North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother (part 2)

Fence and dandilions: North York Moors
Just dandilions growing wild in the North York Moors, a wonderfully wild place.

One of the challenges with yoga (other than the obvious physical challenge) is that it sometimes comes a bit too close to sounding like nonsense. It’s mostly the terminology that is used. Sometimes it’s not very western, and it’s not that of a scientific nature and so I become a little bit unnerved. I do have my reputation as a physics graduate consider. I am, I guess, sceptical of a lot of the phrases used, although I feel that this has as much to do with my lack of biology knowledge as much as my lack of Buddhist or Hindi terminology. I had to ask the mother where my kidneys were, and had no idea what a session of activating my kidney meridians was supposed to achieve. I still don’t.

Anyway, I was contemplating this as I sat on the sofa arm, balancing in that self-assured way that one does after hours of yoga, reading the peculiar titles of the books on the bookshelf. At this point I was wearing my third-eye chakra infused oil between my eyebrows because I’d been gifted it and had no idea what else I was supposed to do with it. I’ve got a multitude of chakras apparently, although I’ve no idea what or why they are. How the oil helps them, or me, I’ve no idea either. It smells like the upstairs of my nanna and grandad’s house did when I was a child.

Most of the rest of the group, there were sixteen of us participants, slowly made their way into the living room, placed themselves three to a sofa, found a beanbag, stood propped against the wall, or sat with upright-spines, cross-legged on the carpet. By this point everyone was hungry waiting for breakfast and in a cheerful chatty mood. The awkward silences of the first day had been replaced with an eagerness to speak and be heard.

The conversation paid a moment’s attention to the retreat owner, Edward. I hadn’t seen him and imagined him to be an older chap, small and bendy who looked like he’d live forever. The fifty-something year old women therefore surprised me with their enthusiasm for learning everything about him, little was known other than he would be willing to deal with spiders as 3am if anyone had a problem. Someone claimed to have a magazine article in their bedroom about him, and everyone wanted to see it. They also wanted to know more about the place itself, how it had come to be a sought-after retreat location, and what else went on there.

Our yoga teacher suggested Edward was a very dedicated man, going so far as to even leading silent retreats. Julie can still give you a massage, but she does so silently as not to break the practice. And then of course, all these women were discussing what would be difficult about a silent retreat and asking how silent exactly silent was. At this point, the chap (remember there were fifteen of us women and one chap) launched into sharing his knowledge. He’d shared a room once with someone who’d completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat somewhere down south. You can imagine the voices of the women, still wearing their patterned leggings and all in bare feet or socks, because shoes weren’t allowed in the house, trying to advertise themselves as the least capable of staying silent for ten days.

What is it with people saying that they can’t do things they’ve never actively tried?

Anyway, I turned around from the bookshelf. The Mother looked at me from across the room with one of those all-knowing looks and I looked back at her. I waited for a sensible pause in the conversation feeling that sitting smugly knowing the answers to their questions but not saying anything, especially when they were so curious, would not be fair.

“I’ve done it,” I said.

Cows. To break up the monotany of the text.

The chap wanted to check that my silent retreat was the same super serious silent retreat that he was talking about. Initially I think he was sceptical. It was. How exactly, everyone seemed to want to know, do you stay silent? Can you write notes?

“You can’t write,” I said. “Or read.”

Their faces looked pained. I tried to explain that the peer pressure of being with so many other non-talking people really did help make the silence easy. Plus, you went in having agreed to the silence, including silence of eye contact.

“But,” I said, “The silence is easy, compared to sitting still.”

Luckily, a few minutes later, the gong sounded, summoning us to breakfast. We didn’t need much summoning. Gracefully and graciously everyone was on their feet and racing towards the dining-room. I was left worrying that everyone was now going to think of me as the weird one, wearing potpourri-scented third-eye chakra oil and doing strange, gender-segregated, vegan-eating, silent retreat.

Just before lunch I finally laid my eyes on the mysterious Edward. He came to give us a gong bath. Don’t worry, we were all fully dressed and most of us were wrapped in blankets too. I realized that he couldn’t have spent 20 years in Indian monasteries and couldn’t have spent time in a cave in Nepal, because he simply was not old enough.

And I suddenly realized why exactly the fifty-something year old women were so enamoured with him. In his shorts and t-shirt, I heard him described as ‘a bit of alright’.


Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother

The glorious view of the North York Moors (and the perfect place for a yoga retreat)

I ache.

