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Photo by Zak Mann Photography

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Hugs, Bugs, Kale: Finding Your Center at Adult Sleepaway Camp

Before landing at Soul Camp, I thought meditation was what happened during that split second I fall asleep on the pole between subway stops.

I leave the embrace of a woman in her early thirties. I don't know her name or where she's from, but I hug her, deeply, as instructed by Space, a male attendee leading us in this exercise. He prompts us to switch, and I greet a younger guy with spiky hair with open arms. We belly-breathe in tandem for 10 seconds until Space announces that we need to switch again, a pattern that repeats until I've hugged my way through the crowd on this side of the gymnasium.

I'd typically live-tweet this experience immediately and without pause, because c'mon, but I can't because my hands are full. With the torso of a middle-aged woman. We breathe together, and I shake the last of my judgements about this place. I have no idea what's going on, but I think I like it here.

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Before landing at Soul Camp, I didn't know what a heart chakra was, an angel healer was definitely not a real job, and as far as I was concerned, meditation was what happened during that split second I fall asleep on the pole between subway stops. But somewhere between reluctantly blowing $60 on my first yoga mat and holding a symbolic red string along with 200 campers I'd now consider spiritual friends, something changed.

Soul Camp is the brainchild of body confidence coach and graphic designer Alison Leipzig and I Am Creative founder Michelle Goldblum, who met many summers ago as kids at Camp Towanda. With its lush green fields, shady nooks, and picturesque lake, the well-manicured, family-run overnight camp was the perfect location for their adult retreat—and not just because Wet Hot American Summer was filmed there. (I later re-enact the best scenes during Michelle Joni's movie-themed skipping club throughout the campgrounds. Yes, skipping club.)

Deeply rooted within the tight-knit wellness community, Michelle and Alison were able to seamlessly bring together a who's who of their favorite healers, master trainers, and psychotherapists with buzzy job titles like "oneness master," "hormone whisperer," and "healthy living rockstar" for the weekend.

Photo by Erica Gulliver

"Everyone was completely on board with the the whole concept of sleepaway camp and bringing that fun and that joy back into their lives as adults," Alison told me when we chatted a few days before I left for my weekend in the Poconos. "We really want it to be a place where people find their people," added Michelle. "Where people find their community. To create a world of like-minded, loving people is my number one objective."

Sound granola? Well, it wasn't. Soul Camp wasn't an all-tofu-everything health retreat, a yoga-centric ashram, or even a three-day intensive digital detox. Instead, it was a mix between a random holiday weekend with friends-of-friends and overnight camp with a twist—okay, multiple twists. Like take the fact that everyone was not only an adult, but an adult well-versed in gratitude journaling and Reiki healing.

Soul Camp perfectly replicated the tweenage joy of being plopped in the woods for seven weeks over the summer. Every element was there, down to the required life jackets for swimming in the lake, copious amounts of free play, and my personal mastering of a three-color spiral lanyard.

It was a mix between a random holiday weekend with friends-of-friends and overnight camp with a twist—okay, multiple twists.

We were strongly encouraged to shut off our phones, but in reality, the no-tech policy was more "have your phones on airplane mode if you use them to take pictures, but like, we get it, you have lives." You could go to lectures, or not. You could do back-to-back dance-yoga classes, only listen to experts talk, or try as much IntenSati as your quadriceps could take. Your choices were your own—an ideology mirrored in most of the weekend's Soulversations—as you were there to serve your interests above all else.

Since I'm someone whose MO is to be adorably miserable, like the soulmate Larry David has yet to find, I was surprised to see just how much everyone (really, everyone) was on board with the betterment of self. You see, at Soul Camp, there is no FOMO. (You were intended to be exactly where you are.) There are no cliques, no shit talking. (When you gossip, you bring yourself and the other person down.) There is no jealousy. (Since jealousy is just love misunderstood.) There is no complaining, no beating yourself up, no blaming yourself for someone else's mistakes.

As the camp's resident joyologist Tricia Huffman taught me, you are who you are, and you need to honor that above everything. 

I spent three nights soaking everything up, the kitchen's addictive massaged kale salad included, and in the end, knew this probably wasn't my exact tribe. But the more I think about camp and the positive, radiant people who inhabited it, I get filled with a little typhoon of happiness.

Photo by Zak Mann Photography

A few hours after arriving at camp on Thursday afternoon, the 200 of us gather around a roaring fire for the Fear Burning ceremony. I've befriended a few people in my cabin, but so far I feel all sorts of anxious and just a touch lonely. Honestly? At this point, I'm only in it for the s'mores.

Julie Santiago, a vivacious Soul Camp counselor and women's empowerment coach who could easily double as a Wilhelmina fitness model, leads us in the evening's activity of baring your soul and facing your fears head-on. On the first of two notecards we're handed, we're to write down a gratitude statement—a phrase beginning with the words "I am" and followed by whatever you wish to be. I scribble "I am true to myself" and fold it into a tiny little square.

"This is your power statement," she says. "Your Soul Camp mantra."

Julie later explains that this weekend is a period of svaha, our in-between, the space sandwiched between what's holding us back from being what we want and actually becoming it. On the second notecard, we write down our fear, what's holding us back from living that truth.

Slowly, I write my true fears down and fold them into a tiny little wad, watching them burn amidst the crackling of tree limbs and logs.

"What are you ready to release tonight, once and for all?"

