Valedemoses Yoga retreat

My first ever yoga retreat started in the week I turned sixty two.  I found yoga about five years ago, roughly at the same time that I gave up my frantic London job.  Probably not coincidence.  I had tried it a couple of times in my thirties and forties but it was always too slow or too hard.  I would lie there, surrounded by people apparently relaxing, my head whizzing with work and home and my juggling, plate-spinning life.  So no surprise perhaps that at the same time that I decided to step back from that life, to downsize and to spend my time and energy on different things I found a great yoga teacher and a great anchoring class.  Yoga was part of what kept me steady in the heaving seas of the last couple of years as my parents died.  I can't imagine life without it now but I am very, very new to it and very stiff.

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.

Comments

  1. Wow, what a lovely, funny and refreshingly honest post about your retreat experience with us. I think it will resonate with many people's first yoga retreat adventures! It was such a pleasure having you both stay with us, and I thoroughly enjoyed our little chats through the week. Let me know how the veggie meal cooking goes - send me photos! And of course, we'd be delighted to have you come again whenever you feel you'd like another ironing out! Not sure about becoming 6 ft 2, but that feeling of being lighter and straighter and in less discomfort after one of Pete's massages is exactly how I feel too. And I am 6ft 2! Thanks again Liz. xxxxx

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    1. It was a very good experience Andrew. I strongly believe that some of the most rewarding things you can do contain some difficulty as well as lots of joy. I sometimes wonder if we have become a society which wants only the ease and the comfort and the sunshine and which has lost a sense that things are worth working for and sticking with! I felt so good as I came to the end of our week with you. Thank you to all of you who were part of it.

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  2. What a wonderfully honest accounting of your retreat. I've been missing yoga, but there is no class on the Island that feels right for me, all too vigorous or too far away. But today, wonderfully, I have discovered that a lovely new friend has started going to Tai Chi in a local(ish) village. She loves the idea of company on the drive, and suddenly I have another building block of balance in my life again. For me the other life-changing discovery has been mindfulness. I got myself on a free course, courtesy of Mind, and it has been invaluable for helping me navigate the very different world of life post ME, learning to be well, remembering how to work.

    I hope you continue to find corners in your life for yoga and exploration of the vege option - all the better for being accompanied by the occasional glass or two of wine!!

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    1. I think Tai Chi is very interesting Janet. I am committed to yoga now as there are only so many hours in the day but I would look at Tai Chi if yoga was not an option. I suppose yoga also includes elements of what is now called mindfulness. I am glad you have found some interesting options that work for you!

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  3. I am trying, slowly, to eat more vegan. Eggs have slid off our menu, but cheese!
    If the veg buffet is there, as it was at Tibits in London and Zurich - oh how I miss 3 weeks of delicious easy meals.

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    1. I really don't think I could manage without cheese or eggs! Meat yes, but eggs, cheese!!? Not possible. More veg, yes and yes!

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  4. Elizabeth, when I first saw the title of this post, I realized that I didn't then have time to give it a relaxed read. This morning presented a more relaxed opportunity.

    The way in which you describe your decision to attend the retreat, your arrival and day-by-day adjusting to the retreat's pace and offerings is very interesting. I think that I would also have had difficulties with the intense heat that you initially experienced...I tend to go into very slow motion and motivation when the heat is on...going back to my Virginia childhood. It would have felt strange to me to be in a place I'd definitely wanted to visit, and yet to find myself there, and not feeling that I could participate. It would have reminded me of self-limitations, rather than encouraging me to stretch. Perhaps that will make sense to you?

    It's grand that bit by bit, the opportunities of the days away from your familiar routines became very appealing.

    The ways in which you gradually discovered so many positive aspects of the retreat in a naturally evolving way and began to recognize benefits do seem to have lasted beyond your stay.

    You've now got me considering some yoga myself. (My only yoga experience was back in the mid-1970s.) You may have written about this before, but I'd be interested to know which kind of yoga you practice. My own neighborhood offers many, many different yoga studios.

    One of the benefits of my own retirement has been a return to more experimenting with my meal preparation, and I do have many vegetarian meals. I don't think I would want to give up eggs and cheese though! I've been trying to walk at least a mile each day' three miles seems to be my limit.

