I’ll be honest. When I first signed up for a yoga retreat in the desert I was thinking more glamping than camping. It was only when I had an email instructing me to take a sleeping bag, loo roll and a lighter to burn said loo roll (after digging a hole in the sand to go to the toilet) that I realised this retreat was not going to be of a five-star nature. So, I had a few doubts about how much I was going to enjoy the week: I mean, what’s so great about a big pile of sand anyway?
The two-day journey from Marseilles to the Moroccan desert involving two planes, a six hour mini bus journey and a rocky ride in a jeep didn’t do much to kickstart my enthusiasm. It’s fair to say I was tired and grumpy when I arrived in the desert. My mood wasn’t helped by the fact I’d had a pretty nasty bout of flu and was in the final stages of recovery so would have liked nothing more than a bath and a bed. Dream on.
But after the first day, the lack of creature comforts didn’t bother me or the rest of the group. We had a real treat half way through the week when we had a chance to have a shower – a bucket of water chucked over our heads from the nearest well where the camels drink.
And I realised that the simpler living conditions are, the more you can take pleasure in the small things, like a companion’s smile, a nomad’s guitar playing, a juicy pomegranate seed or the delicate flavours of Moroccan tea.
In the desert there are no buildings, no roads, no sign of civilisation apart from the occasional campsite and distant camel trek. Just sand dunes, rolling one after another into the distance as far as you can see.
When you have so much space, you can be yourself, without the distractions of people, products and electrical power. I was free to draw, dance, roll around in the dunes and generally behave in a way that is not deemed acceptable for a 33-year-old woman in civilised society. So I enjoyed “spacing out” in the desert, running up and rolling down the dunes, soaking up picture perfect sunsets. Life felt easier and more fun there.
One night I decided to sleep out under the stars instead of in my tent. So I dragged my bedding into the crater of a dune and lay low until the stars came out. I felt a bit scared as I’m not used to sleeping somewhere open and completely silent but I grew more comfortable with the silence.
When I lay down and looked up it felt like I was suspended in the night sky. And it wasn’t uncommon to see a shooting star flicker past. It felt like I was staring infinity in the face, with galaxies stretching light years away. In fact, infinity was an important theme for the week; infinite stars, infinite sand and infinite time and enjoyment.
Our retreat was guided by a fantastic yogini, Elodie Huertas, who is a true follower of yoga, with a deep interest and understanding of its roots and its energetic power. Forget the stretching, straining and sweating of a typical yoga class. Practising with Elodie is like going to an ancient and undiscovered part of yourself and working from the inside outwards. So you’ll still find those physical releases and deep stretches but you’ll be led by your breath, your energy and your intent, which means releasing things much deeper than muscular tensions.
What’s more, we were practising yoga outside, on the dunes, with the earth literally moving below our feet and the sun beating down. (I’ll gloss over the part about the swarms of flies going up my nose because that wasn’t important). What mattered was the way the power of the practice.
Physical yoga was really just a small part of this retreat. Elodie covered philosophy, pranayama (breath work) and chanting every day. I’d never seen myself as much of a chanter. As I self consciously repeat a set of unfamiliar words it hasn’t exactly felt like enlightenment was knocking at my door. But I enjoyed chanting in the desert. I think the chanting had more power because of where we were. The desert gives the space you need to sing loud without worrying about anyone caring what you’re doing. Our voices resonated over the rolling dunes and up to the starry skies. As I chanted and omm’d my way through each day, I began to feel better, lighter, happier and healthier.
During the week, when my thoughts turned to the outside world, I had a strong realisation of just how much mental noise and madness that can creep into my life if I’m not careful. So I wrote a list to help me survive back in the “real” world. They might sound obvious but they are all points I struggle to remember when things get crazy.
- Keep reading about different elements of spirituality, go to workshops and practise yoga with different teachers: Every time I read something or go to a class I connect with something different, which helps me in my everyday life
- Breathe: Doing a morning deep breathing practice is becoming more and more essential to me, giving me at least a few moments of calmness, whatever else happens in the day
- Only check social media once a day: OK, I’ve already failed on this front but it is something I want to work towards as there’s so much noise from social channels that distracts me and takes up my energy when I could be doing more constructive and fulfilling things. I’m going to try to avoid too much TV and magazines for the same reason
- Do not do too much: This is a major challenge, as I always want to power through things and often forget that the journey is what matters but my desert experience reminded me how powerful and nourishing it can be to “just be”, without “doing” all the time
So that’s my take on the desert. I thought it was going to be a hostile, hard place and I wasn’t expecting to fall for its charms but I found that it welcomed me and reminded me of some important home truths. I’ve got some nice photos to look back over but what I really want to keep as a memento is the space, silence and joyfulness that I found in the desert.
It may not be in the desert but if you feel the need for a restorative few days of yoga, sign up for the Cotswolds Yoga Retreat that I’m hosting from Feb 22-26 2018. Details here.
And if you want to go on your own desert adventure, this is the website of the wonderful guides that looked after us so well.