I heard about the yoga retreat with Simon Low four days before it began.
Moments later I was on Skyscanner, fingers crossed in the hope that the scanner of the sky would see fit for me to fly to Turkey in just four days time.
Although I wasn’t necessarily looking for a yoga holiday, I was looking to practice with a high-level teacher. Simon’s name had reached my eyes and ears enough times – with enough positive commentary attached – to feel it was time to experience his teaching first hand.
The fact that this involved a holiday in Turkey was a welcome bonus. CFS symptoms had started to creep back into my daily life and it was once again becoming a condition to manage rather than a thing of the past. It was time to reconnect.
I had four days to wind up work, prepare and rest. In the flurry of activity I tried to rest as much as possible – especially because I was also trying to heal a minor but inconveniently placed injury. I’d fallen on my coccyx a couple of weeks previously whilst discovering that I am not the snowboarder of my imagination.
The injury flared up the day after booking. As psychosomatic as that sounds the reality was that I’d returned to a stronger practice on the day I booked. I was trying to find the boundary of what I could do. Apparently I had found that boundary and gone right past it.
So I was lying around on my front as much as possible, trying to engage the yogic calm to avoid freaking out about going on a yoga holiday in these less than ideal circumstances. I did some relaxation techniques to allow the muscles to relax, trying to give my body optimum conditions to get on with healing.
But I sensed all these slightly strange circumstances would be good for me. Having to relate to my body in a different way and having to wipe the slate clean in terms of what I could normally do.
Huzur Vadisi = Peaceful valley
The location for the retreat was Huzur Vadisi. I skipped over the details whilst booking – the location felt unimportant. I arrived to find something magical. I instantly felt at home, welcomed by the warmth of Tanfer, the manager, and bathed in the peace of the valley.
I spent the arrival day easing myself in to the new surroundings and unwinding after travel. The pace of my mind slowed as I enjoyed the unfamiliar impressions: watching the sun dance on the still water of the pool; listening to the tinkling of goats bells, the chorus of crickets; inhaling the smell of the plants, the rich earth; feeling the warmth of the sun, then the cool night air in the moonlight.
The magic of life is easy to feel in such a place.
Simon Low in flow
The yoga classes began the day after we arrived. In the morning we practiced yang yoga, a dynamic yoga practice to stimulate energy.
Simon realigned us to the bigger picture, reminding us that a practice that worships the physical over the energetic runs the risk of resulting in worn out joints, overworked muscles and depleted energy – especially as the body ages. As a long-term practitioner himself, he has seen this happening around him.
He taught us flowing sequences to gather energy, release blockages, and ease joints. Tai-chi-like movements were weaved around the yoga asanas – a skillful blend of energy, movement, mind and matter all working in unison.
Being with Simon in the classroom is an uncommon experience. He is fluent in anatomy – both linguistically and physically. He could read our bodies like maps and through his precise language and cues he supported us to develop the same skills. Pieces of the puzzle began to click into place for me and I grew immeasurably in my understanding of the human body.
He held the class in the widest meaning of the word, allowing us to explore and go deeper into an inner experience of energy and form. He managed to be both completely engaged with the class and with each individual as he continually travelled the classroom, attending, realigning and encouraging wisdom and compassion as he went. And this is how it is. He gives and guides, rather than corrects and directs. In short, he is in flow.
A yoga pose interlude – bliss in balasana
Despite this healthy approach I still had an injury to work with. During the sun salutations I had to rest my back, coming down to balasana, child’s pose. My coccyx and sacrum were hurting and my chest felt tight with the disappointment of having to stop, of my body not being ‘right’. I was in familiar and emotionally loaded territory.
I noticed the contrast between this tightness around my heart and the tingling flow of energy moving around the rest of my body – energy liberated by the flow of the sun salutations. I focused on the movement – the energetic freedom, releasing my mind from its stories of injury and restriction and frustration.
The feeling of flowing energy increased with my attention, mind and body working together as powerful allies. Suddenly the flow rushed through the blockage. Warmth flooded my heart as it expanded and filled with soothing energy. My mind rested in awareness, a feeling of presence, complete acceptance of this moment, of this body. Ah. Yes. Yoga.
Although the injury was minor it reminded me of the potential power of suffering. When we no longer resist and fight what cannot be changed we can open our hearts and minds to presence and peace. The imperfection provides the opening. It’s the crack that allows the light in.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
A new kind of open
The whole retreat was suffused with the qualities of presence and compassion. Simon radiates it. He shared at the end that he is currently experiencing one of the greatest challenges of his life with three significant people in his life fighting for theirs. Rather than closing down emotionally he was soft around the sharp edges of suffering and loss, able to feel and give, rather than closing down.