    I expect that your doing more writing continues to bring benefits. Each of us has so many possibilities to encourage. Bravo to you! xo

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    1. Thank you Frances. The yoga which I practice is generally Iyengar which uses blocks and belts to help you gain the alignment of the body which benefits you most. Hatha yoga is also a great introduction. Some of the other forms are quicker or more demanding such as Ashtanga or Bikram. I think if I had come to yoga in my twenties or thirties I might have explored those but they don't really work for me now. I also agree entirely about the benefits of walking. Keeping moving is just the best!

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    2. Thank you, Elizabeth. I do still remember the breathing techniques and the mantra my teacher gave me.

      As an aside...you might enjoy Nicola Barker's book The Cauliflower. It is part novel, but also an exploration of faith. xo

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  5. Those massages sound wonderful, and I do recognise that wooden feeling across the shoulders, something I need to work on, too. Your retreat sounds very special and and it seems it worked its magic in unravelling you, but I know how hard it is to hold onto that feeling of being completely chilled. Keep going with the vegetarian food - we probably eat veggie 4 or 5 days a week now and I am building up my repertoire. I couldn't live without fish though.

    Bizarrely, and despite its challenges, I returned from our annual sailing expedition feeling totally relaxed and re-energised, partly because this is the one time when my husband takes responsibility for the planning and execution and I have the opportunity to kick back, read lots of books, eat some amazing food, visit obscure, out of the way places, and occasionally feel scared stiff. Somehow it works!

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    1. I love the fact that your sailing includes so many great relaxing things and also a bit of being scared stiff! I am a great believer in the value of doing things that are a little bit hard. You get some downsides (being scared for you, being incompetent for me!) but they seem to make the upsides sharper and more meaningful.

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  6. I think it was brave of you to step outside your everyday to fly off with a backpack to a foreign mountain top to practice yoga. I enjoyed your candid review of the days/activities/meals. Sometimes such a break is just the thing to bring one's life back into balance. What do I do to provide balance in my life? It seems, these days, little. I have been having every-other-week massage since waking one morning in August, unable to turn my head. I completely understood your description of the block of wood at the base of the neck. If I am to be completely truthful I'd say that I am ashamed at the lack of balance in my life, but I think that this is a safe forum. One emergency follows another and a constant stream of family members from far and wide (here to see my mother for, perhaps, the last time) has meant that there is more 'automatic pilot' than 'in the moment'. Like Mater, I haven't practiced yoga since the 70's. I walk past a studio every day and wonder if I might be brave enough. It's not a mountain top in Portugal, but perhaps I can do it.

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    1. I do so identify with the stage of life you describe Pondside. For the last couple of years it has been very hard to find any time at all for balance and when these family things happen there is nothing to do other than to ride with it. It is nine months now since my father died and these attempts at really looking after myself are only just starting to happen. I really do recommend yoga. When life is very difficult it can take a while for the benefits to kick in but it has both a physical and mental effect for me that is really worthwhile. Thinking of you and all your challenges right now.

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  7. Like Pondside, my first reaction was 'that's brave of her'. We are temporarily without any outside demands on our time and hardly know how to deal with this. One thing though is that with this lovely weather we have lengthened our walks and clocked up 8 miles today. Like you I find solo practice of, in my case, Pilates, almost impossible because despite the nearly ten years of classes I can never remember enough of the moves. I seem to need someone talking me through it in order to last an hour. Yoga is still on my must try list. I can't see me ever packing a rucksack and going abroad though. How weedy of me!

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    1. I think if you can walk eight miles you can pack a rucksack and go abroad! Sounds like a different form of strength to me. I did a lot of travel as part of my job so that helps when it comes to getting on a plane and flying off somewhere. I also had the company of my lovely friend although having done it in company now I think I would be happy enough to go on my own. The fact that you are all there for a particular purpose and that lots of people go alone means it is a really comfortable and easy place to be on your own.

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  8. Oh, I'm still trying to find my wobbly way back to balance, and somehow I've managed to accidentally push it off into the distance even further by booking this trip too soon after our move. Packing now and more than a bit nervous about the first two weeks which I'm doing solo until my husband joins me. . . I guess I've decided that I will use the time away to find equilibrium, a place to breathe deeply and look at all the changes we've made this last year. . . and I hope to begin imagining a new pace that includes, among other things, regular yoga practice. I love your description of your week and agree with others who have said how brave you were to throw yourself into this. And I'm absolutely loving this series of yours, these extended posts about your year of being 62... thank you!

