Last year, I experienced a period of exhaustion, triggered by traumas from my past. It took a toll on me and left me in a state of seeming depression: bouts of crying and physical and mental fatigue. With the multiple projects and social responsibilities on my plate, I was overwhelmed. After a meltdown, I realized that what I was suffering from wasn’t depression but burn out, functioning on empty. I was in crisis mode and needed relaxation and extreme self care.
As I approached my fortieth birthday, I resolved and committed to entering the next decade of my life intentional about how to treat myself well: my body, my mental health, and, in general, overall my well-being.
The Women of Color Healing Retreats (WOCHR) in Costa Rica seemed promising, on recommendation from a close friend. The website had me thinking that it would be an experience that, I have been seeking, needing. The website promoted a healing retreat created specifically for Black women, that included workshops, rituals at the river and ocean, yoga, and vegan meals for eleven days. I immediately reserved my spot and paid the $3,333 without hesitation.
I was ready. Then, things took a slightly different turn.
Prior to leaving for WOCHR, I received hyper-aggressive emails from founder and self-identified healer and yogi, Satya X. The emails were meant to be informational. However, on multiple occasions, attendees were threatened with losing all of their money if they did not comply with responses in a timely manner, send back forms that were sent the week of/at the last minute or whatever else she instructed us. This, among many impressions, suggested that she was hosting a retreat in our (the attendees) favor by accepting our money.
Despite the off-putting nature of the electronic communication, I was determined to open myself up to the experience in hopes that I would benefit from the promises of renewed energy and well-being. The website advertised an assortment of workshops including: Inner Journey, Self-Care I and II, Exploring Colorism, Tap Into the Ancient Power of Crystals, Mindfulness Medicine, Race, Gender & Politics, Exploring Meditation Modalities, Herbalism, a Medicinal Plant Walk, and a Sankofa Workshop. All worth my $3333.
However, of all that was promised, we only received two workshops – one on colorism and another on self-care. Personally, I felt like the conversations were sophomoric and to be honest, did not leave my cohort with any new skills or strategies to improve our lives when we returned home. Additionally, a self-care retreat for Black women is no my place in my opinion, to have a colorism workshop. That topic is oftentimes triggering for many of us, no matter where we lie on the hue spectrum.
It became clear that the rest of this experience was going to become even more problematic when Satya told me that therapy was a part of white supremacy and that Black people needed to learn how to heal themselves without any outside help.
Lack of or under-programming aside, the accommodations were in stark contrast to what you would imagine a self-care retreat atmosphere should be. Environment is everything. While the landscape itself was gorgeous, we were in the interior of Costa Rica. If you’re a traveler, you know this meant that the property was occupied with every kind of living creature native to a rainforest imaginable, leaving some of us afraid to use the restrooms at night. Eleven women were split between two cabins where we shared a shower, sink, and toilet per cabin. The beds were hard and caused our backs to ache especially for the elders who were among us. Making matters worse: the massage or reiki that was promised on the website, was rescinded upon arrival. We were told that it was “canceled,” and that if we wanted the massage services we would have to pay an additional $55 to hire an outside practitioner.
Reminder, each of us had to pay $3,333.
The meals were sparse. One night I asked for a pinch of salt to season my chickpeas. Satya stood up and replied, “Salt is killing Black people.” Despite the hyperbolic nature of her statement, I was given a lime wedge to improve the taste, and went to sleep hungry. We were offered three meals a day, water, sometimes coconut water and unsweetened tea. We were told that if we desired snacks such as small mugs of smoothies or fried plantains, we would have to purchase it. Our $3333, as we found, did not come with comfort or sated appetites.
It was on this evening, Day 5, that two of the eleven women in our cohort decided to leave the retreat.
As I am an adamant supporter of Black enterprises, I tried to remain optimistic and show my support. By Day 6, I had all that I could take. My objective for being there was thwarted by the lack of organization and transparency of the entire setup. The morning of my last day at the retreat, I sat outside of my cabin trying to weigh the pros and cons of staying versus going. I decided to prioritize my comfort and peace of mind, and the only way that could happen was to leave. Two other women left with me.
Upon leaving WOCHR, I shared with my community on social media that I decided to leave the retreat and reclaim my time.
In response to that post, more than a dozen women relayed to me similar (or worse) experiences they or their friends had at WOCHR.
I knew that the “retreat” was meant to help improve something in the lives of each woman who ventured there but was potentially creating more harm—not to mention leaving us absent a hefty sum from our bank accounts. Two of the women were over sixty and their kids paid for them to come. Other women were healing from an assortment of traumas, PTSD and difficult situations. One of the women who left with me broke down and cried and told me that she felt worse than she did before coming to the retreat.
