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Marylanders embark on fitness retreats as wellness travel industry booms

As fitness-oriented vacations have become more affordable, they've also become more popular.

When Alana Roach teaches yoga in Baltimore, she knows that quiet, peaceful zone her students reach probably disappears shortly after the hour-long class.

For many, it's right back to the hustle of stressful jobs, demanding kids and jam-packed social calendars. To fully relax and de-stress, people need to get away, Roach said.

So next week she and business partner Caileigh Feldman are taking a group of 14 to Nosara, Costa Rica for a two-week trip to practice yoga away from the distractions of everyday life.

"People are running around from 9 to 5," Roach said. "They just can't really get a moment to themselves — enough time to truly unwind."

It is the second yoga retreat the pair have organized through a company they started in 2015 called Explorations of Self.

They are part of a booming health and wellness tourism industry once popular only with women and the wealthy. As wellness trips have become more affordable in recent years, a more diverse crowd has embarked on holistic cruises, detox retreats, surfing adventures and weight loss camps. Fitness-oriented hotels have cropped up, and resorts even fly in exercise instructors to offer the same boot camp and cycling classes vacationers would take at home.

The wellness travel market grew 15 percent from $494 billion in 2013 to $563 billion in 2015, according to the Global Wellness Institute. That was twice as fast as tourism overall.

The growth is also being driven by baby boomers looking for ways to live healthier lives, the younger sect looking for an alternative to the typical vacation and a general awareness that people need to learn to put down their phones and de-stress.

"It has so much to do with the basic wellness revolution that is taking over everybody's life," said Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute.

Wellness company Yogaworks, with studios in several cities including Baltimore, lists nearly two dozen retreats on its website in places such as Nicarauga, the Himalayan Foothills, Iceland and Colombia. Some of the trips are done in conjunction with other companies like International Yoga and Yogascapes.

The Deerfield Health Retreat & Spa in the Poconos in Pennsylvania also attracts many Marylanders. Particpants fill their visits with hikes, weight training, basketall, volleyball, tennis, yoga and even bellydancing. They choose from three healthy meals and two snacks to take the worry out of trying to eat right on vacation.

The cost of a trip can vary based on factors like a private or shared room and the distance to the destination. Yogaworks lists one trip starting at low as $800. The Costa Rica trip offered by Feldman and Roach started as low as $1,000and ran as high as about $3,000.

Feldman met Roach after taking one of her yoga classes. She went on a yoga retreat where Roach was teaching and found they had similar ambitions. They believed that yoga could turn people's lives around and bring out an inner peace. Roach credits yoga with helping her beat addiction.

The typical Explorations of Self excursion begins with participants seated in a "power circle." One by one, they share their intention for the week, or what they hope to get out of the retreat. Some want to mend their marriage or bring perspective to their complicated lives. Others are hoping a week of healthy living will help with chronic medical conditions or bring down stress levels.

The remaining days start at 7 a.m. when people rise and have breakfast in silence. Meals consist of fruits, vegetables and other vegan staples, although yogis can request meat if they feel like they really need it.

"It allows people to truly connect with their food when eating," Roach said. "People have a lot of distractions when they eat, so they end up emotionally eating. It allows people to get back into conscious eating."

Ninety minutes of yoga, often in an open-air chalet overlooking the ocean, follows breakfast. Then there is free time and lunch. More free time after lunch is followed by workshops on subjects such as tantric massage, meditation and more yoga.

Feldman was in Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula last week arranging logistics for the latest retreat. They chose the area because it is one of the "blue zones" — places around the world where people live past 100. They wanted to bring people trying to be healthy to places where the healthiest people reside.

During the trip, people are encouraged to totally disconnect. Cell phone, television and computer use are strongly discouraged. The resorts are eco-friendly.

"I encourage people to follow their own rhythms," Roach said. "When people turn off their phones they find they can get into that rhythm."

Participants are also given a day or two to explore the rich ecological attractions nearby. Connecting with nature is healthy for the spirit, Roach and Feldman said.

"It ends up being this whole mind, body and spirit detox," Feldman said.

Joan Burress went on a retreat last year that Feldman and Roach hosted in Peru. The 70-year-old has practiced yoga since college, but wanted to try it in a more serene setting. She took yoga twice a day and also taught meditation classes to the group. She especially liked looking at the mountains in the background as she practiced.

She also got an unexpected benefit from eating so well and doing so much yoga: the persistent stomach pooch she had learned to live with suddenly disappeared.

"My friends also told me that my skin was glowing when I got home," she said.

Heather Holme of Annapolis decided on the Peru yoga trip to celebrate her 70th birthday. She had always wanted to visit Machu Picchu and loves yoga, which she has practiced for 40 years. She believes the practice has helped her avoid the ailments, such as hip problems, that many people her age have endured.

She said yoga in a place known for its strong religious and spiritual grounding was unlike other experiences she'd had.

"We were in the sacred valley of Machu Picchu and it's so spiritual and as a yogi that kind of thing is appealing because you are trying to connect to your better self," Holme said.

Feldman and Roach have six retreats planned for this year and eventually build up to a dozen or mor a year. In February, they are leading a yoga and surfing adventure in Popoyo, Nicaragua. They will head to Belize in March and Tracones, Mexico in April.

The pair hope that participants learn something about themselves and discover ways they can make their lives better.

"I want people to go home knowing what is possible for their life," Feldman said.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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