The first retreat I ever led by myself was 2-days long, and a massive learning lesson for me.
Before this retreat, I had led other retreats…but they had always been co-led. I hadn’t done them on my own.
It was the first retreat of five in a 9-month mastermind. 20 incredible women.
I wanted very much to serve them well. And if I’m honest with myself, I also wanted to impress them. I wanted them to like me. No, to adore me. And to think I was brilliant. And to feel they had made the right choice by investing with me.
So that meant that even though I was so excited about this retreat….I was also ridiculously nervous.
I spent weeks preparing like crazy for the curriculum and buying supplies. I put in hours to memorize parts of what I was going to say. And finally the night before the retreat came.
I crawled into bed at about 10:30pm so that I could get a good night’s sleep, and…didn’t fall asleep until after 5am. I was so nervous that my thoughts were moving way too quickly for my brain to settle down and let me rest.
I got about 90 minutes of sleep that night, ran out the door in the morning with barely any breakfast inside me, fueled by adrenaline.
I could feel my heart beating so strongly inside of me the entire subway ride to the retreat site. My underarms were totally sweaty. And I found myself wishing to be anywhere but on my way to this retreat.
I got to the retreat site before anyone else was there, set up the room, and then ran to the bathroom to hide in a stall and calm myself down enough to do the work I was there to do.
Sitting on the toilet, I practiced breathing, told myself all was well, and prayed a lot to be able to show up fully and open to be able to support the women in the room.
Still shaking, I emerged from the stall and walked into the retreat room, reminding myself to smile big and open my heart
In many ways, that first day went phenomenally well.
We created sacred space together, the women were open and engaged, the rituals I led inspired great emotion and breakthroughs. They were learning a lot and beginning to create trust and sisterhood with each other.
But…I didn’t give them (or me) much of a morning break. I didn’t eat or drink anything during that break.
We also paused way later than I had anticipated for lunch. After 1:30pm. I was still so nervous and so pumped with adrenaline that I barely ate or gave myself moments to rest.
And…I was exerting myself more than I needed to. Using all of my life force energy to hold the space instead of allowing the space to be held.
We continued on that day until close to 6pm.
And I was hosting a dinner for them that night at a restaurant across town.
All of the women left to rest and then head over to the restaurant. I stayed in the retreat room, cleaning up everything all by myself. I hadn’t made sure to have help with me.
I packed up my little suitcase full of all the items I had brought (we did a lot of experiential exercises), and running late, ran outside to try and catch a cab to the restaurant.
But it was rush hour in NYC and there wasn’t a cab to be found.
So I walked. It took me 30 minutes, lugging my suitcase, to walk to this dinner that I was hosting.
On the walk to the restaurant, my exhaustion hit me.
It wasn’t a normal exhaustion. It was the most tired I had ever felt in my life. A worn-out-ness that took over my entire body and mind.
I arrived to the restaurant late, sweaty, totally drained….and in no shape to hold the space for everyone, let alone even stand up straight.
So instead of enjoying this celebratory dinner that I had worked so hard for, and instead of getting to connect with these new women I was serving….I let all of my clients know that I was tired and I hopped in a cab back to Brooklyn.
All at the same time, I was so relieved to get into that cab….but also I felt like I had failed by leaving early.
And within 2-3 minutes of being in that cab, my stomach started to feel extremely queasy. I wanted to tell the cab driver to stop and to jump out immediately, but that wasn’t an option because I didn’t even feel strong enough to say a word out loud.
It was somewhere on the Brooklyn Bridge that I began vomiting profusely. I just vomited all over the back seat of that taxi. The driver, rightfully so, was not too happy.
We finally arrived at my apartment, and Jon had to come downstairs and help me up. I collapsed onto our bed, weeping, not knowing how I’d make it to the retreat for the second day.
Somehow, though, after a nice warm bath with Epsom salt, and a hearty meal, I slept that night. And stepped into a beautiful, powerful and transformative second day of the retreat.
