Paradise and Vibe was finally here, the Black-owned retreat I had been looking forward to for weeks. A shuttle was delivering me to a jungle oasis. I was excited but nervous. I eyed my travel companions lost in their AirPods and IG stories. Were they the type to go live without warning? Did they need to record every second of their lives to feel like they mattered? Were they known for being messy on Elon’s corner of the internet? It mattered because we were headed to Tulum to do more than soothe, sun, and center ourselves.
We were going to talk about sex.
The idea of kicking off Q4 with a wellness retreat sounded great, but the theme of sacred sexuality was vague. I was unsure if it meant talking sexual trauma with a room of strangers or engaging in bachelorette-style antics. I did know one thing. Deep-throating a banana in a room full of randos for the ‘gram was not my ministry. And traveling solo meant there was no one to roll my eyes at or whisper to. I was on my own.
I was interested in learning about the neuroscience of love from Divine Sol and the power of enchantment from Elizabeth Gilbert. Sound baths and orgasmic breathwork hosted by the resort sounded divine. But I didn’t know how much sharing I could do. Getting judged for my early experiences as a teenager or stumbling into non-ethical non-monogamy as a young adult didn’t sound relaxing.
What I would find was that my concerns were totally unfounded. I was greeted by kombucha bottles, a flexible itinerary of healing activities, a stern warning to respect everyone’s privacy, and a group of emotionally intelligent individuals. Everyone was talking about their triggers and boundaries openly. People were asking one another about their comfort level instead of just dumping on each other. I wasn’t there for 24 hours before another attendee and I talked about past breakups and personal values. We traded fears sitting near crystal blue waters and were embracing each other within minutes of trading names. I trusted her completely.
The people I encountered held space for each other in a beautiful way, and I wanted to be part of that. I was feeling what the retreat was created for. Paradise and Vibe, founded by Iana Edwards and Kasondra McConnell, has focused on respectful reflection since its 2020 launch. Their goal was to “reimagine wellness in a more fun and relatable way.” This October, it added a focus on “sacred sexuality” to its offerings. “As we started to curate our topics, we realized that if we’re going to be talking about femininity, we should definitely incorporate sensuality as well as sexuality. And then we just started to build our programming around it,” explained McConnell of why they wanted sexuality integrated into the wellness they promote. “We need to have a healthy dialogue and talk about what it looks like in your body to be healthy and engaged in sex.”
The vibe was similar to post-dinner party cocktails in the living room, with earnest, open, adult conversation. Indulging in that dialogue was a wonderful experience for me.
Divine Sol, Gilbert, and the retreat founders welcomed every voice. Together, we debated about what parts of ourselves were most sacred. For some, sharing ideas was more intimate than swapping secretions. For others, an emotional connection was required before sex could even be considered.We learned the importance of grounding our bodies and collectively inhaled and exhaled. The phones were down, and the minds were open.
“I wanted everybody to be having better sex, more meaningful sex,” declares Edwards. She led a yoga session intended to spark a dialogue between attendees and their desires. “In order to have good sex, in order to have fulfilling intimacy, you must first know what your body needs.”
McConnell agrees. “I’m speaking specifically from a feminine point of view, but I think a lot of women aren’t active participants in sex. They feel as if they don’t have a choice. They just have to kind of go along. It’s not about what their needs are,” she says. The retreat revolved exclusively around participants focusing on their own needs. It wasn’t about tips and tricks to please a partner. It was about making space for learning what it would take to please themselves.
“It’s just having a healthy internal dialogue and internal relationship with yourself so that you can make choices that best serve you. That’s a part of wellness,” McConnell says.
“We really believe in community. We believe in play, connection, and balance,” McConnell says. “Wellness is not where you go and you eat grass and you meditate all day. Wellness is just about balance.”
McConnell admits that openly discussing sex hasn’t always come naturally to her. “I grew up incredibly religious. My stepfather’s a pastor, so I’ve been in churches since I was a very small child,” she says. “I have done work around sex.” Her journey of self-exploration allowed her to “remove the guilt and the shame that religion presses upon it.”