Considering I've already visited the oft-replenished canteen of complimentary raw chocolate, chia seed bars, fresh-baked cookies, and VitaCoco, I should probably put down fear of binge-eating myself into a sugar coma.

"What is it that you need to let go of?"

Oh, crap, we're being serious. Well, as a cold-blooded New Yorker who's recently been terrified by just how easily I flip out when someone steals my cab, it's all got to be connected to something. I am, as they say, quick to anger and have no idea why, but I'm also not looking to find out.

"You must light the fire and burn the fear."

Ugh. I don't like looking inward, and I don't like feelings. My favorite way to deal with problems is to stick them in a jar and ignore them 'til they're revisited in a stand-up comedy routine...which I never actually perform, because I'm too scared to get on stage. Hmm. Maybe I could benefit from this.

"What is it that needs to be burned away?"

Slowly, I write my true fears down and fold them into a tiny little wad, watching them burn amidst the crackling of tree limbs and logs.

Photo by Erica Gulliver

I'm not sure what the rest of my fellow campers' little notes had scrawled on them, but if I had to guess, I'd say we all fucked up. Because frankly, if we were being really, truly honest about our fears, we all should have written "shitting in a children's camp bunk."

Let me put it this way: Have you ever taken a dump with 12 strangers within earshot? How about in the pitch black, when they're all asleep, and the only thing separating those dozen tired bodies from your gluten-free lentil shits is a wooden wall covered in markered notes from former campers whose digestive systems could probably handle the raw chocolates you housed all night long way better than you? I deal with it and get over my bathroom shyness, falling asleep to the sounds of crickets and awaking to the horns of Reveille. Between the loudspeaker and the twin mattresses, it's clear: We're on camp time now.

For being in communal rooms as jam-packed as those orphan bunks in Annie, we all slept surprisingly well. Or maybe we didn't, because that's when it hits me: No one here complains. Everyone hops out of bed, brushes their teeth, and bops to the flagpole with a smile on their face despite the ungodly wakeup time of 7:15 via PA system.

Here was a buffet line better than any camp, party, or wedding I've ever been to, with signs outlining ingredients and dietary restrictions.

For Friday's activities—a female-only Soul Sisters circle, panels on leadership and finding your people, breathwork—I decide to dive in and try something completely new. I attend a heart-centered meditation in the camp's newest facility, a multi-purpose treehouse reminiscent of Balinese Airbnb lodging. It sways a bit under the weight of our group, and I spend the hour focusing on us tumbling to the ground Haunted Mansion-style instead of the guided task at hand.

Clearly, I could use some self-improvement.

I spent my teenage years at my own overnight camp running an underground black market of Top Ramen at a 900% markup, a feat only sustained by my fellow campers' disdain for the endless parade of chicken-or-pasta meals our mess hall churned out. But here was a buffet line better than any camp, party, or wedding I've ever been to, with signs outlining ingredients and dietary restrictions. The thought and care that went into the menu mimicked the rest of the completely flawless, absurdly well-executed weekend: from nut-free falafel balls to a full-camp color war, everything went off without a hitch.

Photo by Zak Mann Photography

Thoughtfulness was truly the name of the game here. Every act at the heartwarming talent show received standing ovations, cheers, and whoops from the audience. The friendly-yet-competitive Soulympics, a camp-wide competition with games like an "Om-off" and a spiritual spin on Coke/Pepsi called "Coconut Water/Kombucha," naturally ended in a massive group hug. DJ Tasha Blank's raucous dance parties made even the most awkward and gangly of attendees [insert hand-wave emoji here] feel at home. Not to mention, my new friends wouldn't let me give in to my worst self and sneak away from the pulsating lights.

And that's when I started to believe. Not in god, not in spirits, but that this group of happy, centered people might just be on to something.

I'm not going to pretend like I had a perfect meet-cute with wellness and spirituality and everything magically fell into place. At times I found myself ruminating on how fantastic this experience was, and during others I repeated my own private mantra: "This place is not for me." But I guess that's just svaha in action—the change, occurring in real time.

Aha much?! My ears are constantly tucked into my shoulders, but he didn't know that. I'm a freelancer with more deadlines than hours, but he didn't know that. How did he know that?

And that's when I started to believe. Not in god, not in spirits, but that this group of happy, centered people might just be on to something.

Photo by Erica Gulliver

On the last night, after all that hugging, we stood in a circle holding a communal red string. One by one we announced our affirmations, self-intentions we hoped to carry with us on the journey home, while snipping our portion of the string into a bracelet. As the microphone and scissors came my way, I was overcome with another wave of butterfly-nausea until I remembered what Alison relayed shortly before I arrived: "I once had a counselor tell me that camp is the place where people are celebrated for being exactly who they are." If this weekend had proven anything, it was that she was right.

I lifted the mic to my lips and proclaimed, "I am honest, I am truthful, and I am telling my fears to fuck off." And I had. Belly-breathing with a group of strangers, dancing for hours with not a drop of liquor to loosen me up, coming alone to a community of 200 strangers, and leaving with friends—I was no longer scared of embarrassment, failure, or even everyone thinking I'm a big fat dummy, the three fears I wrote down on that notecard the very first night. These three fears, which once felt so big and suffocating, had now literally been reduced to ashes.

Maybe I am part of this tribe. Maybe I'm not. Either way? I can't wait to do it all again next year.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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