Back in June, I was depressed, though I wouldn’t call it depression so much as “apocalyptic ennui.” Covering the news and essentially living on Twitter had made me feel like the world was going to end in nuclear apocalypse any day, and the things that used to drive me to get out of bed in the morning—seeing friends, working on longterm projects, exercising—didn’t feel important anymore. All I wanted to do is take long walks with my dog and call my mom and tell her that I loved her.
I was aware that the way I felt reflected the state of mind of many Americans. Our happiness index is at a historic low, and a recent Pew Research survey revealed almost seven out of ten Americans admit to suffering from so-called “news fatigue.” Twitter is a hostile environment comprised of an endless barrage of outrage, and our collective dependence on social media is making us feel lonely and depressed. Suicide rates have spiked and online dating could be hurting our mental health. It’s not dramatic to say that America is in a state of emotional crisis.
I’m lucky in that I’ve always been proactive when it comes to feeling down in the dumps. I hired a dating coach, who made me feel a lot better about everything terrible that’s happened in my love life this year. I got a new therapist and participated in an acclaimed self-empowerment seminar. I took the Yale Happiness Course, which reminded me that being happy isn’t about what’s happening in your life so much as how you perceive those things. I even got a chakra cleansing from a Reiki healer. But as much as all of these things helped, nothing was quite as effective in making me bounce back to my old self as going on a spiritual retreat at the Omega Institute for three days in August.
Located in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Institute is a little oasis that has been providing holistic healing since 1977. The grounds somewhat resemble a college campus: there’s a pristine private lake, a dining hall, a spa, recreation buildings, a library, a sauna, a storybook garden, basketball and tennis courts, hiking trails, a cafe, and a stunning sanctuary perched on top of a hill. You can book a workshop, a long-term stay, or, as in my case, an R&R retreat. The retreat itself only costs $150 for three days and includes three delicious vegetarian meals per day, three wellness classes per day (in yoga, thai chi, free form dance, and meditation), special events, and use of the all of the facilities on the campus. Since you also have to pay for accommodation (which ranges from $246 per person for camping to $702 per person for a cabin for the weekend), it can get quite expensive, but I can attest that it was totally worth it. (Note: The Omega Institute did not sponsor my trip in any way.)
Read on to find out everything that led to my full rejuvenation—and why you should consider splashing out for one, as well. And for more guidance on living your best life, check out how I Tried Clean Sleeping for Two Weeks and It Changed My Life
Social media detoxes should be mandatory.
According to a recent study, 39 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 and 36 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 admitted to being online “almost constantly,” and this social media addiction is not doing our mental health any favors. At Omega, visitors are heavily discouraged from using their phones anywhere except the parking lot, and it’s a wonder how much good simply being around people who are living in the moment instead of being buried on their phones does for the spirit.
The Wifi upstate deliciously erratic, and while I was disappointed to find that I had excellent cell service, I found that simply telling people that I would be out of range was enough to justify leaving my cell phone in my room and cutting myself from all technology for the weekend. It was amazing how much longer the days seemed, and how much happier and present I felt.
Waking up early is way better than sleeping in.
I’m a night owl, which means I tend to do a lot of writing between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. and wake up feeling groggy and exhausted. When I looked at the Omega Institute schedule, and saw that their yoga/tai chi classes began at 7:00 a.m., I thought, “There’s no way I’m making those.” But, eager as I was to make the most of my experience, I diligently went to bed at 10:00 p.m. every night and woke up at 6:00 a.m., and it was awesome.
Difficult as it may be to get up that early, there’s something extremely energizing about walking out in the crisp, cool air of dawn, that makes you feel like the day is full of promise. For what it’s worth, recent studies have shown that early birds are less likely to suffer from obesity, insomnia, anxiety, depression, ADHD, substance abuse, respiratory disease, other mental disorders, and premature death than their night owl counterparts, so the physical benefits of getting up early are somewhat incontestable.
Adopting a healthy sleep routine is worthwhile.
Getting up at 6:00 a.m. meant that I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping too much, which is a massive bonus, since recent research indicates that sleeping in can be just as deadly as being sleep-deprived. Given all of the limitations of the Omega Institute program, I was able to fully adopt all of the sleep hacks I regularly write about.
I didn’t drink any alcohol, and I didn’t surf the Internet or watch Netflix before bed, so I didn’t suffer from blue light depression. I didn’t have to deal with the street lights that negatively impacts the sleep cycles of city-folk like myself. I didn’t even need the A/C in my room since it was a cool and rainy weekend, which kept my room at the science-sanctioned optimal temperature for an ideal night of rest. I can now personally and officially confirm that all of these techniques are worth trying, since I experienced the best sleep I had in years, and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to seize the day.
Alcohol is the worst.
The thing about the human body is that it’s kind of like a Lego model in that every little thing affects everything else. What you eat or drink affects how well you sleep. How well you sleep affects how much energy you have the following day. How much energy you have affects how many calories you’re capable of burning, which affects how intensely you can exercise, which affects how much weight you lose and how much dopamine you generate, which affects how happy you feel, which affects how well you sleep, and so on and so forth. As a lifestyle editor for a publication that covers wellness, I lead a largely healthy existence, maintaining a good diet and exercising for at least 30 minutes five times a week.
