I have a pretty specific relationship with yoga. I’ve only ever practised as a supplementary tool alongside my dance training, so I’ve always approached it with a kind of athlete’s mindset. Yoga was there to make me stronger, more flexible, more physically capabale. Yoga was there to help me be the best dancer I could be. I’d never thought about yoga in terms of holistic wellness or overall health. For me it was always about training and improving performance and, while the relaxation part at the end was nice, that was just a happy by product.
So, obviously, when I signed up to join a bunch of other EWC bloggers on a yoga retreat in Portugal in June, I definitely didn’t know what I was signing up for. I’d done dance intensives before so I figured hey, we’ll do yoga, eat some vegan food, meditate, get that physical side of things to peak performance. It was a chance to finally visit Portugal, a country I’ve never been to despite not being far away at all. I’d sit in the sun, get fitter, have a bit of a good time. I didn’t expect the external to fall away so suddenly and dramatically, and instead to find my life transformed from the inside.
All photos by Monique Pantel
This was a women’s retreat, which was also a context I was fairly familiar with. I spent many of my formative years at women’s conferences and events, surrounded by literally thousands of other females in the same room, but this was different too. There’s something incredibly unique, vulnerable and valuable about really living with a group of people for a time. Not attending an event together, but being holed up in the middle of nowhere, often all sharing the same room for hours when the rain starts coming down, and really authentically existing with others. Letting people in is a valuable and transformative decision.
Transformation and rebirth was the theme of the entire week, not by design, but by the inherent nature of where and who we were. In 2017 devastating fires ripped through Portugal, causing widespread devastation and destruction. Fiona MacLeod, yoga teacher and retreat leader, lost both her home and the outdoor retreat she had built to the fire. Despite the grief, trauma and complexity that comes with recovering and rebuilding from such a loss, Fiona still decided to run retreats in 2018. Alongside medical herbalist Sara Rooney, they decided to use the neighbouring property of Quinta Canaval, an eco friendly and off-the-grid property that had been saved simply due to its sprinkler system. Running on solar energy, utilising rain and spring water, using only non-toxic chemicals and a good 30 minute walk to the nearest small village, we were truly alone together. Our surroundings were tinged with a sense of mourning, as the valley our home was tucked within was cloaked by blackened husks of burnt out trees, and yet there wasn’t a feeling of complete hopelessness. Small flashes of green could be seen, as life started to tentatively return to the decimated land, and just a short walk from where we slept a river flowed, undisturbed by the destruction around it, emptying into a vast and still lake that was unaffected by humanity.
It was the most peaceful place I had been to in a long time. Yes, there was mourning, but there was also a profound sense of stillness. A resilience and a unrelenting grasp on optimism. A focus on healing, regeneration, and relationship to bring us together.
I soon learned that the days, as I expected them to be set up, did not materialise. Instead, we settled into a much more enriching rhythm. Each day started with 2 hours of yoga followed by breakfast, workshops with Sara covering topics such as herbs, medicine and nutrition, before lunch and a variety of other activities dotted through the afternoons. Yoga nidra (a type of deep meditation and relaxation), holistic massage treatments with Aiofe (who works in fields such as reflexology and myofascial release, and who laughed in delight with me as we bonded over the fact that both of us actually knew what fascia was), and walks in the heart of the Portugese countryside all found their place through the week. The yoga wasn’t the intense, pain-but-it’s-good-for-me-I -swear type of feeling I was used to, forcing my body to the extent of its physical range in order to get the most out of it. Instead, it was a place of space. Space to reflect, to heal, to actually listen to our bodies. I remember once at dance school having a ballet teacher say to me, ‘just don’t fall’, which is about the least helpful thing that anyone can tell you when you’re trying to do something difficult. This was the opposite experience. You move through poses slowly, with a feeling of grounded calm and composure, allowing the time to truly breathe and let things flow through you. It was intentional and balanced and, instead of trying to ‘be better’ or ‘get fitter’, it focused on realigning us each day to a better understanding of loving and caring for ourselves.
Sara’s workshops also built on these ideas so beautifully each day. I know a term like ‘medical herbalist’ seems like some sort of new age pseudoscience, but I promise you it’s not. I’m not one to blindly trust any old naturopath or herbalist that comes my way, my dance training spent too much time focusing on academic nutrition, anatomy and science for that. A medical herbalist requires a four year Phytology degree with core lessons in biology and pharmacology, 500 clinical hours and continued accreditation from the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. It’s not easy to become one and, as much as the focus is on nature’s resources, there is a strong grounding in science and research too. We learned a variety of recipes including skincare, health foods and natural tinctures, but we also learned about identifying warning signs in our physical wellbeing. We discussed issues like adrenal fatigue and chronic stress, and we looked at lifestyle changes, herbs and nutritional elements that can aid us through these things. We learned about the different roles herbs can play in our lives, and we discovered how to safely identify and forage for ourselves (ever since I have taken great glee in pointing out any herb I recognise to anyone who’ll listen). Everything was taught in a tone of considered moderation. Yes, we will make a balm that can help with sun burn but no, you should not try to DIY your own sun screen. Yes, taking herbs can support your internal hormonal and immune systems, but you have to take into account other medications that you’re on, and it’s not going to magically cure you from a fatal illness. We were given facts, without the sensationalist rhetoric that so often creeps into the world of wellness. We weren’t preached to and we didn’t have things pushed on us, instead we were given a tool kit of resources that we could use to enrich our lives and our methods of caring for ourselves.
