The year 2018 has been a year of self-care. A year of rest and relaxation, which was much needed after a cortisol-powered previous year. Of brave decisions and turning over a new leaf. New hobbies and new routines. And sharing my thoughts with strangers on the internet, or staying silent when sharing didn’t feel like a need.
But when it comes to self-care, there’s almost nothing that a trip to a sun-drenched elsewhere can’t cure. All the herbal tea, foot baths and vegan chocolate don’t add up to the effect of a week of sunshine, salty water, organic meals, and yoga. Lots of yoga.
Giving myself a retreat
In an AMA with Esther Ekhart, one of my favourite online yoga teachers, she advises aspiring yoga teachers to go on yoga retreats to experiment with a daily and constant yoga practice. Reading this, I realised that I had never given myself the gift of a yoga retreat. Sure, I went to India six years ago, but that was hardly a retreat. Plus, I only really started my yoga journey back then.
Six years is long enough to forget how it feels to be totally smitten by something. It is long enough to forget that at some moments of dedicated yoga practice, you can feel all the energy flowing through your body. Because even though this year I have reinforced my belief in a consistent yoga practice, I hadn’t been practicing as full on as I had in those early days of yoga bliss, right when I just returned from India. Now, six years later, the belief and mental conviction were there, but my practice needed a boost.
I have to admit that I wasn’t even fully aware of all of this. The idea to go on a yoga retreat was mostly informed by the need for a well-deserved break. I wanted some time and space to solidify all the self-care and inner work I had been doing this year. For that reason, I was drawn towards a yin yoga and reiki retreat close to Barcelona, organised by yin yoga superstar José de Groot and reiki teacher Jordi Ibern. I chose yin because the whole of 2018 has been quite “yin” for me anyway, in terms of energy. As I’ve been trying to slow down my life, “yang” hadn’t been on my radar at all. I just wanted to do some hardcore chilling.
Yin yoga and reiki
The yin yoga and reiki workshops were structured around the five elements in traditional Chinese medicine: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Every day we had a workshop focused on one of these elements. We discussed the qualities of each element, the organs and meridians related to it, and the accompanying yoga poses. As the icing on the vegan cake, Jordi and José gave reiki to use during those sessions, to stimulate the flow of energy (“qi”) and promote an even deeper release.
For those who don’t know, yin yoga is a type of yoga where you hold each pose for a longer time at once, from about three to up to ten minutes. The aim of this is to enhance the stretch in the muscles, so that the underlying connective tissue, called fascia, can restore and relax even further. Yin yoga is therefore a much more relaxing and slow form of yoga than more dynamic types of asana practice – hence the name “yin” as opposed to “yang”.
But don’t be fooled by the thought that slow in this regard means easy or effortless. As you stay in poses much longer than you’re used to and work on the deeper layers of your body, you will feel a lot of sensation in your body. But really, A LOT.
Previously I have already mentioned how yin yoga helped me immensely in accepting the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety that I occasionally experience. That is because in yin yoga, you learn to accept the rising and falling of sensations as they come and go. Starting off in a pose, you might feel a painful or uncomfortable tension, but as you relax into that feeling, you’ll see that the sensations subside and that you can rest on a deeper level. To me there is nothing like the relaxation you feel áfter a yin yoga session.
But since you work on a deeper level in your body, there’s also a potential for a lot of “stuck” energy to release. And that, my friends, is not always pretty.
In previous yin yoga classes, I had also experienced moments where I’d shed the occasional tear, or suddenly had profound insights, such as quitting my PhD and completely turning my life around. But in comparison to what I felt during the retreat, those earlier experiences seemed negligible – major life decisions aside, of course.
Because of the daily workshops, the added reiki, and simply José’s amazing knowledge and skill, I really went deep into myself. There were moments of boundless joy and crazy laughter, to the point were I literally couldn’t stop laughing. I had moments of creative inspiration and visions of the future. And I had moments of pure, heart wrenching pain and sadness, where I cried out all the stress of the past years. From a breakup that I never quite healed in myself because I moved on so soon after, to all the fear and insecurity I felt throughout the panic attacks. And then, on top of that, the grief and sorrow of losing a close family friend – a death that’s so unfair it makes it hard to accept the natural flows of life.
Rediscovering the yang
Yet in spite of all its undeniable benefits, yin needs its yang. So throughout the retreat, we also had a daily vinyasa practice. To be frank, the prospect of a proper workout in the morning didn’t excite me at first. The vinyasa was even scheduled before breakfast, and anyone who knows me in the slightest knows one thing for sure: I’m a hungry person. Especially in the morning. So doing a work-out first thing in the morning? Sorry, no can do.
But the vinyasa sessions didn’t prove to be as exhausting as I feared. We always started off with an extensive warm-up to loosen out the stiffness after meditation. After that we practiced José’s dragon flow variation, something I’ve always enjoyed for the playfulness. And I discovered that doing an hour of yoga before breakfast wasn’t all that bad. It was amazing, actually.
As we were practicing the dragon flow daily, I found myself growing stronger every day. But what really stood out to me was the energy I felt after every session. I didn’t even need the coffee with oat milk I had every morning. I just had it for the taste.
A week of recharging and learning
The vinyasa, the yin, the reiki: they all helped in ensuring that I felt rested and recharged. I hardly felt any anxiety throughout the week, and if there was any, it was easier just to observe it and to not talk myself down. There was delicious and nutritious food every day, prepared by a charming Italian chef. And there was a lovely group of people, all with their different stories and backgrounds.
In the end, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) felt so much better in that one week than I had in the past months. The amazing location and the mostly laid-back schedule really facilitated deep relaxation. But we also learned some new things and skills to take back home. First of all, we managed to complete the entire Reiki 1 course and received an official certificate. And in addition to the basics of the Chinese elements, we also learned some absolutely mind-blowing things about yoga and anatomy. In three workshops, José taught us how to adjust yoga poses to our bodies instead of the other way around. Here, we learned about differences in bone structure, joint mobility, and the differences between tension and compression.
Coming home again
When the end of the retreat neared, I was ready to go home again. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it any longer, but because I was eager and inspired to put everything I’d learned into practice at home.
So coming back, I’m diligently doing my vinyasa practice before breakfast. I’m slowly mastering the art of kapalabhati pranayama. I’m giving myself reiki when needed. And I’m trying to spice up my cooking again, because the food we ate during the retreat was unbelievably good.
Seeing how much I benefit from yin yoga, my love for it has been strengthened. And José’s teaching has been impressive and inspirational to say the least. I’m currently even researching the option to do a yin yoga teacher training with her next year.
I guess that’s the thing with going deep. Once you’re in, you’re in.
So let’s see where my journey will take me. In two months I will start my teacher training, and that sure will change everything all over again. But this retreat has given me the kickstart my yoga practice needed.
All pictures on this page are taken by Jordi Ibern.