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New Year’s lessons from my first-ever retreat

Luba Kassova | January 25, 2023
New Year’s lessons from my first-ever retreat New Year’s lessons from my first-ever retreat

Unshackle yourself from the inevitable disappointment of too many New Year’s resolutions. Just set one. 

On the last day of every year, I typically make a number of resolutions for the year ahead which I invariably fail to fulfil. Humbled by my past failures, this year I only made one: to start meditating again as a way of balancing my abundant outward-facing, goal-orientated energy with my inward-facing, gentler energy that I tend to neglect or disperse. 

With that resolution in mind, I was suitably intrigued when my sister Maria suggested that we go on a weekend retreat of sound relaxation and conscious movement in the small Bulgarian town of Apriltsi. A unique way to start the year, I thought, combining sound, movement, meditation, relaxation and yoga. A curious collection of activities, none of which, bar yoga and meditation, I had practised before. 

Challenge your stereotypes about people 

I was feeling cautious if not a tad trepidatious at the prospect of interacting with a bunch of strangers who were steeped in self-development. I had formed a stereotype of yoga practitioners and retreat-attendees as excessively introspective, often disappearing into themselves - individuals who have taken the mantra of “only listening to what your body tells you” to the extreme, leaving no space for listening to the needs of others. Instead, I met a very diverse group of considerate people who were anything but too introspective. The gender balance and disparate backgrounds of those taking temporary shelter at Trinity Retreat centre fascinated me: unusually for such events, half of the participants were men, many but not all being part of a couple. I was told that this atypical gender parity contributed to the harmony and balance that the group displayed during the retreat. 

The tone of the retreat was set the minute we got into the organisers’ car to share the journey and spare the earth a few emissions. Gergana Daneva, the owner of Wild Calls, the event company behind the retreat, came across as exceptionally warm and dynamic. She wore her ego lightly, and had a bubbliness worthy of a glass of freshly popped champagne. Gergana was bouncing with enthusiasm, supported by her partner Filip who humorously defined his role as “the guy who carries the bags”. Over the weekend, I learned that, among other things, Gergana had been a Member of Parliament and that her partner, a business owner and triathlon organiser, was now studying to be a paramedic. As a couple they came across as refreshingly supportive of one another, uninhibited by restrictive social norms and generally a pleasure to be around. 

We arrived at a big country house which, depending on the levels of your need for comfort and luxury, could either be described as rustic or basic. I settled on rustic and fell in love with the mesmerising view from the room I shared with my sister. 

The main feature of the house – a key draw - was its yoga studio – which was as modern as could be. A spacious, inviting, intimate, well-heated space with large windows looking out onto the garden, and a wooden floor of dark oak. It was there that my sister and I met the 13 or so retreat participants and the two instructors for the first time. 

Everyone has a story to tell if you care to listen 

My previous experiences at numerous events have been bound by a common pattern – that there is invariably one person who comes across as very intense and/or is disruptive. An individual who attracts attention disproportionate to their positive contribution to the group. So, that evening I started scanning the room, assessing each participant for their potential to be the intense and disruptive one. Much to my surprise, no-one matched that description. 

The people I met were from vastly different walks and stages of life. I spoke with a sustainable energy specialist, two dermatologists and an artist, two actors, a fitness instructor, a lifeguard and a Red Cross volunteer, a manager in the construction industry, business owners, a student, parents, couples and single people. Although barely anyone asked me any questions (unsurprisingly, since in Bulgarian culture asking people questions about their life is frequently seen as prying), I learned fascinating and inspiring stories about many of my fellow retreaters. What bound us all together was our kindness and openness to learning from the world around us. 

The story that sticks in my mind most is that of a man who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of 21. The disease had viciously attacked his body and stripped him of a great deal of his mobility, yet despite being told by doctors that there wasn’t much he could do to help himself, this man had completely changed his lifestyle and food habits with great results. Miraculously, in the last 12 years he had not had a single flare-up of his MS. To achieve this, he had stopped drinking alcohol, smoking, eating red meat, sugar and all processed foods. To this day he remains uncompromising about his diet and lifestyle, and against all odds, it is paying off. I felt inspired. 

