And relax! From gong baths to mindful drinking: how to really unwind on a holiday at home

With the pandemic scrambling travel plans, many of us are staying put this summer. But can your own house ever be as restful a vacation setting as flopping on a sunlounger? One writer spends a week finding out

My family and I are deep into our second summer of staycations, and, given that a weekend in a static caravan in Filey now costs more than a month on Mustique, we’re having the proper, stay-at-home kind. But how can you relax when assailed by tedious life admin, dirty laundry and the ominous damp patch on the wall, without a hint of away-from-it-all exoticism to get you in the mood? I have no idea. My usual at-home “downtime” consists of scrolling through Twitter to top up my cortisol levels or staring guiltily at the garden I’m too lazy and clueless to tend. Even my chickens, usually excellent stress-busters, are embroiled in some sort of intractable avian psychodrama. I obviously need help, so I asked some experts, then tested their home relaxation tips, to find out if it really is possible to have a relaxing holiday at home.

Day 1

The life coach

The Austrian holistic life coach Heidi Hauer trained with the terrifying French business school Insead: I bet she doesn’t have a teetering pile of unopened post by her front door. Nor would she consider gnawing a melted, then resolidified, golem of cheap chocolate to be “me time”. Her main tip? “Be super-specific about what days you are on holiday and what days you’re hanging around at home.” Delineating days for chores and days for relaxing avoids that frustrating, not-really-on-holiday staycation feeling: “The clearer you set boundaries with regards to your time, the better.” Hauer also suggests a preparatory tidy up and fresh flowers to give home a holiday feel.

“I am on holiday this week,” I declare to my family, then confuse them by spending hours vigorously clearing the sitting room of unopened boxes from our move (four months ago). I bring in some hardy surviving flowers from the garden, which, combined with an unprecedentedly uncluttered eyeline, prove a surprisingly powerful mood booster.

In the name of boundaries, I pay my 19-year-old son to do some gardening and cook dinner. That means I feel annoyed, not guilty, that the roses aren’t deadheaded. We eat at 9.30pm, but his roast potatoes are excellent.

Hauer also suggests listing your favourite holiday activities to ensure you do them at home. Mine (viewing saints’ bones and eating local cakes) are resistant to home application. I like trying new cafes too, so I insist my husband accompany me to our nearest one. It’s a shopping centre Costa – not quite the desired “local gem” vibe – but the terrace offers an excellent view of the Marks & Spencer car park.

The verdict: The day is humdrum, but the benefits last all week. 6/10.

Day 2

Sound therapy

This is supposed to suit people who find meditation impossible. Since my every attempt at meditation ends in grinding teeth and making mental shopping lists, I’m keen to try it.

“The good thing about sound therapy is that it’s a passive type of relaxation,” says therapist Farzana Ali. “Your practitioner does the hard work for you.” Using bowls, gongs and chimes, Ali creates a soundscape. “Your brain resonance can’t help – through a process of sympathetic resonance – matching up to the sound waves it’s hearing. It takes you to a more alpha-dominant brainwave state.” (That’s the good, relaxed, kind.)

Poor Ali has a challenge on her hands: I hate sound, yes even most music. I often fantasise about holidaying on an uninhabited Nordic island, but would probably get annoyed by the waves.

Bravely, she suggests a couple of recordings. Lights off, headphones in, eyes shut and legs up as recommended, I take a morning break to listen to the first. After a few guided breaths, Ali starts to play. My sound-phobe’s vocabulary can’t really describe the low, continuous sound that resonates in my chest, joined intermittently by a higher one, but I’ll go with “not unpleasant”. Actually, I quite like it and listen again that afternoon.

In bed last thing, I try Ali’s “gratitude sound bath”, which has a greater range of sounds, again over a low resonant one. I find the sensation calming: no one is more surprised than me.

The verdict: Good vibrations. 7/10.

Day 3

Beach yoga

Looking at water is relaxing, and so is yoga (except the kind with bare-chested ostentatiously head-standing men), so the two combined must be relaxation nirvana. Tom Harvey (AKA “Stretch”) of Ocean Flow Yoga, which offers yoga classes streamed from a spot overlooking Fistral Beach in Cornwall, doesn’t disagree: “Watching the colours of the ocean and the sky as people practise from their mat at home can really help to boost relaxation levels. The soft blues and greys and greens are very calming.”

I try a recorded “flow” class: the exquisite, empty beach and instructor Jen’s soft Cornish burr are a huge improvement on the blank walls and robotic voice of my usual yoga app.

The problem is that when I start to follow along, I lose sight of the beach, instead eyeballing the overflowing laundry basket in downward dog and the loathed wallpaper in side plank. After 20 minutes, I resort to my usual yoga class pose: lying in “corpse”, scrolling through takeaway menus. The live beach class is more successful. I turn on my camera to prevent cheating and angle myself to get more of an eyeful of the seascape, staring at it during tough, twisty sequences.

