I’ve recently returned from a three-day silent retreat at Gaia House in Devon.
I was last there in 2015 for five days – a long time ago! Whenever I go there, I leave with some insight and intentions.
We have the answers inside us. We just have to spend time looking within and connecting to the breath and bodily sensations.
Surrounded by silence and 57 other retreatants, it’s possible to feel totally supported and loved.
When we speak, we craft how we come across. We perform, we construct our persona. When words are taken away from us, we are ourselves in our purest form. Our true nature shines through.
Spiritual practice nourishes and grounds me in a way that no other activity can.
My mind will seek written stimulation wherever possible – intently reading the small print on teabag boxes in the absence of phones, books or the ability to write notes.
So many of my thoughts are linked to words. Conversations had and imagined, paragraphs of text drafted before pen even hits the paper. These thoughts and plans take me away from the present.
Stillness allows me to notice the small things. During a standing meditation practice in the gardens, I had the honour of simply watching two mice going about their business collecting grass, ducking in and out through the grass paths and tunnels they’d created.
I could speak less. The rule of 50/50 in conversations: spend 50% of the time listening, 50% speaking.
Intense practice opens me up in such a strong way. Lots of emotional vulnerability and increased sensitivity on leaving the retreat.
Feelings of loving kindness or ‘metta’ towards strangers – compassion towards the farmer who shouted at me when I accidentally trespassed on her land. An opportunity to witness the impact of the exchange on my mind in subsequent meditation practices.
Create silence where possible. Turn the radio off, enjoy silence in the car when I’m in it on my own
Awareness of the daily trance – put my phone down
Sitting or walking practice
More asana practice
Get back into the habit of listening to podcasts by Buddhist teachers
Be kinder to myself. We all make mistakes. Lessen the self criticisms and perceived shortcomings
What a week! Cathy and I would like to thank everyone who joined us at Can Dream in northern Ibiza. We think it was the best holiday yet. Thank you for your good humour, dedication to the practice and for generally being good eggs.
I went for a walk last week. I was making my way along a country lane and I took my phone out of my pocket. I turned it on and started typing a reply to a text. I wrote a couple of words and realised I’d taken a handful of steps without noticing. I put my phone back in my pocket and carried on walking.
Where was I? I was on a five-day silent meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. I had gone to spend time sitting, moving and learning with Martin and Gail Aylward.
This ‘noticing’ is really what Gaia House is all about. Everything you do there is set up to cultivate awareness.
Every day we practiced walking meditation. There’s a large room with creaky wooden floorboards and a huge bay window containing houseplants that were just as huge. In a marble fireplace sat a skeleton reminding us of our immortality. I slowly walked back and forth noticing what arose in the space between bones and leaves – the dead and the living.
But it was the outside walking practice that I enjoyed the most. You chose a space in the beautiful grounds and you paid attention to your every step:
the way my feet made contact with the ground
the golden hues of early autumn leaves
the restriction in my left big toe joint due to an old sprain
a plane soaring overhead
a softening of shoulders
the occasional weed sprouting for victory
exhaling breath on top lip
the heat in hands from clasping a mug of peppermint tea
the cacophony of cawing crows
sash windows with wobbly panes of glass catching the light unevenly
the warm sun on face
the subtle smell of peppermint
the inhaling expansion of rib cage.
It’s often said – I believe – that women are brilliant multi-taskers. I’m sure many men would disagree. But is multi-tasking such a great thing? Trying to do ten things at once?
I’ve just taught my first weekend retreat. It was a yin and Ashtanga retreat and many of you were new to Ashtanga. Some of you were new to yoga!
When assisting the led Ashtanga classes I noticed lots of stuff going on throughout the room: glances and voiceless looks of “I’m in pain, come and rescue me” and whispers of “I can’t do this.” There were baffled looks of “you’re expecting my body to do what?!”
When we go about our every day lives, we encase ourselves in a suit of armour. We smile broadly and up goes our facade. We have our coping mechanisms.
We might be successful at work, we might have a wonderful loving family. On the surface it might look like we’ve got it made.
But we all have issues with our bodies and minds. They carry our habits and histories.
