“There’s a certain alchemy when women get together—a depth of work that’s different from when there’s a co-ed audience,” explains Gemma Gambee, a meditation teacher who co-hosted a women’s retreat in the forested hills of upstate New York last fall.
“Depth of work” is wellness speak for self-inquiry and subsequent self-improvement. The kind that, in this context at least, begins with letting down your guard and spilling personal, potentially painful, stories to the group. “I ultimately really think that as women we communicate differently than men. When we’re together the conversation goes deeper,” Gambee says.
Sitting cross-legged in a inclusive circle to talk and trade feelings is the centerpiece of retreats like Gambee’s. Beyond being an effective ice breaker, these emotional purges are also the fastest possible way to bond a group of strangers. Once shared, struggles that feel deeply personal often turn out to be universal.
Kristen Clark, a technology executive living in Washington DC, recently attended Return of the Queen—a retreat hosted by a collective that goes by the name All Our Sacred Sisters—and describes the experience as having an “I get it” factor.
“Hearing all these different types of women from different experiences and backgrounds showing up with such a sincere mindset had a huge impact on me,” she explains. “To be hearing ‘I’ve just had my third miscarriage,’ or ‘I’m mourning my divorce,’ or ‘I’m struggling with being pregnant,’ it was suddenly like…oh I’m not alone. It allowed for connection and for me to feel more seen.”
Feeling seen is especially important right now, when American women are living with a president whose policies ignore and undermine their rights, and the aftermath of the MeToo hashtag, which revealed the horrific (though not entirely surprising) prevalence of sexual harassment in today’s society, is still being dealt with. Coming together to console, problem-solve, and encourage—that’s what women do, and have always done. Especially when they feel under threat.
In 2000, a psychologist named Kelley E. Taylor proposed a female-specific alternative to the fight-or-flight stress response. Women, she theorized, are evolutionarily geared towards tending and befriending instead: “Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.”
In other words, competitiveness is not the default behavior of women, it’s a misguided coping mechanism for a male-centric world. In an environment that gives due consideration to female experiences, anatomies, and temperaments, compassion (tending and befriending) is what comes naturally.
Wellness is predominantly a female domain, which perhaps plays a part in the perception that it is unscientific, self-indulgent, and frequently ridiculous.
An article in Harpers Bazaar last summer noted that “crying, operatic shows of emotion, and pendulous breasts were all common sights” at the annual Spirit Weavers Gathering in Northern California. Listing the breadth of unusual workshops offered over the course of the women-only festival, journalist Marisa Meltzer writes: “There’s one on multiple-hand ayurvedic breast massage, a braiding circle, sacred tarot, ‘mapping feminine wisdom,’ and something described as ‘calling the salmon home’ (which sounds like a potential sex act, but is in fact about ‘water healing.’)”
However you feel about “wellness”, its biggest achievement has been shining a light on the many facets of ourselves that need careful tending. As the movement matures, the emphasis is less physical (clean eating has had its day) and more about finding tools to address the psychological, emotional and spiritual complexities we all grapple with. Women’s retreats are providing those tools.
“I feel way less disconnected in my life having gone to these retreats,” explains Kristen Clark. “There’s a strength you can get from other women who have the same struggles. It was a relief—like shedding something I didn’t even know I was carrying.”