I had this grand illusion that on returning from a yoga retreat I would feel all relaxed and at ease. I don’t. I feel like I’ve been to the gym, except for that the muscles that ache seem to be super deep inside of me. Maybe it wasn’t the yoga at all, maybe it was the wonderful Julie and her wonderful hands massaging my body. I don’t know.

It was the Mother’s idea, this yoga retreat experience. She, unlike me, can just drop down to the ground and touch her toes (without bending her legs) at 7 o’clock in the morning. Which was a good thing for her as pre-breakfast yoga started at half seven, in the chapel. The chapel, with its bright white walls and spacious arched windows being the yoga studio for The Tree relaxation centre in the North Yorkshire Moors where we happened to be. Whilst it’s cupboards might now be stacked with yoga mats, meditation poofs and big comfy cushions – do not use if you’re trying to maintain a sense of awareness – it still does play a role within the Methodist community. They borrow it back occasionally for events like their harvest festival.

Due to the Mother, I was awake at half seven and in the chapel. She’d done her first session of yoga, that’s yoga even before the pre-breakfast yoga, in our twin bedroom whilst I slept. When I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was met with a view across the green valley and up to the delicate colours of the moors.

Ten minutes early to the chapel, we were the last to arrive. I tried to look awake and feel as energised and ready to go as my floral legging might have suggested, but their bright colours blended in with everyone else. My yoga companions were eager looking women who looked like half-seven was, for them, a lie in. We did a little breathing and for a moment I imagined I might be able to semi-sleep through the yoga – a bit like I sometimes do with the mother’s ‘over 50s DVD’, but it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. We were on a mission to warm up and build an appetite before breakfast.

After breakfast – porridge, fruit, toast – was, as you might guess from a yoga retreat, more yoga. This was followed by a much-needed deep relaxation. It was one of those relaxations where you start by relaxing the crown of your head, your forehead, your face, your neck, shoulders and then fall asleep, waking up just in time for ankles and toes. I blame the big comfy cushion. If I snored, I wasn’t the only one.

Happiness is not a destination. It is a way of life.
Read and be wise.

Lunch followed – soup, salads and cheese and biscuits – and another round of camomile tea, decaf green tea, decaf coffee, caffeinated coffee, decaf tea, caffeinated tea, etc. etc. Then there came the afternoon. It started with a short walk for the Mother and me. Then followed the dip in the hot tub, which was in a little cabin, with wide windows overlooking the moors, fairy lights twinkling in the ceiling. The clock on the wall which instead of numbers simply said ‘now’. As you might expect the retreat centre was one of those places with cute lines about happiness being more than just a destination, or there only being the present moment, hanging off nails and scribbled across walls in abundance.

Cake awaited us back inside the house. Homemade blueberry scones and a super light lemon cake which I may have had a second slice of (yes, we’ve picked up the recipe). I asked for a fork for my cake because it was one of those places where you felt comfortable sticking your head in through the kitchen door and speaking to one of the super friendly, highly talented chefs. Also, cake should be eaten with a fork. It’s proper.

Then came my appointment to visit Julie. She put me at ease within seconds, making me feel totally comfortable as I quickly briefed her on my tendency to have a panic attack if I’m uncomfortable with a touch, but she knew exactly what she was doing and made me feel safe. Quite a skill.

The next couple of hours I spent in an excessively relaxed daze, reading a few pages of my book and testing out the variety of herbal teas. Then it was dinner time. The kitchen produced a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie (we have the recipe for this too). I concentrated on staying upright and awake. The rest of the table chattered along merrily, comparing notes about their professions (either teaching or nursing) and, if they had them, their children. The children mentioned all appeared to be aged twenty-seven. Nurses and teachers, mothers of twenty-seven-year-old children obviously were the retreat’s target audience. I was the only twenty-seven-year-old daughter. There was one chap, but he knew a thing or two about yoga and was obviously used to going on retreats dominated by women.

These jolly ladies, peacefully stretched and thoroughly massaged, debated the merits of 80’s fashion and food and tried to convince me that I had missed out. I pointed out that there was something beneficial about not having to record your music off the radio onto a cassette tape, but they shook their heads and smiled. They bounced into discussing the wonders of angel delight. I stared at them in horror.