The two instructors - Katya and Alex - a couple, with a background in theatre and seemingly reflective by nature, invited us to go inwards, to explore our deeper nature. They even proposed that we ate in silence at breakfast, lunch and dinner. This did not happen because the group was yearning for connection. Whether it was a post-pandemic need or the result of being a particularly extrovert group, I do not know. Either way, the conversation flowed. 

Alex was in charge of the sound meditation sessions while Katya led the movement-based exercises and yoga. Both encouraged us to listen to our bodies and to only do the sessions that we felt comfortable with. That felt hugely liberating and calming in equal measure. Fellow retreaters kept dipping in and out of sessions, which usually started later than indicated on the schedule, but no one seemed to mind. I felt a slight emotional distance from the teachers but it was subtle and constructive. The dynamic worked. 

Have the confidence to say “no” if you are feeling uncomfortable 

Once or twice Katya asked us to make eye contact with others who were doing the movement exercises. That felt hard. I felt shy, uncomfortable or at times even lonely when in search of a gaze no eyes met mine. But I persevered, cutting through my discomfort like a sickle through corn. 

In another session Katya asked us to pair up with the person next to us and give each other a massage. This felt excruciatingly uncomfortable because for me, being massaged and massaging someone else requires a degree of closeness and familiarity which in this instance was absent. As lovely as my massage partner seemed, I had only met him and his equally lovely partner the day before. The whole experience felt awkward, but once again I persevered for fear of upsetting the man I had been partnered with. I suspect he felt as uncomfortable as I did, and that I would have been doing us both a favour if I had politely declined to participate. 

Learning from these two mistakes, I summoned the courage to say no the third time I was faced with an exercise I did not want to do. We were invited to go on a mindful walk which involved being blindfolded in the woods and led by a walking partner through mud, obstacles, streams and hills. At that point the risk-averse, middle-aged woman in me took over and chose physical safety over expanding my trusting skills while risking breaking a limb. Saying no to this practice felt right and the act of assertion also felt good. Consequently, my sister and I enjoyed a tranquil walk through the picturesque winter mountain woods with our eyes wide open. 

Make a note to get out of your head more often 

After a year of intense writing about gender inequity in news and other socially significant topics, I had felt trapped in my head, saturated with too much purpose and not enough spontaneity. So my one goal for the retreat was to get out of my head and step into my body. And getting out of my head I did, particularly during the movement exercises in which Katya guided us in movement through beautiful ambient ethno-Balkan music, much of which had been composed by Alex. We were encouraged to let our bodies move freely, without restraint. I danced with every fibre of my body, much as I had done for decades until a few years ago. I relished this freedom of expression, ignoring my occasional pangs of worry about how I /my body was being perceived by others. 

Value connecting with others, not just with yourself 

When asked about our goals for the weekend, most participants set themselves goals of discovering something about themselves that they didn’t know; of learning something new; of experiencing a deepening relationship with themselves. 

Interestingly, however, what I and many others realised was that the thing we enjoyed most during the retreat was connecting with others. In a closing circle on the last day, each participant was asked to share what they valued most about their experience. Rather than talking about their self-exploration, most emphasised how much they had enjoyed connecting with others. Hearing new stories, joking around, eating in company and getting to know new people, even if you were never going to meet them again, had felt like such a gift to us all. 

Laugh… it’s your deepest connection with the universe. 

The one thing I will remember forever from these 48 hours of my first-ever retreat is the shared laughs. I seemed to giggle endlessly with my sister, just like we used to when we were younger - pre-losing Mum, pre-divorce, pre-Covid, pre-losing Dad, pre-war, pre-gaining weight, pre-so much. I shared laughs with those around me during mealtimes, during walks and even, mischievously, during exercises. Surrounded by kindness, goodwill and nature, relaxed in the knowledge that my children were being looked after by the most solid man I have ever known, I just let go of all the pain and solemnity I had been holding on to for too long…and just laughed. 

Reflecting on the meaning of laughter in the last hour of our shared retreat, a dermatologist, who emphasised his deep relationship with science, shared the following unexpected wisdom which I have been pondering ever since: “When we laugh, we connect with the quantum energy of the universe”. 

So… is there a laughing meditation class I can join please?... 

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