El Retiro/The Retreat

Back in October, I contacted a woman called Teresa about yoga classes. A friend of mine had been browsing on the Internet and her attention was caught by Teresa’s claim to hold ‘bilingual’ classes, which provided a great opportunity for extranjeros to practice their Spanish. After speaking with her on the phone, I decided that the classes were a little too far away for me to go every week (they required a bus ride to the city outskirts and a long walk) and so I had to give up the idea and later began classes elsewhere. However, Teresa kept my details on her mailing list and for the last few months my inbox has been inundated with invitations to workshops, special classes and retreats, all punctuated with dozens of exclamation marks to express Teresa’s boundless, welcoming enthusiasm. I found myself becoming interested in the idea of a retreat; I have always had a spiritual streak, a side of me that naturally inclines towards long and solitary country rambles, periods of lone contemplation and the connection between mental and physical health. I felt that I would be well suited to a weekend away from the chaos of city life and Teresa’s virtual promises of relaxation, laughter and homemade cakes seemed too good to pass up. I am, after all, a country girl at heart, and there was a part of me that was longing to get out in the fresh air.

Despite my initial enthusiasm, the first few retreats I heard about were held when either any willing friends or myself were busy, and having never met Teresa, I was reluctant to brave it alone. I held out until I could persuade someone to accompany me and finally, last month, I succeeded in finding a weekend when I had nothing important to do. With my regular travel companion on board (she was leaving Madrid a few weeks later and so was up for squeezing in as many new experiences as possible into the time remaining in Spain), I signed up for a weekend retreat in Pozancos, a tiny village in the north Madrid sierra, Castilla La Mancha. We decided to attend a yoga class with Teresa in the week before the retreat so that we knew what we’d got ourselves in for. To my relief, we found her to be a youthful, energetic and very generous person with enthusiasm for the world and everything in it oozing out of every pore on her well-toned body. She is petite with dark brown hair lightly streaked with silver, and permanently dressed in comfortable, stretchy trousers and jumpers in lurid oranges or blues. Her joy at our presence in the class, and later in the retreat, was infectious. She is a natural teacher and leader.

On Friday afternoon at 5pm, my friend and I were huddled under a shop canopy by Pueblo Nuevo metro, trying to shelter from the May rain whilst keeping an eye out for Paz, the mystery woman who was to give us a lift to the retreat. Although we had never met her, it was easy to pick her out from amongst the sea of cars and pedestrians marching purposefully under enormous umbrellas. She pulled up briskly alongside us and jumped out of her car, green fleece zipped up under her chin and the eyes under the thick, dark fringe obscured by a pair of pink tinted sunglasses. We squashed our bags, yoga mats and blankets into the boot and set off on the North road out of Madrid. The journey passed surprisingly quickly, as we discussed the places we’d been and the languages we spoke in Spanish. The city and the traffic eventually died away and the sierra rose around us.

The Journey Up to the Mountains

We pulled into the village of Pozancos, up a hilly road that was really little more than a dirt track, past shrunken houses with enormous wooden doors. We spotted Teresa on the road ahead of us and followed her up to Los Lilos, the house rented for the retreat. The front door was up a set of stone steps lined with flowerbeds and the door itself was divided into two parts which could be opened separately, like the door to a stable. The house was gorgeous, exactly what I had envisioned for a rural weekend away. It had stonewalls and exposed beams and brickwork, with a very rustic and cosy feel and the living space and kitchen are open plan and illuminated by an open fire (which was kept stoked for the duration of the weekend). There are two twin bedrooms and a bathroom off the main living space, and two more bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. As the only people (except Paz and Teresa) to have been friends beforehand, my friend and I were given the double bedroom to share. It turned out to be beautiful and by far the best bedroom in the house, dominated by an enormous and extremely comfortable iron framed bed. From the square window, we could see across to the little stone houses opposite and beyond them to the mountains. The setting was idyllic, a perfect antidote to Madrid.