The evening finished with candle gazing. This involved us returning to the chapel, sitting on our mats and staring at a tealight whilst trying not to blink too much. Your eyes are supposed to water lots. The teacher had tissues at the ready. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be good for calming hay fever, but I couldn’t really say as I spent most of my time failing not to blink and therefore my eyes barely watered at all.

We walked back from chapel to retreat house, staring up at the stars that hung brightly above the open moors, before climbing into bed.

And all that was only Saturday.

Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

Work, play and rest

Tortoises
Tortoises. Owned by a ninety-year-old Italian woman who invited me into her garden to photograph them.

I work, I play, and I rest.

Or at least, this is my noble goal. Many people would claim, I think, to do the above, yet, for all their good intentions, find themselves procrastinating their work, criticising themselves instead of playing, and worrying when they had intended resting. I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve noticed myself not doing things I would have done impulsively before.

When I’m working, I’m working solidly. My efforts are wholehearted. If I decide, for example, that I’m going to write, I write. I don’t sit staring at social media. I don’t faff around following some tangential thread through the internet. I don’t suddenly decide that I need to do something else, urgently and simultaneously. I love physical work too. It’s one of the reasons I have loved some of my travels so much. I’m content when I’m busy painting a wall or sanding the skirting boards. Living on a farm for a couple of months, where I was physically working every morning, felling trees, building log piles, caring for the animals, felt wonderful.

But we also had good food and laughed together.

It’s strange perhaps, but I’ve noticed that when I’m playing nowadays, I’m more likely to laugh. I’m a little harder to embarrass. I sing along to my music, without worrying too much about how I sound, or how I only know half the lyrics and have no idea what the familiar tune is. When I paint, I’m gentler with my expectations. I play games. Occasionally I immerse myself in a computer game, sometimes it’s social and board games. My Mother and I sit on the living room floor and play dominos. I cook playfully, experimenting and creating. Reading the rules and letting them loosely guide me. I smile more frequently because I feel at ease, not because I’m trying to make someone else comfortable. Maybe I’m just less uptight?

And then rest. Sleep is complex for me because it comes bundled with nightmares and tense dreams. I try to take my mornings slowly to give myself the opportunity to recover if my night-time thoughts have been rather tense. I am training myself to paint with oils, but to rest I might crayon in a colouring book. I read a lot, partially because of the love of reading, partly because it keeps me still and rests my defences. I read more thought provoking material to learn, but I also read entertaining lighter stuff too. When I rest I try not to be doing other things. Simplicity is my goal. Good music. An immersive story. Finding shapes in clouds. Sometimes I tell myself it’s okay just to sit quietly. Especially in company.

Whatever the change is, I’m grateful for it.

Literature and Mental Health: Poetry and Mindfulness

Poetry and mindfulness

What is poetry anyway?

I hated poetry at school. Mostly because I could become fascinated with a poem, and draw all over it, creating my own ideas about what it was about, and then the teacher would talk. I’d stare at the annotations I’d made wondering how it was that I couldn’t see the rhymes. Why was it that my syllables added up differently each time I counted? And I blamed the poet for not writing more explicitly what they were trying to say.

The silent pursuits of reading and writing are great. I just had a problem with sounds.

Over Christmas, my sister left a couple of poetry books lying in the living room. She is very much fond of spoken word poetry. I started reading and looked and saw that this poetry, which followed no obvious pattern, which sometimes makes less sense than my own diary, didn’t resemble the poetry I remembered from school.

And I didn’t like it. Or rather, I liked it, because it was soppy at times, emotional and poignant, but I didn’t regard it as poetry. It was more like the rubbish that I would like to tweet as my heart breaks, but hopefully judge it wiser not to. Of course, I love what I write, as I write it in that emotional splurge of a moment, and to me it feels real. Very real. Genius in fact. But I just don’t imagine anyone else quite understanding without a heart transplant.

Literature and Mental Health

So how come, that now, today, I’m thinking and writing about poetry? Well it comes down to my decision to do a free online course called Literature and Mental Health. There is little logic to how I chose what to study next. I have done multiple courses in the art and archaeology of Ancient Egypt which I picked because the course title began with an A. The gift of a wonderful curiosity.

But I read a lot. And I read a lot about how we think about ourselves, and how we as people might have brighter happier thoughts. So maybe it does make sense.

I read when I’m heartbroken. Specifically, books that can educate me in such a way as the pain I weep is logically and rationally assessed, a strategy put in place, and understanding found. I swear off repeating the same stupid, stupid mistakes.

