Reflections on a Winter Retreat

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do,

With this one wild, and precious life?’

Mary Oliver  


I heard the sound of thundering hooves approaching from somewhere unseen, deep in the forest; it was close by and getting closer. I feared a wild boar, and was relieved, and overawed, when a large female roe deer burst from the trees and crossed my path at speed. It was no more than a few steps away from me and in a split second I watched its weighty, dark-eyed presence disappearing into and disrupting the stillness of the trees on the other side of the trail.

 I was forced to stop for a moment, instinctively bringing my hands to my heart, catching my breath as the fleeting sight of this wild beauty washed over me. I took this as an auspicious sign – this sighting of a large and luminous deer - because I was returning to my self on a winter retreat, and it felt good to feel my spirits settling and lifting in the beautiful surroundings of 42 Acres in Somerset.

I returned to the rambling farmhouse that is the retreat space with the quiet joy of this wild life in my heart and I was reminded of my preliminary visit to 42 Acres back in November, when I was preparing to host this yoga retreat and taking time in advance to get the lie of the land. Then, the house was filled with cooperative and soulful preparations for the end of year’s solstice feast. To the delight of fellow cooks, the Peruvian chef was happily wrestling with the weighty, dark meat of a whole side of venison that was to be flavoured with Latin American herbs and spices and cooked outside - underground.

I sensed strongly then that there is something special happening at 42Acres. The feeling emanates from a reverence for the land and a love of life, which was undeclared but acted out – communally. I felt welcome and experienced a lovely cooperative atmosphere, which filled the kitchen and dining areas as sensitive people gathered to enjoy and partake of a soil-to-plate philosophy that means cooking is organised as far as possible around the seasonal potential of fertile English earth.

It was a delight to offer this same nourishing experience of communal living to my guests on our winter retreat, and as we relaxed in the dining spaces and living areas, we could overhear the cooks enthusiastically discussing ingredients and flavouring whilst they prepared sensational vegetarian food for us.  Bright-eyed, and rosy-cheeked all of them, the chefs clearly embodied the life-giving properties of days organised around good food, fresh air and the potential of a different way of existing on the planet to yield health and vitality to humans. It was clear that an alternative philosophy of living was being put into practice at 42Acres, as a social and culinary enquiry, and it was inspiring for all of us to share in it.

It was no wonder, given the lovely warm and welcoming environment, that nineteen people from all walks of life, most of who did not know each other in advance, fell easily into each other’s company. For a precious weekend, we formed a supportive group of fellow travellers on the path of yoga enquiry. It made no difference that some people were complete novices and others experienced teachers – we were all equally curious about what might unfold in the space of three days and nights as we gathered together for the same reason – to gently practice yoga.

After the excesses of the festive season, we took the opportunity to rest, to restore and to revive body and mind at the start of the New Year. As it turned out, many people had experienced 2018 as an especially difficult and destabilising year, and some of us had arrived at the start of 2019 feeling a little vulnerable, thrown off-centre and even quite lost and alone, not knowing which foot to put forward next - hoping that a yoga retreat might be a move in the right direction. So, it was pertinent that our focus for the weekend was an enquiry into what it might mean for humans to live a more balanced life and how we might cultivate compassion for the self and sow the seeds of change when we are thrown off-centre by the constant flux - the to-and-fro - and even the tumult of life.

To frame our yoga practice for the weekend, I asked the group to consider what tools we have at our disposal to sustain a sense of wellbeing and balance in our lives, and what techniques, including yoga, meditation and massage, we might turn to once it becomes clear that a state of fragile equilibrium has been lost. After class, on our morning silent yoga hikes, it was by chance that the uphill path through the forest was muddy and, in places, very slippery. This was a little unnerving, but helpful too, because it meant that we all had to experience what it was like to walk on uncertain ground. For some of us, it became a metaphor of what life is like sometimes when the going is really tough – all one can do is put one foot in front of the other – and carefully, very carefully, find a way forward. Gradually, we explored how complex, and difficult it is - this balancing act called life - and it helped enormously that we felt comfortable enough to laugh out loud together and lend a sense of lightness to our enquiry - on the yoga mat and off it – as we relaxed into each other’s company.

Human Flourishing

As a teacher and practitioner of hatha yoga, I do know that yoga has been invaluable to my own self-preservation tool-kit. Over a period of thirty years, or more, I have returned to my yoga mat time and time again, even after long absences, to find the reassurance of the possibility to re-centre by coming back into alignment with my self. This is never just about bringing muscles, and bones, breath and energy, mind and body into alignment, but always something more profound – something to do with the yoga philosophy of self in which the possibility of peace-of-mind, good health and a sense of well being is always there, permanently waiting to be rediscovered underneath the confusion of life’s ever busier distractions, distortions and constant depletions. 

