21 Keys to Integrate a Life-Changing Retreat

breathwork integration Jul 08, 2018
  • Have you ever been blown out by a breathwork?
  • Struggled to return back to life after a retreat?
  • Left a workshop feeling confused, sensitive or vulnerable?

It’s something most of us have dealt with, but few of us discuss: the art of integration. Why am I writing about it? I’ve personally been "taken out" by ignoring integration when I needed it most. And here’s the truth: we ALL need to integrate after transformational events, whether you are a breathwork student or a facilitator. In this article I will share some background and 21 suggestions to support your integration process.  

The Need for Integration is Real

It recently it took me two years to integrate after some serious core wounds were triggered during a shamanic training I did in Peru. I felt on the outside, in a haze, confused, hurt, and disconnected from myself. And it took some serious therapeutic intervention afterwards to discover why! For this to happen to me, a teacher who trains teachers to include integration, was a wake up call about the need for a bigger conversation. I share this so you know that I’m real, I’m writing from first hand experience. 

Here’s the truth: integration is absolutely required for any deep and lasting change AND it should be planned in advance. None of us are immune. We all need integration because we all have nervous systems that can get thrown out of whack. 

What is Integration?

Integration helps you stabilize emotional turbulence. You may have rapid awakenings at your group event, then return home to an employer, friends and family who treat you as if you were the same person you were when you left. There may be a sense of culture shock and separation from the life you had before and confusion about how to create a new life true to the “new you”. You may also face feelings of separation and aloneness after having spent such deep and meaningful time bonding with others and then leaving. Integration helps you bridge the gap and stay connected with the work you did. 

Integration is the spent time you spend preparing for your event, the downtime between activities at the transformational event when you metabolize insights and it’s also what happens after the event while adapting back to your daily life. 

Integration is how you stabilize emotions, peak experiences, and transformation into grounded, practical wisdom. Its about creating coherence in your nervous system so you can feel more whole, more resilient and connected. Integration asks you to get comfortable with discomfort, to slow down and bring your healing and lessons into daily life. 

Integration asks you to be fully with what arises with sensitivity, care and gentle patience and fully feel and face what arises instead of avoiding it. It means creating space to step back and look at your entire life from a larger perspective and asking for support from those who understand what you are going through. 

Before we begin, it's worth noting that both highs and lows from transformational events need relentless integration: both the surreal, soaring blissful “a-ha”s and the bottomless pit of the activated pain body — can create a feeling of being lost, off purpose and helpless if not provided a proper cocoon of assimilation. 

Integration and Time

Integration and time go hand in hand. You can’t have integration without time! Unfortunately there is a worldwide epidemic of busyness and rushing and a collective belief that “there isn’t enough time”. If you, like me, have spent decades in perpetual motion, nervous system overarousal and activation, overachieving, and scaling one metaphorical mountain (or spiritual epiphany) after the next, integration isn’t likely. If you don’t stop, you can’t integrate! So as you begin your love affair with integration, I invite you to begin changing your relationship with time itself. How can you stretch it, slow it down and create more of it? Are you willing to look the core beliefs that keep you moving? 

With this in mind, I hope to inspire you to take 100% responsibility for your wellbeing by share my 21 keys to integration. These include all three phases of your transformative journey, before in your pre-event planning, during and after through to post event self care. This is based on over 20 years teaching tens of thousands of people at workshops, retreats, teacher trainings and festivals and my own experience as a participant at hundreds of events. 

  1. Research the facilitator, schedule and location first. Do your homework before even signing up. Find out if the spaceholder, event pacing and location is a natural match for your nervous system capacities and needs. You may even want to interview the guide before hand to see if their event goals and values match yours and if you can adapt the schedule if you need more time to rest. If you have special needs for your nervous system or any health or psychological conditions be sure to advise the space holders so they can meet your needs. Its super reassuring to speak to a real person and address any anxieties you feel beforehand about travel, what’s in store and what may arise.
  2. Plan down time before and after event. Wether you arrive 15 minutes before a 2 hour workshop and plan the afternoon free, or arrive a week before a three week intensive and stay a week later to rest, overestimate the time you need to make sense of it all. Pretend you already know that you will need more time than you expected afterwards. Book travel to allow for lots of space.
  3. Pre-plan a support system for the event. Anticipate that something big will happen for you at every transformational workshop. Plan a time in advance to get support from one or several professionals. Perhaps after a workshop of just an hour or two this means planning something simple like a massage. If it is a one day event, perhaps you may need more support and have a pre-booked session with a guide the next day. If it is a several day or multiple week long event, plan check ins with your support system every 3-4 days. This could be a life coach, therapist, somatic experiencing specialist or other professional guide who can help you navigate doubts, fears, and challenges. You will be surprised how much deeper you can go into the delicate realms of self-realization when you have an experienced traveller by your side to help deepen your insights.
  4. Plan self-care and bring self-nurturing items. If you’re going away for just a 2 hour workshop, this may mean just bringing your favorite cushion, water bottle and an extra fluffy blanket in case you get cool. But if you’re going away for 3 weeks, this may mean planning daily yoga and meditation around your seminar hours and packing special things you love that help you feel resourced. For example: vitamins, elixirs, adrenal and other tonics, special teas, special snacks, yoga mat, essential oils, crystals, a travel altar, etc.
  5. Cancel all work and family obligations during retreats/trainings. Undergoing profound emotional process work requires space and time to unplug and savor deep rest. Attempting to juggle babysitting, breastfeeding, driving kids to school before and after all consecutive all day immersions or working on your computer or phone during breaks and late into the evenings is a tragedy. Think about it like this: what if all the benefit of these many hours in a workshop came to blossom in those few precious pockets of time between, before and after sessions? If you knew the gold of your time and energy invested needed your pause and stillness at these moments, would you rush around so busy to fill them, leaking your energy into distractions?
  6. Avoid alcohol, smoking, recreational drugs, plant medicines and new sexual relations during retreats/trainings. It's easy to suppress emotional turbulence. But remember you came to be in a safe space to fully feel and face your life. Instead of self-abandoning, cleanse your field and focus on purification practices that bring you deeper into the present moment, such as saunas, salt rooms, swimming in natural bodies of water, walking in nature, singing, etc. Avoid adding things that could distract you from fully feeling what arises. Diluting the potency of your presence with distractions, like setting up social obligations or dates in evenings after long workshop dates, diminishes your contribution to the collective field of the group. Take responsibility for your own power to influence others. The group needs you clear, present and at the same wavelength. This helps everyone feel safe diving deeper.
  7. Check in and share how you feel. This is crucial. Commit to yourself that you will share what you are really feeling with the group and facilitators several times per day, especially if you are experiencing challenges. This includes any suppressed truths about the other participants, the facilitators or the space. Your integration requires that you feel absolutely safe speaking up and sharing how you feel. This also means letting yourself cry when you feel it! Remember, tears help release healing chemicals in your brain and help you bond with others. If you don’t feel safe for any reason, express this. If sharing time was not provided in the seminar, share with the presenter afterwards or at the very least, send an email.
  8. Journal. Journal at your event on breaks and in the evenings after full days. Great questions to start with are: What did I experience? What did I realize? How do I feel? What do I need?
  9. Full stop — create a sacred pause. Right after an event, instead of rushing off into travel or running directly into another workshop or job, create a full stop. Plan this in advance and block the time. Often many people rush from one experience directly into a another without honoring what really took place with a sacred pause. The sacred pause is where all true integration takes place. It is a ripe place to feel into the delicate tendrils of realization, understand how to metabolize epiphanies and connect the dots between subtle insights. Take alone time, spaciousness, and deep rest. Bask in stillness and reflection, journaling and contemplation and meditation, time in nature and daydreaming. Be gentle, move slow, and sleep lots. Treat yourself the same way you would care for a small child.
  10. Incubate your precious insights. Enjoy the sanctuary of silence. Avoid your phone, stay off social media and consider holding your insights in your own heart for a while instead of calling up all your friends and sharing a blow-by-blow of everything that happened. Incubate for several hours after a short event or several days or a week after longer ones. If your partner of family is traveling to come meet you, request several days of private time to fully receive the gifts of your own beautiful work. Focus on self care at this time and do things which help you connect the dots like meditation, yoga, long strolls in nature, lying in the sun, swimming, dancing, singing, writing, daydreaming, body treatments, etc.
  11. Nourish with healthy clean foods and lots of water. It’s could be easy to try to numb out after a big experience with heavy comfort foods, alcohol, sex, binge-watching Netflix or other distractions. Instead choose high vibe organic whole foods with lots of veggies and fruits, drink lots of water to detox your emotional body, drink fresh juices and tonics, increase your adrenal and other tonics as well as superfoods. If you feel you need more grounding, be sure to eat potatoes, yams and other tubers that grow underground. If you are so inclined, meat can also assist in grounding. 
  12. Keep slowing down. In the days and weeks after your sacred pause, see if you can keep slowing down instead of accelerating. Let the insights you received keep penetrating you and reorganizing your entire being on a cellular level. The more stillness and slowness you can create in your life, the more clarity you can gain so that whatever action you take has more meaning.