That retreat was a potent learning experience for me. Here are some of the biggies:
- Always make sure you eat enough and that your body is nourished before, during and after a retreat.
- Take actions to calm down and balance your nervous system before, during, and after retreats.
- Get enough sleep.
- Get support for setup and clean up at retreats, even if it feels easy-peasy to do on your own.
- Take lots of bathroom breaks, eat during snack times, break for lunch at a reasonable hour.
- Give yourself and your participants plenty of open time.
- Be fully present, yet don’t fall into the belief that you need to hold the space all on your own.
- Serve because it is your mission and passion, not because you want to impress.
It would be a lie to say that I don’t still get nervous before retreats (& I’ve led dozens and dozens since that first one!). Nervousness is more than OK. It’s how you handle the nervousness and prepare for it that counts.
Would love to hear from you on some of your retreat tales of woe and what you learned!
One of the things people ask me most when they come to me for support on facilitation and curriculum techniques is “How can I create more effective transformational exercises?”
I love teaching about this because knowing how to masterfully craft exercises that move your participants is KEY to co-creating results and deep learning.
Yet, too often teachers and facilitators don’t quite get it right.
And when you don’t get it right, your exercises come off as trite, too surface oriented, misplaced or just plain weird.
There are a lot of components that are necessary for an exercise to work REALLY well, and this includes a very important piece about how you set up your curriculum throughout your workshop, class or retreat.
We’ll get to Curriculum Development soon, but for now, I wanted to share a few tips on what you can do within the exercises themselves to make them more powerful, more effective, and more moving.
These 4 tips are truly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crafting exercises, but they should get you started:
- Activate at least two different levels of Learning & Processing
In a previous article, I shared about the 4 Levels of Learning and Processing. In any full curriculum you create, you want to make use of all 4 learning and processing levels. But in any single exercise that you lead, you want to include at least two of these different levels so that deeper transformation can be harnessed and integrated.
- Set up an emotional journey
How do people learn most effectively? Well, think about the Hero’s Journey for a moment. In every powerful Hero’s Journey, there are the actual events that are taking place (this can be compared to the content & information shared in your exercises)….but there is also an emotional journey that is happening for the Hero.
If you want your participants to really be moved by an exercise, then not only do you need to evoke emotion, but you need to go beyond evoking just ONE emotion. For true transformation to happen, you want to weave a variety of emotions into any given exercise.
For example, when I craft exercises, I may lead my participants through anger to grief to joy. Or perhaps from frustration to surprise to celebration. The variance of the emotional experience keeps participants present, helps activate breakthroughs, and allows for emotional integration of the content to happen.
- Make use of metaphor and body wisdom
The absolute most powerful and effective exercises for workshop, retreat or class participants make use of metaphor and body wisdom. Simply put, this means crafting ritual and ceremony into your exercises.
The language of ritual and ceremony speak not only to the mind, but to the body, to the heart, and to the soul. I always like to say: Before there was therapy, there was religion. And before there was religion…there was ritual. Ritual acts as a potent and physical metaphor for desires and wishes. Enacting ritual and ceremony goes deep to embed new patterns into the psyche. It is also a really wonderful way to harness the energy of the group itself, as ritual is often made more powerful through community.
- Lean in and demonstrate
Really transformational exercises often require participants to do things out of their comfort zone – things that may at first seem or feel strange or foreign, or things that evoke emotion that they are not comfortable with. One of the keys to supporting participants to be willing to go to the depths with you and not feel weird or confused on it is for YOU, the facilitator, to be fully 100% present with what you’re asking participants to do and model it for them FIRST.
When you model, you not only demonstrate for participants the nuts and bolt of HOW to move through an experience, but you also demonstrate the focus, intention, emotion and passion with which to be present. This makes such a difference in how an exercise will be understood and experienced.
Would love to hear how these tips are landing for you. I’ve literally got 100’s more when it comes to exercise and curriculum development, but these are some of the first ones to think about.