When you decide to run a retreat in Transylvania there are a lot of questions…
1. Is Transylvania a real place?
2. Why somewhere so cold?
3. What does one do in Transylvania?
4. Watch out for Dracula ah…ah…ah…
Transylvania is a real place and it is in the middle of Romania. You can access it from Bucharest or Brasov airport. There is a romance to a retreat in the cold-an invitation to go inwards, bundle up and make the most of the hot tub and the sauna. There is so much to do and see. First of all you’re surrounded by mountains, you can hike, go horseback riding, visit Bran Castle (home to Dracula himself) and travel to the biggest brown bear sanctuary in the world. Oh yeah and do yoga every day too! As for Dracula himself he did exist and you can learn a lot about his story at the castle-the closest we got to an encounter with him was watching Dracula on the projector whilst drinking red wine.
Now you’re probably wondering where the mum’s come into this? Well, once I announced I was running this Escape to Transylvania retreat I got interest from 2 unlikely candidates. My mom, originally from Budapest now a Canadian native with a very slight yoga practice and my mother in law, a Brighton social worker with pretty much no yoga practice. I have an amazing relationship with both of these wonderful women and what’s even more lovely is that they have become friends over the years as well. BUT I would be lying if I wasn’t slightly apprehensive about them joining. Imagine going to work with the matriarchy of both sides of your family watching you? I had to treat them as retreat guests but they were also my mums! They were also new or still fresh to yoga and we’d be doing 2 classes a day. This fact was a concern, not to teach, but to worry they may not enjoy it or be able to do it. My biggest rule in my classes and in my retreats is to do as little or as much as you’d like. Listen to your body. Don’t compare. Move for your body, look for progress in your body and love your body.
Of course I couldn’t have the mum’s along without my wife, Harriet, so the 4 of us packed up, and repacked many times (thank you Ryanair for your extra charges and strict rules) and headed off a day early for Transylvania. We were officially set for our first Transylvanian adventure! A few short hours before our flight I realised that my computer had autocorrected my mom’s name ‘Margit’ to ‘Margate’ where I live and the ever so helpful Ryanair attendant told me it would be £150 to fix the couple letter mistake. Lucky for me Harriet loves a challenge and was able to argue this to nothing. I can honestly say that was the biggest bit of drama I would experience on this whole trip. Sorry to spoil it folks, this isn’t going to be an article filled with gossip and drama but simply an account of an absolutely incredible Yoga Retreat! When we landed in Bucharest we boarded a mini-bus with a Romanian driver who spoke no English and headed out, with the rest of the Romanian public as it was a national holiday, for the mountains. Our drive took almost 6 hours! By the time we climbed the last of the windy mountain roads it was pitch black. We had arrived at Akasha. Our luggage was out of the bus before I had even stepped onto the frosty gravel and into the icy air, we were now well above 1000 meters high. Our shoes were crunching as we walked and then simultaneously, as the bus drove away into the darkness, we gasped. Stars. Layers upon layers of stars. The canvas of deep black and no light pollution meant each star gleamed brighter than the next.
A tall man waited at the door for us and brought us inside. This was Romiro who would become a very big character on our retreat. Our nostrils were filled with the scent of lavender as we entered and we were shown to our rooms. We would have to wait until the morning to be greeted by the mountains that were surely surrounding us. Romania boarders on Hungary and Transylvania was once part of the Hungarian empire my mom was excited to be so close to Budapest where she was born. Our hosts, knowing this, had prepared us a special dish of goulash for our first night. We ate, our moms then tucked themselves into bed and I made my last checks before closing my eyes and heading to sleep. The retreat would start tomorrow. Breath is took-eth! Pulling the drapes the next morning and stepping into the main room of the retreat centre just simply stopped you in your tracks. The views, the mountains, the clouds, the lights-pure perfection. Venturing into the yoga studio, the space that would be where we would be spending so much time over the next 6 days, I set it up whilst gazing out the huge windows at the rolling snow peaked mountains. I ventured into the sauna on my own before the guests arrived for a moment of quiet when the first mom hurdle was encountered.
