The Sierra Morena, the hills of Córdoba, offer another perspective to the visitor or resident. It is a rough, brushy and seemingly uninhabitable zone which I am still yet to fully acquaint myself with but there is actually a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Most locals tend to visit the Sierra for bike-riding or for the beloved Spanish tradition of the perol (cooking a big pan of rice to be shared with the family or a large group of friends) and I have experienced the joy of this several times myself.
So when I saw that my yoga teacher Ángela (Lumiere Zen Garden) was organising a weekend retreat in the Sierra de Córdoba, I messaged her immediately and booked myself on.
It was February and still quite cold for Spain but lovely and sunny. I have practised yoga for many years now but I had never done a retreat and was highly intrigued to do so.
It was held at a building called the Castillo de Maimón which is usually used for Christian retreats however this yoga weekend had no religious slant! The building was opened in 1949 in honour of the Immaculate Conception and renovated in 2012 for functions such as these.
The Castillo is surrounded by lush greenery and commercial orange groves. The views from its bird’s eye vantage point were stunning and in the cold February air it did wonders for taking the time to pause and reflect.
I arrived on the Friday afternoon after a day at work. We were all introduced to one another and settled into our bedrooms.
We were lead by Ángela for a 90 minute yoga detox session with extended 20 minute meditation which helped to shake off the usual stress of the working day. I had done 90 minutes classes in the past but this really put us through our paces; I was aching so much after this session!
Dinner felt well deserved after this which was all vegetarian fayre. Much to my surprise we were served beer and wine (like goes to like so the two other women who had a taste for the red stuff soon sussed me out and we were freely topping up each other’s glasses despite the hesitance of our healthier counterparts).
We were then lead into the hall where we were shown a screening of a French made film called Kirikou et la Sorcière (Kirikou and the Sorceress) in a Spanish translation. I wondered at first what this animated film about a super small child seeking to confront an ‘evil’ woman was for but the integral message soon became apparent.
The film was all about learning to forgive and seeing past the presumed nastiness of certain people and realising that their unsavoury actions are often down to deep rooted hurt and suffering which manifests itself in unfortunate ways.
They have not yet found healthy and positive coping strategies and healing so they are often misunderstood. Through understanding our fellow people we are able to see why they are behaving the way they do and can actually help them towards peace.
This is what I took from the film anyway which I have to say gave me that much welcomed warm and fuzzy feeling inside (especially after 2 or 4 wines and intensive yoga!).
(Sorry, I could not find a decent version of this in English!)
The next morning we were up bright and breezy for a meditation session to set us up. I was hunched over, absolutely aching all over from the night before but ready to begin an intensive yet brilliant day following a healthy breakfast of fruit and the typical Spanish favourite of toast, olive oil and liquidised tomato.
“The Castillo is surrounded by lush greenery and commercial orange groves. The views from its bird’s eye vantage point were stunning and in the cold February air it did wonders for taking the time to pause and reflect…”
It was a gloriously bright sunny Saturday morning so we were lead outside to the Castillo’s grounds for Chi Kung with a kindly man named Jesús. Also known as Qi Gong, it originates from China and is based on repetitions of very precise sets of movements for its purported health benefits.
I was not familiar with this practice but it seems to be not dissimilar to Tai-Chi. Lots of flowing movements and appreciation of the body and our surroundings.
It is said to reinvigorate and rejuvenate you even after just a few minutes of practice. I can testify to this as standing out in the sun with a group of people I didn’t know up until the evening before, all of a different language to my native one, all outside in the morning air definitely perked me up 1000 times more than my usual hungover bedridden state…!
Chi Kung can be either a total doddle or absolutely pain-threshold-testing.
This gentle morning flow was fine and was all about opening up our airways and minds to the day ahead. It also included one of my favourite poses- sun salutations, which was apt for the weather we had:
As we performed these poses, we were joined by a colony of a peculiar type of caterpillar known as orugas in Spanish which I was informed could be venomous. I took extra care to not tread on any or accidentally touch one when my hands were sweeping towards the ground…
After a brief break, we had a session of Vinyasa yoga with Ángela indoors then a vegetarian lunch (again served with beer and/or wine). We were then given a herbal tea to relax and talk. I found myself totally immersed in the Spanish language that weekend as none of the people present spoke English (or at least did not feel comfortable doing so) but this was brilliant for my language practice.
