I’m on a mountain in the south of France, deeply inhaling to catch my breath. Sweeping views of the verdant Côte d’Azur lie before me, and the Mediterranean Sea shimmers on the horizon. The Alps linger in the distance, a gauzy swirl of mist engulfing the range. I look behind and below, incredulous that this city girl has been successfully pushed to hike nearly 10 miles up a 3,000-foot elevation gain. (Good thing I left the Louboutins at home.)
I’m on a “wellness boot camp” run by Away Inward Retreats, and this is our fourth such hike (in as many days) on bellies taking in 1,500 calories of super-clean food, prepared by a personal chef. I’m in a spirited group of 12, without a bleeping smartphone to be seen or heard. I close my eyes to take a mental snapshot of the crisp surroundings and remember the feeling of the enlivened pulse through my veins.
“Most of our travelers come in search of a full reset—they feel overwhelmed by modern life,” says Away Inward Retreats founder Ryan Patterson, who runs the excursions with master yoga teacher Nianna Bray. But how much of the wisdom gained from living in such a regimented bubble will really stay with me after the wheels touch down at home, where steamed Starbucks lattes, hefty Chipotle burritos and the chirp of smartphone alerts can make those French Alps nothing more than a distant memory?
Like everyone these days, my iPhone is attached like an extra appendage—yet I was surprised by how little I missed that sucker of battery and soul. During boot camp, we were encouraged to interact with the group as much as possible to relearn how not to be constantly distracted by technology. If there’s one thing I could gift you, dear reader, it’s what it feels like to be among a group of engaging, interesting humans without a device of sight or sound. The connection was so authentic and enjoyable that I instituted a no-phone rule at family dinners immediately upon returning home. (This was partly achieved by promising to quickly take and share photos that have now seemingly become a tedious requirement for documenting the fact that we’re all alive.) Just like in France, the absence of phones at the table created a more relaxed atmosphere and deeper bonding, and warm storytelling and laughter abounded.
- According to a Pew Research Center study, 82 percent of Americans believe cell phone use during social situations hurts conversation. Try a device-free weekend challenge to more intimately connect with your family and friends.
Our meals were in small portions, yet nutrient-dense. The intention was to teach us what it felt like to feel satiated, as opposed to full. (I would have gladly skipped this lesson altogether, though sadly this was not an option.) We were instructed not to pack snacks, and I found myself wondering why I hadn’t stuffed a Trader Joe’s pickle popcorn bag in my suitcase, just in case. What I quickly realized, however, is that we really do eat a lot more food than we need. I was shocked that I wasn’t starving since I was consuming half the calories I would otherwise feel was necessary to “power up” and recover from all of that daily exercise.
After a week of portion control at every meal, I could feel my stomach declare its satiation loud and clear when the fill line was met. I can’t say that it made me want to nosh past that point any less, but it did create an ability to feel and recognize a sensation that hadn’t existed before. It’s like my tummy now knows how to shout, “Hey lady! Just so you know, we’re cool down here!” The message has helped me cut back on snacking between meals, as I now realize I’m not hungry—I’m just bored. In this case, the end really did justify the painful means.
And while I enjoy challenging myself with a great workout and breaking a good sweat daily, the hikes were of such lengths and elevations to this amateur outdoorswoman that I felt completely daunted every single day. (We have “trails” outside of New York City that I will henceforth refer to as walking, not hiking, trails.) After a couple of days, I learned not to look up at the top while trekking, because it seemed so impossibly far away and only made me want to give up that much faster. Instead, I kept my focus on taking each small step right in front of me, and made my way up, slowly but surely, until I was suddenly startled by the view of the entire mountain behind me.
I honestly wasn’t sure that I’d take anything other than a pair of aching knees home from the hiking. But it became oddly apparent in the weeks following my return—as I negotiated more aggressively for better project pay, uncharacteristically asked a companion whether or not he had feelings for me and pitched an idea I would have likely thought myself incapable of pulling off—that something had shifted inside of me. Facing and conquering a challenge that I thought there was no way I could complete—literally climbing a mountain every day for a week (and coming down the mountain; no one ever talks about that torturous part!)—had somehow killed a lot of fear in other areas of my life. Why had I been so afraid of that which I couldn’t control?
- Researchers have found that 68 percent of people admit to not doing something they imagined was more difficult than it really it was. Do something that scares you—not necessarily for the thrill, but to broaden the horizons of what you think is possible for yourself.
Now I’m not exactly signing up to do this all again tomorrow (Away Inward Retreats’ France trip costs a hefty $4,350 and doesn’t include plane fare). In fact, I think my next wellness excursion will be heavy on the deep tissue massage, chamomile and terry cloth. But the fact that I surprised myself day after day in this boot camp has me wondering what else I can astonish myself by attempting. And in that way, there will always be a piece of the French mountains… in my heart and my spirit.