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What to Do When Things Go Wrong on a Retreat

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Imagine you are on a retreat with a number of mostly-strangers in an unfamiliar place and someone –maybe even you –has a catastrophe on that trip. While everyone else is having fun on adventures, or relaxing by the pool, you are in the middle of an end-of-the-world moment for which you need to make split-second decisions completely outside of your comfort zone. Now, imagine that you are the retreat leader making those decisions for your guests who are in the middle of a catastrophe. How does that make you feel?



I can tell you from experience some of the emotions I felt in my gut when things have gone wrong on a yoga retreat: fear, annoyance, regret, disappointment, guilt, astonishment, and self-pity. If I did my job well, though, my guests didn’t see any of that! They saw a confident, self-assured, strong, decisive, and prepared leader.



In all of the courses and seminars I took on how to lead a great yoga retreat, very few mentioned how to handle situations that had gone horribly wrong. But the truth is, any time you lead a group of people anywhere, things go wrong. Have you ever heard the saying, “Expect 10 things to go wrong on your wedding day”? This is like that, but I would edit it to say, “Expect at least one major catastrophe, and several minor inconveniences.” If you don’t expect them, you’ll be caught by surprise and ill-prepared to deal with them.


Here are a few of the major and minor incidents that I’ve had to deal with as a retreat leader:


  • A guest with an injury that may have required hospitalization (it didn’t).

  • Breaking my own foot the night before the retreat began.

  • A guest who was not getting along with her significant other…who was also on the trip.

  • People getting wasted and acting out.

  • A near drowning (on two separate retreats, I kid you not).

  • A robbery.

  • Panic attacks (sometimes my own).

  • The accommodations fell short from what I had promised.

  • Failing to relay the proper information about what to pack or how much money to bring.


Author icing her broken foot in Amorgos, Greece.


How to Prepare for the Unexpected


There are a few ways that you can prepare yourself for problems in advance of your trip. I had to figure this out the hard way, but you can just follow my handy checklist.


𝥷 Require all guests to initial, sign and date a contract with very specific clauses as to all of the things that can go wrong.


𝥷Require all guests to purchase travel insurance before attending your retreat. Make sure they know this is a requirement before accepting any nonrefundable deposits.


𝥷Bring a friend, or choose a guest you trust, or have someone on speed dial back home to help you deal mentally and emotionally with any problems on the retreat. You will need to vent on occasion, and your pillow might not cut it.


I brought my parents on my first retreat!

𝥷Remind yourself that this is a work trip for yourself and a vacation for everyone else, so your good time is secondary to their good time. Always prioritize your guests’ needs before your own.


𝥷Ask a lot of questions of the retreat center. Do not think you are annoying. Ask the same question twice if you have to. Your guests will ask you 100 questions that you won’t know the answers to, so if you can know the answers to a few things, you’ll feel more prepared.


𝥷A week or so before your trip, share safety guidelines with your guests for all things you can imagine could go wrong. One such thing: remind your guests to share a copy of their passport with someone they trust at home.


This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start!



How to Respond to the Unexpected


Now, you are on the retreat and everything is going pretty smoothly, so can you rest? Absolutely not. Here are the things you must do on your retreat:


𝥷Stay calm.

𝥷Schedule time in where you can be alone to decompress. You are going to need it.


𝥷When you find out an answer to a question that one person asked you, share the answer with the group as a whole to avoid being asked again and again.


𝥷The bigger your group, the more important it is to count heads on every excursion. Leave no guest behind! My last trip had 18 people and they reminded me to count when I forgot!


𝥷If someone has an emergency, no matter how small, drop everything you are doing and come to their aide.


𝥷Be an advocate for your guests and a liaison with the hotel. Insist on a police report for any criminal activities.


𝥷If someone is traveling alone to your retreat and they know no one (including you), take special care to introduce them to others. Include them and make them feel included.


𝥷If you eat meals as a group, sit next to someone different at each meal. Make each of your guests feel special on your retreat.



I counted everyone every time we got on or off the boat, lest this be a repeat of the movie "Open Water."


What other things can you think of to make your retreat a success? If you have been a guest on a retreat (and you should have been if you are planning your own retreat!), which details made you feel safe and seen and valued on your trip?


If you are thinking about planning a retreat but you have a lot of questions, my Retreat Leader Program might be right for you. Learn more and apply to work with me here: https://www.wholeimagewellness.com/retreatleaders








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