Monday, November 11, 2013

Flexible feats in Southern Spain

I wrote this story for 50 Connect to encourage people over 50 to try something super healthy and a little adventurous in their travels!

I spend the first 20 minutes of the yoga class kicking myself for forgetting to pack my cosy fleece. Not that I am cold in the slight chill of the Spanish morning. It’s just that the mind likes to obsess about something, anything.

The postures become more strenuous. I’ve broken a sweat and I’m ripping off my t-shirt. I calm down and realise with a gasp of awe that the entire wall is a window onto the parched, golden hills of the Alpujarras. The bird song mingles with the yoga teacher’s soothing voice as I drop into a Downward Dog.

How did I get here? Just yesterday I was home in Kent watching the autumn leaves fall and anticipating a ferocious storm. Two and a half hours flight out of Gatwick and I landed at Malaga on the southern coast of Spain and was whisked away by the delightful Julie, an English ex-pat with a sideline in transporting guests into the hills.

We talked passionately about the possibilities of life after 50 along dark, twisting roads to the Kaliyoga Retreat outside the little town of Orgiva where I was shown to my comfortable room and lapsed into a fitful sleep, excited about the mysterious week ahead. I was the latecomer. The other eight guests had arrived in daylight and eased into the new surroundings.

By noon Monday I am baking my white flesh by the silent, dappled pool. Lying contentedly alongside the other bikini-clad ladies on loungers, we observe a no-talking pact, unwinding from the stresses left behind. A gentle breeze softens the sting of the bold overhead sun and a fluffy, ginger cat sidles up to the languid humans for a scratch. Sorry Puss, it’s almost lunchtime and a feast of wholesome, yummy goodies entices us into the colourful dining room.

Some people have all the luck! That’s me! How divine to find myself in this Mediterranean
paradise at the tail end of October in the approach to the bleak English winter. How thrilling that the Kaliyoga Retreat is just a few hours away by plane and car ready to rescue any miserable soul dragged down by the iron fist of grey skies, icy winds and humdrum routine. If that’s you, just imagine, you could be here instead!

Yoga is beneficial for all ages, but especially kind to those of us over 50. I’ve been doing yoga on and off since my teens and when I return to a familiar posture with a comical animal name; the dog, the cat, the cobra, the fish, the lion, the dolphin, the camel, the crow or the eagle or the powerful warrior, the shoulder stand, the bridge or a spinal twist, my body breathes a sigh of welcome recognition: “Oh thank you! I remember that!” But I must be honest every stretch of this 56-year-old body hurts! 

Experienced yoga teacher, Arantza, who is turning 50, says at this mature stage of life you start to listen to every nuance of your body and respect your body as a temple of the soul. Having acquired intuitive wisdom you can have a fuller, holistic experience of yoga.

I come away from each session a little more flexible, a little more unravelled and a little more present to the here and now, able to absorb the natural beauty all around. 

For aches and pains there’s a selection of miraculous massages and treatments by skilful, nurturing therapists. My knotted-up fellow guests rave about the results.

The other guests have come from New York, Dublin, Brussels, Munich and London and by supper we are all ready to chat and socialise over Wes the Wonder Chef’s scrumptious three-course meal of Vegetable Frittata and Pesto, Baked Spicy Aubergines and Tabouleh and Caramelised Apple Crumble with Salted Caramel Sauce! Absolutely delicious!

Vivienne, 58, from Dublin loves this place so much it’s her second visit. The first time she came with a friend and was a little sceptical as a yoga novice but was pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoyed it. She says: “I loved the food, the people, the therapies, the yoga, the relaxing atmosphere, the walks, everything! The staff are so easy-going but extremely professional.

“As a single woman, I felt completely happy to come back on my own. To be amongst a small group of like-minded, friendly people and to be able to take time out for myself is very restorative. I experienced the deaths of close friends recently and this has been a way to do something life-affirming. I plan to come back every year.”

The vegetarian food is sublime. For me, as a committed veggie, the gourmet meals are a true delight and for carnivore guests the variety of delicious plant-based food is a true revelation.