It was a very comfortable bed... IMG_2962 IMG_2960

After exploring, we relaxed in our room and waited for the others to arrive. They showed up an hour or so later, at about half past nine, and we all settled down to a meal of empanadillas and salad (all the food served was vegetarian and very healthy, but delicious). Over dinner, Teresa asked us to introduce ourselves and to give an idea of what we wanted out of the weekend – escapism, relaxation, fitness or novelty. There were nine of us in total staying at Los Lilos that weekend. Aside from myself, my friend, Teresa and Paz, there were three women and two men. Laura was an Argentinian woman in her mid-forties with dark curly hair, a strong build and a nutmeg brown, flawless complexion. She practiced yoga regularly and is currently surviving on a diet of tofu and rye bread for health reasons. She was dignified and initially a little frosty, but became friendly and amusing on closer acquaintance. The other native Spanish speaker was César. I believe that he was in his thirties, although I can’t be absolutely sure as he was full of youthful, even childish energy and bounded about the house doing crazy dance routines and cracking jokes. He was tall and dark haired with braces on his teeth. He was also a regular yoga practitioner and gave us an impassioned speech on his belief that ‘el camino es todo’ (the path is everything). Rachel is from a small town near Norwich, but has lived in Madrid for five years working in a language school. She has also lived in Greece and Italy, so is distinctly well travelled. At first I thought that she was in her early thirties, but we later discovered that she was actually a decade older. She was small with short, dyed blonde hair. Nicole is from California and is also an English teacher. She is pale and her hair is strawberry blonde. She seems friendly but out of all the people in the retreat, she was the one who I felt I knew the least when the weekend was over. Finally there was Tadhg, pronounced ‘tiger’ without the ‘er’. He was tall with blonde hair, originally from Dublin and moved to Madrid a couple of months ago. He knew hardly any Spanish but was very good-natured about it and we had many amusing moments when the conversations in Spanish became too fast flowing. And there you have it – a mishmash of genders, cultures and languages temporarily stuck together in a house in the middle of the countryside for 48 hours.

That first evening, we finished eating and Teresa led us in a half an hour relaxation exercise before bed.

Our first yoga session was scheduled for 9am on Saturday morning, pre-breakfast. My friend and I woke up to the sounds of tables being scraped across the ceiling above our bed at about 8.53am. Throwing on our clothes in a panic, we raced upstairs, unrolled our yoga mats and lay on our backs, ready for the session to begin. After an hour and a half of deep breathing, a salute to the sun and some meditation, we were all starving and demolished a breakfast of toast and homemade jam, cake (yes, cake is an acceptable breakfast food in Spain) and herbal tea. After breakfast, the group minus Laura and César – who opted to stay in the warm – wrapped up, grabbed umbrellas and headed out into the rain. We went on a long walk around Pozancos and the surrounding countryside. When the rain stopped, Teresa asked us to walk very slowly and then very quickly in silence, alternating our pace to bring our awareness to how we walk in our daily lives, forcing us to contemplate each step whilst listening to the sounds of nature around us.

The Warrior Pose

 

Village Tour IMG_2990

Feeling chilly but refreshed, we piled back into the house after an hour’s exercise and sat around the fireplace, listening to Teresa read proverbial stories of love and spirituality from a small book. Some of the group debated the meaning of life, what gives us purpose, whether we should have life goals and how true love really feels (we were all there to get in touch with our contemplative side after all), whilst others sat and listened. Realising that we were starving, we then demolished a lunch of rice and vegetables, toast and hummus and cake and fruit.

Relaaaax

After lunch, we sat around chatting about Spanish swearwords and singing ‘California Dreaming’. Then we went out on another long walk, this time in a different direction, trekking across muddy crop fields. At one point, we passed a grove of trees, silver birches I think, each trunk covered in yellow moss. Teresa asked us to each choose a tree and move to stand by it. I tried to choke down my own involuntary giggles and quash my feelings of ridiculousness as she instructed us to examine every inch of the tree, to get to know it intimately, gazing up into the branches and down towards the roots. We then had to hold our tree in a close embrace, as we closed our eyes and breathed deeply. Strangely, the bark felt warm against my cheek and the tree seemed to be breathing and embracing me back. I don’t know whether it was the breeze or Teresa’s soothing voice, or that I was beginning to be drawn into the spiritual vibe, but I could have sworn that I felt a pulse.

