a spike in travel requests that are spearheaded by a keen interest in wellness and spirituality.” And FastCompany magazine echoes these sentiments, detailing that, according to the Global Wellness Institute, “wellness travel alone generates $563 billion dollars, “defined as vacationing while enhancing one’s physical, mental, or spiritual well-being…grew 14% in the last two years, nearly double that of overall tourism.”
The internationally famous Chopra Center, located in California and founded by mind-body-soul expert Deepak Chopra, explains the connection between self-care and spirituality as such: “Your spirituality is personal to you and only you. This aspect of self-care can assist in feelings of connectedness, oneness, and universality, helping diminish feelings of isolation and loneliness.” And as tech market intelligence platform CB Insights says, “Modern-day ‘wellness’ refers to holistic healthy living characterized by the physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being–and the buzzy trend is gaining traction across multiple industries.”
While the concept of self-care continues to gain more followers and more publicity every year, so too is the concept of being spiritual but not necessarily religious. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey indicated that 75 percent of respondents identified as being spiritual, while only 54 percent thought of themselves as religious, the latter dropping 11 points since 2012. Consequently, the financial world has taken notice of this growing trend, with the Dow Jones Dharma Index launching in 2008 to track the financial performance of companies that practice Hindu and Buddhist ethical principles.
Spirituality is also impacting company cultures, with financial intelligence magazine The European Financial Review predicting that “spirituality provides a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining good employees and conscientious customers; for developing creativity as a resource; for the development of unique ideas that are not substitutable nor imitable and that all together represent a ‘social economic DNA’ for companies.” Suffice to say, local companies in Western North Carolina that take advantage of the abundance of local spiritual retreat centers by booking either team retreats on-site or workshops on company grounds stand to attract creative talent who want to work for companies whose values align with their own. Currently, the breakdown between visitors booking these spots and locals splits at least 70 percent out-of-towners, according to the owners I spoke with. But why shouldn’t locals also reap the benefits of taking a pause from the hectic pace of life and doing a digital detox—and surely detoxifying in other ways, too?
Nature is on the Agenda…
Each of the spiritual retreats I studied were almost nothing alike and yet everything alike.
They all embrace their natural surroundings—a farm, a somewhat spontaneous residential and business wellness community, a large tract of land—and make sure that guests have plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors. At Bliss Farm & Retreat in Barnardsville, guests can swing in hammocks overlooking the small pond, feed the koi fish, pet baby goats, or enjoy a fire. “The peaceful surroundings encourage people to turn inward,” says Kelly King, who opened Bliss with her husband Frank after they had a spiritual experience in Costa Rica, the first destination they attempted to open a retreat center. After realizing how much easier it would be to operate a center in America, they instead opted to open their venue up in Western North Carolina, where Frank grew up and where Kelly earned her yoga teacher certification.
Over at the nonprofit Prama Institute in Marshall, guests sleep in six-deep bunk-bedded rooms and spend their time outdoors by the small stage, near a fire, or in the light-filled, domed room that serves as their yoga and meditation center. “We also take our silent meditation groups to the cliffs of the French Broad and have plenty of trails for a few hours of hiking,” says Executive Director Howard Nemon, who has helped carry out the vision of founder Sid Jordan for their growing nonprofit. “We’ve created an environment where people can heal themselves. It’s amazing what people can do,” he adds.
Another nonprofit, the 54-acre OM Sanctuary in Asheville, also has a nature-heals philosophy. “OM Sanctuary is a new kind of nonprofit educational center that is just beginning to take hold in American society. Looking at health, personal growth, community, and environmental issues through a holistic perspective and teaching integrative practices for balancing body, mind, spirit, and connection to nature, is beginning to be more and more important in society,” says Shelli Stanback, Founder and CEO. Forty-two of their acres is actually a forested nature preserve that will remain undeveloped for perpetuity since they placed it in a conservation easement.