I wouldn’t normally (ever) exercise on holiday – I consider it what my best friend calls “taking a gift horse to the glue factory” – but this is quite pleasant.

The verdict: A namastaycation. 6/10.

Mindful drinking, bibliotherapy and bathing all work … although possibly not at the same time.
Mindful drinking, bibliotherapy and bathing all work … although possibly not at the same time. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Day 4

Mindful drinking

My normal holiday (and life) MO is aperitif-intensive, but a dehydrated, dread-ridden Negroni hangover is not a summer experience I wish to replicate.

“Having a drink is such a beautiful relaxation ritual,” says Camille Vidal, of the mindful drinking platform La Maison Wellness. “But alcohol has a counter-effect. You might feel in the moment that you are relaxing because it slows down the connections in your brain. But it’s a bit of a sticking plaster, which will not allow you to relax long-term. It will affect your sleep, and will not allow you to wake up the day after feeling energised and like your full self.” Vidal’s recipes are low- or no-alcohol, with relaxing bonus ingredients; I ask her to recommend a day of mindful drinking.

Supplies prove challenging. Even the big Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock Alain Millat white peach nectar, so I use a pouch of peach baby food instead in my Peach me I’m Dreaming. Another concoction requires a £39.99 “endorphin spirit” containing CBD, “nootropics” and “adaptogens”, but I meanly substitute a cheap can of allegedly CBD-based pop.

Despite this, I love the defiantly self-indulgent process of making elaborate mocktails, macerating grapefruit peel, brewing honey and lavender tea, juicing limes and garnishing huge glasses with watermelon wedges. I even shell out for Vidal’s recommendation of booze-free Martini Vibrante, which tastes authentically bitter. A free bottle of Wild Life ultra-low alcohol wine with soothing lemon balm and miracle plant ashwagandha I wheedle from its Cornish makers is nicely refreshing, but my French husband is disgusted that it even exists.

Despite eating only salty, crispy things and hummus all day for the full aperitivo experience, I am probably the most hydrated I have been in my adult life. I’m peeing all night, but bouncily clear-headed the next day. Is this my “full self”? It’s alarming, but I like it.

The verdict: Juicy. 8/10.

Day 5


How on earth can I capture that feeling of guiltless, total absorption in a book I only get on holiday, I ask the bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud. And what should I read?

I’m gripped by her recommendation of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (“A fabulous classic set in a heatwave in 1901 … beautifully written and highly evocative”) and ditch the trashy thriller languishing on my Kindle for it. I’m disconcerted, however, when she suggests I Hula Hoop while reading. “It’s something I recommend to people if they are distractible. If you are doing something else with your body, it stills the voices in your mind.”

Dubious, I acquire a hoop and, using a HulaFit introductory tutorial, give it a go. My “hooping journey” as the instructor, Carla, calls it is neither elegant nor dignified, but I’m thrilled when I get the hoop to stay up. Reading, however, is farcical: I lose the rhythm if I even try holding a book. I fall back on another of Berthoud’s recommendations: comedian Mel Giedroyc reading her novel, The Best Things, on audiobook. “Gripping, funny, positive and life-enhancing,” is Berthoud’s review, and that goes for the Hula Hoop too. I laugh and manage 15 minutes of gyrating. Days later, the hoop is still calling me with its siren song. I keep sneaking off to try again.

Berthoud’s other alarming suggestion is reading aloud. “If you’re reading aloud, you’re forced to go into that world together.” Emboldened by a (non-mindful) cocktail one evening, I insist everyone listen to me read from Sum, a collection of very short, philosophical stories by the neuroscientist David Eagleman (“Perfect for sharing with your teenage sons,” says Berthoud). It feels awkward – we’re not a “read aloud” kind of family – but they listen and apparently enjoy it.

It’s weird, and weirdly moving.

The verdict: Cock-a-hoop. 10/10.

Day 6


I’m desperate to score a hot tub to create a DIY version of those French thalassotherapy spas where you’re sprayed with a riot hose then wrapped in a seaweed burrito by an unsmiling woman in a lab coat (my favourite kind of holiday). But if you want to amuse a hot tub renter this summer, ask to borrow one. “Fully booked until 31 October”, and “300-400% increase in demand” are sample responses. Thwarted, I resort to a £6 paddling pool: on a cold, windy day sitting in it is horrible, even with eight kettles of boiling water.

A bath it is. Suzanne Duckett, the author of Bathe: The Art of Finding Rest, Relaxation and Rejuvenation in a Busy World, and the founder of the wellness site Onolla, describes bathing as “a shortcut to finding peace and calm as a way to de-stress and be more mindful.” I love the idea of baths but am too restless to enjoy the reality and our cluttered bathroom is no serenity temple. Following Duckett’s advice, I heat the room, put on some Bach and light a fancy candle. I add Epsom salts (“an excellent source of magnesium, a miracle mineral that aids sleep and calms the nervous system”, says Duckett) and my own magic bullet: Elemis Aching Muscle Super Soak, a bone-melting bath infusion, which should come with a warning about operating heavy machinery.

