“Yoga Retreat” are not the words I ever expected to leave my mouth, at least not without a sneer or a yawn; yet, here I am, writing from Corfu airport, on my way home from a Yoga Retreat! And let me tell you, it was brilliant!
So what exactly is a Yoga Retreat? Well, it wasn’t what I was expecting, that is for sure! In my mind I expected hours of boring yoga, bland healthy food, mindless meditation and lectures on being a better person. I certainly didn’t expect to arrive with a bunch of acquaintances, and leave with a new family. I also didn’t expect to laugh so much that my abs would hurt; neither did I expect to cry my heart out, become a hugger, sing in front of people (I do not sing!!), dance the night away, relax enough to truly switch off (and lose the bags under my eyes!) and most certainly did not imagine I would enjoy eating healthily!
The retreat was organised and run by the local gym I frequent, Health Kick Academy. It is a great company run by Jason, a truly inspirational and caring individual who has created a family of like-minded characters. That in itself made the retreat special. I was in the company of lovely people with whom I connected and with whom I was able to enjoy the beautiful island that is Corfu.
Corfu is an island off the Northwest coast of Greece characterised by rugged mountains and resort clad shorelines. However, despite the mass tourism that descends on the island every year there are still plenty of hidden gems, and we certainly found one of them! Nestled in the North East of the island we stayed in a villa a stone’s throw away from the sea outside the quiet village of Acharavi. This holiday wasn’t my usual adventure-rich break of non-stop activity, instead it was about chilling out, something I’m certainly not used to! Therefore, we didn’t really venture far from our villa, though I still managed to enjoy a daily morning jog along the seaside taking in the pink haze over the distant mountains as the sun came up as well as evening strolls along the beach and bright red sunsets.
What was the Yoga Retreat all about?
Quite simply, us! As cheesy as it really sounds, discovering who we really are, learning to love who that person is and learning to live in a happier mindset. We all have little demons, insecurities and fears. They might be different for everyone, but you only have to look at national headlines to see mental health is really an epidemic, and a misunderstood one at that. We are all so busy juggling work and home life, doing things for others, worrying about our finances, about our weight, our health, our jobs, our past and our future that we forget to live in the now. To enjoy what we have and to truly focus on our own well being. And that is what this retreat was all about. Living in the now for a happier more fulfilling lifestyle.
What did we get up to?
A lot of laughing!! In fact, that will be my lasting memory, proper belly laughs. Laughing at jokes, at silly dancing, at surprise farts during yoga, at toilet humour, and at ourselves. There was also some crying as we released built up tension and emotions; there were lots of hugs and acts of kindness, but more than anything else there was friendship.
Every morning we got up to enjoy the sunrise. Some of us walking and some of us running. I managed to clock 25km of running over the week re-finding the love for it and looking forward to entering my next 10k. We followed this up with 30 min of HIIT training before settling in for an hour and a half of yoga.
I’m not going to lie, before the retreat yoga was not my favourite activity! Why go on a yoga retreat you ask? Well, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did! I enjoy being active and getting a sweat on and although I’ve been doing yoga once a week for a couple of months and absolutely love the instructor, it just wasn’t really my thing, so I was dreading 2 ½ hours of yoga a day!! And it did take me a couple of days to get into it, but now that I am home I’m missing it.
What exactly is yoga?
Yoga is a philosophy that was born in India some 5,000 years ago. The word yoga, derived from the Sanskrit work yuj, means yolk or bind, and is therefore interpreted as “union”. Unlike fitness or stretching, yoga is much more than just physical postures, in fact, yoga encompasses 8 different areas, one of which is physical. These 8 limbs are: yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dhyani (meditation) and samadhi (absorption). The practice of these 8 areas allows us to refine our behaviour to the outside world and focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (enlightenment).
In reality, we only really practiced asana, a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation. Or in my case, increase the flexibility to be able to touch my toes! The thing that is special about yoga is that you connect the movement of the body with the fluctuations of the mind and the rhythm of the breath which helps direct your attention inward, something very few of us ever have time to do. We look after others, yet we never look after ourselves, but if we are not there, who will be left to look after others?
I realise this all sounds very heavy and spiritual (and very unlike me) yet I saw a huge improvement in my sleep, my energy, my state of mind and my flexibility as the week went on and I was able to release the pent up tension of years of stress.
As well as yoga we also did some meditation and visualisation. Both of which I found truly powerful. The idea with meditation is to clear the mind of all the noise and thoughts that hijack it on a daily basis, therefore liberating the mind from attachment to things it can’t control such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. Daily meditation has been linked with a number of health benefits from lower blood pressure, stress reduction, reduced anxiety and deeper relaxation. However, clearing the mind isn’t always that easy! Pesky thoughts love to make their way in, even if that thought is “Yay, I’m managing not to think of anything!” Closely followed by “Doh, I just thought about not thinking”.
Whilst on the retreat I managed my first true meditation high after I truly managed to “be”. My head and chest filled with this extreme heat and I got a really light feeling in my mind and body. I’ve never taken drugs so I don’t know how it compares to a drug related high, but it certainly was a high! For the rest of the day (and the following day) I felt uplifted, elated even and unnaturally happy. Now that I’ve felt it I can understand why people meditate for hours on end! I suppose there are worse ways to get high than sitting quietly and in peace!
What else did we get up to?
