Three days of yoga, nature and time for reflection
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Three days of yoga, nature and time for reflection

TO LOVE!

I want to love, to be lost in love!
To love just to love: Here… there…
This one, that one, another one,
Everyone! To love and not love anyone!

Florbella Espanca
One of Portugal’s most known and loved poets

Yoga – Creativity – Wellbeing – Nature

I recently returned from hosting a 3 day yoga retreat at the wonderful Casa Paco D’hilas, Ericeira, Portugal. This was my first experience of hosting a retreat and am so grateful to have had the opportunity given the last 18 months or so of living in a global pandemic. I was faced with several dilemmas in the build up to the retreat with numbers were dropping and COVID appearing to be on the rise, travel guidance was, let’s say, confusing!

And so it was with a small, positive group of individuals, including myself and Dave that we made it all happen and found our feet on Portuguese soil from the 1st-4th October for some much needed space and time to reconnect and restore our external, and internal rhythms. Above is a short, creative film by Dave which shows further insight into the location, ambience and people involved in bringing this retreat together.

Read on to find out what happened and in what ways you can participate in future events like this here in the UK.

Day 1: Self-Enquiry

The retreat began with a welcome circle where we came together and shared collectively the reasons that enabled us to be on retreat at that moment in time. I asked the group to consider; what brings you here, what would you like to take away? And, what would you like to let go of? The answers to these questions included; space to breathe, and space to breathe well, to destress from the normal daily routine, to have a safe place to play, and to have time for me as opposed to constantly doing for others. It was clear that the retreat would provide a platform for everyone to take greater care of themselves, to slow down in pace and set time aside to connect more deeply within.

I introduced some Sanskrit words taken from the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali as a means of deepening and layering the practice with meaning and intention.

Svādhyāya translated as ‘self-inquiry’. Svā is self, or own, ādhyāya  is a lesson, reading or new chapter.

The intention of the retreat being to pave way for people to learn for themselves new ways of moving, breathing and thinking through regular yoga practices including breath-work, meditation and relaxation. To provide space for new chapters to build in each moment, and to remain open to the possibility of what is, whilst letting go of the demands and stresses of daily life. We also considered the word ‘satya’ (truth) and in what ways the retreat would enable us all to feel more connected towards our true ‘self’. There are many ways to encourage Svādhyāya with one of the most accessible and profound being the study of nature.

Svādhyāya also encourages study of the natural world by observing with awe her bounty and the uniqueness of everyday life. Greet the morning light with reverence and wonder, and with diminishing light welcome the miracle of night as you draw inward. Let each butterfly and ant have a delightful presence in your life. Study nature and feel the comfort of her presence.”

Nischala Joy Devi – The Secret Power of Yoga

In our first practice session together I introduced ways in which nature would inspire our time together, having just stepped onto new ground after a long day of traveling, it felt right to honour the Earth and find root in our new home for the next few days. This session included grounding practices, and proved to be restful, slow and meditative, providing just enough movement to help undo some of the tensions or anxiety that had gathered during the transitions of the day whilst also shifting potential feelings of lethargy and tiredness too.

That night we enjoyed delicious home-cooked food thanks to our hosts and followed this with an evening meditation, including sound-work to help aid digestion and a short meditation practice around the Earth setting everyone up for a restful night.

Day 2:
PART 1 “Greet the morning light with reverence and wonder” Nischala Joy Devi

The first morning practice was an opportunity to explore energising sequences and moments of stillness in preparation for the day ahead.

We began by reflecting upon the qualities of the sun and the element of fire, which is linked to the sense of sight. Fire, and the sun provide warmth, heat, are cleansing and purifying and enable us to see what lies in front of us. The group reflected upon ‘that requires clarity’ in preparation of moving into the sun salutation series. Sun salutations can be complex, fast-paced and confusing, so with this in mind I offered an accessible way into the series before providing options for people to explore the series with a little more heat and complexity, should they choose to do so.

You can practice sun salutations with me on my YouTube channel including using the wall and chair.

There was opportunity to pause and reflect upon the clarifying properties of the sun throughout the practice, whilst generating heat, moving more freely and exploring the series as a form of movement meditation. This reflection paving way for self-inquiry as I encouraged people to tune into the focussing, heating and energising effects of the practice, whilst also connecting to nature and the power of the sun. Space to pause often was encouraged which allowed room to notice overall bodily feeling and sensation, pace and rhythm, the heart beating, the breath slowing down and so on. Eventually settling back into the breath revealing itself as a great stabilising and steadying force for the body and mind to rest into.

The rest of the session went onto explore further standing postures including twists which are also beneficial for generating internal heat and tapping into the digestive fire. All of this heat was cooled down as the practice ended with a series of slow-paced lying postures and a relaxation, allowing time to absorb the effects of the practice and this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver; The Sun.

Have you every seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy
floats towards the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

Continue reading…

We spent the rest of the day exploring the local area, independently and together, some enjoying massages, others enjoying the sea air. We found ourselves back again that afternoon for our second session of the day.

