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Tag Archives: Health and fitness holidays

At a country house in West Sussex, meditation, yoga and detox come together for a weekend of mindfulness that expands your protective bubble

The taxi driver appraises me with suspicion when I tell him my destination. But youve not got a yoga mat, he says.

Having never been on a meditation retreat before, I was self-conscious of criss-crossing busy train stations with a yoga mat strapped to my back, so Id concealed it inside a Sainsburys bag for life. I point it out now to the driver, and he offers a wry smile as he takes me to the place where, for the next four days, Im to be immersed in an intensive period of me time. Ive never done this before, so have no idea what to expect.

Long-term health conditions can be interesting in all sorts of unexpected ways. You learn about your levels of resilience, and the efforts you are prepared to take to get better. Ive been struggling with low physical energy for almost a decade, my mitochondrial cells malfunctioning after successive flu viruses never quite left my body. Doctors didnt know what to recommend these cells arent easily fixed and so suggested what they suggest to anyone who presents mysteriously: eat better, sleep well. Do yoga, learn to meditate.

Retreat sessions include yoga, nostril breathing and meditation

Ive spent the last five years dipping in and out of meditation apps, YouTube, Ruby Waxs focus on mindfulness through books and interviews but it was vedic meditation (a close cousin of transcendental, which uses a silent mantra or sound repeated over and over) I kept returning to. I liked it but always let it slip. I knew that to establish a habit I would need to immerse myself, under in-person instruction.

And so here I am, near Arundel in West Sussex, at a large, rambling country house with lush gardens, on a weekend vedic retreat run by Beeja. Its strapline suggests: Meditation for Everyone and its founder, Will Williams, has been teaching vedic meditation for more than five years. After a stint in the music business, and falling ill, he recovered through meditation and began to teach what he had learned. He runs introductory courses in London. Will is a convincing communicator: bearded and smiley, dressed not in robes but in jeans, conspicuously one of us.

The Beeja Meditation retreat near Arundel

There are 15 in attendance, eight women, seven men, ranging from 24 to 70. Were a cosmopolitan bunch: theres a Saudi, a Lebanese, one from Guadalupe, another from South Korea. Two from Essex. Some, like me, have medical issues, others are struggling with anxiety, depression and such pronounced social media addiction that handing over phones upon arrival proves problematic. Im to share a dorm for four but mercifully theres just two of us this weekend.

After an introductory dinner of nut loaf, Wills co-instructor, Niamh Keane, reminds us of the house rules: up at 6.45am, in bed by 10.30pm; respect one anothers confidentiality. No sex and no solo sex, as Niamh puts it, just unbroken serenity and purity of mind. Were detoxing, so can have neither caffeine nor alcohol. No breakfast either, a fact that horrifies us all initially but becomes curiously unimportant by day two.

On a meditation retreat I find you meditate, and do precious little else. Beejas version comprises a succession of rounding exercises: 15 minutes of yoga, five minutes of alternate nostril breathing, 20 of meditation, and 10 of the flat-on-your-back yoga pose, shavasana. Were all given an individual secret mantra to repeat silently (though whos to say we dont have the same one?!). For three days.

A Beeja Meditation retreat guest tries alternate nostril breathing

At first, most of us choose to do our exercises communally, in the living room, but increasingly we drift off in pursuit of solitude. I thought Id struggle, because meditating at home is difficult, but here, with no distractions, I slide into it as if it were a hot bath. Hours pass, then hours more.

Respite comes in the evenings, after simple vegetarian food (rice and dhal, Thai soup), when Will sits, Buddha-like, with us at his feet while he shares his vedic-derived wisdom. Hes a practitioner of many years and is so convinced of his disciplines ability to heal the world that he can tend towards the over-prescriptive. He condemns most diets in favour of an ayurvedic-approved one, and proffers opinion on antidepressants, climate change, and Trump voters. He tells us that the introduction of 5G will kill off the insect world, that we should never cross our legs, and how we must avoid eating onions because the skin contains properties that promote selfishness. Much of what he says is fascinating, plenty else sails far above our heads.

Vegetarian food is served during the four-day retreat

He asks how our sessions are going and when I tell him that during one of mine my hands began to levitate and my fingers grew like intertwining tree branches, as if I were morphing into a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, he beams with pleasure and says: Youve shifted some serious energy there, fella.

The more we meditate, the more our protective bubble expands. When we come to leave, Niamh implores we take care upon re-entering the world outside, as we will be newly hypersensitive to light, noise, other people. Be gentle with yourselves, she advises.

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From superfoods to yoga, this 500bn-plus global industry often comes at a high price

Exhausted from working 15-hour days running her own marketing agency in London, Jo Millers evenings would consist of a cocktail of takeaways, Ubers and impulse purchases. Id end up spending 100 at Waitrose, grabbing a takeaway or going out for dinner as I didnt have the energy to cook. At the train station Id feel the need to buy something, so Id end up spending loads at Oliver Bonas. It was all instant gratification.

That was two years ago. Since then, Miller has closed the business, moved to Margate and launched a new career as a sound therapist, using a combination of alchemy crystal singing bowls and her voice to relax clients. And with the life shift, she has dramatically focused her time and money on one particular area: wellness.

Instead of unhealthy takeaways and excessive shopping, the 42-year-old spends 18,000 a year on her wellbeing. This includes 3,200 a year on a transpersonal psychotherapist, 3,000 on retreats, and 1,000 on supplements, probiotics and vitamins. She also receives a weekly organic fruit and vegetable box, has a CrossFit membership and enjoys regular treatments such as massages.