I can also vouch for Sara’s insight and wisdom on a personal level. Personal consultations were available, but not forced upon us, if we felt it may help, so I sat down early on to discuss some issues I had been having with digestion. My diet and lifestyle is generally pretty healthy, so I was confused as to why the minute I had landed in the country it felt as if my internal system had gone into malfunction mode. We soon deduced that it was most likely down to anxiety (not completely out of left field for me, but also not something that had really occurred to me as the cause), and Sara arrived the next day with a tincture she had personally mixed for me to help alleviate the symptoms. Within a few days I was feeling significantly better, as the herbs helped to support and boost my systems in the places where they needed a little encouragement. Since then I have continued taking a mix of herbs that Sara created for me to help me through the pretty taxing process of moving and going through major life upheaval over the next few weeks, and I’ve really been finding it helpful.
The other core elements of the week that stood out to me, because I could genuinely talk about the whole experience for hours if you asked me to, have to be the food and the friendships. Due to being fairly off grid the entire (vegetarian with vegan options) menu had been planned in advance; I remember seeing the fridge on the first day packed to the brim with an assorted rainbow of fruits and vegetables and internally squealing with joy at the prospect of eating them all. Cooked by retreat volunteers Gabi and Jill, regular favourites of homemade porridge, chia puddings and an abundance of fresh foods appeared each day, alongside a carousel of salads, stews and grains through the day. It was incredibly nutrient dense, and the kind of eating rhythms I aim to achieve in my own life one day (I’m not quite there yet). The main sugar was found in the form of local honey, herbal teas and fresh coffee were always on hand, and various bowls piled high with fruit were only ever a few feet away if you fancied a snack. Despite probably eating more than I ever would on a normal day at home, I never felt bad after eating. I felt full and I felt fuelled, and I felt a healthier relationship with both food and my body than I have in a long, long time. Even with my slightly skewed insides having a little grumble.
On many days it also rained, again removing my preconceived notion that we’d be sweating away under European sun, forcing our way into some sort of peak physical condition. Instead, the rain drew us inward, and towards each other. Alongside the other EWC gals – Holly, Alden, Annie, Florine, and photographer Monique – we were also joined by four other beautiful women alongside those running the retreat. Each person there was completely unique and special in their own way. We started the week as strangers. Our first breakfast together on the Monday morning was held in a kind of hushed quiet; only gentle conversations that were just above a whisper floated through the air as we came together for the first time. By the last evening, the Friday night, we laughed loud and late into the night over glasses of local wine, joking and animatedly discussing all sorts of topics like the firmest of old friends. I shared a room with Annie, who I had never met in person before, and by the last night nearly everything she said had me in stitches of laughter. I still miss her deadpan one liners now.
The rain, something that would normally be a hindrance on a Europe trip like this, ended up being just the thing we needed. It stopped us from splitting off into continual solitude of being outside in the sun, and it brought forth deeper conversations than you could imagine having after knowing someone for less than 24 hours. We gathered together in the large living and dining space each day to shelter from the consistent wetness, a gentle fire burning, and we were together. People got to know each other properly. We laughed, listened to music, and read. Oh did we read. I finished an 850 page book in six days and was reminded of my teenage summers in Spain where books were the only option, and I maybe had internet access once every two weeks. It felt like a past version of myself, too long dormant thanks to technology and large cities and feeling the weight of every problem in the world, was coming alive again. I don’t feel like I ‘lost’ myself and suddenly ‘found’ her again in the Portugal, but I feel like a part of myself that I had been asleep to was allowed to join the rest of me. I felt more wholly like myself.
Sustainable yoga wear provided by Asquith London
Sustainable shorts by FAIRE (that’s right contemporary dancers, actually sustainable shorts!)
Sustainable sunglasses from Peep
And I guess finding a more whole sense of myself was what this entire retreat was for me. I took away a lot of practical information, beautiful memories and new friendships, but it’s the longer lasting transformation that I can feel staying with me. I’m caring for myself more than I ever have before, both physically in the herbs and lifestyle choices that I learned about, but also mentally and spiritually. I was treating a lot of my mental health like an academic subject, observing myself from the outside whilst being completely cut off from my feelings. Since coming back I’ve felt more alive to myself, I’ve given myself more space and permission, I’ve listened to my body and I’ve listened to my mind. I’ve already seen the benefits of these choices.
It’s so easy to never give ourselves space, to cut off the parts of us that aren’t making us efficient, or productive, or successful. This retreat was a rekindling and a restoring to being the fully three dimensional person that I want to be. If you have the chance to experience it for yourself, I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Upcoming 2018 retreat dates
– September 16-22
– September 23-29
This post wasn’t sponsored, but we did partner with Nourish in Nature, and were offered a discounted stay in exchange for a review. All my opinions are 100% my own and 100% authentic. Read other reviews here: