The People Who Attend Wellness Retreats

Steps away from the swim-up bar, an aqua cycling class is in session. The instructor is getting creative: students are doing crunches with their feet propped up on the handlebars of the bike, which is submerged in the pool. Some are a few margaritas deep, but several others stick around for the water aerobics class that follows. The instructor never stops smiling.

Wellness travel is currently seeing a significant rise in popularity. A 2023 report by the Global Wellness Institute projects wellness tourism to grow nearly 17 percent annually, becoming a $1.4 trillion industry in 2027. There are many potential reasons for the boost — namely, a renewed emphasis on wellness and longevity post-pandemic — but what is it that attendees of these retreats are seeking, really?

And so I find myself in the Yucatán Peninsula, staying at Unico 20°87° for the resort's annual Aura Wellness event, to answer that very question. Only in its second year, Aura Wellness is essentially a low-stakes wellness retreat, with guests welcome to attend classes and activities as they see fit. From morning to night, the itinerary is brimming with workouts, meditations, skin-care workshops, and cooking classes.

There's something for everyone, and sometimes maybe too much. At least, that's how it can feel when you're trying to decide between the aqua yoga class or a sound bath at 8 a.m. Both are certainly a far cry from something called a "shotathlon" taking place at the main pool later that day. (I would later learn that just meant the passing around of tequila shots to everyone in the pool.)

"As soon as I saw what events would be available, I was very drawn to participate and get the most out of it," Amy says, "'cause now we're gonna go sit on a beach chair." Amy and her husband, Michael, both in their early 30s, are visiting from just outside of Philadelphia. They're currently expecting and in the first trimester; relaxation was the main goal for the trip, but the wellness activities are a bonus.

Amy and I are still catching our breath from the Mind, Body, and Soul Functional Training workout taught by personal trainer Roy Chan when Michael joins us to sit on the Costera Terrace. It's 11:15 a.m., and the sun is beating down on the limestone.

POPSUGAR Photography | Kelsey Garcia

"We were using a five-pound weight, but I felt strong," Amy says, reflecting on the workout. Amy has a regular fitness routine and works out at least four times a week with a focus on strength training. Michael hasn't tried any of the workouts, but he and Amy did take a cooking class. Michael has celiac disease, and the resort's gluten-free options were a big draw.

Earlier that morning before the workout, Amy did the Energy Reset Meditation with mindset coach Shannon Bills. The meditation prompted participants to set intentions for their future selves and envision their "podium speech" upon accomplishing those intentions.

Amy does shorter 15-minute meditations to go to sleep, but she was surprised she was able to stay present for the full hour. She says, "Any time I found my thoughts racing, I just tried to take a really deep breath and bring myself back into that moment. It's helpful on vacation because you know your only job is to sit there and breathe. It created an environment to be able to focus."

That time and space is invaluable for Amy and Michael, especially as they get closer to expanding their family. "This trip was about unplugging and relaxation," Amy says. "The hustle of life can just be a grind." Michael adds, "Hopefully you can just try to establish something and then bring it home with you and ride that momentum."

Something to note about wellness tourism: it's often done in pairs. At least during this wellness event, I notice a lot of couples, whether newly wed, pregnant, or dating. It helps to have someone with you at the shaman blessing. That's where I saw Dimmery and Paulina.

No one's mingling at the shaman blessing, but it still feels intimate for the roughly two dozen of us in attendance. We sit on bean bags as the shaman alternates between Spanish and an indigenous language to speak about gratitude, remaining present, and honoring lost loved ones. The shaman has us stand facing all four cardinal directions several times. A few giggles are stifled, but those same people are more solemn when the shaman comes around to individually bless them.

The following day, I again see Dimmery and Paulina at the Immersive Sound Bath led by sound healer and astrologer Ambi Kavanagh. The meditation is taking place inside a serene studio with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's incredibly calming, despite a few reminders of life as usual: the humming of air conditioning, dumbbells clanging around in the gym next door, someone snoring.

POPSUGAR Photography | Kelsey Garcia

I catch up with Dimmery and Paulina in the lobby after the sound bath. The dating couple in their late 20s is visiting from Dallas, and they're there to celebrate Paulina's birthday. The shaman blessing and sound bath were the activities they were most looking forward to. "When we looked at the itinerary, those are the two that seemed most aligned," Dimmery says.

Of the shaman blessing in particular, Dimmery says, "There's just something about being able to look into a practitioner's eyes and see the legitimacy of the work and the internal work that they put themselves through. I felt that with the shaman. I got a lot of out of it."

Whereas other guests may be taking advantage of the workouts, I notice how Paulina and Dimmery seem more drawn to the spiritual activities. That's something that brought the couple together in the first place. "I just started my spiritual journey about three to four years ago. When we met, he told me he was also on a spiritual journey," Paulina says. "I just wanted to learn and experience these things."

Like Amy and Michael, Paulina and Dimmery also seek to unplug. "It might be cliché, but relaxation is obviously first and foremost," Dimmery says. He adds that "alignment" and "energy" were words that resonated from both the shaman blessing and sound bath. "I want to be able to go back home and feel energized and rejuvenated from everything."

Roy, who taught the functional training class, has his own theories on why wellness retreats are having a moment, and it has something to do with millennials getting older. He is visiting from Los Angeles, and this is his first time working a wellness retreat at a resort. "The community aspect of it, surprisingly, is very nice," Roy says. "Everybody does their own thing, but it's nice to go to a restaurant or walk by and say hi to someone that you met in class."

"People are out of the college-party blackout thing, and they're kind of reversing it."

Roy thinks many millennials are getting into wellness tourism because they don't party like they used to. Though the pool definitely gets rowdy in the afternoon, and there are a few bachelorette parties in attendance, the mood is pretty subdued, especially for an all-inclusive during spring break season. Roy noticed how many of his younger clients prioritize immediate results over longevity: "They try all these shortcuts to get there, and then they sustain an injury and realize sh*t doesn't work." At a wellness retreat, however, the demographic — and therefore the goals — are different.

"Looking at the demographic here — and myself being in that demographic — people are out of the college-party blackout thing, and they're kind of reversing it," Roy says. "The body doesn't respond to the abuse the way it used to. It doesn't come back the same way."

An emphasis on wellness is crucial to helping people show up in their relationships or at work, Roy says. "You need to be centered first before you give that energy outward — otherwise, I feel like people can be pretty unhappy in the day to day. When people come here, they look for that."

Physical and spiritual work play big roles in wellness tourism, but there's also the mental element. And though many guests are coupled up, some choose to go on that journey alone.

Tamesha is a nurse from Texas here on a solo trip. She explains that she needed a trip to reset before taking her kids on vacation in the summer, and was sold after learning about the the Aura Wellness offerings. "I'm really big into nutrition and I love working out at home. It actually is healing to me," she says. "I just needed some time."

Tamesha and I are sitting on pool chairs, waiting for aqua yoga to begin. It's the early morning and the sun is starting to cast a golden glow over the pool. There's a whirring in the background as our yoga mats are inflated.

Tamesha is unapologetic about being that person who works out on vacation. "I am that friend," she says, laughing. "I will find a way to get a workout in, even if I have to wake up a little earlier than my friends or just go walking." Tamesha's done a meditation and aqua cycling during her stay so far, but she's also just spent a lot of time by the ocean, eyes closed, listening to the water. "That's the best healing place to be," she says.

Toward the end of our conversation, Tamesha shares why she's really here. "I am really seeking balance. I just had a tragic event happening in my life: my ex-husband committed suicide. It's been a wild ride, and our daughter's 12. And so, I'm grieving and working through all of those things," she says. "I'm really here to reset and get realigned so I can find my footing in life again."

Tamesha speaks of the pressure women face to show strength at all times, even in the face of hardship. "Society tells us that we have to be so strong," she says. "You're more courageous, and you're stronger, when you seek help." In the Black community as well, Tamesha says there can still be stigmas surrounding mental health and therapy.

"As a nurse, I know how important it is to center myself. I've seen when my patients don't give themselves that time, how it affects the kids," Tamesha says. "I'm grateful for my education and my experience to be able to know that it's OK to take that break. The kids will be OK, cause with this break, I'll be a better person for them. I'll explain to them why I had to go away for a few days cause mommy wants to be healthy for you." Tamesha and I take the aqua yoga class, and celebrate not falling in.

It's my last day and my bags are stored in the lobby as I walk to one last lunch. New guests are arriving, getting the tour of the property. The aqua cycling class is going on, and the same instructor is slapping the water to the beat of whatever house track is playing, his arms outstretched like a bird.

It's too soon to tell how I was changed by these few days of wellness. There has been no radical transformation, really, but there are a few notable differences: the knee pain I arrived with has surprisingly gotten better, despite all the working out, the eczema on my face is nearly gone, likely thanks to the humidity, and I generally feel unfazed. When I can't seem to find chicken tenders for less than $25 at the Cancún International Airport, I just laugh.

Kelsey Garcia is the associate content director of POPSUGAR Balance, where she oversees lifestyle coverage, from dating to parenting and financial wellness. Kelsey is passionate about travel, skin-care trends, and changes in the social media landscape. Before joining the POPSUGAR team more than eight years ago as an editorial assistant, she interned at Elle and Harper's Bazaar, among other publications.