Other retreats have shaped such inviting outdoor spaces that guests have no choice but to be drawn to their charm, like at Mountain Light Sanctuary. Founder Michael Lightweaver has slowly built out the property one building at a time, with a focus upon integrating each into their natural surroundings “because nature is a great healer. It’s important to get in the forest.” Besides the four acres Lightweaver’s retreat occupies, the property sits adjacent to Pisgah National Forest, so guests have plenty of time to reap the benefits of forest bathing. Horse Shoe Farm owner Jordan Turchin echoes nature’s impact on the business, saying, “There’s something special about the land itself that can only be felt in person, and our philosophy revolves around creating a memorable experience to last a lifetime. We understand that no two groups are the same, so we’ve created programs, designed our facilities, and tuned ourselves into becoming a canvas for people to reconnect to nature, themselves, and each other.”
… Along With the Healthy Menus.
For the Kings, a main motivator for opening their center was an excuse to get back into farming, as they both had farming backgrounds. Nowadays, they grow much of their produce, raise cattle for meat, have chickens for fresh eggs, and make goat milk to supplement the gourmet, plated coursed meals they dish out three times per day for approximately 20 retreats they’ll host in 2019, and the results have been well-received. “Our food is what almost everyone raves about,” Kelly says. Organic, sustainable food prepping is arguably their favorite part of running the retreat because they’ve always loved hosting dinner parties.
“We’ve had guests show up that didn’t know we served only vegetarian, but they were thrilled with the cuisine,” Prama’s Nemon shares, adding that the facility is almost completely vegan. Prama actually offers three- and five-day juice cleanse retreats—in addition to their most popular offering, silent meditation retreats—but guests only juice for one full day, with healthy meals provided on arrival and departure day. Turns out, craving spirituality and more centeredness works up an appetite. Or, maybe, knowing that someone else is preparing your meals with good intentions—to fuel your body while you do some hard internal work—provides just the comfort someone on this intense ride needs. Regardless, a commitment to organic, locally-grown, sustainable food seems to be a prerequisite for operating a successful spiritual retreat center. OM shares this food approach and serves only organic, all-natural, and locally-sourced vegetarian meals. The exception? Mountain Sanctuary does not provide meals as guests have access to campfires, common kitchen, and, in some of the cabins, microwaves and refrigerators.
Plan on Plenty of Built-In Thinking Time.
While some spiritual retreat attendees come with a friend or as part of a group, a majority come solo because most people who sign up for these types of life pauses are in some kind of transition, either with work, a relationship, or some other kind of life-altering event, or are actively seeking a life change. And while statistics show that affluent Caucasian women fuel the wellness industry’s $4.2 trillion-dollar market (think: actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her goop company’s “modern lifestyle brand” acolytes), the retreat owners in Western North Carolina paint a slightly different picture. Yes, women make up a majority of their clientele, but some of the centers are seeing an uptick in male participants and families or colleagues coming together.
“The one thing our clientele all have in common is a desire to engage in a fresh experience of returning to their roots and growing together as a family, team, or lifelong friends,” Horse Shoe Farm’s Turchin says.
Prama’s Nemon also pushes back against this “rich white people” narrative. “We get people of all ages, all demographics, all reasons,” he says, although he does share that a majority of attendees are burnt-out, mostly professional women in their 30s and 40s. Michael Lightweaver also admits that 70 to 80 percent of folks who come to Mountain Light Sanctuary are women, with the occasional families coming—which the kids love since “we’re an elfin-oriented place.” Bliss Farm attracts a variety of clientele in part because they mostly host retreat groups via organizers versus having a menu of their own programs, while OM’s Frappier explains that the common denominator for their guests isn’t about money or skin color, but a common interest in “holistic education, connection to nature, and are familiar with the popularity of Asheville.”
