5 Key Elements Of Transformational Online Retreat Design

June 17, 2020
Jen Corley (she/her)
7 min read

At a time when travel is restricted and people are missing the chance to disconnect from routine life to restore and recharge, many retreat leaders have opted to make their offerings digital.

This presents a challenge in itself: How do you translate the in-person, immersive experience into something that offers as much value online, at home, and with no physical separation from the everyday?

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Industry experts at the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) define a Wellness Immersion as an experience designed to create space to reconnect to one’s sense of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wholeness.” It may take the form of a Medically Supervised Therapeutic Immersion, an Integrated Health & Wellness Immersion, or a Dedicated Retreat Immersion (i.e., a retreat designed around engagement in specific wellness practices and/or education).

While all three types of immersions share the GWI’s five key elements of Intention, Setting, Program, Community, and Outcomes, this article will focus on the design of Dedicated Retreat Immersions.

These five elements support the institute's goal of creating a shared and accurate understanding, which can be adopted as a consistent industry standard for the Wellness Immersion experience. In light of this, we look at each in turn, to see how retreat leaders can foster all five in designing online retreats, even when virtual delivery poses some unique challenges.

First, take a look at our video below for a summary of what’s in the article.

The GWI’s 5 Key Elements Of A Wellness Immersion: What They Mean For Online Retreats

How can retreat leaders establish the conditions to invite positive transformation in their online retreat attendees?

How can they inspire a commitment to conscious growth; one that is sustainable and is invited into attendees' everyday being?

1. Begin By Setting Intentions

According to research in the field of intentional change theory, the “ideal self” (composed of three major components: an image of a desired future, hope, and a comprehensive sense of one’s core identity) is a primary source of the “positive affect and psychophysiological arousal that provide the drive for intentional change.”

In simpler terms, setting intentions triggers the shift in thinking needed to change behaviors and decision-making. When attendees begin to see systematic benefit from behavior changes, the experience creates lasting transformation.

To get to this point of transformational experience, there needs to be intentional alignment between the retreat leader and participant. Therefore, as the retreat leader, you need to be clear about your purpose for the online retreat right from the start.

In your program outline, write down your intentions for the participants who will be joining.

Is it to give them a pause from technology, a break from to-do lists, disconnect from the overwhelm of social media?

To reignite creativity and foster a zest for life through online teaching of art or writing?

To deal with grief or confront anxieties through guided meditation, sound healing, and breathwork?

To re-balance one’s life through Ayurvedic prescriptions for diet, physical activity, and routine?

Communicating in detail about your program’s purpose will mean that participants are, in turn, open to receiving the message you propose. This way, you can enter the immersion facing aligned participants who are motivated for change.

As you begin your online retreat, ask attendees to set intentions for themselves in the same way you would with an in-person immersion.

This can be for the duration of the program, for each day at a time, for the week ahead, and even for the long term.

In every instance, setting and aligning intentions can be the starting point for letting go of the old and making room for the new.

2. Construct The Ideal Setting

A beautiful, calming retreat location projects itself in a person’s energy, thoughts, and actions.

Light, colors, architecture, textures, furnishings, and how these all tie together can dramatically impact a person’s nervous system, mood, receptivity to change, and even how they relate to others. It’s this heightened awareness of our space that can greatly enhance the experience.

In the absence of being able to disconnect from the day to day by traveling to an inspiring space that allows retreat-goers to connect with self, community, and nature, thoughtful improvisation is required.

As the retreat leader, you will have to make decisions about the background frame for your digital immersion. Participants will be looking to you for guidance and serenity, so a visually busy or spatially crowded area won’t do the experience justice.

A naturally lit room or peaceful natural space is best. Indoors, a solid background wall works nicely. Outdoors, views of grass or trees, hills or mountains, or open water are all ideal. Work with what you have; consider setting up an altar, water fixture, rugs, or tapestries to set the tone.

Likely more powerful than your visual presentation is your use of sound. In addition to providing clear audio for delivering your spoken content, sound can play a crucial role in inducing the feelings of calmness, stillness, inspiration, or creativity in your participants.

Eliminate background disturbances as much as possible, consider using a microphone (or two, for binaural audio). In practice or meditation, your use of sound can be powerful, whether it’s instrumental music, chanting, singing bowls, or sounds such as rustling leaves, rushing wind, running water, or falling rain. The Dojo Upstate, a sound meditation facility in New York, maintains a website with some wonderful sources of inspiration.

As well as making sure that your own space is the ideal setting, provide attendees with the same guidance to arrange their own space at home for when they participate. Encourage breaks from screen-gazing and perhaps incorporate short exercises to reduce eye strain.