Yoga is meant to be self-empowering but what I perhaps found even more empowering was the fact that I has taken the bold step of putting myself in an intense setting with people older than me and of my second language and was able to hold my own at dinnertime conversations and laugh and joke with this whole host of inspirational people. I had a few ‘pinch me is this real’ moments where I couldn’t believe that I was actually here in a group of strangers, in a foreign language, keeping up and integrating.
Language acquisition is never a completed goal; it is forever ongoing. That is the nature of language and it is forever changing with trends and slang. I have reached moments over the last three years where I have felt that I have passed a certain milestone in my Spanish language and this was one of the major ones.
So ingrained in communicating in Spanish after three days, I found myself reluctant to revert to my native English when I got home. When I went to work on the Monday, I realised that I had not once uttered my native tongue for three days. So this was one of the chief merits of the course I benefited from, not just the physical and spiritual aspects on yoga which are normally par for the course.
After a couple of hours of lunch and tea and chatting, we regrouped in the hall as the sun was going down leaving a dusky darkness in the room. This time we were going to do something called ‘Falun Gong‘.
I will admit; at the time I hated it and even felt a bit annoyed at the instructor for putting us through such an ideal but as is often the case, time has given me the most amazing perspective on this experience.
They say that we only use 10% of our brainpower and that there is so much unlocked potential. This day, in a dark room with around 15 strangers, I believe I accessed a part of my brain I had never even known of beforehand.
We were told that we were to perform a series of endurance exercises, guided along by a Chinese tape that we couldn’t understand but we had to listen out for the bang of the gong to know it was the end of that part of the series. Ok!
When he told us we were going to raise our hands up above our heads for 7 minutes, I laughed in disbelief. There was no way I was going to be able to put up with that horrible unnerving feeling of the blood being diverted to other parts of the body, fingers going numb. No way. However, our brain power was going to get us through this….
So we began.
Now, I don’t have any photos of this as we were in darkness and quite obviously, everyone had their arms otherwise occupied. After maybe 45 seconds, my arms started feeling heavy and my fingers were tingling.
A voice inside my brain demanded that I lower my arms as this was just ridiculous. Yet, the soothing Chinese music along with Jesús’ motivating words, I was somehow able to break through the pain barrier and endure something I thought was physically not possible.
When I heard the bang of the gong, the relief was immediate but we were to do this for a total of 28 minutes.
4 reps of 7 minutes, in different poses of arms extended into the air.
We went through the motions and I found myself conjuring up coping mechanisms which for me personally was swaying my hips very slowly, putting my weight on one side then gradually to the other.
I would wiggle my fingers to try to ease off the numbing sensation and go through all sorts of mental tricks to ward off the urge to drop my arms.
Again, when I completed the 4 reps of 7 minutes I felt overwhelmed by the fact I had just endured something that 28 minutes before, had been certain there was no way I’d even get through the first 7 minutes!
Ángela gave us a talk after dinner on healthy eating and this was something I really needed to hear.
Generally speaking, I eat healthily and stick to a ‘salads through the week’ set-up and make myself eat fruit even when I don’t feel like it but I also believe in having a little of what you fancy so I often give in to a midweek wine or bar of chocolate.
She presented us with the dietary pyramid of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. I saved this to my phone as it really does make sense I have to say.
After this- an early night to bed to sleep off the ached and pains of that brutal Falun Gong session.
Sunday- more Chi Kung then a couple of hours hiking in the Sierra before one final lunch and farewell.
What this weekend retreat did for me spiritually goes even beyond the lovely 60 minutes spent on a yoga mat, 6 months on and I still reflect from time to time what a gorgeous and uplifting weekend that was.
The people I mixed with were great role models- teachers, artists, businesswomen, yoga studio owners/ instructors… even a woman who intriguingly owned a cave which she uses to stage concerts and her own yoga retreats.
I returned after this weekend feeling empowered, heartened and rejuvenated (albeit aching so much) and it was definitely money WELL spent.
Even just the surroundings, in the fresh air of the hills, away from partying and a deliberate abandonment of my mobile phone made for such a refreshing change.
Waking up to hear birdsong and seeing people harvesting the oranges from the thousands of trees beneath my window was so special and I am now SO open to the idea of future yoga retreats.
My friend recently went on one in Cádiz and I am highly tempted to go on that one next time!
Have you ever been to a yoga retreat? In Spain? I would love to hear all about it and how it benefited your wellbeing, please tell me all in the comments box below!