I think the idea of a retreat emerged in January when I was musing about reflection and adventure being the themes for the year. A yoga retreat abroad with a good friend sounded as though it could be one of those rare things which would hit reflection and adventure at the same time. Found one at Valedemoses, booked it for September, forgot about it, sort of.
And then a couple of weeks ago it was nearly upon me. I needed to pack light for six days in the Portuguese mountains followed by three days in Lisbon. I like travelling light so packing was easily done into a small rucksack that would go as hand luggage and that I could manage myself in airports and on buses and trains. It was good to have that little rucksack. We have accumulated so much stuff. Our house and outbuildings are drowningly full of it. I liked the sense that all that I needed for the next ten days was on my back.
Arriving in ValedeMoses is like a more extreme version of coming home here. There is that same sense of getting further away and higher but in Portugal everything about the experience is more extreme. The hills are mountains, covered in pine, eucalyptus and cork trees. Everything is higher, steeper, wilder and more remote. Valedemoses sits on the side of a mountain, the valley falling away to what is a river in winter but now, at the end of a long dry summer, mainly just stones and dried up river bed. My room is simple but comfortable and my window looks out over that valley.
There are around twenty of us on the retreat, ranging in age from mid twenties up to me, I think, the oldest, but split fairly evenly into the under and over fifties. That's a bit of a relief. If we had been surrounded by an entire group of flexible twenty five year olds it would have been a challenge, delightful though the girls in their twenties are. The food for the week is vegetarian and it feels odd on that first evening that there is no wine to lubricate conversation with all these new people, but the food is good and the people friendly. Evenings finish early here and by nine o' clock I am in my bed. I read for a while. It takes me a long time to go to sleep but when I do I sleep deeply until morning.
Day 1: it is hot, over forty degrees, unseasonably and unusually hot. I don't feel well. My brain is fuzzy with heat. My body feels weighed down by it. Morning yoga starts at 8.30 and to begin with it is fine but as the day starts to warm up it is too much. One or two other people leave the yoga room, the Shala, and I do too. It's too hard, it's too fast, I feel rubbish and hopelessly adrift. I go to my room and lie on the bed. Maybe I shouldn't have come. Never mind. It is a beautiful place and if I lie on the bed and read for a week that won't be the end of the world. Breakfast is delicious but I am too hot to eat much and my body feels all out of kilter with the timing of meals: breakfast at 10.30, lunch at 2.00, dinner at 7.00. It takes a while to settle, I tell myself. It's supposed to be different. And then the day turns on a sixpence. I have an hour and a half of treatments from the lovely Pete: half an hour's talk, half an hour of Tuina massage and half an hour of acupuncture. I know I have been carrying the world on my shoulders over the last few years and they are often stiff and sore. When he begins to massage my shoulders I feel as if he might break his thumbs on the block of wood which has taken over the base of my neck. But by the time he has finished my head feels loose and light and I feel six inches taller. It is amazing and I immediately book another session on Friday. As I go to bed I think that if that massage is the one thing to come out of the retreat it will have been worth it.
Day 2: I wake knowing that my guts are not happy. This is the Irritable Bowel Syndrome which plagues the first couple of hours of my day. It is pretty well under control at home where I am in control of what I eat. I am trying here to avoid the things I know set it off but that is not easy when someone else is cooking. I am determined that I will do what I want to do and the IBS will just have to come along too. Sure enough by nine thirty I am feeling ok again but the yoga class has been going for ages and it is another very hot day. I decide I will do some simple stretches in my room, read and maybe go for a stroll in the shade. The day passes away gently and hotly and I go to the late afternoon yoga session. Today I am more comfortable with just setting my own pace, dipping in and out of what is being done, accepting that I will choose when to stop and start. Evening, the temperature falls, the breeze comes up and food and conversation are plentiful. Again it takes me a long time to fall asleep but the dark and the quiet are comfortable and familiar. This is what the nights are like at home.
Day 3 onward: And then the days fall into a rhythm. The temperature comes down to the high twenties but with a gentle mountain breeze. Yoga at 8.30, breakfast at 10.30, a quiet time in my room or a chat with my friend or some new friends, lunch at 2.00, maybe a walk or a swim, more yoga at 5.00, dinner at 7.00 and bed by 9.00. One day I walk with a guide who lives in the village and a couple from Canada. It is a beautiful place and sad to see how many houses have been deserted as people head to the cities for work. The mountains smell of pine and eucalyptus.
Another day we have a talk from the Spanish chef, Raul, about his recipes and his food. The food is marvellous. At no time do I miss meat, although I think about my more commitedly carnivore husband and sons and imagine that they would, and after that one day my IBS settles down and becomes much as it as home. I love the colour and vibrancy of the food.
I come home determined to explore more vegetarian food although I do not intend to give up either meat or fish, just to eat less of them. The one thing I did miss was eggs!
On the last day I have another massage, Thai this time, alongside a further Tuina massage for my shoulders. If I could do this every week I think I might be six foot two. We go for a swim in a huge river and finish the week with a visit to a local village and food and wine.
On the last morning we are not leaving until noon so I spend some time in the Shala by myself. To my astonishment I find that I have done my own practice for about forty five minutes. At home I find it close to impossible to practise on my own and invariably run out of things to do after fifteen minutes or so.
So how was it? I loved it. Like many things which are rewarding it was not all easy. Did my yoga improve? A little. What was the best bit? Well it is hard to say: the company, the food, the yoga, the sense of being taken out of your life and the astonishingly good massages were all part of the experience and take any one of them out and the week would not have been the same. Would I go again? Yes. I ended the week feeling as if I had been ironed out.
And ten days after coming home, have I carried anything with me into my ordinary life? It is hard to answer this honestly because ordinary life is so different. I do not have four hours of yoga on tap or someone cooking me delicious vegetarian food. Ordinary life has television and wi fi and glasses of wine in it. It has the delightful demands of the people you love. But I am trying to hold to that sense of peace and I am trying paradoxically both to do more and to take more time to myself. It is easy for time to pass away in looking after other people and in frittering it on the internet and on reading and television. There is nothing wrong with any of those things but my week made me feel that I should challenge myself more, particularly physically, and look after myself more both in mind and body. I am trying to fit more yoga into my week. I am trying to cook more vegetarian food and if that comes out at only one more meal a week that's ok. Most of all I am trying to nourish myself.
And I am thinking about balance. How do you achieve balance in your life? I would love to talk about it with you.