We did another hour of yoga in the evening, however this was a different type of yoga, one that involved lying on our backs doing nothing: this is Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is a state in which the body is completely relaxed, focus internalised with only the hearing connecting you to the outside world as you follow the instructions. It is amongst the deepest possible states of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness, essentially, still aware of your environment, something that is not the case during sleep. However, I won’t lie, there were some occasions when I did actually fall asleep!
Aside from yoga and exercise we also had a mindfulness workshop every day. These sessions focused on our mental health and how to develop the mindset that would enable us to be the best version we can be whilst coping with every-day life. The short talks challenged us to think differently about ourselves and others. I won’t go into the detail but needless to say every single person grew in confidence as the week went on and we all addressed our different demons and fears to finish off in a much better mindset than when we started.
On the Saturday we even had the pleasure of meeting the bestselling author of “Our Story called Life“, Peter Abrams. An inspirational 21-year-old who talked to us about how life really is just a story, a story that we are the authors of. Time to take responsibility of our own plots! In addition to being a great guest speaker he also joined us for two days of the retreat, joined us for a night of dancing and then dared to get on the back of the quad bike with me as I tried to kill us both when said machine refused to turn!!
We had every afternoon to ourselves and on the final day a group of us decided to rent quad bikes to go and explore a little bit of the island. There were only 2 quads available so one pair had to go on a scooter. I drew the short straw which wouldn’t have been a problem if I was on my own, but having a passenger riding pillion was a whole other kettle of fish. The balance was completely different and the slightest movement from Pete made the scooter move. I really wasn’t happy as I didn’t want to cause a crash. I could see the headlines: “Russell Brand’s prodigy killed by reckless woman driver”.
Luckily the guy who rented the scooter had followed us with a quad bike so we jumped on to that instead happy knowing we were now on a safe machine…. Or were we? It took me about 5 attempts to get going as it kept stalling (woman driver I thought!) and then once we were going it seemed to have very little power. I certainly could not keep up with those ahead of us. And then we got to the hill…. A few bunny jumps and stop. Stalled again. Start up again, get going and a few more bunny jumps and stop again. This time on a blind bend. Arghh!! What’s happening?! Cat, who knows a bit more about quad bikes than me, came to our rescue and spotted the throttle was on high so we adjusted that and tried again. A little better but we still stalled.
We finally made it up the hill and then started coasting down the winding road, stalling issue resolved for now. We still had the problem that the wheels were buckled and therefore it pulled to the right and a few times I had thought on the bends that it didn’t seem to be turning. It wasn’t until we were doing a tight slow sharp turn that I realised it only turned intermittently. Handles fully turned whilst trying to do the U turn the bike continued to go in a straight line!! Luckily this was towards the end of the first leg of our journey where we stopped in a little village for a drink on the beach.
On the way back Cat and I swapped quad bikes. She seemed to get on better with the steering than I did although still had the same trouble with it stalling. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty glad to be on a fully functioning quad with enough power to actually be able to have some fun!
Every afternoon we had 4 hours to ourselves to do as we wished (although ice cream and alcohol was out of the question!).
One of the afternoons I set off on my own and headed up into
the hills. I jumped over a gate (yes, I was trespassing) and dragged myself up
a steep hill before coming face to face with a 3 metre or so wall which I
scaled before continuing up the hill. From the highest point, whilst I was
enjoying the vistas, I spotted a bird of prey flying around as if dancing in
front of me. After a few minutes it flew towards me settling on a branch
literally metres away as it looked directly at me! Wow! I was mesmerised! As
soon as I went to get my phone out to take a photo though it flew off.
Realising I couldn’t scale back down the wall I’d climbed up, I decided to keep on walking down a different path before joining a small road that lead deeper into the hills. I chose to follow this and once again, the bird appeared, flying above me! I’d say it was guiding me but as it was a dead end I can’t make any such claim!
We also enjoyed numerous long walks along the beach exploring the vicinity, discovering hidden beaches (as well as nudist ones!), swimming in the clear blue sea, and generally fooling around the pool.
The highlight of the retreat for me (people and laughter
aside), was the food. Who knew healthy food could be so delicious! We only had
two meals a day (brunch and dinner) but it was nutritious and filling and
therefore we weren’t left wanting more. I was genuinely worried I wouldn’t cope
with only two meals (and no chocolate) but it has shown me that I eat far too
much! Even when I’m being (or trying to be) good!
My favourite had to be the Greek yogurt we had for brunch most mornings. Greek yogurt with raw honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon served with all manner of chopped fresh fruit, grated nuts, coconut and dried fruits. So simple yet so delicious! This will definitely be featuring as my breakfast moving forward.
For dinners we enjoyed a real variety of delicious salads, falafel, fish, pasta and even pizza one night! On the Saturday we headed out into town to a local Greek restaurant where we shared the entire menu as a meze (not quite but nearly). And now, back to reality with a bang. Fully inspired by Dawn and Eric’s amazing cooking I offered to make dinner on Monday. Let’s just say I will never be a chef!
But as all good things, the retreat came to an end, I waved goodbye to the Corfu sunshine and settled back into gloomy, dark, cold Britain. However, there is a warmth that remains inside me, the warmth that comes from friendship, from solidarity and from camaraderie. If you have a chance to go on a retreat and spend some time working on you, then do it, you won’t regret it and you will feel better for it.
Check out some of my more adventurous travels here