I get in. Then I get out three times: to trim the smoking candle wick, lock the door and turn off the extractor fan. I crank up Yo-Yo Ma, to hide the fact I have committed this unforgivable domestic crime from my husband (something, humidity, blah). Finally, I close my eyes and try to relax. I manage five minutes before cracking and reaching for my phone. “Does anyone want my water?” I text. “It’s full of expensive stuff!” The eldest does – he also needs a lift to Nando’s in 15 minutes, so I get out.

Despite this dismal performance, the heat and potions work their bizarre alchemy. I feel deeply, thoughtlessly switched off for hours, possibly endangering other road users and Nando’s patrons.

The verdict: Point deducted because my son left the candle burning, using approximately £8 of pricey wax. 9/10.

Day 7


Trying out what others do to relax at home seems like a great idea until my call for “zero effort summer holiday meals” yields two inexplicable suggestions that I make my own soup. Despite this ominous sign, I persist, crowdsourcing a range of relaxation tips.

What have I learned? To Hula Hoop badly, for a start
What have I learned? To Hula Hoop badly, for a start Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Radio Garden allows you to listen live to radio stations worldwide online. I try Maghreb pop from Casablanca, a financial talkshow from Lagos and Japanese hard rock: it’s brilliant and transporting.

Massaging in hand cream is OK, but makes my computer mouse greasy and I only manage 20 seconds before I get bored. “Lying flat on the floor”, “staring out of the window” and “fantasising about your enemies’ demise” basically describe my normal working routine.

People apparently watch videos to relax. I don’t mind Cooking Haru – a pleasingly neat Korean cookery channel with a light jazz soundtrack, silent Japanese travelogues or cows using scratching brushes. But night-time footage of cars in Dubai reminds me of the climate emergency, and autonomous sensory meridian response scalp massage is just weird. Finally, my whole week is ruined by watching a blackhead extraction so disgusting that even with a soundtrack of ethereal Renaissance polyphony (I’m combining it with another suggestion), I only manage 25 seconds and feel nauseated for hours.

The verdict: Hell is other people’s ideas. 2/10.

What have I learned? To Hula Hoop badly, for a start. But my most important takeaway (in addition to the Deliveroo mountain that sustains me all week) is that a staycation won’t feel like a holiday unless you commit to it. So turn off (blackhead videos), tune out and drop everything: if it works for me, it can work for anyone.


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The best yoga, mindfulness and fitness breaks for 2018
Free your mind and body with our pick of inspiring yoga trips, meditation breaks and fitness holidays in the UK and around the world

Jane Dunford

13, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘No sex please, we’re meditating’: peace and positivity on a weekend retreat
At a country house in West Sussex, meditation, yoga and detox come together for a weekend of mindfulness that expands your ‘protective bubble’

Nick Duerden

23, Oct, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
10 life-changing retreats worldwide: readers’ travel tips
In havens from Inverness to India, readers have discovered their better selves through yoga, meditation and writing courses

Guardian readers

10, Jan, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
We’ve got your back: a yoga and pilates weekend in Sussex
Our ‘yoga-phobe’ was a nervous novice on a weekend retreat but leaves feeling more flexible, both physically and mentally

Andy Pietrasik

18, Jan, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
George Osborne ruined my yoga retreat | Charlotte Higgins
There’s no escaping the budget – not even when you’re halfway up an Italian hill with a bunch of highly literate yogis

Charlotte Higgins

22, Jul, 2015 @2:39 PM

Article image
The best mind, body and spirit breaks: readers’ travel tips
Whether it’s an affordable thermal spa, a yoga break in Ibiza, or something more ambitious, such as a 10-day silent retreat in India, our readers have found wonderful ways to relax

Guardian readers

11, Jan, 2018 @12:13 PM

Article image
A vegan yoga retreat in Dracula’s back yard, Romania
In countryside not far from the castle of Vlad the Impaler, an idyllic break offers a gentle route to wellness with five days of yoga and meditation

Jane Dunford

13, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Well cool: yoga on ice in Swedish Lapland
Northern Sweden and the frozen Baltic provide a stunning setting for a yoga retreat that delivers as many thrills as it does chills

Emma Cook

19, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Body and board: my week combining yoga and surf lessons in beautiful Byron Bay
Craving a healthy holiday, our correspondent mixed surf lessons with daily yoga and wholesome food (plus a dash of wine) on a trip to the New South Wales north coast

Madhvi Pankhania

10, Mar, 2015 @5:01 AM

Article image
Top 10 yoga retreats in India
India is a dream destination for many yogis, but with so many ashrams and courses, how do you choose wisely? From the hardcore to the boutique, we select 10 of the best places to practise yoga

Deepti Kapoor

21, Jun, 2016 @5:30 AM