There’s nothing more stressful than failing to relax. I’m in a Zen-like refuge in the hills of Lanzarote, supposedly being lulled into a meditative trance by Alan Dolan, one of the world’s leading mind-body practitioners. I’ve just had the best craniosacral massage of my life. I should be right in the moment, right here, you know? But instead I’m fixating on all the amusing ways my partner Sean is going to take the p—s out of the whole experience when we get back to our room. He’s already rolled his eyes at the sight of goji berries in the kitchen. He’s lying next to me, and I swear even his breath sounds cynical.
As Alan encourages us to let go, I grasp even more tightly on to my regret. What was I thinking, bringing Sean along? Worrying whether he’s enjoying himself will ruin my break. We’ll never be one of those couples on Instagram who stand side by side in tree-pose silhouettes against the setting sun. God, I need a wine. I start to wonder if the reason my previous trips have been so wonderful is because I was alone, without this worrisome, cynical lump of a male next to me.
Until now, my wellness-holiday habit has always been a solitary pursuit. I never even took a friend along for the ride. Ever since my very first yoga retreat at the age of 25, I’ve been hooked on holidays that leave me feeling better than when I first arrived. I’ve cheerfully booked myself on yoga workshops, kite-surfing courses and hiking boot camps.
Most attendees turn up for these alone, are thrown into a group environment, handed a schedule and taken on a collective journey. And when you have only yourself to please, travel becomes much easier. I didn’t want the pressure of someone else sharing my space, moaning that the yoga was too hard, or the food too healthy, or whatever.
When it comes to our precious time off, women often have different goals to men. For me and many others, the real adventure takes place within. We want to embark upon an emotional journey as well as a physical one, and to emerge with our relationship intact – but any type of incompatible desires when it comes to your holiday can be near-impossible to negotiate.
My friend Ling, for instance, is currently lobbying for an all-inclusive beach resort with a kids’ club so she can spend Easter on a sunlounger with a book, while her husband would rather take the family camping in the Lake District. My friend Tom refuses to get on aeroplanes any more (‘too much hassle’), while his girlfriend is desperate to go somewhere more exotic than northern France.
As for us? Well, there’s something I need to tell you about Sean: he doesn’t really like travelling. Which is a bit of an issue for a travel obsessive like me. I still remember him dropping this bombshell when we’d been dating for a few months, as we left the pub having waved goodbye to friends who were heading off on a year-long round-the-world trip. ‘Wouldn’t you love to do that one day?’ I’d asked Sean, dreamily. And there was a silence.
I looked at him. ‘Wouldn’t you?’ I demanded. ‘Um, to be honest I’ve never really had the urge,’ he said. To me, this is akin to saying you don’t really like food, you’d happily just pop a calorie-and-vitamin pill rather than bother with an actual meal. How could he not want to travel? Did he even have a pulse?
For our first trip together, and ever since, I’ve used all my knowledge of travel, both personally and professionally accrued in my job as someone who writes about it, to select destinations I knew to be rewarding, but also not cause huge culture shock.
Entry-level intrepid travel, basically. Thailand was our first trip, on a two-week stopover before an eight-week camper-van jaunt around New Zealand, then on to Australia. Sean sort of enjoyed himself in Thailand, although he made the rookie error of believing he could take on mosquitoes and emerge unbitten, victorious. As most of us know, you can’t beat mosquitoes. You can only hope to minimise the horrors of your bloody defeat.
Much as I try to avoid gender stereotypes, I’m firmly of the belief that women make the best travellers. In my experience, men are less comfortable with chaos and suffer more severely from culture shock. Today, women are more likely than men to go it alone: we constitute 58 per cent of single travellers, with that figure rising for more active and intrepid trips. Increasingly, we’re Instagram-obsessed aspirational overachievers with high demands of our limited leisure time.