Harriet, in an effort to get her mum comfortable with yoga before the rest of the retreaters arrived, attempted to teacher her through some postures. Needless to say this did not go well. Anxieties exposed, nerves heightened, triggers hit and a daughter who was pushing all the wrong buttons. The first tears of the yoga retreat had arrived. This kind of reaction to doing yoga isn’t uncommon. For a lot of people, who feel inflexible and awkward in their bodies, the representation of yoga can feel very alienating. Instagram images of bendy bodies in all sorts of contorted positions leaves us mere mortals feeling like yoga is for the elite only. After a long discussion and easing a stressful situation I was able to make the mother in law feel like she wasn’t about to enter a torture chamber of humiliation. By the time the guests had arrived the sun had set. After settling their belongings into their rooms we headed for a relaxing a grounding yoga session designed to ease their bodies after a long day of travelling. We then tucked into a delicious vegan feast with homemade bread, hearty vegetables and tasty dessert. Our chef for the week was a mild Austrian by the name of Michael, exceptionally shy and modest about his cooking we all instantly fell in love! There was only one thing left to do to complete our first night together-we took to the tarts, the hot tub, the sauna and our beds. As the sun rose we started our first full day together as a group. The first morning practice was a class designed around the concept of rebound. This is where you imagine the ground is like a trampoline and the body moves the weight is absorbed into the ground and rebounded back up-constantly moving, soft in the joints and fluid, nothing is static or still. The group was mainly beginners so we took it slow and broke down many postures. We got sweaty and enjoyed a nice long savasana at the end.
Retreats with me are designed to have free time between the day so that all guests have the opportunity to do what they want as well as the yoga and group activities. This might be reading, going for walks or runs, using the sauna or hot tub or taking those naps you never have time for. Our lunch was made of rainbow dreams! Lunches at Akasha were my favourite-a buffet of salads, grains, dips, soups and bread. We ALL always ate way beyond our full limit but our tastebuds were constantly demanding more. There were two workshops that I had designed that would involve some writing, some sharing and a lot of thinking. The first was a reflection of 2019 and a visioning of what we wanted from 2020. I’ve always been self reflective in my work and my teaching but it took me a long time to learn to be this way in my personal life as well. Harriet and I for the last 3 years have put aside one day around New Years, even once on New Years Eve, to reflect on the previous year and set goals for the year ahead. The group all set to the workshop in different ways; some working diligently, some stuck and others chatting and disrupting. Both of the mums took to the workshop with opposing attitudes. One working hard and taking all they could from it and the other digging their heels in and refusing to go any deeper than the first few questions.
Before dinner I got a chance to sit in the hot tub. Others sleeping, reading or out for walks I had the 10 person tub to myself. I was alone and all I could here was the gentle roll of the bubbles and an occasional dog bark in the distance. I all at once was struck with so much emotion. A dream I started constructing so many months ago had come true and it was surpassing anything I thought possible. I looked out surrounded in every direction by the vast landscape, steam rising, I was here in Transylvania with my wife, the mums and an amazing group of people from my yoga community. Running a retreat is hard work. It starts from the moment you start organising it, the anxiety about getting enough people to attend, the planning down to every small detail, holding the space from start to finish and all of this often in a country you’ve never been to. One could find it all overwhelming and be left feeling drained BUT somehow running retreats and teaching yoga makes me feel electric, everything aligned and completely in flow. Sitting in that traditional Romanian hot tub I was filled with wonder and inspiration.
We did a juicy slow Yin Yoga practice later that night. Yin targets the connective tissues of the body, the ligaments, joints and facial tissue, the postures can be held for up to 5 minutes each. By the time I woke everyone from their savasana we could already start to smell the dinner waiting for us. Tomorrow we would be heading to Dracula’s castle so what do you do the night before an adventure like this? Well, you roll out the projector, push all of the sofas together and curl up to watch Dracula of course! Mums surrounded by the community that was growing stronger by the hour, I smiled. Feelings of being a school girl at a slumber party with your best mates while your dad makes the popcorn. We drank wine instead and ate chocolate. We don’t, as adults, squidge up together like this, getting in touch with your inner child, to watch a scary film together and we SHOULD do it more! Before I closed my eyes for bed I reflected on how the mums were doing now that they had spent their first full day at a yoga retreat. They had each completed a couple yoga classes and their apprehensions were melting away. My biggest supporters but perhaps my toughest customers were seemingly enjoying themselves!
