Eastern sanctuary: a mindfulness weekend in Norfolk

A suitably slow-paced yoga and mindfulness weekend is revelatory – even the ‘weird’ bit about rebooting tired minds and bodies through silence

We’re all tired. Some of us go on about it more than others (guilty) but most of us are wrecked most of the time. Which is why going on holiday to lie down in a darkened room for two days is not as weird as it might once have sounded. That’s essentially what Satvada Retreats offers on its winter weekends in north Norfolk: two days of mindfulness and yoga in the beautiful setting of West Lexham, a cluster of converted, eco-friendy farm buildings and treehouses (plus bell tents in summer) set in extensive grounds with paths winding through gardens and around a lake.

Mindfulness may be all the rage but I’d never tried it and was concerned that it would mean sitting awkwardly on a hard floor being told how to breathe. The first session with Lucia Cockcroft, who runs Satvada and is a trained mindfulness instructor, put my mind at rest – literally. After spending 10 minutes getting comfy on our mats with the help of various bolsters and cushions and Lucia asking hypnotically whether we could be “5 or 10% more relaxed”, I was already feeling sleepy. Then we were asked to focus on the sensation of our breath on our nostrils. And that was it. Forty-five minutes later I was in a semi-comatose state, lulled by my own breathing and calmed by Lucia’s gentle assurances not to worry if I lost concentration.

As well as mindfulness sessions, another teacher, Vikki Stevenson, led us through yoga nidra – or yogic sleep. In 10 years of going to yoga classes I’ve deliberately avoided the boring, I mean slow, classes in favour of ashtanga, a fast, dynamic form of practice that leaves you feeling like you’ve had a proper workout and has the added benefit of not allowing time to think about anything other than the next pose. Yoga nidra is at the opposite end of the scale: a series of gentle movements aimed at inducing a state of “conscious sleep”. Instead of pushing your body, you’re calming it. Guided by Vikki, in a voice that was part nursery school teacher, part hypnotist, exercises like “the scan”, where you focus on different parts of your body from the crown of your head to the tops on your toes, left me poleaxed, and a convert to more restorative forms of yoga.

Between sessions I roused myself enough to read – lying down on the sofa, of course – or go for gentle walks. The barn where we ate and did classes was more than spacious enough for our group of 10, with underfloor heating and two wood burners making it feel positively tropical in December.

By contrast, outside looked like a Christmas card, the fields and trees coated in sparkling white frost, the sky streaked with pink and gold. We couldn’t have asked for a prettier setting for our silent walk. On Saturday, Lucia announced – to my slight alarm – that there would be a period of silence from 9.30pm that night until lunchtime the next day. And so, on Sunday morning, off we trooped along country lanes and across fields to Castle Acre, studiously ignoring each other and focusing instead on our surroundings: I took a lot of close-ups of frosty leaves on my mobile (not entirely in the spirit of the weekend as we’d been invited to switch our phones off but in my defence I was appreciating the little things).

Silence can be awkward, especially with people you don’t know well, but after my initial and very British “this is weird” reaction, I found it calming. The hum of modern life is one of the reasons we’re all tired. Turning off the noise is a rare treat. With no pressure to make small talk, we settled into our own little worlds, much to the bemusement of the delivery man who arrived at the barn with a package only to be faced with a room full of middle-aged women ignoring each other. There were other eye-rolling moments during the weekend, like the conversation – over quinoa porridge, natch – about the merits of buckwheat pillows (consensus – they’re good); or the chorus of “Is it vegan? Is it dairy-free? Is it gluten-free?” at dinner on the first night. No worries on that score – all meals were vegan, plentiful and delicious: “lasagne” made with layers of butternut squash, homemade soups for lunch, a sticky toffee pudding with coconut ice cream. So don’t let talk of tofu and buckwheat put you off.

If beating tiredness was as simple as having a rest, we wouldn’t be in the midst of an exhaustion epidemic. Lucia’s retreats allow you to take more drastic action to calm the body and mind: a full-scale withdrawal from real life, or as one book I picked up put it: “turn on your dimmer switch.” It worked for me. On Saturday I felt wiped out but after a day of alternating mindful/nidra classes I slept for 10 hours and woke up to an unfamiliar sensation. It took me a moment or two to put my finger on it: I wasn’t tired. Not only was I not tired, I felt so energetic I considered going for a run, something I haven’t done for five years.

Of course it’s easy to relax when you have nothing to do but breathe deeply. What happens when you have to return to the real world? The weekends are designed to equip you with some basic tools to introduce moments of relaxation to your own life: exercises but also the realisation that you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to be mindful. Anyone can do it. In every session, Lucia and Vikki reiterated the mantra of not criticising or judging yourself – if your mind wanders, don’t worry about it. In other words, cut yourself some slack. And breathe…
Three nights from £399 for a shared room including all sessions and meals. The next retreat is 20 January 2017, satvada-retreats.co.uk. Train travel between London Kings Cross and Downham Market was provided by thetrainline.com


Isabel Choat

The GuardianTramp

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