Divine Sol, a shadow healer who taught a workshop on the neuroscience of love, intentionally did not frame the workshop in religious terms. She wanted everyone to feel safe and comfortable. Instead, she focused on being mindful of dopamine and oxytocin to promote healthy sexual contact. It wasn’t about teaching us how to have sex. It was about engaging with why we were having sex. “When you honor your womb, you do not have to protect your heart, and when you honor your heart, you do not have to protect your womb,” she advised the room.
Guests gave input on what constitutes a sexually healthy relationship. Some people, like retreat host Medinah Monroe, even stopped themselves from speaking to make room for others. Some found sex to be the most intimate thing two people could experience. Others would sooner sleep with a stranger than hold their hand in public, and both were welcome to share.
Lounging on oxblood pillows and tucked into textured blankets, people revisited times they misinterpreted a lover’s cryptic message or listened to an acquaintance whine about their situationship. It was a safe place to ask questions and challenge assumptions. There was room for different definitions of what one constituted as sacred. “I think this world is way too big to just be streamlined on one way to do something,” says Edwards. “There’s enough room for everything to be right,” she adds.
The experience brought together Black people across different faiths, generations, professions, and socio-economic backgrounds. People affirmed and disagreed with one another. Advocates for casual sex, strict monogamy, sex work, and mindful celibacy had their say. “I believe that there’s a place for transactional energetic exchanges. I believe that. Sex can be a healing modality. I think a lot of people have a lot of desires that are different from each other, and the more that we’re able to be authentic and honest about the things that we feel like best serve us, the more we can kind of find our own relatability within those discussions,” Edwards adds.
It was not a place that solely consisted of Black women, but it was one that centered them. Eat, Pray, Love, and Big Magic author Elizabeth Gilbert, who uses her substantial platform to highlight voices like Rachel Cargle, Tayari Jones, and Luvvie Ajayi, partnered with Paradise and Vibe to promote the retreat and the community it has birthed.
“I’ve been in a lot of thought and conversation and study over the years about diversity issues in retreats and especially in the yoga and wellness space, which is very, very white,” Gilbert tells ESSENCE. She emphasized the importance of Black women having a space that centers their needs. She described the choice to “Bring black women into spaces that are often not comfortable for them to be in and openly hostile” as “problematic.”
“None of their needs are being met. You’re here to have – allegedly – a retreat, but you’re vigilant the entire time against microaggressions,” she continues. “You’re code-switching. You’re working, and there’s enough of that in a Black woman’s life.”
There was no code-switching or kink-shaming during the workshops. People showed up as themselves. Participants were encouraged to reflect on their goals surrounding sex. People admitted to themselves and one another how they manipulated and allowed themselves to be manipulated. Workshop leader Divine Sol facilitated a conversation so electric that I found my hand shooting up alongside the others in the tent. As I spouted off my theories and opinions next to the partner I had been assigned, I realized that I was having fun going back and forth.
Many wellness retreats and workshops have strict guidelines and discourage drinking or leaving in the middle of a session. That is not the Paradise and Vibe way. The flexibility made for a more relaxed experience. Celibate and sober people interacted with the tipsy and turned up respectfully. A group discussion on commitment and expectations was so much fun that people were still chatting among themselves as the session ended. They huddled on the beach and in the infinity pool, continuing their talks in smaller groups. Divine Sol distributed sherbet colored Post-It notes for attendees to give away their opinions and take away others that resonated with them. People smiled at one another as they sealed their fears, hopes, and questions on a paper easel.
Some people were so free in the space they indicated that they were gatekeeping the retreat from their circle because they did not feel as comfortable speaking out about their wants in front of their friends. They desired a space free from judgment. Edwards understood.
“We have a little bit of a radical take on wellness, and I think because of our own personalities, we’re able to create a space where people can really come be seen and feel like they’re accepted,” she says. “I think the energy that we both facilitate just breeds opportunities for people to explore themselves, openly and honestly, and really feel like maybe this is a safe space.”
Learn more about Paradise in Vibe here.