Seeing a course on literature and mental health started me wondering whether there was an alternative, additional way to use reading to get me from numbness or fear back into that realm of bright happy thoughts. (Not in any way negating the success of my aggressive self-help reading strategy. For me at least, such a strategy is more effective than chocolate.)

Mindfulness, meditation, taking a walk or reading poetry

Week one, and Stephen Fry is talking about how ‘great poetry isn’t a tantrum’ which I get. And prosodics and enjambments and ottava, which I got momentarily, but have now forgotten.

Poetry can do something special to the mind. It can slow you down, pull you towards specific images: the calm of nature or the soothing familiarity of something as ridiculous as a child’s ball game or the shipping forecast. A bit like meditation. Except in poetry you have sounds and ink and with meditation you have that continuous inhale and exhale.

I’d never thought about poetry like this. For me, it’s always felt combative. As if the poet was challenging me to see why it’s great. Unsurprisingly, I only like a few poems. Normally only ones about hedgehogs.

Yet many other people have strong, positive experiences of poetry. So I’m slowly letting these uncountable syllables and mysterious rhymes into my life.

So, my question today, as a person ignorant to the world’s vast array of poetry, is whose poetry do you like?

What happens when you play with silence

I’ve been thinking about silence.

It comes from practicing silence. Closing doors as quietly as possible. Tip-toeing around in socks. Lifting your chair rather than just giving it a shove when you want to tuck it under the table. Stirring your milk into your tea without the spoon touching the sides of the mug. And not speaking.

I spent just under 10 days in such a silence as I learnt to meditate.

Silence of Thought

Whilst meditating, my thoughts were supposed to be silent too. My mind was supposed to be focused. But silencing your thoughts is hard. It’s a process of disengagement rather than shutting them up and it’s not something that comes naturally.

Hence, whilst feeling the subtle effects of my breath, my mind also reflected on the experience of silence.

Silence of Technology

As well as not speaking, I sent no messages through any electronic device. I had no access to a computer and my phone was in a locker in a locked locker room that was out of bounds. I wonder if I have had been away from a phone or computer for such a duration since my age reached double digits. I rather doubt it. Maybe on a long scout camp, but even then I imagine I had my mobile.

Despite only being in Hereford, I was more isolated from my family and friends than I’d been a few months previously when I’d been in Egypt.

Silence of Reading

‘Course boundary’, ‘Female course boundary’ and the signs telling you how to exit the buildings in case of a fire, were the only words I read. I didn’t write either. I had no pen and so was forced to remember what I wanted to write about on my escape.

Not writing was an interesting challenge because on a daily basis I write lots. I write for professional reasons, but I also write to organise my thoughts and my emotions. I do much of my reasoning on paper. Not writing meant that my thoughts hung around longer and kept running in repeating loops around my head.

The Power of Silence

After the silence had broken, a group of us gathered around a couple of tables, drank tea and reflected on the experience. One woman bravely leant back in her chair and said boldly, “Well I found that I’m much funnier than I thought.”

Eyes connected, and an acknowledgement of ‘me too’ went around the table. We all laughed at ourselves.

The woman who had spoken up had spent days of the course in floods of tears, but reflecting on the experience as a whole was much moved by the resilience of her mind. Now, cheerful and loud, she seemed far removed from an emotional breakdown.

I get the impression people expect silence to be boring or perhaps intimidating. Dare to give all those deeply hidden thoughts room to manoeuvre and perhaps they’ll take over. Of course thoughts surface. Faces and unkind or thoughtless comments from years ago battle for attention. Worries, to do lists and regrets are loud thoughts, dominating thoughts. We’re well practiced in giving them priority and forgetting our minds are actually creative, amusing and fun.

Thoughts on Tolerance on a Tuesday evening

I’m not as tolerant as I would like to be. Standing in other people’s shoes, accepting that not everyone has my values and nobody has exactly my worldview isn’t easy. With-holding judgement isn’t an art I’ve mastered.

There is no ‘but’ to this, no ‘however’, no excuses.

There’s a pain that comes with realising I have all these flaws and that they’re often cast as the leading lady in the drama that is my life. Yet through the sharp sting of a thoughtless statement and the dull ache of tedious politics there is a whole ocean of potentials. Possibilities for me to build this tolerance, listen to people’s stories and learn to understand them.Learn to understand myself.

My worldview needs expanding; my judgements have to be challenged.

It isn’t comfortable.