On that first proper trip, Sean discovered new depths to his grumpiness. To him, my enjoyment of the whole thing was baffling. ‘You seem to find novelty a virtue in itself,’ he said, ‘but something can be new or unfamiliar, and still be s—t.’
And so, unsurprisingly, I’d taken to travelling by myself, though I would always miss Sean and look forward to returning to him recharged and ready to resume normal life. Recently, however, our work arrangements changed, and at the moment we only get to see each other at weekends. Suddenly, going on a separate holiday didn’t sound refreshing – it sounded tiresome.
And as any seasoned fan of health-focused travel knows, there has been a shift in the demographic. With wellness tourism the fastest-booming travel sector – an industry worth £404 billion annually – men are now rolling out their yoga mats next to us.
‘When I founded The Healthy Holiday Company in 2003, I’d say that only 15 per cent of our clients were men,’ says Kathryn Brierley. ‘But we’ve seen a steady increase over the past decade, and on some retreats it’s as high as a 50:50 male-female mix. Today there’s no negative stigma. Practices that were derided by men as new-age nonsense when we first started out are now seen as an aspirational form of travel.’
Back at the retreat, I find myself lying crossly on the mat, wishing I was here alone. I thought I’d picked the safest of bets: because on top of Alan’s reputation for being no-nonsense, breathwork can be life-changing. One of the strongest well-being trends of the past year, its devotees (including Kate Hudson and Naomie Harris) swear that it eradicates stress, improves digestion, boosts energy levels and helps with trauma and emotional upheaval.
What’s more, between twice-daily ‘conscious breathing’ sessions at his sellout Breathing Space workshop, there are volcanoes to hike, delicious veggie meals, and world-class massages and bodywork sessions from Martin Cairoli plus individual counselling sessions from Donna Lancaster. It’s the Rolls-Royce of wellness breaks and, I’d thought, the perfect one to pop Sean’s cherry.
Hands up: my intentions weren’t entirely altruistic. Sure, I felt that Sean would benefit, but I also reasoned that perhaps I’d been missing a trick for years by attending life-enhancing breaks and courses alone, and returning to my cynical and confused partner unable to explain it to him.
Slotting back into the life I had beforehand, my squeaky-clean new yoga or meditation plans never stuck around for long. If we both adopted a new habit for a week, surely it could take root? And if a meditation weekend can transform my own soul, who knows what it will do for our marriage?
But now I’m convinced it’s all been in vain. Alan rouses us, and everyone apart from me gently moves, opening their eyes, starry-eyed and blown-of-mind. Including Sean. ‘I really don’t understand what just happened, but that was amazing,’ he says, softly, and takes my hand. Oh. I realise, to my horror, that I might be the problem here. That’s the thing about retreats. They seem gentle, benevolent and hippyish on the surface, but they always bite you on the ass.
Our week unfolds, and Sean couldn’t be more comfortable, padding around in his white bathrobe, emerging from individual breathwork sessions with Alan tousle-haired and Zen-like. We all know that our relationships change in a group dynamic. Here, we’re surrounded by chatty, curious, emotionally intelligent women. Finally, it’s not just me nagging Sean to express himself, it’s all of us. I have a posse.
Meanwhile, I use my individual therapy sessions with Donna to unpick why I dread my own parties because I’m paranoid about people not having an amazing time, and, indeed, why I’d rather travel solo than risk taking a friend or partner along.
I highly recommend bringing your rows to a retreat; there is no better place to sort them out. I learn that my control-freak and perfectionist tendencies sometimes leave me isolated, because I’d rather miss out on a social occasion entirely than do it badly.
And Alan’s work starts to take effect. We feel relaxed, opened up, malleable and loving. Crucially, we feel like we will return to reality with a habit we can both share. And an experience we don’t have to try, and fail, to explain to each other. We might never get to the stage where we Instagram green smoothies and do yoga together in the setting sun, but we’ve used a holiday to learn to communicate that little bit better. And that’s a trip worth taking.