For many people, the thought of going on a yoga retreat is, on first reaction, unappealing. Even if you enjoy a regular yoga class, a whole day or week of yoga might seem like more than enough. If you have a weekend or week off, there are lots of fun things you can do; you can enjoy your hobbies, whether it is mountain biking or painting or whatever, you can spend quality time with your loved ones or simply relax somewhere nice. Retreats might also hold austere connotations, of insipid vegetarian food and shared rooms… so unless you’re having a crisis, why would you choose a retreat?
For me both day and week-long retreats have become a non-negotiable part of my annual diary. Just as you might do an annual financial appraisal, I see retreats as a vital opportunity to strengthen the foundations of key parts of my life. Taking time to remove myself from my usual busy-ness, to pause, reflect, recharge, ‘treat’ myself to totally pressure free space, I see as essential: it provides the opportunity for a fresh perspective and direction on my wellbeing and life in general to emerge. And I believe the process can and should be full of simple pleasures and nurturing comfort. I go on day and week long retreats (some silent) with my teachers to develop the ‘formal’ skills of meditation and yoga, but I have also evolved a simpler personal method of retreat, the benefits of which I would like to share with you.
Since I have been back in the UK (almost two years), every couple of months I find myself with a completely free day, usually when my kids are away, and given that free time, this is what happens:
A bit of a lie-in with a cup of tea (ok, sometimes two). Sit on my cushion by the radiator for 30 mins. Eat some fruit and then do a long yoga practice. I plan for about an hour and a half and I am surprised by 2 and a half to three hours passing by. This includes rests (periods of collapse ; )) and things like experimenting with one pose or movement several ways using all kinds of different props, and finally a restorative pose as well as a long savasana (20 mins at least). It is quite stop-start, I never know how it will work out or what I will end up doing, but I feel fully absorbed.
Then I’m starving.
I have a shower and make a hearty, super healthy lunch, feeling pretty perky and energised in my body. After lunch it’s time for a few house chores and a bit of reading curled up with the fluffy cat on the sofa. Then before the best of the day is gone, I go for a walk. A couple of hours so I can walk along the top of the Downs, maybe sit and ponder the patchwork of fields around Hassocks and Ditchling, reflecting in the sense of quiet perspective you get from being higher up, looking down on everything so tiny…. then back down through the woods.
I might then read and potter a bit more (in warm weather often in the garden in the veggie patch) and before cooking dinner, my bolsters are right there, so I sit for a bit more, usually whatever meditation I’m exploring at the time and do Viparita Karani (aka legs up the wall). Dinner, long bath and bed.
I don’t talk to anyone, don’t look at any emails or social media, I don’t watch anything. I text all the people I need to once in the day and I leave my phone OFF. It is SO restful.
I realised that this had become my day off pattern, and in essence I had created a day retreat for myself.
Last Christmas, I was not going to be with my kids for the first time ever as they were spending it in Costa Rica with their Dad at his wedding. A big milestone. We had been legally divorced for just a few weeks. I thought of going away somewhere sunny and warm myself, I could have gone up North and spent it with my family, but in the end, for at least a week, apart from a lovely Christmas Day with friends, I pretty much held my own retreat. As well as painting my kitchen and hatching some yoga teaching plans.
Sure, it didn’t feel that cheery at times. You may recall, December was cold, grey, wet and muddy. I would set off to walk into a cold grey sky with a somewhat sinking, “F***in’ ‘ell…. why am I doing this to myself??” And then the top of the Downs was beautiful and easy to merge into, and the walking just felt really good. I came out of that week with a greater confidence in my capacity to ‘ground’, to stay present in the eye of whatever is going on. Kind of naff yoga clichés, but they are some words to try to express what felt like a valuable experience. I spend much of my time looking after others, and this feeling of being able to look after myself well, to be fully there in the moments of cold, rainy gloom and the moments of contentment and enthusiasm, all of it, felt empowering and allowed for what my meditation teacher calls, ‘the spontaneous arising of joy’, which is one perk of regular practice.