I’ve heard it said that we’re at our most honest and ‘authentic’ when we’re on our mats. We’re laid bare. We’re vulnerable. There’s nowhere to hide.
Ashtanga, without a doubt, is a demanding practice. Moving your body in unfamiliar ways is challenging. Finding your breath in these postures can feel near to impossible.
How do we approach these situations? What goes through our minds? There’s fear, feelings of not being good enough, worries about getting it wrong or hurting ourselves, thoughts of being the worst in the room. Do we give up or do we give it a go?
You all did so well. You experienced the Ashtanga primary series. And maybe this weekend you weren’t able to sit in half lotus (let alone full lotus) but that doesn’t mean you never will. You just can’t do it… yet.
But to be at your side, listening to your fears and concerns, and offering little words of encouragement while you took your first Ashtanga steps was a privilege. It’s wonderful to pass on bits of knowledge I’ve had shared with me over the years.
Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for giving it a go and exploring and playing. You’re amazing.
I’m going to take you through a typical day at The Sanctuary, Koh Phang An, but with a particular emphasis on the beings that I often meet along the way.
7.25: Alarm goes off and I emerge from under the mosquito net in my bungalow. Before my feet touch the rug on the floor, I quickly scan the floorboards checking that no creepies have snuck in through the little cracks between the floorboards that let in the sunlight and show the grass below.
I get showered and dressed for yoga. I open the front door and almost immediately I can hear Linguine, the black and white cat miaowing. He appears from behind the bushes and strolls up to my bungalow. As bold as brass, he jumps up the three concrete steps up to my balcony and tries to walk into my room. I stand blocking him at the doorway, shooing him and telling the Thai cat “no” in English. I turn my back and he’s inside collapsed by the steps that lead down to the bathroom. “Get out!” I say. “Let me flop here like my namesake. I won’t be a nuisance,” he replies in cat Thai (I’m a fast learner of languages).
I don’t want to catch Thai cat lurgies but I want him out before I leave for class. I wrap the rug around him and push him towards the door. He stays in his exact slumped, deadweight position as I deposit him under the hammock on my balcony. “Why are you being so mean?” he asks as I lock the door and leave for my class.
I walk up the stone steps to the Buddha Hall, passing little ponds containing lush green water plants and black fish. In the undergrowth there’s Ganesha statues and the occasional Buddha.
8am: Yogi Simon teaches the flow yoga class. We do some Ashtanga sun salutations and he likes making us sit cross-legged with our arms straight up in the air. Shoulders relaxed and away from our ears, fingers outstretched, bottom ribs tucked in. “It’s good for you,” he says in his clipped South African accent with his bronzed torso on show. I find myself wondering whether his slightly odd line tattoos have any significance… FOCUS!
9.30am: After class, shiny black millipedes scurry along the footpath obviously on important business. This morning, Julie (Austrian, Sivananda-loving, barmy, Hindi-speaking, ex-air cabin crew) and I discussed whether they’re millipedes or centipedes. She thinks they have more than 100 legs but less than 1000. We settled on selling them ‘twohundredandfiftypedes’.
Myself, Julie, Matieu (French, Bikram boy, big smile and big curly black hair, soon to be covering for Simba in the West End’s Lion King) and Aurore (French, also smiley, likes reading, LOVES yoga) sit having smoothies and discuss yoga whilst swiping at the mosquitoes who are also hungry for their first meal.
I spend time sitting in a hammock under the palms on the beach reading. I might swim out to the platform and lie gazing into the see-through sea watching the Nemo clownfish dart about below. Matieu will probably be on the hammock on the platform. He’s never off the thing. We only get out when our fingers are pruney.
I might go to a talk at the Tea Temple. Yesterday’s was on Ayurveda and the Five Elements. Maybe I’m an Earth person with a touch of Fire. Throw is some of the restaurant’s healthy baked beans and I may become that popular 70’s soul band…
I might go to the 4.15 Yin Yoga class. Spend ten minutes lying on my back in a twist resisting the overwhelming temptation to fall asleep.