The schedule for a six-day stay is perfectly designed to take in yoga classes, therapies, hiking through the idyllic countryside, horse riding (an optional extra) and sightseeing in historic Granada!

Hiking in the hills surrounding Orgiva is on the schedule for Tuesday so we all set off early with a packed lunch to meet our flamboyant guide, Francisco who tells us how the region is a magnet for rat race escapees from around the world seeking an alternative, idyllic, rural lifestyle. Centuries ago, the Moors built irrigation channels throughout the arid slopes that continue to water flourishing crops of olive groves and lemon orchids, almond and walnut trees.

Francisco is an expert in edible wild plants with healing properties and he pauses to pick
leaves and fruits for us to taste, explaining the health benefits along the way. Thankfully the autumnal weather is mild, perfect in fact, for a challenging four-hour hike. We stop for a picnic lunch in a shady spot then stumble across a herd of goats being driven through the valley by the herdsman and two feisty dogs. What a bucolic vision!

I’m hobbling on sore feet with aching calf muscles by the time we get back to the retreat to freshen up before the evening yoga class. But Arantza has my hamstrings straightened out in no time!

Another appetising feast of generous proportions from creative chef, Heather has us groaning with satiety as we push back from the table and head for our tranquil rooms.

The lovely Cassie and Leah are charming hostesses and capable John helps out with organising outings and transfers. The Kaliyoga Retreat was started in 2002 by dynamic couple Johnathon and Rosie Miles who had a vision to create a sanctuary of peace and self-discovery.

Come Wednesday, after a vigorous yoga session, six of us are off to explore historic Granada! We are spirited along winding roads by local driver Marco who regales us with stories of Granada’s distinguished past as the city where Christopher Columbus persuaded Queen Isabella to sponsor his crazy voyage to find the Americas in 1491!

We wander around the awe-inspiring Alhambra Palace, said to be the unofficial eighth
wonder of the world! The exquisitely carved marble and tile buildings date back to the 13th century and must be seen to be believed!
As it turns dark and cold, we find a little café for tapas and later a stylish restaurant to sample the local cuisine and finally rendezvous with Marco for our ride back to the retreat, mesmerised by the twinkling lights of the city.

I am embarrassed to admit that I almost chicken out on the exhilarating hike on Thursday because my legs are so sore from more exercise in a few days than I would usually do in a month! I am tempted to laze by the pool with a book but muster the resolve at the last minute and throw on my backpack and grab my chunky Canon to join our enthusiastic group piling into cars to ferry us to the lofty starting point high above the Sierra with a view across the ocean to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

I am so glad I didn’t ‘wimp out’ as now I get to push myself beyond my limits. As we climb and climb the dusty track amongst the beautiful forest my heart and lungs almost explode! I push on and on, with encouragement from Cassie and Francisco and do some deep yogic breathing and focus on the sky, not my weary feet, until finally we reach a natural spring for a brief respite!

Onward and upward we trek taking in the magnificent views across the Alpujarra mountains to collapse at our shady lunch spot under two sturdy oak trees. I’ve got to admit I feel mighty proud of my efforts and know this is a rare, sparkling day to remember.  More
delights lay ahead as suddenly a massive bronze statue of the Buddha Tara appears, perched cheekily on a mountaintop and a herd of goats graze on the yellow grass as we meditate!

The last part of the hike sees us edging along a narrow track perilously high looking down into a dramatic valley and upward across the rugged range.
The drive back is peaceful as we savour the best kind of physical and mental exhaustion!

After a pumpkin-inspired supper in honour of Halloween, with a delectable orange-lime-lemon almond cake for dessert, two talented, flexible performers from the local village treat us to an acrobatic-magic show!

By Friday morning I am doing a strenuous two-hour yoga class without my mind wandering. I’ve gained a degree of inner strength and stamina. Arantza’s charming Spanish-accented instructions are now feeding my soul with encouragement to expect more of myself and stop making excuses because of my “age”.

Connecting with the fit and feisty, agile and active people in their 50s here in energising Orgiva makes me realise age is really just a state of mind.