Putting down Roots

 

The Hobbit House

We then walked down the main road to Ures, a tiny hamlet next to Pozancos. We sheltered in a corner from the hailstones thundering down and walked back past a Hobbit-style eco house on the edge of the village, apparently built by a German horse trainer who lived there. We continued onwards in silence, each contemplating his or her own thoughts, before pausing again by a brook in a shady clearing. We stood with our eyes closed, listening to the trickling water. Teresa asked us to imagine the water running through our body, cooling and cleansing. At first, I was able to picture this quite vividly, but after a few minutes my overwhelming sensation was not of a body refreshed but of needing the loo. I spent the subsequent minutes squeezing my legs together and struggling not to hop about too much. To my relief, the exercise was soon over and we moved back towards the house, my friend and I hurrying ahead (upon conferring with her in whispers, I discovered that she was having the same problem as me). To our dismay, at the meadow by a the little church near the house we were made to pause again and wade through the long grass to stand facing the distant mountains, with eyes closed and arms outstretched, feeling the breeze rustle the grass around our legs. After a few more minutes of contemplation, we were finally allowed to return to the house.

Larking About

 

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If I have one complaint about the retreat, it’s that it was lacking in free time. At that moment of re-entering the house, I had gone down to the bedroom hoping for a few minutes to myself to do some writing. However, it was not to be. No sooner had I picked up my pen then there was the tinkle of a little bell from upstairs, calling us to another activity.

The activity in question was meditation, beginning with deep breathing and ending in the repetition of ‘Ommmmm’, a noise chosen for the way it vibrates around your body, warming and energising. I didn’t drift off completely on this meditation, but neither did I panic and sit completely restless. Instead, I spent fifteen minutes contemplating story ideas, following various plot lives and characters. This is how I like to relax.

Dinner was a delicious courgette soup with croutons, followed by toast eaten with a mushroom dip and baba ganoush and finished off with the rare treat of some chocolate. It is fascinating to observe people in a group dynamic; to notice which characteristics a person chooses to project first and which emerge more gradually as they grow more comfortable and begin to let their guard down. The retreat was an unusual situation in terms of how little we all knew each other and the intensity of the time we were spending together and mealtimes in particular provided an excellent opportunity for people watching. I will not remark more openly on the individual qualities that came to light during the weekend, but suffice to say that my opinion of each and every member of the group underwent more than one transformation before the retreat was over.

After dinner we had a session of Yoga del Sueño before bed. Unlike the meditation session earlier that day, I struggled. I was exhausted and just wanted to go to bed and this frustration led me to subconsciously resist the relaxation into the process. Yoga del Sueño requires you to lie motionless as the guiding voice instructs you to do different exercises with your mind. I felt uncomfortable and my limbs ached. The others quickly fell asleep straight away, but every time I started to drift off Teresa would say ‘no te duermes’ (meaning ‘don’t fall asleep’) and I would jerk back to consciousness. When we were finally allowed to go to bed, my relief was overwhelming.

The next morning, we once again convened at 9am for pre-breakfast yoga. This time Teresa incorporated a breathing exercise in which you had to cover one nostril and breath in through the other, then cover the other nostril and exhale through the opposite nostril. This was going ok until my right nostril became blocked and I found myself in some strange farcical mime, moving my fingers from nostril to nostril whilst breathing through my mouth, eyes flitting furtively from side to side like a guilty child, hoping Teresa wouldn’t notice that I was doing it wrong.

Trying to Look Casual

Breakfast was more toast with tomatoes and olive oil (I’ve become addicted to this traditional Spanish breakfast), cake and herbal tea. After breakfast, César had to leave to drive to Barcelona for work. We exchanged besos (a kiss on each cheek) and he left in a flurry of philosophical phrases.

Miraculously, it wasn’t raining as we set off on our third long walk of the weekend. We stopped by another large tree that Teresa nicknamed ‘nuestro abuelo’ (our grandfather) and admired its strength and age. We joined hands in a circle around it and embraced it as a group, before wishing it well and moving on. This time the tree hugging didn’t seem quite as strange or embarrassing. It was actually quite peaceful and even comforting. I could even grow to enjoy it.