Part 2: Remain fluid and open to possibility.

During our second practice session of the day I introduced the element of water and the idea of going with the flow and of opening space for further self-inquiry and discovery.

I began by asking asking the questions “Is there anything you would like to explore? Is there a posture or group of postures that you’d like to unravel for yourselves?” I was inspired to ask this after tuning into a Q&A session between Jivana Heyman and Amber Karns recently during the Accessible Yoga training. Asking questions shifts the power dynamic in a regular class and can allow space for people to have agency over where the session may go. It also helps to promotes group discussion and exploration which in turn builds community and collaboration.

The answers to these questions provided the basis for the practice we went onto explore. People were interested in practising balancing postures along with finding ways to strengthen and lengthen tight hamstrings, thighs and calves.

After gently coming back into the body through some mindful movement and breath work we took time to explore downward facing dog, which can be a problematic shape for many people to find themselves in. I took the approach of preparing the arms and legs whilst in the table top position before taking the posture a few times using the wall. The wall is a very underused prop and a great way to feel the benefits of downward facing dog (and so many other postures) without over-exerting the wrists and knees. It also avoids dropping the head below the heart which can be contra-indicative for glaucoma (optic nerve damage to the eye), high blood pressure and vertigo.

It may also simply provide a more supportive, accessible and pleasant experience of the pose.

Once familiar with pressing into the hands and feet to find length in the spine, people were encouraged to release through the shoulders and knees without dropping into the shape. It was useful feedback for anyone who then wanted to explore the posture further from all fours. It felt as though some of the pathways of communication were able to connect more easily between the mind and the body once the posture had been explored a few times using the wall. Those preferring to use the wall continued to do so, whereas others enjoyed taking their learned experience from the wall to the ground and found that they were able to access the pose more easily having prepared the body in this way.

We then moved into balancing postures and began more simply with heels raised in mountain pose and moving around the space to find the wall for support where needed. Included within the sequencing of this practice were other preparatory postures and sequences before exploring further balances within eagle pose using props where necessary, and a wall version of half moon pose. The wall once again acting as a fun and very useful prop for supporting, pressing and anchoring the body towards as a means of providing greater stability and a sense of being grounded in the posture. Getting grounded using the wall involves actions such as pressing the head or shoulders back into the wall or allowing the back foot and the front hand could find a pillars or edges to press into. It is also fun exploring postures in this way so that people to find the best way of being supported in this complex position.

It was fun and joyful to be part of this exploration and the experience opened space for sharing and reflection as a group.

We explored the use of straps whilst venturing into some hamstring lengthening and hip mobility before closing the session with a guided meditation. The evening continued with a group meal in a local fish restaurant with live music and a great atmosphere too. It felt good to get to know everyone that little bit further and as a teacher to break down the barrier of being in teacher mode.

Day 3: “Your Hands are an extension of your heart” Zoë Martin

After another restful night we began the morning session with further explorations into the sun salutation series once again reflecting upon clarity and connecting to the notion of inner radiance and that the light (satya) within us, is the same energy as that of the sun.  I find visualisation to be really useful for this.

Our inner radiance is there within each of us, like a flower ready to bloom.

The element of Air, and its connected sense of touch was also incorporated within the practice as I encouraged everyone to consider the way they placed their hands during their postures and in their pauses too. There was a constant reminder “Your hands are an extension of your heart”, consider the way you place them as you move freely. Consider how the hands touch the ground, or the body and take great care as you go about your movements. Surrounded by flowing bamboo plants providing a breezy soundtrack to the practice we approached tree posture, standing and lying twists before taking a short meditation in preparation for the day ahead.

The practice closed with the following Mary Oliver poem; When I am among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

Continue reading…

As we went on with the rest of the day there was more time for massages, and trips into Ericeira and we enjoyed lunch together as a group, after which we walked down to the local wild bay. The sea was magnetic. We stayed there for a while soaking it all up.

Part 2: “I nourish myself with the best” Kelley Carboni-Woods

We each deserve the best. We deserve to be fuelled by the best….Our nourishment goes beyond the food we put in our mouth. It extends to the music, conversations and interactions we take in.

Kelley Carboni-Woods

This session was designed for people to consider how they could further nourish themselves through the practice of yoga, by connecting further with nature, movement and breath. By being kinder and by finding joy in the simple things such as looking more closely at a beautiful flower, absorbing the warmth of the late afternoon sunlight or by simply resting on the ground.

We began the practice by connecting deeply with nature and the elements exploring a focused sensory-based meditation practice incorporating the feeling of touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. With a heightened sensory awareness I then encouraged the group to take a mindful walk around the beautiful gardens at Casa Paco D’hilas, taking time to zoom into the details of nature, flowers in bloom, to the seeds of fruit, noticing they’re own position within the landscape whilst zooming out and looking further afield.

When we regathered it was a good opportunity to share our unique experiences, appreciations of nature and of what was right there in front of us. It was revealing for us all just how much we hadn’t yet noticed and collectively we felt more open and aware, this level of awareness formed the basis for the movement and stillness practice.