  13. Deepen your home practice. If you were attending a body-based retreat like breathwork or yoga, gently begin creating a home practice instead of abandoning it. This will be a powerful anchor for you to stay connected to the insights gained during your experience.
  14. If you’re struggling, get help. Its natural to experience challenges returning home after life-changing insights. Don’t try to “hold it all together” if you are feeling lost, adrift or alone. Reach out to the support system you planned in advance - your therapist, coach or somatic guide for some sessions. Don’t wait until you feel it’s a crisis. If you didn’t set up support beforehand, reach out to the event facilitator, tell them what has come up for you and ask for help or a professional referral. This is really really important! Be honest! If you’re feeling any difficult feelings or wrapped up in any drama, shame, blame, victimhood or challenging emotions, now is the time to take personal responsibility. Take action to get support. Remember, this moment is where true integration is trying to take place - you’re whole brain is reorganizing itself, rewiring synaptic pathways. Previous beliefs and habits which may have felt comfortable for years may shift fast and this naturally creates emotions and feelings of disorientation. As a human, you actually aren’t wired to get through challenges alone. You are designed to receive care, attunement, mirroring and empathic reflection from others while you reorganize your mind and build new neural pathways.
  15. When you’re ready, confide in loved ones. If you are returning back into a family or close friend dynamic, ask for some space initially to continue incubating core insights. When some time has passed and you have clarity about what to keep just for you and what is okay to share, confide in those you trust most who support and respect your journey. Exercise the power of discernment. Avoid oversharing with those who will be skeptical, critical or otherwise diminish the value of your inner work.
  16. Embrace turbulence. Its okay if you return home feeling on top of the world and then slowly, other more challenging feelings arise. Its also totally normal if you return home and feel a great sense of separation from a group who you bonded with over deep shared experiences. Also know that if you are returning to a lifestyle that doesn’t match your core values and essence, you will likely experience turbulence. Anticipate all of this instead of letting it surprise you and knock you off your feet. Remember that you likely chose to attend the workshop to experience deeper levels of truth and to gain the courage to create a life in congruence with who you are. 
  17. Take baby steps and welcome discomfort. Sometimes powerful integration can feel like a sort of culture shock, especially when faced with completely reorganizing your life, relationships and career to match who you really are. If you feel you need to make changes in your life, take baby steps instead of radical action. Pretend your life is like a filing cabinet and each drawer is a part of your life - work, career, love, body. If you pull out all the drawers at once, the cabinet may fall over on you! Make friends with the sacred gap between who you’ve been and what’s emerging next. Allow yourself to feel the tension of a slow build in change.
  18. Don’t expect everyone else to change because you have. Maybe you feel like a different person now. It could be easy to assume that your transformation somehow means that your friends and family should now act differently towards you. This expectation can create tension, anger and resentment. Instead of asking everyone in your life to change to accommodate the “new you”, stay focused on assimilating your lessons into your own life.
  19. Anticipate fallout. This is a toughie. You may find yourself no longer wanting to spend time with some people who not in alignment with the person you are becoming. This is super common and it’s natural to feel confusion, sadness, doubts and even guilt. Letting friends go is a natural process if you are someone undergoing rapid change in a peer group that can’t fully meet the new you. Stay focused on people and activities that match who you are becoming. This may mean you need to reach out beyond your comfort zone and actively look for new friends who share your values and interests. 
  20. Be kind and loving to your family. Unlike friends who come and go, family is for life. If your parents are of another mindset, embody the lessons you have learned to get closer to them. In the words of the great ecstatic poet Rainer Rilke who gives advice to anyone on a spiritual path who has an issue with their parents, “Be good to those who stay behind, and be quiet and confident in their presence. Do not torment them with your doubts, and do not shock them with your confidence or your joy which they cannot understand. Try to establish with them a simple, sincere, mutual feeling of communion that need not change if you yourself change.  Love the life that is theirs, although different from yours. Be considerate of aging persons because they fear the very aloneness in which you place your trust. Avoid adding substance to those dramas always unleashed between parents and children.” (Excerpted from Richard Rudd’s audio: The Ecstasy of Aloneness)
  21. Stay connected with your learning community. Retreats provide a rare opportunity to meet people of a likemind who can feel like soul family! Let the event be a catalyst to create deep friendships that can grow over time - a beginning rather than an ending. Go into these events with your eyes open, receptive to making new friends. Be the one who initiates a deepening. Make an effort to stay connected to people who you shared the retreat experience, reach out and share your reflections and hold space for theirs.

Hotlist of Integrative Activities. The above keys are crucial to integration ...and here is a list of soothing things you can do to metabolize your insights: self care like bubble baths, candle gazing, meditation, sauna, massage and other forms of bodywork, lounging, stretching, yin and restorative yoga, receiving sound  or gentle energy healing, napping, making art, journaling, writing down your dreams and wondering into them, creating poetry, walking in nature, sitting with a campfire under open stars, shamanic drum journey, lounging, stretching, yin and restorative yoga, playing music, creating chants or songs, singing, preparing healthy food, gardening, petting a cat or dog, daydreaming, contemplation, swimming, creating beauty. surrounding yourself with nurturing colors, textures, sensations, flavors, flower arranging, walking barefoot on the earth or sand or grass, grounding (lying on your back or belly on the ground), tree hugging, using emotionally supportive essential oils, gemstone essences, tonics or elixirs, lying in the sun, snuggling, deep breaths... and doing NOTHING is always best :)

I hope this article may inspire you to take integration more seriously. Spend some time planning your next one in advance! The more you can normalize slowing down, feeling and metabolizing change, the more gifts you will have to share with the world.

Please share your thoughts about this topic. Let’s create a dialog! You can post your experiences and any suggested resources in the comments section below.