It was in the otherworldly peaks of the Indian Himalayas that I discovered cosmic energy. Over the last decade I'd travelled extensively for work and leisure, but that trip stood out for two reasons. Firstly, my travelling buddy was a close friend and mental-health therapist with an infectious enthusiasm for life's simple pleasures. Perhaps more importantly, the destination was unspoiled by tourism.
In the stillness of Almora, I could hear my inner voice. The unstructured time somehow felt more mindful than a run-of-the-mill detox break or yoga retreat. Against the snow-capped Nanda Devi peaks, days were spent forest bathing, discovering local wildlife and taking in lungfuls of crisp mountain air. I sensed true presence.
In the mountains, I felt far removed from the stresses of modern travel - the multiple connections, packing logistics, heavy carbon footprint and figuring out the best itinerary or places to eat. My experience of peace and balance was the antithesis to our overworked, chaotic world. It was a break in a very real sense - but one that felt inaccessible to most travellers today.
Yet as it turns out, there are several UK-based operators that are putting conscious travel at the forefront of their itineraries. Take The Mindful Travel Co., for instance, which offers sustainable vacations to Australia and New Zealand. Founders Emma Penfold and Laura Hughes curate unrushed, meaningful itineraries which leave a positive impact on both the traveller and the destination. "Our customers tend to be eco-conscious, sometimes spiritual and usually looking for a well-deserved break," they say. "For us, travel and mindfulness are about being in the world, in the present, and giving meaning to our existence and to the existence of others."
Daintree Rainforest in Northern Queensland is one of The Mindful Travel Co.'s most popular destinations. With no phone signal, visitors are truly immersed in nature, surrounded by rock pools, waterfalls, tropical plants and wildlife. What's more, on behalf of its customers, the company offsets carbon emissions by working with One Tree Planted to support reforestation across North America, Latin America, Asia, Australia and Africa.
The Arrigo Programme is guided by a similar "back to nature" ethos. Founded by biodynamic psychologist Fiona Arrigo its healing retreats - held across Somerset, London, India, France, Spain and the US - tackle exhaustion and depression in a bid to achieve better health, balance and happiness among its clients. It's Back to Nurture by Arrigo retreat is designed exclusively for the modern woman. Between bedding down in luxury yurts kitted out with private bathrooms and log burners, women are encouraged to reconnect with the land; they forage, visit sweat lodges, swim in the wild, craft, do breathwork and trade stories as they cook by campfire.
This move towards mindful travel is not just a UK phenomenon. India-based operator Simply Breathe combines adventure activities with meditation practices on diving retreats in the Maldives. The company was founded by banker Karan Mehta, underwater photographer Bhushan Bagadia and Michelle Faye Pereira, a counselling psychologist. "It's uncanny how alike diving and meditation are," they say. "The traditional Buddhist practice of ânàpànasati [mindful breathing] leads to a deeper connection to the body which, in turn, helps you tune in to the energies around you. Similarly, when one is underwater, we focus on breathing instead of checklists or negative emotions. We are in a state of complete presence and, through this, it's possible to develop deep compassion for the beings around us." Being a certified diver, I can attest that I've never felt closer to the planet or more aware of my existence than when I am scuba diving over a rich coral reef.
There's been an explosion of authors and content creators focusing on mindful travel. Voiceover artist and writer Emma Clarke (best known for voicing "mind the gap" on the London Underground) has authored You Are Here: A Mindful Travel Journal. Between playful illustrations and mindfulness exercises, it encourages readers to pay attention to their body and senses while making meaningful memories. "I think so many people feel exhausted and demoralised because the state of our world makes life quite challenging," says Clarke. "My readers are people who are doing their best to bring happiness and meaning into their lives. The book speaks to a lot of people regardless of geography, gender and age."
Indeed, travellers are responding to such offerings in a big way. Researchers from Australia's James Cook University have found that digital detoxing is on the rise. In the summer of 2016, actor Selena Gomez took a 90-day hiatus from her phone. In 2018, the Mandarin Oriental in New York partnered with the Mayo Clinic for a wellness program where guests trade in their phones for journaling, colouring or merely sitting in silence. In 2019, JetBlue Airlines partnered with wellness and mindfulness app, Inscape to provide meditation and relaxation content to its fliers.
Mindful travel in five simple steps
The most important step for a mindful vacation is to be present, to disconnect and find joy in simple things. This goes a long way in making other tangible changes which will help you centre yourself, enjoy your trip and not be perturbed by external factors that usually trigger travel-related stress.
You don't have to swear off connectivity for the entirety of your trip, but some level of disconnection from your work and regular life will eventually feel or do good. Switch on the "out of office", log out of social media and leave your phone in your room (or simply put it in flight mode if you'd still like to use the camera). Many people opt for destinations that have zero or poor connectivity which results in a mandatory hiatus.
Let go of your usual routine and travel habits to step out of your comfort zone. Even if you have a controlling type A personality, leave an afternoon or two free to see where the road takes you. Explore indigenous flora and fauna, savour your food, feel the wind on your face, the sand beneath your toes and allow your senses to be overwhelmed by the world you're visiting. Strike up conversations with local people and ask for suggestions (and try not feel FOMO about what you're missing out on according to Google).
Figure out an activity you enjoy and build it into your travels. This could also depend on the destination. If you're in the mountains, try meditating for a few minutes in the wild; take in a vivid sunset on the beach and even if you're visiting a city, pause in a midst of a busy street or museum to sketch or write something that inspires you. Instead of taking pictures, be present. Relish the moment.
Even (and especially) when things go wrong, don't get worked up over what you cannot control. Have awareness of your physical reactions: is your jaw clenched or shoulders tense? Take a deep breath to relax. Have a book at hand for when you need to kill time in the face of missed connections or transport breakdowns. Often, being grateful for what is going right helps to put things into perspective.