In Theory: ‘Wellness tourism’ is big business. Are spiritual retreats a fad or do they provide meaningful benefits?

In Theory: ‘Wellness tourism’ is big business. Are spiritual retreats a fad or do they provide meaningful benefits?
A man holds a pose during a yoga workshop at the Joshua Tree Desert Retreat Center on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

More stressed-out Americans are seeking out spiritual retreats to decompress, unplug and reset, the Washington Post reports.

Revenue for "wellness tourism" has increased by 14% in recent years, from $494.1 billion in 2013 to $563.2 billion in 2015. According to the Global Wellness Institute, that's twice as fast as overall tourism expenditures.


"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," according to the Post.

There are actual changes that take place in the brains of retreat participants, according to a study published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior. Preliminary test results — studying 14 Christians who attended a weeklong retreat based on Jesuit teachings — showed short-term impact on dopamine and serotonin functions, which are associated with positive emotions.


Q. What are your thoughts on this trend? Do you believe spiritual retreats can provide long-lasting and meaningful benefits or does this seem more like a fad to you?

"Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."

— John Muir

The quest for inner peace is big business these days. Mindfulness in the form of meditation or prayer serves a positive purpose for many people.


While assistance from clergy and other spiritual guides can be instructive, there are many ways to seek calm and contentment.

As naturalist John Muir understood, enlivening the spirit within might be as simple as a taking quiet walk.

We need not swell the bank accounts of self-help raconteurs to hear nature's heart, which is so often drowned out by the din and clamor of modern life.

David L. Hostetter, Ph.D.


Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills

La Crescenta



Prayer is positive thought. That is why it works, not because it achieves communication with any higher power. There is no magic or supernaturalism involved. Prayer is a form of mindfulness meditation and, in that capacity, affects the brain in positive ways to reduce stress and anxiety. This is being proven scientifically with numerous studies. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who holds a PhD in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute, and Sam Harris, a noted atheist and neuroscientist, are practitioners of mindfulness meditation and write extensively about its benefits.

Many religious people will point to the success of these retreats as evidence of divine intervention, Cartesian dualism, or proof that their particular creation story is true. But specific doctrine or dogma is irrelevant, and directing prayer toward a specific deity or none at all makes no difference to the effectiveness of the meditative practice. Proficiency and effectiveness result purely from focus and commitment to the practice.

However it is practiced, I think and hope mindfulness meditation is more than just a trend.

Joshua Lewis Berg

Humanist Celebrant



Of course retreats have benefits! Retreats are amazing! They're wonderful! Everyone should do them! (Note that I call them "retreats" rather than "spiritual retreats," since from my perspective, we religious folks were doing retreats long before the corporate world hijacked the term to use for their life-sucking weekend's worth of team-building slogans and ropes courses.)

Half the benefit of a retreat, of course, is the time itself — slow time, time not spent working, driving or doing tourism things. My family used to go to a tech-free beach house for vacations, and the results of walking everywhere, napping on the sand and rock-hunting all day had similar results to a retreat.

Not all retreats are created equal. The one cited in the study, based on Jesuit teachings, was probably both deeper and wider in spiritual content than your average mindfulness retreat. Ignatius of Loyola, 15th-century founder of the Jesuit order, is also considered the originator of the practice of retreats, and his 30-day model involves a deeply honest inventory of conscience which many current fad leaders would shudder to impose.

As for long-lasting effects, it's common for retreatants to refer to a "mountaintop experience" during their time away, and their return to daily life as "coming down off the mountain." It's normal for the effects to wear off, which is why you should go on retreats often — at least one full week, at least once a year, is a good rule of thumb.

One bit of advice: If you're going to go on retreat, either go to a reputable monastery (Christian, Buddhist or otherwise), which charges a minimal amount and where people who have devoted their lives to this practice live, or do it yourself, with slow time and spiritual reading. Don't get sucked into the racket run by those who only want your money; go to the folks who genuinely care.

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George's Episcopal Church

La Cañada Flintridge


Call me a typical "if it feels good, do it" baby boomer, but the finding that enjoyable activity floods one's brain with happy juice is no big revelation. A devoutly religious person can have a similar result when she is enfolded in the warm embrace of belief.

The modern twist is the large-scale commercialization of human happiness, of which wellness tourism is an example. Oh, sure, in a so-called primitive culture someone shown the right frog to lick and then guided safely through the resulting therapeutic trance might give the shaman a chicken or two, but we are talking now about a $500-billion-a-year industry.

The Washington Post article reporting on the positive benefits of a meditation retreat to Ireland quotes a participant exulting that she no longer needs to "go out drinking in bars until I'm in a stupor." Ironic to go to Ireland of all places to learn this, and a shame she had no one in her life to suggest an insight so sensible.

No operating heavy machinery of course, but let's hear it for the benefits of an occasional stupor. Drugs or alcohol are not even necessary. In fact, wake me when the impeachment proceedings start.

Roberta Medford




It's no shocker that spiritual retreats are lucrative, as human beings are spiritual creatures that generally indulge their material bodies to the starvation of their souls. When they actually focus on spiritual matters they find themselves centering and thinking deeper thoughts. Sometimes it takes an unfamiliar place with an unusual itinerary to stir us up and get us more balanced.

I've attended several retreats for the spiritual development of myself and kids, and of course the common experience strengthens our bond. I've attended men's retreats that made us go deeper than men usually do, and returned to my regular life with greater depths of empathy and stronger resolve to pursue God. There have been denominational conferences which I attended having optional "retreat days" where various spiritual disciplines were explored, and I found some stimulating and others just weird. The "just weird" part I worry about when we broach this issue, because so many retreats are just about getting you away doing strange rituals. You may momentarily feel something inside for a change, but it's often just a quick fix (like going for fast food rather than cooking your own meals) ending with the same regret. Daily spiritual practice is best, but retreating may be helpful.


I often hear how meditation or doing certain physical postures, or reading poetry, ringing bells, lighting candles, etc. all contribute to changes in brain chemistry. That's probably true and why churches have utilized these since the beginning, but mood-producing accouterments and meditative techniques will only stir up an appetite requiring the correct divine nourishment. Too often people replace God with "spiritual stuff," activities that touch their inner being without addressing its purpose or destiny. "I'm not Christian, but I'm spiritual" many people say, which is little better than affirming "I'm alive." It doesn't say anything, since we're all "spiritual" except maybe that they are more guilty of rejecting Christ because they are conscious of the spiritual realm yet satisfy themselves with only that awareness.

Christianity is all about the whole person, body and spirit, because we believe both are meant to be everlasting. However, it doesn't matter how many retreats you attend if ultimately you reject the maker of your entire person. Cast you allegiance with God because there is none higher, and "Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Mat 10:28 NLT)

Rev. Bryan A. Griem