Hello Dracula Day! You just can’t go to Transylvania without taking a trip to Bran Castle. Lucky for us the castle was only 15 minutes down the mountain. Our guide Christina was hilarious and knowledgeable guiding us around the castle punctuating her stories with jokes and gruesome vampire details. After our tour we had time to explore the markets that surrounded the castle selling all kinds of delicious treats. Lunch was only an hour away but far from our vegan chef everyone ran around like kids in a candy shop sampling and purchasing cheese and sausage delights! My mom headed straight to the sausage stall and grinned from ear to ear as she took her first bite of the biggest sausage she could find! Yes whatever sausage innuendos you’re thinking they were said-cringe!
We arrived back for lunch, pretty full but still capable of eating more, tired from the journey everyone was hoping for a relaxed evening yoga class. Their only instruction before the class started was to not forget their pillow. Yoga Nidra is a style of yoga meditation designed to get you into the deepest state of relaxation targeting your subconscious whether you are aware of it happening or not. It is a magical practice where those who take part often have intense visualisations and out of body experiences, there are the occasional few snores that echo through the class as well. When everyone came back into the present moment they shared what the practice was like for them some totally taken to a different realm and other not totally able to shut off their active minds. I would do another yin practice later in the retreat where those who struggled were able to fully delve into the world of yin.
So what happens when you put a group of 12 non-vegans together, switch their diets completely, up their fibre and veg intake? Well you can imagine things got personal and we were all over sharing quite quickly. The talk of trapped wind and not so trapped wind became such a topic of conversation that later during games night one of the teams aptly named themselves ‘Akasha Breeze’!
Another sunny day. The sun shines so bright here and stays on the balconies for most of the day that you can sit outside without a jacket in the sun reading and drinking your tea. As I drink my tea in the yoga studio the sleepy bodies begin to roll in. After a few days of doing yoga twice a day they are starting to feel the effects; sore muscles and fatigue. A lot of the yoga classes I teach focus on specific groups of muscles, I like to talk about the stabilising muscles, those that are less obvious and more subtle but that we often miss and don’t target at the gym. These have a tendency to keep chatting to you even a number of days after you’ve used them.
When I booked this retreat I included a mountainy horseback ride as an extra. Perhaps I was too excited by the romantic idea of it that I didn’t realise this would maybe be scary for a lot of people. In the end, and after being told our guides would speak no English, there were only 3 brave souls who would venture out on the horses and one of them was me. It was a good thing that anyone who was nervous, apprehensive or feeling slightly tired didn’t join as it was TOUGH work and almost entirely up and down mountains on icy, muddy and treacherous paths…if you can call them that! The horses were gorgeous and our guides were alarmingly strong. Most of the locals in Transylvania walk up and down these mountains daily and because of this are exceptionally fit. Our journey was spent half the time going straight up a mountain or straight down feeling like you were going to topple head first off the horse and land onto your guide. We stayed as a group for the first quarter of our journey but my horse was being stubborn and kept stopping which meant that eventually it was only me and my guide with the others long gone into the distance.
If I were to take a guess I would say my guide was at least in his late 60’s and I watched in awe as he navigated the uneven terrain in just a pair of wellies and his knowledge of the land. We walked, well he walked I sat, along in silence with the breathtaking view taking centre stage. Because of the language barrier we couldn’t communicate but because of this there was no need to make awkward small talk. He could simply walk and I could be bathed in the sounds of nature and views around me. It was as if everything that was around me was simply there just for me. I watched the light dance and change atop the mountains, I savoured the small Romania houses and barns as we passed them, smiled at the livestock; sheep, cows, ducks and dogs, everywhere I looked the landscape hit me at my heart. This serene and silent trip was halted when all at once my horse decided to buck, front legs in the air, I clung on for dear life in complete and utter panic. There was no way to communicate my fear or understand my sides instructions as he shouted at the horse. Thankful for my yoga I used all the power of my adduction and squeezed my thighs around the horses body. Eventually the horse calmed and we carried on, my guide unfazed by the event, my heart still racing and my legs never really loosening. We made it back in one piece and said our goodbyes and laughed at the surreal adventure, well that’s what I was nervously laughing at I think he was probably laughing at the funny way I was walking because of how sore my legs were! I waddled into Akasha and straight to the hot tub.