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The next exercise we did was called ‘Cadena de Afectos’ or ‘Chain of Affection’. We stood in two lines in a grassy meadow, four facing four. Teresa gave us four numbers to signify four levels of affection: one was eye contact, two was a smile, three was an embrace and four was dos besos and an embrace. One line was asking for affection and the other line was bestowing it. The asking line had to hold up their hand to show a number of their choosing. The person opposite them would then bestow the level of affection requested, holding the position for a minute or two before taking a deep breath and stepping back. The bestowing line would then take a step to the left, so that they changed partners. This sounds simple enough but it was quite challenging, both physically and mentally. A smile for example; easy enough for a few seconds, but after half a minute of staring into someone’s eyes with a wild grin on your face, your cheeks begin to ache and your smile starts to feel completely unnatural on your face. Likewise, staring into the eyes of someone that you hardly know and trying not to break into uncomfortable giggles is also surprisingly testing. After completing the exercise, we decided that simple eye contact was actually the most difficult state to maintain and that a hug was the easiest (probably because of the lack of eye contact involved). I found this exercise quite enlightening and it stimulated an interesting group discussion about the nature of daily human interaction.

After our walk, Teresa began preparing lunch whilst we did another exercise. We sat around the table, upon which there was a pile of plain patterned drawings to colour in (like the ones found in children’s colouring books) and a selection of coloured pencils and pens. We each had to choose a drawing and begin to colour it in. We looked at each other, each seeing their own expression (a mixture of embarrassed confusion and reluctance) on the others’ faces. Perhaps sensing our lack of enthusiasm, Teresa instructed us not to analyse or judge, but to trust our instincts and choose whichever colours feel right. I began. To my surprise, I was quickly absorbed in the task. Unlike during formal meditation exercises, my mind didn’t wander or flit from thought to thought but rested quietly on the choosing of colours, the movement of my hand, the slight ache in my wrist as I carefully stayed inside the lines. We sat in relaxed, companionable silence. After about ten minutes, Teresa asked us to pass our pictures to the person on our left for them to finish. We all looked up at her in horror, comically clasping our artwork to our chests. It was hilarious how attached we’d become to our work in such a short time – I had planned out which colours I was going to use next and felt strangely angry at the idea of someone else messing up my plan. But she insisted, so reluctantly the drawings were passed around the table. Tadhg was on my left and I tried not to wince as he chose a bright yellow highlighter and used it to shade in the flowers on my delicately sketched background. When we had finished, our original drawings were passed back to us and we signed our names with a flourish. For such a simple task, it provided an interesting and insightful lesson; we had to learn to engage with our inner child without adult judgement or embarrassment, to quiet the analytical voices in our heads and to learn to relinquish control and trust the judgement of others. It was my favourite task of the weekend.

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Lunch was a feast of pasta and pesto and some leftovers. Over the food, we discussed what we had enjoyed about the weekend and what we had learnt. I admitted that I still had difficulty letting go in the breathing exercises and Teresa reassured me that yoga is something that needs continuous practice and not something to be perfected in 48 hours.

After the food had been demolished and we had taken part in a final farewell meditation, we packed our things and said goodbye to the Casa Rural. My friend and I piled into Paz’s car whilst the others went with Teresa. We all stopped briefly at the (apparently famed) honey store just outside the town of Siguenza, which sold a range of honey-based products. It smelt delicious, but sadly I hadn’t brought any cash with me so had to be satisfied with numerous free tasters of the different honeys on offer.

Then it was a final goodbye to Teresa and the rest of the group and the long drive back to the city. Sadly, I felt a little stressed when I got back home, as I had work to do for the following day and was overtired from all the fresh air and exercise. Later that night, however, when I was fully prepared for Monday morning and lying in bed, I reflected on the experiences of the weekend and felt a strange calm spread over me. As much as my mind had resisted the exercises and activities at times, I had inadvertently switched off and allowed myself to feel the benefits of the natural surroundings. Despite my grumbles about a lack of free time, I had enjoyed 48 hours of gentle exercise, gorgeous countryside, delicious food and constant Spanish practice. I had very little right to complain.

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