 However, as a social anthropologist – a person who studies what it means to be human – I do not lightly make any general claims about human health and wellbeing. On the contrary, I am extremely cautious about this, because I understand that the variety of ways that humans live on the planet and the particular conditions of their environment and social lives, all add up to determine culturally specific ideas about what makes for the good life. It has always appeared to me to be impossible, therefore, and indeed detrimental, to try to make any universally applicable claims about how humans ought to be living. Or, at least I thought this was true until I started reading about Blue Zones.

 I explained to retreat guests that Blue Zones are the five geographically diverse places on the planet where humans appear to be leading the longest, healthiest, happiest lives. These Blue Zones are remarkable, because in just these five places on earth – Ikaria, Sardinia, Costa Rica, California and Okinawa – exactly the same nine variables come together to foster a remarkably sustainable sense of well being among humans who are enjoying medically proven physical and mental health benefits – relatively free of degenerative dis-ease and chronic illness - into their 90s and beyond. 

 Far from being a retreat gimmick, the chance to organise my yoga retreats around the concept of Blue Zones gives me the opportunity to bring my yoga teaching practice into conversation with what has become for me a deepening enquiry into the nine variables that appear to organise the conditions for human flourishing on planet earth. My aim is to share this enquiry with retreat participants and to begin to think about how we might begin to incorporate any aspect of these variables, below, into our lives wherever we may be living and no matter what stage we are at in life’s journey: 

  • Good food grown in good soil – homemade cooking

  • Mostly vegetable, but not vegetarian diet – some meat and fish

  • Natural movement – walking, swimming, dancing, gardening, labouring

  • A strong sense of community

  • A strong friendship network

  • Meaningful work – not necessarily highly paid

  • Down-Shift – not working too hard – plenty of time for relaxation – a nap a day or other period of rest or change of pace – and a good night’s sleep

  • A glass of wine a day with good food and good company

  • Living close to the elements and having a sense of something beyond life on earth – not necessarily religious, but a sense of being on the earth and below the heavens – the solar system and the universe beyond

 At 42 Acres, I experienced something of the same sense of curiosity and wonder that I felt on our summer retreat in the Blue Zone of Ikaria last year. This was to do with witnessing the transformational effects in myself, and others, when some of the nine variables that define the conditions for human flourishing come together and start to work their magic. This then reminded me as a social anthropologist, yoga teacher, and mother, of what it is that I am increasingly concerned about, which is that for the most part, humans are now living modern, urban lives that are out of alignment with the conditions for human flourishing. I am worried that the dominant idea of what counts as success is having its way with us and gradually undermining our physical and mental health, as well as destroying the natural environment. In young people in particular, I am witnessing the destructive consequences of this imbalance. Under these extreme conditions, it appears that people have lost, or are losing, the ability to listen to the body and its warning signs, and, so eventually the nervous system is forced to bring about a state of collapse, or complete standstill.

Frightening and disorienting as this might be, the good news is that a serious healing crisis can provide the opportunity for a gradual or sudden re-evaluation of life’s choices. Sensitive and heroic souls can then begin to assert in defiance that there must be another way and a new and hopeful exploration can begin about how to proceed with compassion for one’s self and bring life back into balance. In the absence of opportunities for natural movement in urban environments, my proposal on retreat, and in my classes, is that meditation and alignment-based hatha yoga, explored in a supportive community of practice, might more widely become essential items in our tool-kits for self-preservation and healing.

 On a similar journey of sensitive self-enquiry, Omotayo, my daughter, and wonderful assistant for the weekend, also suggested that the use of essential oils might become another spoke on what she described as ‘the wheel of wellness’. Ty offered an essential oils workshop and we learned about the positive benefits of incorporating the use of medicinal quality Doterra Oils into daily routines. On the last night of the retreat, Ty also encouraged us to leave behind for a moment the linear and individual restrictions of the yoga mat, and to move in new ways as she led us in a liberating intuitive dance inspired by one of her soulful song-lists. Celebrating the first new moon of 2019, Ty encouraged us to dance into our heart space and let our feelings take shape as we let go of what no longer serves us from 2018 and welcomed in, and began to embody, our new intentions for 2019. Later, we cast the written notes of what we wanted to leave behind into a roaring bonfire and for a long while, our spirits lifted, as we watched the sparks of the fire dancing wildly into the night sky.

In the beautiful portraits below, (scroll down) the brilliant retreat photographer – Stanislav Grapatin – sensitively reveals something of the atmosphere of our winter retreat at 42 Acres. All images are copyright protect, so please ask for permission if you want to use any of these photographs.

If you are interested in joining the summer retreat of 2019, find out more about the offer of a week, or two weeks in the Blue Zone of Sardinia here.