Wild about yoga: finding movement and stillness in the trees on a Zen mindfulness and yoga retreat
It’s a beautiful June morning and I’m driving in the New Forest, across open heathland, passing pastures of ponies and ancient woodland. The cool morning sky blinks at me through the hedgerows. The air smells of summer. But I can’t enjoy any of it. I’m trying to find a treehouse study centre – the base for a Zen mindfulness and yoga retreat, and I’m late, and I’m lost.
It’s not been the beginning I expected. But perhaps I’ve missed the golden rule of mindfulness. As I arrive at the treehouse, a little flustered, and disoriented, my teachers Juliette Oliver and Scott Brown remind me to leave my expectations at the door, to just be. Their words do the trick, and after a cup of tea, thoughts of Sat Navs and wrong turns and timekeeping are replaced by just one feeling; that I have arrived.
Perhaps one of the best ways to slow down is to leave ‘real life’ behind and spend a bit of time on your own (or in my case, with thirteen others), in nature. The spectacular Treehouse Study Centre resides in 40 acres of ancient broadleaf woodland at the heart of the Beaulieu estate, in Hampshire’s New Forest.
Nestled high up in the treetops, its classrooms, turrets, viewing platforms and rope bridges provide an inspirational environment to change perspective and truly feel you’ve escaped. We begin the packed, one-day retreat with a Vinyasa Flow yoga class out on the veranda, led by Juliette, a Bournemouth-based Hatha and Vinyasa Flow yoga teacher, and organiser of this retreat.
An ancient old beech tree grows up through the veranda, standing tall and wide in the centre of the floor, and under the canopy of luminous green leaves, Juliette leads an energising class of asanas inspired by nature. We actively flow through the postures, balancing in firefly, arching into fish, twisting our legs into eagle, crouching in crow. We have cactus arms and frog legs. We become tall, strong trees.
Afterwards, Juliette introduces us to Lucy Medwell, holistic therapist and founder of Seascape Therapy in Poole. Lucy specialises in Thai Yoga massage, and learned the techniques and spiritual awareness of the renowned Asokananda Master in Thailand before creating her business in Poole, Dorset.
Lucy demonstrates the principles of Thai Yoga massage, teaching us to feel our way through a massage series that we can take away with us and put into practice at home, on ourselves and our loved ones. She offers us delicious-smelling aromatherapy oils to choose from, and we partner up. It’s a great way to make friends and within minutes, my ‘masseuse’ has kneaded me away on an uplifting and stimulating journey into relaxation.
Slipping back into consciousness forty-five minutes later, I remind myself that my massaged limbs will have to give back later, as I will become the masseuse after lunch. Despite feeling ravenous, eating is the only activity on the retreat itinerary that I’ve been feeling apprehensive about. Not because lunch is not destined to be delicious – the food laid in front of us looks delightful. It’s because we are about to embark on a silent banquet.
Communal dining is rarely conducted in silence, and the quiet contemplation at our silent banquet is made even more challenging, because many of us don’t know each other. We’re not able to ease our unfamiliarity or mask our masticating with small talk. We sit and we chew, and we avoid eye contact. However, after the main course is finished and we’re permitted to enjoy our tea and cake with conversation, we start to talk about what we’ve learned.
While I discover eating in silence to be difficult and at times, downright awkward, it is a useful exercise in remembering that so many activities in our busy, distracted lives are done unconsciously and without attention. The flavours and textures of the food become more pronounced and as a result, rather than wondering what else there is to graze on, I feel entirely satiated after eating.
The conscious eating experience can be translated into other simple activities we do in our everyday lives, according to Scott Brown, Zen meditation and mindfulness teacher. Scott lives by the beach in Bournemouth, teaching meditation, yoga and SUP yoga – but it wasn’t always like that, and in order to explain where he presently is he tells us where he’s come from.
Scott advises that the journey of mindfulness can meet resistance, and often, the only way is acceptance. His younger years were spent in competitive rowing and then working in the City as an investment banker. He swapped it all for a more mindful way of life and hasn’t looked back.
Originally introduced to mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, Scott is presently a pupil of Zen Master Julian Daizan Skinner of Zenways, and continues his yoga study with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga teachers, John and Lucy Scott.
Scott takes our group out into the forest and gives a small talk about the principles of Zen. He explains that mindfulness is just paying attention. This experience with practice can help us to see patterns that each of us carve out for ourselves. These patterns are our experiences and subsequent expectations, as a result of our past.
Scott believes that you’re not able to fully deal with the emotion of an experience until you’ve allowed yourself to feel the full extent of it. It’s like the emotion’s got something to tell you and it won’t leave your body until it knows you’ve heard what it’s got to say.
By paying attention, we can empower ourselves to work through the patterns and find objective truth.
Scott offers simple tools to practise at home, explaining that he often practises mindfulness while doing something mundane and domestic, like the washing up. He tells us that Buddhist monks used to practise meditation while conducting Japanese tea ceremonies, and that done with attention, even washing up a few cups can become a moving meditation – just like walking, or yoga.
We spend a few minutes walking through the woods, concentrating on the undulating track back to the treehouse in silence, taking in the scent of bark and moss, the sound of the birds high in the branches. This concentration is continued within the walls of a classroom with a still meditation and then out on the veranda, as Scott leads a gentle Vinyassa Flow class. He encourages us to slow things down and allow our bodies time to find the postures, and I discover that my body does appear to know the way better. My spine feels a little longer; my hamstrings are looser.
Later as we sit in the early evening sun, toasting marshmallows around a fire-pit, I sit for a few minutes, thinking about nothing in particular. I turn my marshmallow over the heat, watching it transform from pink sponge to molten caramel. I am learning the art of meditation.
Juliette Oliver offers retreats across Dorset and Hampshire from £60 per day. For more information and bookings visit www.orckidyoga.co.uk
To learn more about Zen mindfulness and meditation with Scott Brown, visit www.zen-balance.com
For holistic and beauty therapy for mind, body and soul, visit www.seascapetherapy.co.uk
Written by: Beth Kendall