Later that day we had our 2nd writing workshop. In the health and wellness world there are terms like affirmation, intuition and manifesting that get batted around. Jargon ping ponging from one insta feed to the next. These can often sound exclusive and elitist if you don’t understand the context and use. When I decided to do these workshops I wanted to make these themes and ideas accessible, manageable and practical. We would be writing affirmations in the workshop but ‘what the hell is an affirmation?’ To get to the positive I wanted to start from a more negative place-a self limiting belief. We call have them. And we share a lot of the same ones. Writing these down came quickly and easily, somehow it’s always harder to give ourselves a compliment but want to look at what we don’t like about ourselves we can write a list. Once you have identified the limiting belief then comes the hard work. Where did it come from? Who did it come from? When did it start? This kind of unpicking can be emotional, difficult and uncomfortable and it was. Emotions ran high as we worked through them, decided if indeed they were true or if they ever were and then tried to reframe them into something positive. For instance ‘I am shy and introverted’ could become ‘I am a great listener and considerate with my words.’
It was during this workshop that the group really started to go deeper, unveil hidden truths and unpack boxes of baggage that were weighing them down. The bravery, honesty, grit, care, support and love that was displayed from and to everyone was an honour to be a part of and inspirational to witness. I will never forget the conversations and the healing that happened. This is what a retreat can give. Away from your day to day responsibilities and life, connecting to your breath and your body we can start to heal trauma that has been buried so deep we become almost completely numb to it. Again the mums handled this workshop very differently. One fully engaged and tears flowing and the other sat at a table away from the group, silent and again struggling to go deep and connect. That evening we asked for all of the lights to be turned off so we could fully take in the depths of the stars and in this vast space, strewn across the upper and lower balconies friendships were being solidified, stories were being shared and people were healing.
Last morning practice of the retreat and that means one thing-inversions! An inversion loosely means any posture where the head is lower than the heart, like downward dog or a standing forward fold. But in today’s class we would be exploring headstands. This pose is one that has two camps. One camp is the yes I will conquer this pose lets go OR hell no this is NOT happening. Practicing inversions like headstands require a believe in oneself, a desire to push beyond your box and trust the teachers and others in the room. We always start the class with a powerful meditation and lots of strengthening work to help people understand the muscle groups needed to achieve the posture. It’s also important that you do this at the end of a retreat because we work in groups to support, guide and help the feel going up-this trust has been building throughout the week and people are more easily ready to put their safety in the hands of others. When you do finally go upside down, aided or one your own there is an epic release. The pride and admiration for yourself can create tears and whoops of joy. No matter your age, your size or your ability you can accomplish something you’ve never done before. It may not look the same as the others in the room but remember it’s progress for your body-no one else's!
There has been one person on this retreat that I have not been able to reach on any kind of emotional sense so far and that is my mom. Margit is sweet as pie. She is loved far and wide and when my friends hear she is coming to visit they start booking visits in. She doesn’t often show any kind of anger or annoyance and if she ever does it often only displays as disappointment. Once you disappoint Margit you aren’t likely to do it again. BUT my mom doesn’t like to go into great detail about anything that is too upsetting and will resign herself to saying that it will all get better and smile. She doesn’t like sad or upsetting movies either. Whilst everyone was writing about their pasts, discussing traumas from childhood and adolescence my mom sat quiet not sharing anything. It’s not that she doesn’t have anything to share, but there’s a block, a resistance to starting to unearth her darker stories.