Other Spiritually-Focused Activities
Most of the regional spiritual retreat centers offer yoga and meditation sessions as well as plenty of journal/writing time. Some also offer lectures or workshops from various experts or the centers’ owners themselves. Yet guests should not expect a jam-packed itinerary because as Stanback points out, “Retreat centers like OM Sanctuary become the incubator for new consciousness and ways of thinking.” OM also offers tai chi, qi gong, functional fitness, dance, and other healing arts, and some of their programs include a daily thread of several hours of education that varies by theme each week where people receive one-on-one attention from both a certified wellness coach and a transformational artist each day.
Mountain Light Sanctuary offers a break from schedules and to-dos, instead just providing folks “a pause and some time apart,” Lightweaver says. He adds that he does offer “front porch guidance” to folks who request spending time with him, although sometimes “we don’t even see the people who come here.” Lightweaver also has a work exchange program where guests will do outdoor maintenance or help clean the cabins. For those looking for some spa-like elements to go with their spiritual retreat, The Horse Shoe Farm also offers massage and body treatments, sound baths, and one-on-one guidance sessions all aimed at helping folks “de-stress with greater ease. We cover it all here… mind, body, and soul,” says Turchin.
The Business Side of Spirituality
It’s safe to say that none of the retreat center founders I spoke with were in this industry for the money. Annual revenues vary greatly, from just-covering-expenses at $50,000 per year, to upwards of $1 million for centers that have intensive, longer-stay experiences, such as OM Sanctuary, which serves more than 10,000 people annually. Many of these retreat owners said they estimate about 10 percent of their clientele are repeat customers—Prama actually estimates a 40 to 50 percent return rate for some of their programming—and all are seeing more and more bookings, with Bliss Farm growing from just five retreats their opening year in 2018 to now 19 retreats booked for 2019.
Somehow, just by creating these retreat centers in tucked-away corners of Western North Carolina surrounded by open fields and mountains, these venues have attracted those seeking spiritual transformation, even if the owners of these destinations didn’t set out with that intention exactly. In fact, only Bliss Farm & Retreat and Prama were started specifically from their founders’ visions; all the others grew organically or grew out of the owners seeking a place of solitude for themselves. “I never intended to set up and start a business. It’s kind of evolved,” Mountain Sanctuary’s Lightweaver shares. OM Sanctuary’s Stanback had a vision to create a sanctuary and preserve 54 urban forested acres The Horse Shoe Farm also got its start out of the family buying the property for personal use, but then, says Turchin, “We all fell in love with the pristine, natural beauty of the land and decided the opportunity was just too good to pass up. It was here, when our entire family was gathered together, we decided to share it with other groups/families for their gatherings, weddings, retreats, and other private events throughout the year.”
The Research Points to ‘Yes.’
For those still skeptical about the power of visiting a spiritual retreat center, these center owners urge a look through their testimonials, as many guests talk about the life-changing experiences they’ve had. Additionally, research shows that the so-called placebo effect is real: “But we now know that much of what we call the placebo effect is chemical—where the brain actually self-medicates with its own pre-existing drugs,” according to Erik Vance’s April 2018 report for PBS, “The Placebo Effect’s Role in Healing, Explained.”
So, while cynics may write off spiritual retreats as a self-indulgent way to burn money, just the sheer fact that those who book stays at spiritual retreats believe that the experience could heal or transform, and then actually do walk away from these life pauses feeling positively impacted… well, yes, their lives have indeed changed.
Because, after all:
“Mindfulness and its cultivation facilitates adaptive psychological functioning. Despite existing methodological limitations within each body of literature, there is a clear convergence of findings from correlational studies, clinical intervention studies, and laboratory-based, experimental studies of mindfulness—all of which suggest that mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health, and that training in mindfulness may bring about positive psychological effects. These effects ranged from increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, to improved regulation of behavior.” (—from Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health., 2011, by the Clinical Psychology Review)
And since you have to practice mindfulness in order to grow spiritually, these retreat centers help cultivate an opportunity, setting, and experience that fits the bill for improved overall health and wellness for the mind, body, and, yes, spirit.
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