Jo Miller with her alchemy crystal singing bowls in Margate

For Miller, wellness is about people reconnecting and being comfortable in their mind and spirit level. Before, people were distracting themselves through consumerism. Now, Miller says, she has completely switched her expenditure. Wellness is the new currency, she adds.

But at 18,000 a year, how can Miller afford it? For her, its about refocusing her life choices. I spend very little on anything else. I dont have a mortgage and I have lodgers to support the money I make from working as a sound therapist.

Miller is far from the only person spending their hard-earned cash on wellness, which can range from spin classes and meditation sessions to organic food and kombucha drinks. In fact, the global market for health and wellness reached 532bn in 2016, and is expected to grow to 632bn by 2021, according to Euromonitor International.

Yoga at the Soul Circus festival, soundtracked by Faithless star Maxi Jazz

Wellness encapsulates everything from superfood-charged smoothies to sleeping aids and yoga mats. Festivals, which used to be primarily focused on music, are also placing more emphasis on wellness.

This years Womad devoted two acres to its spa and wellbeing area, and featured 40 vendors and therapists offering everything from meditation with a Buddhist monk to shamanic healing. Wellness festivals such as Soul Circus in the Cotswolds, which costs up to 199, are also sprouting up, giving festivalgoers the chance to tap into everything from meditation and kids yoga classes to nutrition demos and sober morning raves. I wanted to create a balanced event that left you feeling rejuvenated and inspired rather than hungover and unhealthy, says Soul Circus founder Ella Wroath.

James Veal, 42, a project manager working in central government, describes his wellness journey as a slow burn for the best part of a decade before he seriously ramped it up two years ago. I started feeling my age a little I felt stiff when exercising, and I was reaching that midpoint where I thought I have a whole other half of my life left and I want to make sure it is in better quality, he says.

James Veal takes fitness seriously including climbing

He invested in a Vitamix blender (from 299) so he could make smoothies from nuts, leafy greens and a micro algae supplement, which sets him back about 100 for two months supply. He now spends about 30 a week buying organic food from the local farmers market plus 50 on an Abel & Cole delivery.

He also has plans to visit a wellness retreat abroad. Im fortunate as I have some disposable income, so it doesnt feel like a huge sacrifice, says Veal, who estimates he spends about 250 a month on his wellbeing. However, his health kick means the Londoner spends less eating out, as he avoids food that may contain pesticides, and he has cut back on alcohol. The result, although more costly, has had benefits. I feel amazing. Its honestly been a revelation to me I sleep much better, he says. I used to have occasional periods of insomnia, but Ive lost weight, my skin is clearer, and people comment that my skin is glowing.

But is this level of wellness only attainable to a few middle class high earners with the income and some might say credulity to afford the high spending? Gwyneth Paltrows wellbeing business Goop, which has been under fire for endorsing treatments such as vaginal steaming and inserting jade eggs, stocks aromatherapy oil for $85 (66).

Demonstrating the Vitamix food blender, which costs from 299 and upwards. Photograph: Alamy

The trend has developed a reputation for being quite expensive and elitist, says Sarah Housley, senior editor of lifestyle at trend forecaster WGSN. At the more luxury end of the market, wellness also became a way for people to show off their wealth more subtly than by buying an expensive handbag or car instead, they could go to exclusive yoga classes and drink expensive juices a trend that we call wellthness.

Gina Clarke, 31, a freelance PR executive, says she moved to a more wellness-fuelled lifestyle in 2016 after she visited her parents and saw they had invested in a juice blender. After a quick Google and realising the health benefits, I was soon juicing up my own smoothies, she says. I used to have a green juice for breakfast and then something avocado or egg-based for lunch.

However, she soon found keeping up the lifestyle was too much to bear. Ive gone to my fair share of yoga retreats but found it so hard to recreate at home. My yoga ball lies deflated a little like me. I soon realised the search for the Instagram lifestyle was getting a bit too tiring alongside work and a family life. Now my stress levels have come down considerably.

Gina Clarke says wellness can be an affordable lifestyle. Photograph: Scott Miller/Wiltshire Photography

Despite the pricey fitness studios and 10 green smoothies, Housley says wellness can be affordable: You can drink more water for free, you can do yoga or pilates from a YouTube video at home.

Veal is the first to admit that he undertakes wellness activities that dont cost money: he meditates twice a day for 20 minutes and runs several times a week.

Housley says there is a move to more conscious conversation around wellness, with a focus on making it more accessible and inclusive. People are increasingly trying to find a balance, shifting their priorities from self-care to community care, and theres a growing backlash towards brand partnerships that exclude certain people or dont truly support the community, she adds.

Wellness, including reflexology, has become more of a focus at festivals such as Womad. Photograph: Alamy

Despite the myriad of trends that crop up in wellness, whether its acai bowls or forest bathing, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, believes the essence of what keeps us healthy remains the same.

These include not smoking, only drinking alcohol in moderation, getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet and taking regular exercise, she says. She warns against fads that claim to improve health and wellbeing.

They might be well-intentioned, but they are often not supported by robust clinical evidence. Trends can be useful for raising awareness of new or changing health issues and for getting people involved in improving their own health, but by definition they might not be around for long. Thats why its essential that as a society we all work together to encourage each other to lead healthier lifestyles, not just for a few months of the year, but permanently.

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