I'm a city girl, born and raised. I want to spend more time in nature, but the urban playground is my comfort zone. When an ethical writers network I'm in announced a group trip to the Nourish in Nature women's retreat in Central Portugal, I signed up immediately. I didn't know what to expect, but I looked forward to getting to know my Internet friends in real life while taking a break from my laptop and the old Interweb.
The retreat took place in Quinta Canaval, a truly off-grid boutique hotel using solar power and septic tanks. To get here is a rocky journey through unpaved roads, after a 2-hour train ride (or 3 hours by bus) from Lisbon. The nearest small town is a 40-minute walk through the forest, to give you an idea.
This was the first time Nourish in Nature was held at Quinta Canaval. Sara Rooney and Fiona MacLeod, two friends from the UK who founded the retreat, used to hold it in another off-grid location with yurts. Sadly, the devastating forest fire last year destroyed everything.
Quinta Canaval was lucky. When the fire came closer, owner Mabel turned on the sprinkler system and fled. Aside from melted glass and minor damages, the building managed to stay intact. While the surrounding charred trees served as a reminder of the tragedy, I got the sense that the nature here was very resilient. Signs of green bushes and new buds indicated the land wanted to thrive again.
The six of us—Alden from EcoCult, Holly from Leotie Lovely, Francesca from Ethical Unicorn, Florine from The Wasted Blog, photographer Monique Pantel, and myself—already knew each other a little from spending time together in Lisbon before we arrived. Four other guests, all women around our age, joined us. Ten was a good number for a retreat, and all of us quickly became fast friends.
My roomie was the Ethical Unicorn (she doesn't like to be called that), who is fun to banter with. Our room was on the second floor and we woke up each morning to natural sunlight and mountain views. The yoga room was right next door, so all we had to do was roll out of bed for morning yoga sessions.
Yoga is something I've been practicing very sporadically for at least twelve years. It's another thing I know is good for me that I don't do enough of. While I stay fit with HIIT and ballet-based workouts, yoga tries my patience because it's so slow. Sometimes it's torture to go that slow—I'd rather run or jump around a lot—but my body and mind are both lighter after a yoga class, so it's a feeling I know I have to earn.
Being at the retreat forced me to do more of it, with yoga classes every morning and Yoga Nidra (guided sleep meditation) in the afternoon every other day. People assume I'm a chilled-out person, but I'm someone who likes to be productive all the time. Evening when I'm sitting still, I'm usually reading or working on the computer, so my mind stays active. Meditation is something I don't do for more than two minutes. Yoga, for me, is a form of meditation for the body. And my body is challenged by it, especially in the mornings, before breakfast, for two hours straight.
Fiona MacLeod is a lovely teacher. Her voice is soothing, her demeanour is calm and nonjudgmental, and her yoga classes are challenging yet gentle enough that I'm not in a fever sweat after each session. She shared with us that despite her personal challenges in life (the forest fire was understandably devastating), her yoga practice was what kept her grounded.
I once heard that there's nothing that can't be cured by yoga. I don't know if this is true, but I'm not asking for much here, to stretch out a tense body and strengthen my wrists. When I returned to Toronto after the retreat, miracle of all miracles, a yoga studio opened up near my home. No more excuses not to do more of it.
As much as I like to relax, I tend to get bored easily, so I found that the retreat offered a good balance of activities and free time. Each day after breakfast, we had Herbal Workshops with Sara Rooney, a medical herbalist (NIMH) who taught us the various ways herbs can benefit our bodies.
We learned to identify different herbs, how to properly forage them and safely use them for optimal health. Even though I totally failed the quiz at the end of the week, I loved what I learned, and it's all very practical. Others booked private sessions with Sara for natural solutions on various women's health concerns. I didn't have anything pressing at the time to warrant a meeting, but I have the option of future Skype appointments with her should any questions arise.
My favourite workshops included DIY demonstrations. In one class, we came away with freshly-made lip balms, facial oils, and skin treatments. In others, we got to sample Maca balls, chocolate avocado pudding, and smoothies. The booklet she provided us includes more recipes for drinks, power snacks and natural skincare. So far, I've been making more smoothies, which is a start. I'm also inspired to grow my own herbs in my little city apartment.
Not only is Aoife (pronounced "Efa") Brewster skilled in different holistic massage therapies, she also offers Reiki and Reflexology. Before my massage, which is included in the retreat package, she let me pick two Angel cards for fun. During the session, she could pick up my emotions as an empath/intuitive. My massage was really amazing, and between that and the Yoga Nidra, I was super relaxed on the first day. I enjoyed it so much that I booked a second massage.
Nature in Rural Portugal
Even with all the guests and staff at the resort, I could easily go off and connect with nature alone when I wanted. There were plenty of nooks and crannies around the property to escape to. I liked to sit on a log and look out at the lake and mountains, or I'd take my book (The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan) to read in a hidden hammock down the hill.
It's a good habit of mine to talk to the trees and mountains (in my head!). I did a little bit of Earthing. I abandoned makeup and bras throughout the week. It's easier to feel the full power of womanhood and the true definition of beauty in nature. It's an earthy energy, healing, compassionate, and divine.
The weather was chillier than expected, often rainy. We didn't mind it though, because, as one guest put it, the bad weather brings us together. We'd gather around the fireplace in the common room and chat away. On the only sunny day, we hiked to the lake and did a photoshoot in our sustainable yoga wear. On another day that luckily didn't rain as much as the weather report threatened, three of us went off in Sara's car to the site of the Roman Bridge, the Ponte Filipina near Pedrogao Pequeno, for some forest bathing.
Oh, the food. Gabi, the retreat chef, makes all the meals with local ingredients. It's mostly vegetarian, with the option to go vegan as well. I'm a carnivore but didn't miss meat that week. Homemade bread, porridge, potato quiches, fresh salads, soups, dips, fruits, lasagnas… Just imagine me shoving food in my face with both hands, and that's the general mood at feeding time.
Phones are not recommended to be used at the table so we could get to know each other instead. We would often keep on chatting long after mealtimes.
Connecting with other women
The media tend to depict groups of women as catty and competitive, but that has not been my experience. Most of the women I've met throughout my life have been kind, encouraging, and inspiring. I found the same to be true with the lovely souls at the retreat. I've never lived with a big group of women for a long stretch of time, and the power we created when we came together to support one another was so palpable.
The other guests seemed to be spiritually minded, and a couple were Reiki healers. I told them I did ThetaHealing (I'll write about my experience in a future post). They'd never heard of it but wanted to try it. When I explained that as a ThetaHealer, I don't do the healing but rather channel the energy of the Creator, they got it because Reiki does something similar. In exchange for ThetaHealing sessions, they gave me a Reiki session and a Reflexology session each. I've never tried either before, so it was nice to experience. Word spread that I was doing ThetaHealing, and I ended up doing sessions for five guests. I ran out of time before I could do more. By doing the sessions I got to know people on a deeper level very quickly. Honestly, I was surprised by the issues each person wanted to work on. You just never really know what's going on with others, but I'm happy that they enjoyed the sessions and felt better after.
It encouraged me to keep expanding the content of this blog to include more on self-care, spirituality and alternative healing therapies. I was hesitant to write about these subjects before because it's not mainstream and honestly might be a bit weird, but I know that many people are open, and I want to help women connect to their inner strength. I have to trust the information I put out will be found by those who want it.
Goodbyes at the end of our time here were bittersweet. As Monique put it, the older women, our teachers and staff, are our guideposts. We agreed how aptly named the retreat is; we were certainly nourished in nature. I came away with an armful of useful wisdom and resources. And new friends l will continue to stay in touch with.