But I’m not perfect, and I’m at the limit of how much alcohol the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests having per day, even though I know some studies indicate that even having just one drink a day can shorten your lifespan. One of the reasons I went to the Omega Institute is because, while you’re not barred from bringing your own booze, there’s no alcohol for sale anywhere on campus, which makes it easy to not drink all weekend. I was curious to see if abstaining from alcohol entirely would have a significant chain reaction on my body, and I’m happy to report it did.
Aside from sleeping better, I felt less deadened to my surroundings, and I realized that I don’t actually like alcohol all that much. I always say I’m having a glass of wine in order to “wind down” from a stressful day, but the reality is that alcohol tends to raise your testosterone levels, making you more aggressive, and I’ve noticed that in spite of all of the myths saying otherwise, drinking tends to get me even more worked up about whatever nonsense I’m annoyed about than exercising or taking a long walk. And for more on the insidious effects of booze, check out Why Alcohol Wakes You Up in the Middle of the Night.
Yes, vegetarian food can be delicious.
Abstaining from meat is increasingly emerging as the go-to diet for health-conscious individuals, and even meat-lover Kevin Smith recently took to Instagram to express how a plant-based diet helped him lose a whopping 51 pounds.
I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all diet, and having gotten a DNA test recently that led to immense weight-loss results, I’m more convinced than ever that everyone is different and that what diet suits you best depends on your genetics and biological makeup. Because I’m yeast intolerant, my nutritionist believes the diet that best suits me is Mediterranean, consisting of very little sugar or carbs, lots of seafood, veggies, and healthy grains, and a small amount of lean protein and red wine.
That said, there’s an argument to be made for adhering to a largely plant-based diet, as well as the belief that what you eat isn’t as important as the quality of the food. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Omega Institute consists of “local, mostly organic, sustainable, nutrient-dense, artisanal, and whole-food meals.”
If that sounds boring, take it from me: it isn’t. I feasted on second and third helpings at the buffet bar, which included delightfully inventive pairings like beet, watermelon, and blue cheese salad; mouth-watering homemade hummus; stir-friend tofu with string beans; gluten-free pasta with fresh marinara sauce; and more. All of the fruit was local and felt like it had been picked straight off of the vine that morning, and even my mother, an incorrigible peach snob, was in awe of the offerings.
Bonding is good.
The Omega Institute is the kind of place that you can very well enjoy by yourself, not least of all because everyone is so friendly and the communal tables in the dining hall encourage people to mingle and share their experiences. But I chose to treat my mother to this trip, because, as she’s gotten older, she’s become particularly prone to fits of anxiety over seemingly minute issues. Even though I meet with her very often, we tend to spend many of our lunch dates glued to our phones, despite the fact that I know studies have shown so-called “phubbing” has an adverse effect on interpersonal relationships.
I got closer to my mother during these three days than I have in my entire life. In one particularly poignant moment, she told me about how she and her father made a pact in which whoever passed away first would send a message to the other person to signal that there was such a thing as an afterlife. When he died, my mother was inconsolable. But then she went into the living room and saw that his favorite rocking chair was swaying back and forth. Maybe she was seeing what she wanted to see, but she claimed that the windows weren’t open, and that she took the chair’s gentle rocking as a sign from my grandfather that he had passed on to the other side, and this gave her peace. We made a pact to do the same, and held hands all the way up the road from the lake to our rooms.
Animals are the best.
One of the telltale signs that the Omega Institute has great “energy” is that woodland animals frolic there like come-t0-life illustrations in a children’s story. I watched a bunny hop through a vibrant garden, and got close enough to a groundhog (whom we named “Bob”) to take a selfie. It’s extremely meditative to simply watch animals engage with their natural habitat. In fact, my only criticism of the Omega Institute is that they do not allow dogs except for service animals. I can understand how dogs, with their tendency to bark, could interrupt the tranquility of the space. But pets have also been proven to come with a variety of physical and psychological benefits, and I would have stayed longer if I knew I could have brought my trusty pup along.
Time spent away from the city is essential.
If you live in the city, going away for the weekend is crucial for your mental health. Recent studies have shown that people who live in greener spaces seem to exhibit lower rates of cognitive decline than those in urban areas. A new study has found that simply being around flowers comes with a variety of emotional and physical benefits. Being around nature is so good for you that, even in cities like New York, companies are setting work spaces up outside in order to help employees reap the emotional and psychological effects of vegetation and sunshine. Oh, also being out in the sun can even help you lose weight.
Yoga, meditation, and the like all have tangible benefits.
I was a bit skeptical when I wrote about a study claiming yoga and meditation are some of the healthiest exercises you can do for your brain. And the same goes for a study claiming Tai Chi is the one exercise every older person should do. But my mother, who is 58 and not particularly active, really took to meditation and Tai Chi, and resolved to keep the practice going back home.
If you can, hold on to that childlike wonder.
In many ways, the best thing that I got out of the retreat is the sense that I had as a child—and lost as an adult— that the world is filled with hidden magic. Sure, it was exciting to learn about astrology, shamanism, Buddhism, and so forth. But even if you aren’t into all of that New Age-y stuff, it was wonderful to simply recapture the childlike wonder I had as a child, when everything was new. In many ways, I had my most meditative experience at the retreat on my very first day. It was raining, and I was swimming all alone in the lake, watching small circles rhythmically form in the water. I looked at the world the way that appeared through a drop of rain clinging to a spiderweb, and I remembered that life, with all of its downsides, is truly beautiful if you look at it the right way. And if you need some help in that department, just brush up on the 30 Astonishing Facts Guaranteed to Give You Childlike Wonder.
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