Creating and holding space for Black women to heal is not only sacred but it’s critical. While it was difficult to call out a Black-owned business, I feel even more responsible to the countless Black women who, in desperation, are seeking out spaces for healing. I could not, in good faith, encourage Black women or endorse vulnerable communities to go out of their way to participate in something that may cause even more harm, (re)opening wounds of old and new. WOCHR does not seem equipped to facilitate experiences of healing.
It’s painstakingly clear that Black women are in need of inexpensive self-care practices that we can employ at home. We are also in need rejuvenating experiences that will take us away from our every day routines. Personally, I’ve been actively involved with GirlTrek, the largest health movement for Black women in the U.S. GirlTrek encourages women to walk 30 minutes a day. This Labor Day, they’ll be organizing its annual Stress Protest in the mountains of Colorado. I encourage you to join us.
What other wellness practices and experiences have you personally benefited from? We’d love to promote those to our readers.
While I definitely did not get my money’s worth, the trip wasn’t a complete bust. I’m open to finding a Black-owned/run yoga studio or class in my city. As a happy carnivore, I’m open to trying vegan recipes (with proper seasoning) and a few of the Black-owned vegan eateries in Philadelphia. The camaraderie that was created by those of us who attended, was priceless. Moving forward, we have vowed, to continue to hold one another accountable for finding our joy, and indulging in wellness, one tiny radical self-care act a time.
Fortunately, I found a great therapist earlier this year. I couldn’t wait to vent about the retreat upon my return home. The session turned out to be fantastic (like Celie and Nettie, him and I shall never part…Makidada). Unlike what is being promoted at WOCHR, I know that therapy is essential to Black women’s healing, and most especially my own.
– Shantrelle P. Lewis, Co-Founder of ShoppeBlack, Duly initiated Lucimi Sango Priest and African-centered curator and social entrepreneur. (IG @apshantology)
Accommodations: Prior to even going to the retreat, we were told that we were to stay in a hostel the night that we arrived and the night before we departed Costa Rica. I chose to reserve a room in a hotel instead. Additionally, the 11 women in attendance were split up between two cabins.The beds were very rudimentary and hurt each of our backs. Most especially the women who were elders in the group. As soon as you sat on them, you sunk down into the planks. There wasn’t any seating on the property such as hammocks or lounge chairs, anything that would allow you to recline, only hard wooden benches. Also, since the plumbing system was operated by a septic tank, we were not allowed to flush toilet paper in the toilet, we had to throw it in a trash can instead. Signs were posted in our cabins saying that in Costa Rica, you can’t flush toilet paper in the toilet because the system can handle it. That is a lie. That property couldn’t handle paper in the system.
Vegan Meals: The meals were prepared by a chef based in Brooklyn with assistance from a Black Costa Rican woman who owns a restaurant and a couple other local women. For the most part the meals were surprisingly tasty, though sparse. Additionally, it would have wonderful to have been offered fruit and tropical or green juices along with our meals. Note: I would hire the chef for future events because some of the meals were tasty.
Ground Transportation: The week that we were scheduled to leave for the retreat, we were sent an invoice for $100 for ground transportation. We were told that if we did not send in the money within two days, we’d have to pay a late fee. This was an inconvenience for many people who had already budgeted their costs, and were not expecting to pay any additional fees.
Location: We were taken out to the interior of Costa Rica, in a location that was 3 hours and 44 minutes away from the beach in Puerto Viejo. The website actively advertised that we would be staying at a beach front property, a major draw for the attendees.
Costs: $3333 retreat price not including flights (which was supposed to include a healing massage or reiki treatment), $100 ground transportation $32 for two nights stay at a hostel (more if you paid for a hotel, in our case $300), snacks. NOTE: Initially, attendees were instructed to pay our balance via Paypal. When our last payments were due, we were told that Paypal would no longer be accepted and we would only be allowed to pay via an international wire transfer, which was more expensive for attendees and which ultimately meant that our payments would no longer be protected. The retreat is now offered at $4444.
Communication: We were sent a form that included the retreat’s “codes of conduct” to sign four days prior to our retreat start date. Additionally, the fine print included restrictions against wearing any clothes with labels, including any from small labels (in my case Black-owned companies). The Code of Conduct also included a gag order about negative commentary about the retreat. I found it odd that a healing and self-care retreat would need to request something like this four days in advance to arriving.
“The zero tolerance hate policy extends to negative postings on any form of public social networking, i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. Should you post something before or after the retreat, affiliated with Women of Color Healing Retreats that the organizers feel does not align with the sisterhood and mission of Women of Color Healing Retreats, you will be asked to remove or edit the post.”
Karmic Yoga/Kitchen Duty: Almost forgot to mention, we had to wash dishes after our meals.
Yoga: I actually did enjoy the yoga classes. The instructor was kind, compassionate and very patient. Thanks to her classes, I’ll be trying out yoga with local Black instructors.
Featured Image: The morning I left the retreat.