6/7ish: back to room, shower. Marvel at the tiny black ants on my bathroom wall, scurrying along an invisible path. They’ll be gone later but back tomorrow. What are they up to?
Dinner with yogi pals. Matieu uses his highly honed navigational skills to get us lost searching for a restaurant over the hill. The explorers emerge from the jungle and secure a spot sitting on a platform on top of a rock with views of the stars and the bay below. We eat by lantern light.
There’s a weekly film night where people lounge in the beach bar on cushions, and last night was the open mic night. Who’d have thought that ‘Ain’t nobody’ by Chaka Khan could sound so good accompanied by didgeridoo.
Then soon to bed. Tuck mozzie net in round bed and the fun really starts. Scrabbly noises in the dark… later there’s a repetitive two-tone noise that’s high then low: a huge gecko lizard. Claire from London (yes, there’s two of us. She’s from Crouch End) says they sound like they’re saying their name: GEH koooooh…. GEH koooooh. The crickets and cicadas join in too. And I fall asleep – well, at least until the gecko starts up again.
Have you been to The Sanctuary? What are your memories? Or perhaps reading this has whet your appetite. Feel free to comment below.
Oh and TTC buddies – you may spot a familiar face on the homepage of The Sanctuary website. Watch the slideshow.
When I decided to go on Lila Conway and Dory Walker‘s new year retreat near Glastonbury it was all rather last minute. I had another trip planned but at almost the eleventh hour, it fell through
I put thoughts of lying on a Zanzibar beach to the back of my mind and before I knew it, I was getting off a train from Paddington and waiting for a taxi in a damp and grey Castle Cary, eagerly awaiting a few days of sattvic rejuvenation.
And the retreat didn’t disappoint. Lila and Dory’s asana classes are wonderful – both energising and meditative, taught in the Sivananda hatha style. I read books, went on countryside walks and relaxed in the hot tub and sauna. We set off lanterns around a bonfire, there were reiki and massage sessions and Nick’s astrological readings for 2012 made us feel.. well, erm, hopeful and a tad depressed about the nation’s outlook for the year ahead.
Now I’m not saying that I didn’t notice the mention of ‘five rhythms dance’ on the website, I guess it’s more that I didn’t pay it a huge amount of attention. I started to regret this when I was standing in the yoga studio with about eight other women and one of the three men on the retreat – a loyal boyfriend. Liz the movement therapist had her mac and music lined up and I heard her say, “We’ll start by bringing the awareness into our toes…”
I opened one eye and caught glimpses of people swaying. And then she said, “… now bring the awareness into your feet… connecting with the sides of your feet, your heels… start to discover new ways of walking.” I had never done anything like this before and I could only think that I looked like a complete muppet as I attempted to do as she said.
It was now that I realised why I’d never been tempted by friends’ suggestions of going to five rhythms classes in Vauxhall on a Thursday night. I mean, give me a wedding and I’m the first on the dancefloor. I’ve done swing and salsa classes but the idea of free, expressive movement has always felt scary and fills me with dread. But then give me some Sanskrit mantra chanting accompanied by a harmonium and I can’t get enough of it. Hare Krishna eat your heart out.
It continued. “… now move your knees… be free in your body… allow your knees to interact with another set of knees in the room…” Closest to me was the sole male. I began to move towards him with slightly bent knees. I looked up at his face and I saw It in his eyes: the look of fear. I recognised it immediately because I felt it too. I looked at the clock and only five minutes had passed since the music started.
As the music picked up the pace, people closed their eyes, spun around, slid around the room on their hands and knees, reached for the sky, lost in their own internal rhythm. And then I too gradually became lost and succumbed to the movement. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and brought my attention to how my body could move. I stretched my fingers, rolled my neck, placed awareness in every single step, let my wrists and knees and head relax. I moved my hips and waist, all the time flowing, locking, bending, stretching, grasping and I found comfort and release through the simplest movements. I felt grateful for being fit, healthy and most of all, I felt grateful for being alive. The remaining 55 minutes flew by and I felt happy.
That night, in the run up to 2012, we wrote down our positive intentions for the year ahead. As we placed them into the fire I resolved to care less about what other people think and be more open to trying new experiences.