Pratibha Batchu was intrigued by a Facebook ad for a ‘brain vacation’, the stress and isolation of the pandemic prompting her to sign up. “I wanted something exploratory and being in nature was appealing,” says the Bengaluru-based Head of Bosch Service Solutions India. What followed was a transformative trek and journey between Manali and Spiti in October 2021. “The relationships formed organically, nothing forced, through meeting people of various ages and professions; fireside chats; meditation sessions; and helping each other complete the trek,” she says. Exploring a new place, trying new things, and the bonding and support of a community, was an introspective experience, prompting her to think in unexpected ways, the insights continuing to benefit her professionally and personally.
Brain vacations are designed to help participants think in new ways, and break away from automated patterns to make discoveries in a new environment, whether out in nature, at heritage properties, or even at staycations. A few Indian companies offer these experiential retreats, attracting corporates, entrepreneurs, and creators, helping with professional roadblocks, building networks, mentoring, and collaborations and providing clarity, perspective, and self-understanding.
The incubation effect
In our constantly switched-on schedules, we rarely disengage effectively, even while on holiday. But even taking a short break from an unresolved problem can help in returning to it with fresh insights. This is a phenomenon psychologists call the “incubation effect.”
Batchu participated in a retreat organized by Chennai learning and development firm HimalayaCalling, which curates experiences in the Himalayas and other natural settings. They started these restorative journeys in 2016 to alleviate stress and burnout, offering retreats for leadership, business, mind mentorship and brain vacations. “Nature is the basis of our work in these retreats. Experiences like trekking, star gazing, foraging, camping lead to one thing — a pause in the brain and an opportunity to create new neural pathways,” says co-founder and lead facilitator Lakshmanan Krish. Along with his co-founder, behavioural strategist and psychologist Vidya R., they curate journeys, for groups of 20-25 people, which combine conversation, activities, travel and exploration in nature. “These retreats are a safe and welcoming space to pause, get out of the grind of everyday patterns, break fears and limiting beliefs and gain new perspectives.” says Vidya.
Go with the flow
Keeping an open mind is helpful when attending these retreats. Batchu faced the unexpected on the first day when rainfall disrupted the trek, spending the day huddled in a tent with the group. “I was surprised that I wasn’t anxious about ‘what next?’, or thinking what a waste of time this was. The team kept us going with hot food, drinks, and games. No one cribbed and it was a great bonding experience.”
“We don’t commit to transforming people. If you have certain expectations, you may be disappointed,” says Jay Ahya, founder of the Experience Co, which designs various creative journeys, including the 5–7-day Beachhouse Project (BHX), a growth focused residency for approximately twenty professionals and entrepreneurs, held at exclusive villas and heritage properties in India and abroad.
Spending a week with strangers in close quarters may seem daunting, but results in discovering varied perspectives, similarities, and can, surprisingly, help people share their vulnerabilities without feeling judged. Chennai-based Kannan Gireesh, psychiatrist, CEO and founder of education consultancy LiveLife Education, attended a BHX retreat in 2021. He enjoyed the freewheeling chats and fun exercises. “People didn’t know each other,” he notes. “But the facilitators create such an open space, because of which we were able to share details of what we are experiencing.”
Often, parts of the retreat are participant-led. Happy Retreats designs celebratory getaways, corporate retreats, and weekend networking staycations at their boutique hotel, White Mist, in Nandi Hills, near Bengaluru. “We organize two-day entrepreneur retreats, where we set the agenda based on the profiles of the 60-80 attendees and ask if any of them wants to lead a session,” says founder Pradeep Gowriraju. “There are workshops, business and idea exchanges, ice breaking – a combination of fun and serious discussion.” BHX also has several participants share their expertise in workshops. “Especially for attendees who are new entrepreneurs or starting out on their careers, they have conviction, but may not have access to these resources,” says Ahya.
Why attend and what’s the itinerary like?
“A majority show up when they are feeling lost and the future is unclear. Several are doing well, but join to level up and go forward,” says Ahya. There is also a hunger for connection. “Many attend these to meet new people and understand different perspectives,” says Gowriraju. This was a key motivation for Gireesh signing up for BHX. “I wanted to connect with others, because in our work, we don’t socialise much and are just involved in what we are doing.”
The importance of community was revealed especially since the pandemic. BHX began in 2016, but most editions, twenty or more annually, have been organized with growing demand since 2021. There is also increasing interest from participants outside metro cities. “Since 2020, we have had people attending from Nagaland, Dehradun, Indore and Surat. We realized smaller cities have less exposure to thriving and communicative spaces, which this experience provides,” says Ahya. HimalayaCalling’s retreats are designed to provide participants a multi-sensory experience. They also incorporate local culture through food, art, music, dance, and interactions, which provides “rich food for the brain,” adds Krish.
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At BHX, the first day is about creating a safe space, through experienced facilitators, so people can share their stories. Subsequent days are for creative projects. Participants identify their main challenges, with others pitching in with advice on how to overcome them. This tends to offer ideas, contacts, collaborations, and partnerships. Experiences unique to a place, like walking through an art district in Berlin or visiting a sacred waterfall in Meghalaya, are also organised.
“One of the goals of having these retreats in the Himalayas, is [so that people] voluntarily sign up to be away from all the things that keep them in repetitive ‘doing’ mode” he says. “The several windows of idleness...can be leveraged to give the brain the super break it deserves.” Professionally, participants gain contacts, collaborators, and mentors through these retreats in addition to clarity and self-discovery.
“I realised my own resilience and ability to deal with the unexpected [despite thinking] planning and scheduling is in my DNA,” says Batchu. “Despite the disruptions to the itinerary, I was at peace and present in the moment–this continues to help me in other situations.”