Travelling to Rwanda to find the ‘we’ in wellness

images by Eva Ramirez

Much like the tech industry has permeated almost every corner of our lives – from how we communicate to how we travel – the wellness industry has also coloured our everyday. A big chunk of this burgeoning industry is occupied by self-care. We detox, cleanse, prime and pamper, all in the name of looking after our body and mind.

Often the wellness industry conflates self-care with “me time”. It’s considered to be something which predominantly involves and benefits oneself. Within our Western society, it’s also become intrinsically linked with capitalism – buy something new, treat yourself – all by way of consumption. But how many of these superficial quick fixes are entangled with instant gratification instead of long-term happiness? Of course, the clue is in the name, but in many ways, self-care has the power to foster and cultivate a sense of community too. Its history stretches much further back than 2016 when the term was reclaimed by the wellness industry and is connected to race, class and gender.

My experience brought wellness and travel together to encourage prosocial behaviour. It took self-care back to its roots as a path towards social change”

I recently travelled to Rwanda for a yoga retreat with a difference. While it combined all the elements you’d expect from such a holiday – a beautiful setting, delicious meals and time dedicated to yoga and meditation – there was something more I came away with that I hadn’t necessarily anticipated. My experience brought wellness and travel together to encourage prosocial behaviour. It took self-care back to its roots as a path towards social change.

Souljourn is a non-profit that hosts worldwide retreats which fuse yoga, travel and philanthropy. Inspired by Seva, the Sanskrit word and core yogic principle of selfless service, their aim is to empower young women while raising awareness and funds for girls’ education. Over 130 million girls globally are denied an education, which means they’re also denied endless other opportunities, such as the chance to improve their overall health and quality of life. The premise of Souljourn Yoga’s retreats is simple – give back to yourself while giving to others.

Souljourn partners with local charities in each of the locations where the retreats are held, from Nicaragua to Tibet, Cambodia, India, Morocco, Peru and Rwanda. People who go on the retreats can see exactly how their donations are impacting lives, spend time with the organisers and beneficiaries, soak up a genuine sense of the destination’s culture, establish real-life connections through yoga and other activities and of course, take a break from day-to-day life to simply enjoy themselves.

Travelling itself can be a form of self-care. It heightens your senses and can make you feel more creative, intuitive and adventurous as you map out journeys, explore new territories and try new things. I find it makes me feel more in tune with my body too, as I’m far more present than when I’m back home, running on autopilot Monday to Friday.

I fell in love with its verdant, rolling hills, ecologically diverse landscapes and beautifully warm, yet somehow not humid climate”

Making our way through the country over 10 days, there was plenty of exploring and we stayed in various lodges along the way. Despite living in Sierra Leone as a young child, I had limited knowledge on the central/eastern part of the continent or Rwanda in particular, but I fell in love with its verdant, rolling hills, ecologically diverse landscapes and beautifully warm, yet somehow not humid climate. We trekked through rainforests, admired the wildlife during 5-hour safaris, walked through tea plantations, canoed across rivers and learnt about the country’s conservation and sustainability efforts (plastic bags were banned over a decade ago!).

While there were plenty of typical, tourist endeavours, more than anything, the retreat was about giving, gratitude and girl power. We met incredibly inspiring women from two female-centric Rwandese non-profits, Komera and Sevota and exchanged stories, sang, danced, cooked meals together, shared breathing techniques for managing stress and practiced yoga. I saw the beauty which lies in communal self-care and was able to detach it from being the private, solitary endeavour, which I’d always seen it as.

As civil rights activist Angela Davis puts it, self-care is something that works best “within a collective context”. For many like me who weren’t previously aware, Souljourn is a beautiful example of this. It teaches that community is an intrinsic part of both yoga and self-care – both of which are far more powerful when shared and can create a sense of unity and connectedness. The retreats create opportunities to explore this both on and off of the mat while promoting female empowerment and the importance of girls’ education within communities where equal opportunities aren’t commonplace.

It’s about doing something for yourself while serving others too. I think that’s where the real sweet spot in the wellness industry lies – the “we”.

Souljourn will be hosting a pop-up event in London in January 2019. Upcoming retreats will take place in Tibet, Cambodia, India, Morocco, Peru and Rwanda. For more information, see here.

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