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  9. oh thank you Frances! I am delighted you are finding them interesting. it feels rather revealing to talk about these things so it's real encouragement to know that people are reading and commenting. I'm very likely to get the whole balance thing wrong. I've always been inclined to bite off more than I can chew (I suspect you might do this too!) and that has given me a very interesting time but I am trying now not to be constantly running to keep up with myself. I'll let you know if I manage it! good luck with your travels. solo travel is a good thing to do in my experience!

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  10. Like Frances, I too had to come back when I had the opportunity to give your writing the time it deserves.
    A lovely post, thank you for sharing; your words, and those of your friends who have commented, resonated greatly with me :)

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    1. Thank you Jayne. It's fascinating to hear what others have to say!

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  11. Loved this post. I went some years ago to Huzur Vadesi with a friend where we slept in yurts and took life easy doing a little yoga each day. I went to a weekly yoga class before I moved to France and the teacher was brilliant and since then I haven't been able to find anyone as good. I went for several years to a class here in Somerset but it didn't do it for me and now in my 70s I was finding it too hard and suffering for it for a coupe of days after each class. I haven't been able to find anyone else and although I tell myself I should be able to do it by myself at home I never do. I guess it is like walking and needs to become a habit. Must try again as it is so good for both mind and body. Thanks for reminding me.

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    1. I do think it's very hard to do yoga by yourself. at least I struggle! my teacher up here does a chair yoga class which she says is her favourite hour in the week.. she's also very interested in how small your movements can be to give you the most benefit. she does the whole works but it's interesting to be taught by someone who is intrigued by what you can do if you are not strong or athletic.

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  12. It sounds an amazing place and beautiful scenery. Maybe I should try yoga again, I do meditate and benefit greatly from that. As a very busy retired nurse living in not so far away Wirral, currently doing voluntary work, running a very small craft business and doing an OU degree, I am always seeking new ways to slow myself down. I hope the benefits you gained from your retreat last and also that you can look back on some amazing memories.

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    1. that's the challenge isn't it? to live a full and interesting, even exciting life but also to have space and time and peace.

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  13. I watched your posts on IG trying not to be too jealous! I did something horrid to my knee nearly two years ago now which makes a lot of my favourite yoga difficult, but I still practice what I can and think it makes a huge difference to how I feel generally. I've been a veggie (plus fish...) for about 9 months now, whilst catering for the other carnivores here - it's not all that difficult, I'm sure you'd quickly find some shortcuts. I'm getting my blog reader sorted!!! Any x

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    1. lovely to hear from you. I'm finding the whole food question interesting. I don't have a moral objection to eating meat but I am interested in animal welfare and also interested in reducing meat intake for health reasons. those things in combination have to mean much less meat. but I love cooking and I love food so I really want to eat good stuff!

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  14. A lovely experience! I haven't much to say about yoga (classes here are crowded and not enjoyable) but the food element is interesting - I live with a vegetarian who detests eggs, so I have to pay particular attention to what we eat to avoid a diet too heavily reliant on cheese. I was delighted to find Anna Jones' books, which brought a nice simple approach to vegetarian meals, with lovely fresh tastes, and when staying with my son and family the other day had time to look through, if not to try, the Hemsley & Hemsley book, Good & Simple. All a great departure from my tried and trusted beany/lentilly recipes from the '80s! Like you, I would not want to give up eggs or cheese, so of course quality and animal welfare matter greatly. The question about balance got me thinking - I value time alone and silence more than anything as a way of dealing with stress or anxiety, with occasional mantra-based meditation (when I remember to do it!). How on earth did we cope with rushed, busy, noisy working lives??

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    1. Thanks got the book recommendations! I will give these a try. I really wouldn't want to give up fish either so my push is for less meat and more vegetable based eating. These sound as if they would push me on a bit! Like you I value silence and time alone. I'm not sure how I managed to keep my head together when I did a ninety mile an hour job!

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  15. My shoulders are aching reading this as I would love to have all the tension massaged away! It's sounds as if you had a very rewarding retreat but I think you were brave to go and admire you for doing it - looking forwards to catching up with you soon. Cx

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    1. Yay! see you tomorrow. How good is that.

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  16. I plan to go to a yoga retreat soon. Balance is hard to find in the modern life. I tried to keep my balance by meditating on five positive things each day. Making a schedule to do things to keep your balance is key. I haven't gotten mine down pat yet but I hope the upcoming retreat will help this.

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