3. Create A Thoughtfully Structured Program

One of the principles of a wellness immersion is to separate participants from the obligations of their daily life. Of course, if they remain at home it’s infinitely more difficult to hold space for deep-seated transformation in mind, body, and spirit.

To prime your participants for their retreat experience, communicate early and often leading up to their first session. Consider conducting an intake questionnaire (such as the example here) to assess baseline levels of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being; establish collaboration on realistic goal-setting; and refine your program focus.

Share preparatory videos, supporting written information, and other educational content. Make sure attendees are well-prepared in terms of their space, schedule, and any required materials.

Even go as far as to provide a meal plan and outline the number of hours of required sleep in the days of your online retreat. Set rules around technology use, and consider including time allocations for individual sessions so that attendees have the opportunity to really benefit one-on-one from your expertise.

We’ve touched on sight and sound, which are essential components of delivering any retreat. However, your program may also provide consideration of the other three senses: touch, taste, and smell.

Particularly for those who live alone, social isolation can mean deprivation of physical touch. Retreat leaders can address this reality by providing prescriptions for self-massage, teaching these in a group setting, and suggesting a regimen for regular practice offline.

Healthy eating is an essential component of near all in-person retreats, and can easily be incorporated into online programs as well. For participants interested in learning about nutrition and building culinary skills, meal plans complete with shopping lists and recipes may be appropriate. Otherwise, the tailored recommendation of local meal-delivery services is an alternative approach.

Additionally, aromatherapy can be utilized to a variety of ends. Perhaps you recommend participants try replacing their morning coffee with invigorating essential oils, or an evening cocktail with those that promote relaxation. An introduction to blending essential oils can be a worthwhile complement to many retreat programs. For participants’ further exploration, feel free to share resources such as the wide variety of condition-specific recipes available from Tara Living Wellness.

Finally, don’t forget to follow up with your attendees after the retreat’s conclusion. Provide guidelines for promoting ongoing wellness, ask them about their experience, and invite them to stay in touch. These actions will both reinforce positive change affected during their retreat and keep them engaged and aware of your future offerings.

4. Foster Community Online and At Home

As a retreat leader, your role generally involves building community among attendees, hosting staff, and the surrounding community. This is because feelings of connection and belonging strongly correlate to a person’s wellbeing.

Furthermore, consider the social support that comes from in-person group immersions. It provides motivation to carry forward changed behaviors into the future.

From the new normal of working and communicating extensively online, people know that technology is a great enabler. It’s your duty to facilitate the connections that provide the support we have already addressed.

There are a variety of technological tools you can use to create community among participants prior to, during, and following your retreat. While it’s easy to set up a Facebook group or WhatsApp chat, some may feel more comfortable sharing in a more securely private environment.

Good solutions could be to set up a dedicated site or landing page that’s protected with a membership tool or plug-in, or to use a managed course platform (e.g., Ruzuku, Kajabi). This also has the benefit of creating a forum for sharing multimedia content and facilitating participants’ comments, questions, and reflections.

During your time together as a group, facilitate themed discussions or schedule time to bring everyone together for less-structured open reflection. Vocalizing shared experience has great power for encouraging transformation.

Relay guidance on how to communicate with other members of the household so that attendees can secure their support and have room for sustainable behavioral change. For example, if the participant would like to practice a daily meditation at home, give them guidance on how to clear a space and share their intentions to the rest of the household so they are allowed some peace during the time. The same would apply to shifts in diet, movement, or other self-care practices.

5. Secure Sustainable Outcomes

Whatever the purpose or drive of your online wellness retreat, you still want participants to walk away with a greater sense of control over their lives; to have the ability to make conscious adjustments to their lifestyles that continue to deliver improvements within their regular routine.

In response to this, you should think of the digital format as an opportunity to see strong outcomes that enjoy longevity.

Why, you ask?

Because creating all of this learning space and sense of community allows participants to more easily apply their transformations into everyday life. It's not a case of having to readapt to reality when arriving home after a transformative journey. There's no need to figure out how to incorporate newly learned behaviors into reality as this is where the framework was created in the first place.

In this way, virtual retreats actually enjoy some advantage over traditional, destination-based immersions. Additionally, given the lower barriers to participation, in terms of logistics and cost, there’s a good chance your participants will be able to re-engage with your online offerings more frequently than they would those that require travel.

Final Thoughts

As a final thought: you have immense value to add as a retreat leader. People look to you for education, inspiration, revitalization, and transformation. You have the ability to affect significant, lasting change in people’s lives.

While an online retreat may lack a glamorous backdrop and trade-offs in terms of in-person interaction, there’s still so much benefit to be taken from thoughtful intention setting, well-tailored programming, virtually-enabled channels of communication, and pre- and post-immersion support. Ultimately, taking your offering online means you can reach people at a time when they really need it.