Why Some Travelers Do Their Soul Searching Abroad
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“There’s something about the escape,” Eliza Coolsma told The Points Guy in a recent interview. The Dutch yoga, ayurvedic and bodywork instructor who organizes hiking, yoga and healing retreats around Europe added, “Visiting a new place [puts] you in a different mindset, opening you up to new ideas or ways of healing that you may not have been open to before."
Coolsma attributes this change in attitude to the luxury of time that travelers often have on vacation — as well as the way travel takes you out of your comfort zone.
“When you take away your daily routines and stressors, you have no choice but to open yourself up to the culture and nature that surrounds you. Being able to have time away to reflect, stabilize your body rhythm and live in the moment creates a spontaneity and openness you simply don’t have at home. Travel expands your perspective, so it’s not surprising that people are also more emotionally, spiritually and physically ready for experiences that may not have considered at home.”
In the same way that visiting a new place can help you face your fears, engaging in some form of spiritual healing can suddenly seem more appealing to travelers too.
For many people, identifying with a destination and its people is also easier after they’ve forged a deeper spiritual connection Most birthright trips to Israel, for example, include a stop at Tzfat. It’s one of the most sacred cities in the country and the birthplace of Kabbalah. It can help visitors understand the complex history and holiness of the nation.
Trips to India and other destinations across the Asian continent routinely include meditative stays at an ashram. And of course travelers often take solo trips and join organized retreats to do a little soul searching, personal healing or reflecting.
This rang true for TPG’s creative director, Isabelle Raphael, who found herself wanting to learn more about the Mayan culture during a visit to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala — an area where the Mayan people have lived for more than 5,000 years. She participated in a fire ceremony led by a Mayan priest, a sacred tradition that calls upon the Mayan calendar and the energies of the four cardinal (compass) points. At her feet, an altar of candles burned on a Mayan cross drawn in sugar.
Raphael’s guide, Alvaro Samuel Botán, instructed her to focus. “The fire is what opens the connection to the spirits — to the universe,” Botán explained. Depending on the day of the Mayan Calendar, the direction of the wind and the desire of the participant, a Mayan fire ceremony can be used to purify, to heal or to find purpose.
“I [felt] like some sort of stagnant energy was released when I threw my candles in the fire,” Raphael said after returning to New York.
For TPG contributor Jordi Lippe-McGraw, it was during a trip to Machu Picchu that she decided to seek out a shaman.
“I was a little hesitant, actually,” Lippe-McGraw told TPG. “I thought maybe it would be hokey and touristy and I really wanted it to be an authentic experience.” She and her husband had learned only a few days before their trip that his grandmother had passed away. “We were in a different mindset,” she added.
“When (the shaman) realized we might be more open than other people to this experience, he took us off the beaten path and was able to find this quiet corner and perform a Pachamama, or Mother Earth ceremony,” Lippe-McGraw said. “He knew that my husband’s grandmother had died, and he talked a lot about … where the line is drawn between the earth and heaven.”
“We held stones and buried things in the dirt, closed our eyes and he smudged us — all the things you would [expect] from a shaman. But the best part actually was at the end, at this overlook. He told us to sit there for as long as we wanted, in silence, and that was the most powerful part. You know all this stuff is happening, there are tourists everywhere, but to find calm in this chaos is so beautiful. That was really the best part of it. How often do you take time to just sit?”
Megan Fox, who works in education and with nonprofits, said her pursuit of “immersive situations” and “cultural experiences” has always been part of her larger, personal exploration of religion.
“I have always been religious and believe that experiencing other faiths and cultures is a way to grow in our spirituality and better understand religion …” Fox told TPG in an email.
Fox participated in temple-stay programs in South Korea and described the lifestyle as “extremely simple.”
“You wear natural-colored, loose-fit cotton clothing, eat a vegan diet and sleep on a mat on the floor. During the day, you spend most of your time in meditation.”
Participants also spent an entire hour bowing in repetition. “Each time you would bow,” Fox said, “we would string a wooden bead onto a string. At the end of the experience, we had a visual reflection of the time we spent performing this ritual.”
Though Fox didn’t feel compelled to join the Buddhist faith after her temple stay, she did feel as though it had helped her understand Buddhist culture and gave her time for personal reflection.
Sometimes it’s more about simply trying something new. TPG contributor Lori Zaino participated in a sound bath during a yoga retreat in Thailand a few years ago. “Everyone was talking about [the workshop],” Zaino said during a phone call. “You basically go in and set up a makeshift bed, getting as comfortable as you can [in] a room filled with crystal bowls, six gongs, all these meditation bowls and new age instruments … I was immediately skeptical.”
But Zaino decided to commit her Saturday night to the experience. “Two people played the instruments and you let the sound wash over you.” It is supposed to help you tune frequencies in the body and can have healing benefits. The sounds created by the gongs and bowls can “touch frequencies you can’t access in other ways,” she added.
During the sound bath, Zaino recalled having “different emotions.”
“They called it a trance,” she said. “I thought I fell asleep.”
Though Zaino didn’t feel any immediate effects from the sound bath, she said in the days that followed, she felt noticeably lighter. “I didn’t go in with any serious issues … but I felt a lot lighter and calmer [after] and it. The experience gave me a sense of peace and calmness I didn’t have before. I was able to make decisions with a firmer stride.”
Since then, Zaino has specifically sought out sound therapy experiences when she travels. “I think there’s something about being on vacation — I don’t think I would have done this at home. But when you’re in a space that’s already affected . . . and you’re in an atmosphere that’s really respectful of this lifestyle, it’s a lot easier to go in with a positive outlook or without cynicism. It’s a lot easier to try something new.”
Of course, soul searching may not fit into your standard beach vacation itinerary. But when you find yourself in a destination where spiritual practices are ingrained in the culture, it can be a meaningful way to connect with a place — and maybe even find yourself deeply rewarded by the experience.
And if these particular rituals (shamans, sound baths, healing ceremonies) may not be right for you, there are incredible ways to commune with nature, a higher power or yourself while traveling all over the world. Just keep an open mind and you might be surprised what comes your way.