Foreign Correspondence: the benefits of going on holidays to better ourselves

A few weeks ago, I went to my first "wellness retreat", in Thailand. It was a story assignment, and while I was delighted to be trying it, a holiday devoted to health and fitness has not traditionally been my go-to. I was, in fact, a little nervous, and had many questions. These included, can I take my phone? Are burpees mandatory? What about early wake-ups? And will there be wine? (The answers were yes; no; none; and yes, at lunch and dinner.)

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But, by the end of a week devoted to healthy pursuits, my concerns were very different. I was using my phone (a "socially accepted addiction" as the staff put it) less; I actually looked forward to exercising, beyond a gentle stroll to the coffee shop; I found myself getting up early, naturally; and I no longer stumbled across the 5pm finish line each day gasping for a goldfish bowl's worth of sauv blanc.

Replacing old preoccupations were new ones: carving out time to practise the breathing exercises I'd been taught; figuring out how I was going to make eggs in the morning while looking after a baby; and acquiring the retreat's amazing recipe for Bircher muesli in the hopes that I could re-create the magic at home. I'd learnt that it is more possible than you'd imagine to reset, both physically and emotionally.

Most people – me included – don't go on holiday to better themselves. In fact, it's often used as an excuse to indulge more than we would at home, to behave in ways we wouldn't if everyone around us knew our name.

No judgment here. That reluctance is surely in part because habit-breaking isn't easy. (Dig out the world's smallest violin for us wellness retreaters, will you?) And lovely as it was, the place had an odd vibe; a lot of its visitors seemed dejected, or perhaps a little haunted by a past self. Meal times weren't the freewheeling bacchanalia typically associated with beach trips to Thailand. Many guests had come alone and sat at their table for one staring into space, or writing self-consciously in a journal. And, to be honest, by the end of the week I'd had it with wind-chime music. At the airport on the way home, I inhaled a container of sourcream-and-onion Pringles, which just happens to be the exact opposite of a wellness retreat.

But I'm still waking up without an alarm clock – and with, perhaps, a little more verve than before. I am yet to break into the ice-cream after dinner. And I remain focused on slowing down. Or attempting to. It's not a transformation, by any means. But these are, nonetheless, steps in the right direction.

It's the ultimate First World realisation: when you can hydrate with coconuts instead of boring old water, life is good.

There's a bigger takeaway, too. Who knew that a week devoted to improving oneself could be such a pleasurable experience? It's the ultimate First World realisation: when a talented chef is whipping up superlative curries on demand and you can hydrate with coconuts instead of boring old water, life is good.

But even after checking my considerable privilege, I can't shake a feeling of, well, hopefulness. I don't want to overstate this, but the idea that people really can change, even in small and seemingly insignificant ways, is for me a tiny little crumb of optimism in a dark time. Or maybe my optimism is just the by-product of all that yoga and plentiful vegetables. Either way, I'll take it.

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