Over breakfast mom got stressed because she thought she had forgotten to pay the massage therapist the previous day and felt really embarrassed, she didn’t need to pay because the bills would come at the end of the retreat, but she didn’t know this and she suddenly burst into tears. I grabbed her porridge and we went to my room to chat. This is not what you’re crying about. My mom was abandoned in Hungary by her mother when she was a child. Left with her uncle expecting to never see her mother again. She never knew her dad and still doesn’t know anything substantial about him. She was eventually reunited with her mother in a refugee camp in Ugolslavia where they stayed, infested with bed bugs, for almost a year. Eventually they would immigrate on a ship to Canada. Her life did not improve here. At the hands of an alcoholic and abusive father my mother would have to protect herself and her younger half brother, often running into the streets at night where it was safer than at home. My mom has only ever shared snippets with me. On this retreat she burst out crying telling me she struggled to go back there mentally because it just makes her cry and she doesn’t want to put it onto her daughter. None of her scars are visible but they all show in her insecurities and lack of confidence…lack of belonging. Her insecurities highlighted by a silly mistake she thought she had made, these negative beliefs always bubbling there on the surface. In this moment, on the last morning of the retreat, I had a real, deep and brutally honest conversation with my mom. And in that moment a part of my mom was healed because she got to release some of her demons.
Later that day we were to witness more healing on a much, much, much larger scale. A short drive from our retreat centre was the largest brown bear sanctuary in the world. These bears have been saved from lived of cruelty, lives of metal cages, lives of humiliation where they were forced to perform at circuses in fear of being whipped. The refuge for these bears was brought to life in 2005 and has grown year after year becoming the largest sanctuary of its kind. The Liberty Bear centre allows only 50 visitors in a day on a guided tour, where we are told to remain quiet, respectful and quick. The bears are the number one priority not the tourists. There is no where to sit, no where to eat and no where to spend long periods of time. The space remains almost entirely for the bears. And we saw many! Those who are more comfortable with humans remain closer to the sprawling fences. The cuddle, the roam, they play and they nap in plain sight. Those whose wounds cut deep, whose trust will never be gained and whose stories are too dark to share stay hidden deep in the forest of the sanctuary never to be seen by the guests. Hopefully all of the bears here can live out the rest of their lives in peace with more freedom than they came from.
Our last class of the retreat was another yoga nidra that I wrote in the afternoon with each member of the community in mind. Their stories woven in. Their limiting beliefs highlighted. Their powerful and positive affirmations repeated. A release through a guided meditation absorbed in utter and complete relaxation. We floated from our practice to the couches in the main room beside a roaring fire. We all started with a piece of paper and wrote a sentence about one person in the group; something positive, something about the connection they had made, something about how important they were during the retreat. These papers were passed around each one covered up as it reached the next person. Eventually the paper was filled with 12 beautiful statements about every member of the group. A keepsake that we all got to take home to remind us about the impact we make.
During the last dinner our Romanian host was out lighting us a massive fire in the outdoor gazebo which was blanketed under the endless quilt of stars above. Bundled up, sitting close, laughing together, we joined together to close the retreat powered only by the starlight, the glowing fire and the brightness of the community of the retreat. Eyes closed we brought ourselves back in time. Back to first booking the retreat, the lead up to it, the travel, the first moments of entering Akasha: what were they thinking? What were their apprehensions? What were their blocks? Their anxieties? How had these chanced, adapted, morphed and what had they learned? How had each person healed and what had they conquered? Each person reflected on the opening circle and what they had shared with the group only 5 days prior. A closing circle is a sacred spaced filled with power and energy, a spiritual and energetic connection to oneself, others and something beyond the physical.
Here is the real magic of having your mums join you on retreat. When you get to see how important they were to others and they impact they had during this time. As each person shared what the retreat meant to them they all smiled at the mums with pride, friendship and admiration. ‘what I loved most was seeing the relationship between a mother and mother in law, how close you both are, and the connection you have with your daughters. You are four powerful and amazing women and this retreat wouldn’t have been as special if your weren’t with us.’ So at the end of a retreat, in Transylvania, with your mums, there is only one thing that is non-negotiable going forward. And that thing is THE MUMS HAVE TO COME TO ALL RETREATS!