We warmed the body by taking a series of sun salutations with the support of the wall, the aim being not only to warm the body but to provide an alternative experience to the practice we had been working with so far. I then introduced a series of restorative postures designed to nourish and nurture the system through stillness and deep breathing with the support of props and the wall. Restorative postures can be very calming and soothing for the nervous system because the longer we stay with something that feels naturally comfortable for the body and the mind, the breath will inherently become slower which in turns helps to stimulate a relaxation response. It also means that there is potential to completely drift off and fall asleep, and so with this in mind I offered moments where people could reconnect to their awakening meditation, to remind themselves of an inner glow or radiance within and connecting this to our natural environment.

The practice closed with an exploration of seated postures in preparation for a breath based meditation to tap further into the stillness and quietness of the mind, our connections with nature and our ability to be kind and gentle toward ourselves.

The session was intended to nourish and I hope the group left feeling self-nourished and renewed.

An evening meditation or time for laughter?

The evening had intended to close with sound work and meditation practice, but when we were accompanied by the in-house cat the giggles soon started to expand in the space and we all ended up in heaps of laughter instead, which was obviously what we all needed. As a teacher it is good to experience situations when things don’t go to plan and instead to accept the shifts in more positive light. The memory of this laughter and silliness will stay with me for a long time. Fuel for nourishment – I think so!

Day 4: What will you take away?

On our final morning together I guided the group through a holistic session which encountered snippets of everything we had been exploring during our time together. It was useful to offer structure once again so that people could set aside any potential agitations around flying back home and what may lie ahead for them. There was time for self-reflection and an opportunity once again to draw upon the abundance of nature, elements and the senses during the practice.

Listen, listen, listen. This is how we can connect to our truth. From the outer world to our inner world. Keep learning, listening, and reflecting.

As the retreat came to a close we found time to reflect upon our experience. It felt emotional to share once again as a group and offer some clearer insight into what each person felt in reflection of their time away. We had all traveled great distances in such a short space of time. There was certainly more that we could have explored, but I felt very grateful that we were able to come together through a shared thread of self-care and curiosity, and that people would go away and think about what was important for them moving forward. Even if that was to make one small change to their routine based on their experience of having lived and breathed a slower pace for a few days.

It was just as inspiring for me as it was for everyone else.

Thanks to…

Much of the inspiration for this retreat came from my personal explorations of the yoga sutras and the elements with the following teachers; Zoë Martin, Sheila Baker and Jane Craggs who each offer creative, unique and authentic approach to yoga. I also layered the explorations with practices inspired by Sandra Sabatini, Erich Schiffmann and Jivana Heyman. On top of this I included poetry and writing by Mary Oliver, Kate Vogt Wendell Berry and Kelley Nicole-Palmer. There is a lot of time and research that goes into planning and teaching a retreat and it often goes in several directions when I am on a roll with it all. Really it is the people who attend and are open to the many possibilities that make it so unique and memorable.

Thanks to our hosts Jelle, Justin, Saskia, Louise and Gladys who ensured we were well fed, happy, comfortable and very welcome, and to the cat Kumar who provided some with home pet comfort! Casa Paco D’hilas is an incredible guesthouse, with so much character and inspiration. We can’t wait to return!

I would like to thank Dave my husband for creating this short film, and must of the practice imagery of taken during the retreat, for joining me and supporting my efforts in making this happen as well as offering his amazing chauffeur expertise for us all to enjoy. And finally, to those who came, I feel very grateful that you made the effort and were open to learn from me, and from each other, I too learned so much from you being there!

Om Shanti
Om Shakti
In peace and in strength. Until next time.

Llanberis Retreats

If you like the sound of the offerings delivered during this retreat in Portugal you may be interested to know that Dave and I are bringing a new retreat space to Llanberis later this month (October 2021) and will be launching a host of 1 day and longer weekend retreats for 2022 very soon.

Llanberis Retreats will be for anyone and everyone looking to deepen their practice of yoga, spend time in nature, for those who love to hike, wild swim or for those of you simply looking for time and space to create some distance between your work-life balance. We will also be collaborating with like-minded practitioners who we hope will inspire and help in building an equitable, creative and supportive community.

Follow us on Instagram and be first to know what is happening where and when.

Practice Yoga with me

I teach weekly online classes through Zoom along with small group class schedule in my home town of Marple, Stockport. You can also practice yoga with me on YouTube which is host to over 20 different practices and every Friday on BAM’s IGTV channel you’ll find me guiding a live yoga practice @bamboo_clothing instagram account at 9am.

Bamboo Clothing supported my retreat by providing me with some beautiful socks to give away. I represent this brand as an ambassador and can highly recommend them as an ethical, sustainable clothing brand based in the UK. Use my unique discount code to get 15% off your next #BAM purchase: HELEN15

If you enjoyed this article and would like to receive exclusive content straight into your inbox, you can sign up to my newsletter here, and or share it with like-minded friends. You can also contact me directly with your inquiries and comments.

Thank you so much for being here and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Enjoy!
Helen X