What do we really want from a wellness retreat in 2019? More than ever, wellness travellers are turning away from traditional fitness and diet retreats and seeking something more holistic that focuses as much on the body and as the mind and soul. There’s a desire now for a supportive environment, instructors with the tools to provide meaningful lifestyle changes, and a community that has your back as you work through these transformations. The focus on mind over matter is just one of the reasons the Five-Star Fitness Retreat programme at Chai Talay Estates in Koh Samui went from a boot camp to a holistic programme—although it had always been more than just a fitness retreat to those attending.
“It was very much more fitness oriented at the start: it was just a bunch of very fit people coming along. But we realised our guests were here for more than just the fitness,” says Tina Atkinson, the retreat founder and programme director. Atkinson worked with Cathay Pacific for 18 years in marketing and strategic alliances, building products like Asia Miles and working on projects like One World Alliance before she began creating the Chai Talay Retreats in 2010.
“I took voluntary redundancy in 2008 with no particular plans at that time, but I knew that was I wanted to do something meaningful and purposeful. My role at Cathay was all about creating, and that fed into what I started to do next. I owned this property in Thailand, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try to put together a wellness and fitness retreat essentially for friends and family to get people to visit the area.”
“We found this growing group of people that were clearly here to get time for themselves, away from their lives.”
What started as a one-off fitness boot camp with business partner Nate Solia of Elite PT Studio Hong Kong has grown into a biannual holistic health retreat, stretching from three to five nights. “I met Nate Solia at a bar in Hong Kong—a few friends went to boot camp with him and said he was a great fitness trainer—and so I asked him, ‘Do you want to create a wellness retreat with me?’ He agreed because he’d been looking for a way to give back to his clients.” Now, Atkinson’s team includes two former retreat guests, personal trainer and AquaFit instructor Dayle Haigh-Smith and personal trainer and resident nutritionist Chrissy Denton, along with local Koh Samui Pilates instructor Sanya. The missing piece was someone dedicated to the emotional and mental support side of things: that’s when Rupert Jackson joined the team.
“Three years ago we were introduced to Rupert Jackson via someone who had been in The Cabin in Chiang Mai, the addiction and drug rehab centre. Rupert was responsible for building the protocols around the 12 steps at The Cabin and designing the recovery programme using mindfulness, meditation and TRE (tension release exercises). I invited him to join us for a retreat. We didn’t know how much interest there would be, but Rupert did a discussion workshop about stress management, and after that 26 people signed up for the TRE sessions. And it was like, ‘Oh, okay. Perhaps this is really what we needed after all.’ Rupert’s been back ever since, and that’s why we developed the Holistic stream for those who want a bit more mental and emotional support alongside the fitness.”
“When Rupert joined the retreat programme, he said to me after one day, ‘I don’t know if you realise or if they realise, but of the people I’ve worked with in this retreat, 20 per cent are heading down the wrong path.’ It was a scary moment.”
Emotional support has surprisingly become one of the most important elements of this fitness retreat. Many of the attendees—predominantly women between 30-60—were returning year on year, and Atkinson realised it wasn’t just for the workouts. “Everyone comes for a different reason, but many people were struggling with family difficulties: children with learning spectrum disorders, spouses that suffer anxiety or depression, death, divorce… A lot of them were in high-powered jobs—finance, legal, marketing, aviation—and we found this growing group of people that were clearly here to get time for themselves, away from their lives.”
In addition to the yoga and meditation, the retreat includes lifestyle workshops on a range of topics from stress management to addiction awareness. “When Rupert joined the retreat programme, he said to me after one day, ‘I don’t know if you realise or if they realise, but of the people I’ve worked with in this retreat, 20 per cent are heading down the wrong path.’ It was a scary moment.” The workshops take the form of informal discussions and guided talks from the expert instructors, helping attendees explore subjects that can often be taboo or difficult to discuss back home. “If you get to the stage where you are so dependent on a substance you end up in rehab, the success of recovery rates are very poor.” Atkinson believes it is the community created in these retreats that provides the biggest wellness benefit.
“We create a safe community. Everyone is essentially a group of strangers day one and friends by day four. There can be a lot of tears. I hope that doesn’t put people off coming because they’re going to be scared that they’ll feel exposed, but it comes quite naturally when somebody is ready and they feel safe to do it,” she says. Particularly when it comes to things like the small group TRE sessions, guests are given the chance to make unique, lasting friendships with fellow retreat-goers. “The connection is very strong when that happens, when people feel they have a safe place to express themselves. And because of that we also created a support network for when they go back home.”
See also: Chai Talay Estate Koh Samui Is The Anti-Burnout Retreat You Need
Through popular demand, Chai Talay Estate has increased its retreats from two to three this year. Around half of the guests at each retreat are returners, often bringing along friends or spouses who they think could benefit from the programme—another element which adds to the feeling of community at this intimate retreat.
Additionally, for the first time, Chai Talay Estate will run its first parent-teen retreat in 2019 after several requests from parents who felt their kids could benefit from the holistic programme. “Hong Kong has got unprecedented suicide rates in teens, and parents aren’t coping with it—they don’t know how,” says Atkinson. “It will run similarly to our other retreats, and we’ll integrate the parent’s activities into the children’s activities, and vice-versa, but there’ll be plenty of time for each to be independent. And that’s important: the way we run workshops for adults isn’t the best way to engage teens, you have to address topics like nutrition more subtly than a lecture, whether it’s in an exercise class or during a stretching session.”
Keeping the retreat as a wellness retreat rather than a therapy session, Atkinson believes that the Chai Talay Estate retreat team are well-equipped to help teens in a non-clinical way with wellness. “We’re not going to bring in psychologists or counselors—they’ve already got that in school, and the model is check in an hour a week or so on. What we’re providing is five days in a row to really be immersed in a restorative culture of wellbeing—that’s the difference we’re going to add.”