The yin yoga classes in the afternoons helped us nurture these qualities of openness, gentleness and receptivity – both physically and beyond. Yin yoga is a gentle, restorative practice, often using props and staying in the postures for a long time. It is the balance to the dynamic yang. Through practising both we invited balance into our bodies and minds.
I loved the yin afternoons and was reminded that less can be more. My body is relatively open already and initially I wanted to go deeper. But then I realised that by staying back from my physical boundary I was feeling truly open and on greater (and arguably more important) levels than the physical.
I also learnt a whole range of different therapeutic techniques and poses that I know will be invaluable in working with my own body and those of others. I felt enormous gratitude to the teaching and support of Simon and his assistant Elisa and my desire to work in this field grew immeasurably in the light of such mentors.
Quizzical goats and Turkish delights in Narnia
One day we took a yoga break to walk up the mountain. Simon set an impressive pace and I felt the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other; the feet finding their way. Walking provides a simple realigning with nature and our everyday ability to navigate our path without stressing about the best way, the next step.
That the simple action of putting one foot in front of another culminates in being at the top of a mountain is a pleasure I never take for granted.
The views rolled out all around – trees filling the undulating landscape all the way to the coast with a distinct lack of buildings or towns in this protected area. There was a deep bay with islands of all shapes and sizes just out to sea – a view of pure green and blue, swaying trees and shimmering sea. It was deeply energising and heart-achingly beautiful and I felt the energy coursing through me.
We stopped for almost an hour at the top, enjoying the view and the hospitality of the couple that live there – the fire watch of this forested area. They were happy to pass the time of day with Simon and his merry band of yogis, offering tea, snacks and smiles in abundance.
On the way up the mountain we encountered a man holding a goat. He was very pleased to see us, particularly Simon. On the way back down he was eager for us to stop for tea. Having spent so much time with the couple at the top we declined as politely as possible. He rushed inside to find a box of Turkish delights, warmth and light sparkling in his eyes as his impressively long-haired and shiny goats looked on in the quizzical way that goats do. The strangeness and the kindness combined to make me smile like I’d just found myself in Narnia.
Another day we sailed out to sea in our own private boat. We lounged on mattresses in the warm sun and sea breeze, gliding by inlets and islands. We arrived in various bays, dropping the anchor and jumping in to swim in the warm turquoise water. I went for a long swim to explore the coast, finding a little swim-through and shady inlets to explore, pine trees sitting just above. I’d never seen them at the coast before and wondered at the beauty of this new and unfamiliar landscape.
We spent a whole day doing this. Every time we got out of the water platters of food appeared with fresh fruit and biscuits and tea and a delicious lunch of fresh fish and mezze. It began to feel a little like Christmas as we headed out for more food that evening – thankfully it was all fresh and light. We sat right by the sea in the habour town of Göcek, sharing langoustines and sea bass and more delicious mezze, dish upon dish rolling out of the kitchen, as we enjoyed the scenery and the company of kindred spirits.
I was reminded how deeply nourishing this blend of yoga and holiday is. I felt truly replenished, not least by the great group of people who had gathered there, open hearts and minds with plenty of smiles and laughter.
The final curtain kirtan
At the end of the retreat we finished our final yin class with kirtan (not ‘curtain’ as one of the attendees referred to it). We sat in a circle, chanting, and taking it in turns to lie in the middle to enjoy the surround sound and the group energy.
Naturally living in our bizarrely disconnected cultures leads us feeling uncomfortable doing such things. So there was zero pressure to do any of those things. Some people stayed quiet, many people didn’t go to the centre of the circle. But with the pressure off everybody was free to enjoy the moment however they chose.
A few years back this kind of thing would have made me cringe beyond belief (‘A circle? And we’ll be making sounds with our mouths? No thank you’). But yoga gradually opens you to what is actually quite natural and you begin to realise that the craziness is living in a world where people have to habitually get wasted to bond with each other, to relax and have a good time and do ‘crazy’ things like sing and dance.
When was the last time you danced?
When was the last time you sang?
When was the last time you told a story?
When was the last time you sat alone in stillness?
I began to fully feel the effects of the retreat on the plane home where I started to write this in a notebook. I’d avoided writing much on the retreat, wanting to have a visceral experience not an intellectual one. But once removed from the retreat, back in the world, I can feel the effects of this reconnection, of this yoga.
As the words tumble onto the page I feel like I’ve been away a year not a week and I’m reminded of the power of a yoga retreat and the guidance of an exceptional teacher.
I encourage anyone with the slightest inclination to do a retreat to go for it. Find something that resonates, someone who sparks your curiosity and go do it. Be open to what the experience can show you and find your yoga, your true connection.
Namaste and journey well