Last weekend, I hosted a long weekend retreat with some of my closest friends in Portugal, that I appropriately titled Exhale.
It was the second edition, last summer, my first summer since moving to Portugal, was the first edition of Exhale. It was inspired by a desire I had been feeling to connect more deeply with my new friends, in my new chosen home, in a way that invited relaxation and rest.
I’ve done countless retreats over the past ten years. I’m headed on a retreat later today actually. What I appreciate most about retreats are the structure and chance to be led and guided. So much of my daily life is self-guided, as an entrepreneur.
What I sometimes struggle with retreats is that I often feel like I need a vacation after the retreat, given the intensity of the experience, be it physically, emotionally or mentally.
Exhale was designed to be different. A chance to be intentional about who I would invite and how we would connect, yet with lots of space to flow and see what spontaneously would sprout.
As a starting point, I kept the guest list a surprise. No one knew who else was invited. Second, I kept the location a surprise. People knew the dates to keep free and were given a google maps link the morning of the retreat of where to go.
The anticipation leading up to Exhale was energizing for everyone, with their curiosity building each week as we got closer. And without the details, it was easier for everyone to let go of expectations and come open to experience whatever would unfold.
The destination was a private villa tucked away from the bustling city life of Lisbon, a place chosen for its serenity and peaceful ambiance in the countryside of Portugal.
Offering plenty of space for our group and a beautiful pool to refresh ourselves in the summer heat, it was the perfect setting for a heartwarming retreat. As the sun descended each evening, the sky turned into a twinkling canvas adorned with the most stars I had ever witnessed.
Living in an era dominated by technology, it is too easy to forget the essence of human connection. Thus, a collective intention was made to detach from devices during the retreat. Some friends simply forgot where they placed their phones, while others opted to switch them to airplane mode so they could capture the experience through pictures. The conscious disconnection from my digital world helped me to be more present and explore a deeper connection with the people I value the most in my life in Portugal right now.
We prepared meals together. With everyone contributing, the kitchen turned into a lively hub of activity. Chopping, sautéing, and stirring ingredients transformed into acts of collective creativity, and each finished dish was a testament to our shared effort.
Recognizing the innate wisdom and unique experiences every individual holds, Exhale included a series of mini-workshops. Each friend was invited to share their knowledge, teach a skill or introduce us to something new.
There was a strong theme of health that emerged in everyone’s workshops this year. From ice baths, to movement, to meditation, to trauma release, to arts and crafts, and more, we touched on physical, mental and emotional health in subtle and gentle ways.
My workshop brought in a playful twist to the retreat. While everyone was distracted, I casually walked in, armed with twelve water guns, one for each of us. What followed was a multi-hour water fight, as we chased each other around the villa, and more often than not, I found myself being thrown into the pool. This unscripted, playful activity stirred a sense of light-heartedness and joy among us, making it one of the most memorable parts of the retreat for me.
Human connection, a concept so simple, yet so profound, became the central theme of Exhale. It mattered less about where we were, what we ate or what we did, but rather who we were with and how we were with each other.
We experienced a spectrum of emotions—there were laughs, there were tears. We had light-hearted conversations, and we delved deep into dialogue late at night. These experiences served as a reminder of the multifaceted ways to connect with each other.
As we were nearing the end of the retreat, everyone was occupying more and more space in my heart. As I sat there, everyone smiling at each other, a spontaneous question arose for me.
I interrupted the flow of conversation and shared my question: What is your biggest desire in life right now? What do you really want for yourself?
Each of us took turns to stand in front of the group and share our answers. Sharing something so personal in front of friends opened a hidden door to our hearts.
It is easy to laugh and play with friends. I wanted more. How could I say that I really knew someone without knowing their heart’s true desire?
Listening to everyone's share, one by one, was a deeply moving experience for me. With each revelation, I was reminded of the power of sharing and the profound effect it can have on our relationships. The energy in the room was palpable—goosebumps were a common occurrence. As were tears. The shares were filled with emotion, a sign of how strongly many of us cared for our deepest desire.
Exhale was a powerful, meaningful, and deeply enriching experience. The bonds of friendship that were strengthened, the wisdom that was shared, and the memories that were created—it all made the retreat a highlight of my year. The magic of human connection, the essence of shared experiences, and the value of vulnerability were lessons that are etched deep into my heart.
This is how I learned to Exhale.