(Bloomberg) -- The $4.75 trillion wellness industry is all around us, Deepak Chopra would argue.
It’s in the air you breathe, the trees in your backyard, the spa with a garden, even right in your pocket. And if you don’t see it all those places just yet, you will soon.
That’s because the health guru—spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey, founder of the humanitarian- and wellness-oriented Chopra Foundation, integrative medicine physician, and author of 90-plus books—sees wellness as an interconnected web of digital tools, individual soul-searching, and interpersonal experiences.
His work has him engaging in all of those fronts. During the pandemic he’s organized twice-monthly group retreats at luxury resort Civana, where participants convene in the town of Carefree, Arizona, for six days to rid their bodies of toxins and learn to tap into primordial sound meditation. (Sometimes he makes a personal appearance; other times he leaves the program in the hands of resort physicians.)
In January he released Digital Deepak, which uses artificial intelligence to offer spiritual guidance that feels like it’s coming straight from the master himself. For $70 a year, his Chopra app is putting meditation and self-care onto small screens everywhere; it came out in August on the Apple Store with Android still to come.
All this makes Chopra the leading authority on what wellness travel looks like amid the pandemic—when we all need it but may not be traveling much—and how it is poised to evolve in the near future.
The definition of wellness travel is changing
Some travelers will flock to the usual spots—the Miravals and Canyon Ranches—to lose the weight they’ve gained during the pandemic, but Chopra believes that more will seek out experiences that relate to spirituality instead. “Of course people want to reinvent their bodies and resurrect their souls,” Chopra says. “But they’re looking for a reconnection to existence.”
“In the future we’ll see travel combine wellness with exploring nature in all its amazing diversity: birdwatching, walking through rainforests, connecting with the life in the savannah, spiritual sites like Bali,” he says. “You’re going to see an influx of wellness travel for more than one reason.”
All this relates to holistic mental health and building mental resiliency, Chopra says. In the last year, he says, the people who’ve found acceptance and opportunity—rather than feelings of grief and loss—were divided by their “awareness and interest in fundamental reality or spirituality.”
Experiences that connect us to nature, that assert our place in the world, and link us to others, he adds, are what make us mentally fit, helping us become accepting of challenges and able to grow in our personal and professional lives.
Group retreats will become more popular
Group travel amid a pandemic? Chopra’s sold-out retreats, at Civana and elsewhere, illustrate that there’s an appetite for it—one that will likely grow in step with vaccinations and the rest of the travel industry.
Travelers are not just looking to shrink they're waistlines, either. They’re looking to engage holistically with the world around them. That explains why some of the ideas that took shape in 2020—greater awareness for climate change and the positive environmental impacts of staying home, an urgency around social and economic justice issues, the inequities of global health care—are being incorporated into the way we think and talk about wellness. “What we need now is collective conversation,” Chopra says. “This pandemic has given us an opportunity to create a more peaceful, healthy, and joyful world, but we have to rethink everything.”
The best way for that to happen, he argues, is through the kind of intentional human connection that happens in intimate group settings, removed from the stresses and anxieties of our day-to-day. The retreats at Civana include Ayurvedic spa treatments as well as health consultations, meditation classes, and “whole health education' classes; another, at the Fairmont Mayakoba in Mexico, helps participants “find themselves” with the help of Pranayama breathwork and Chakra toning.
“When people are in contact with each other,” Chopra says, “it influences and strengthens our limbic, or emotional, brain.” Examples of that include “real physical contact like that of a mother and baby, hugs, embraces, and even direct eye contact,” he adds.
Exercising your limbic system—a set of brain structures that includes your hypothalamus, frontal lobe, and hippocampus, all responsible for regulating memory, emotion, and behavior—comes with many benefits. “When your limbic system feels disconnected from others you feel depressed,” he says. “And if you feel connected with societies and communities, there is something that happens called limbic resonance, which decreases inflammation and anxiety.”
None of this, he explains, can be accomplished over Zoom. “It’s like trying to eat a meal by eating the menu,” he says. “The menu gives you an idea what it tastes like, but you need to be given the actual meal.”
Bypass the overtouristed destinations
Each trip you take doesn’t need to be built around spa services and meditation classes, but Chopra encourages travelers to prioritize places that reduce their existing anxieties rather than add to them. “Every vacation needs to be a restoration of the spirit,” he says.
That means a repudiation of overly commercial destinations, which lead people to “end up even more burnt out than when they left.” If he were to build a spiritual bucket list, the places on it would be Kyoto and the islands off of Japan, Indonesia, and the islands of the South Pacific. These are the types of places, he says, that “don’t steal your attention to a consumer product or service. They invite your attention because you fall in love with the experience itself.” (Most of these remain closed to a majority of international travelers, so plan well ahead.)
It’s not just that these destinations are more focused on shrines than shopping. They’re also places to slow down, intentionally focus your senses, and restore a practice of mindfulness. “When is the last time you listened to a song and wondered when it would end, or read a poem and wondered when it would finish?” Chopra asks. “That’s our attention span now. We read emails and speak to people and gobble sandwiches at the same time. We’re addicted to technology.”
Luckily, it’s possible to find these types of restorative experiences in your own backyard, whether you live in the Pacific Northwest or in Queensland, Australia.
But these days, the anxieties around travel are greater and more complicated than ever before, as people navigate vaccination requirements, Covid caseloads, border policies, and frequently changing rules and guidance.
For that, Chopra turns to a tried-and-true mantra—one that he’s told his children daily throughout their lives. Find your moksha, he says, employing the Sanskrit word for “freedom” or “liberation.”
“Make today more uncertain than yesterday,” he continues. “Once you live with uncertainty, nothing ever goes wrong.”