One meditation teacher, Tara Brach, brilliantly discusses what I was attempting to do in this video here: in the story of ‘The Lions’s Roar’. She talks of how confidence in the practice of meditation grows over time, as it fuels courage and faith in our ability to access and stay with whatever emotion is arising. And not just ‘mindfully’ being open and noticing what is arising but actually going towards it. This practice is active, and involves making contact with and staying with the experience, not simply trying to observe in a detached way.
The yoga plans I hatched that week include my Sussex Day Retreats. I didn’t think of it consciously like this, but it was offering to others what I do myself and have found so profoundly beneficial.
By the end of a day or week of personal retreat, I feel more energy, creativity, more emotional equilibrium, and a powerful sense of strength and resilience. Also actually, a sense of optimism and possibility for my life and connections to others. This is in contrast to what happens in an average working week where I sometimes feel too busy, overwhelmed and am navigating ups and downs in energy levels, emotional states, and dips in confidence.
This kind of energy shift gives me the motivation to keep on teaching. I may not impress with the modern yoga world norms of super advanced poses, or the ‘look’ of a perfect svelte body, or constant social media output, but I do have a profound confidence in not just the physical benefits, but also the healing and awakening benefits of the practices of yoga for anyone who wants to live vibrantly and well. And some years now of experience to share it.
On retreat, the ‘formal’ on the mat/cushion practice time lends a certain quality of awareness to the wider space of doing things which are slow, simple, healthy, quiet and nurturing. So much easier in that space to be present and appreciate the beauty and simple pleasures of everyday things. Allowing time and space to make that contact and to move towards what is really going on. To connect to your body, nature and the healing peace of quiet. This is the practice. And on my day retreats we do this within the relaxed context of friendly community. On the March retreat many people commented on how supportive the group felt, how nice it was to chat over lunch and discover all the mutual interests, and to share all the interesting things everyone is up to.
There is a time and a place for it, it is not the right thing for everybody at any time, but I suggest it is worth reflecting on how you keep your foundations of health and self-awareness strong – how is your balance between activity and outward focus versus quiet and slowing down?
A real theme of all my experience, all the yoga, all the teachers I have worked with, all the study over 18 odd years, is that the answers and understanding we seek are often deceptively simple. We flit around so busy, finding it harder to focus on one thing at a time, but what we seek is often revealed in simple consistency of practice and in the simple things of life. I think most of us know this but we resist it and it takes conscious practice to actually do it! People and modern life are terribly complex. We cannot begin to unravel ourselves and our lives and access the peace and freedom of the heart without some slowing down and resting in quiet on a regular basis, in both formal practice and informal ways. Then perhaps we develop greater skills to see, feel and experience ourselves and our lives in transformative ways.
I hope to offer you some space to tap into your own ‘power of pause’.
• Sussex Yoga Days – 5th May & 15th July 2018 Book Here
• Autumn Retreat in Arundel 14th-16th September 2018 Book Here
Some comments from the March 2018 Yoga Day
“The day exceeded my expectations in terms of the benefits – the venue, pace, community, lunch – delicious by the way – and your teaching in both tone and support was fantastic…. I really loved your approach which was both practical and meditative. I felt I really stepped out of my day to day stresses where even earlier that morning I’d felt ‘besieged’ by an IT issue and had got very cross. I was also thrilled that I could keep up and didn’t feel any pressure. “
“A sense of well being continues. I was interested in your approach to things hurting or demanding attention and how that can be a good thing and I’ve been musing on that. Also about being present in my body. I felt you gave me a new direction and I want to pursue these ideas more.”
“I wanted to reach out and say thank you for creating the space yesterday to hold us all. Personally, I feel the morning’s warming yoga followed by the afternoons restorative was the perfect balance. I loved it!”
“Thank you, it was a lovely day and so nice to have the time to explore and try doing things differently.”
“A wonderful escape from daily life and a delicious lunch! I like the mix of challenging yoga in the morning and restorative later. I think it’s rekindled my love of yoga which has gone missing since I did my training last year. I’ve certainly enjoyed lovely home practice since.”
“I really loved the day thank you. For me it was a great balance of doing, listening, exchanging. I found it much harder than expected but happy with that.”