On my last day I experience a powerful deep-tissue massage with Aussie character Patricia, who strengthened her back and hands on fishing boats off the coast of Darwin before training in the healing secrets of massage and moving to the colourful, international community in Orgiva!

For our last evening session of yoga in the twilight we do partner work, supporting each other in forward bends, back bends and even headstands! It is incredible what you can do as a team!

An exotic vegetarian Indian feast completes the week’s delectable meals as we celebrate our personal triumphs and new friendships and say our fond farewells; going home, rejuvenated and transformed by the earthy tranquillity and gentle caring of Kaliyoga.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

HEALTH MATTERS Releasing Toxins, Shedding Weight and Regaining Health in Just Five Days!

Despite my healthy veggie diet and heroic efforts with the jogging group, I was piling on the pounds, spilling out of my pants, feeling lethargic and battling embarrassing skin problems.

I knew intuitively my malaise called for a radical intervention. So one despondent Saturday morning I Google searched “detox retreats” and up popped the Simply Healing Detox Retreat at beautiful Alliblaster House in leafy West Sussex, not far from our home in Kent.

Bingo! I knew this was “it” even though there were many other excellent retreats to choose from. Simply Healing was voted Best Detox Retreat in the UK by prestigious Vogue magazine and described as “a million miles away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.”

My email was answered immediately and there was a place available within two weeks. Effortlessly, smooth as silk, I was booked in and all set for a five-day internal cleanse and delightful pampering in a serene rural setting.

The centrepiece of the Detox is colonic hydrotherapy, which involves cleaning out the colon (large intestine or bowel). The process is gentle and hygienic and carried out by expert therapists with great respect and professionalism.

The Detox requires consuming only fresh juices, soups and broth and a mixture of apple juice, clay and psyllium with probiotics and herbal supplements.

By stopping eating solid food, you give your overworked digestive system a rest and chance to release toxins through the bowel, urinary system, lymphatic system and skin. Your body is replenished with nutrients from the juices and broth and most importantly, if you are overweight, you rapidly shed the pounds and kick-start your sluggish metabolism into fat-burning mode. As a bonus you receive lashings of nurturing and care from skilled therapists.

I was ready and rearing to go but quietly anxious because I know what happens to me when I stop eating. I’m used to eating every two to three hours to stabilise erratic blood sugar levels and if I skip a meal I suffer headaches and nausea.

But stepping inside the massive charming country manor house, brimming with comfy sofas and soft furnishings, was like being embraced by a reassuring hug and instantly I felt safe and knew I was in a good, kind place.

Owner Vivien, a renowned healer who has studied ancient, natural healing arts around the world and leads tour groups in Peru and other exotic destinations, welcomed me warmly.  Lovely Kate, a former nurse, showed me around the sumptuous lounge rooms, vibrant with colour and artworks. My cosy upstairs room commanded peaceful views across the lush fields. 

There were eight women on my program who had travelled from all over the UK, keen to shed excess weight and rest from stressful jobs and recharge, revitalise and rejuvenate.

That first night we sat together around the formal dining table, apprehensive about what we’d let ourselves in for, clutching our mugs of Carrot and Coriander Soup, chatting and getting to know each other then retired to our rooms early with our own thoughts and hopes.

Predictably swapping my usual big carb-loaded evening meal for soup sent my system into shock and the headaches and nausea set in. At 5 am I was throwing up and on the brink of a migraine.

I pushed through to face the first round of juice and clay drink and felt sick all morning and
worried about how long it would take to feel normal. All the others seemed to be sailing through their first day without solid food.

I had read that 24 to 48 hours into a fast your digestive system stops expecting food and switches to drawing energy from the fat stored in the cells. Now that’s what I wanted to happen! So I persevered and by mid-afternoon I stopped craving food, the nausea eased and my whole system settled into a contented state.

I was able to ride through that initial rough patch with understanding chats with the other guests, an invigorating salt scrub with the lovely young April, and a colon massage (on the stomach!) with Aor, a gentle Thai lady with powerful, healing hands. I was off and away and from Day Two, the Cleanse was blissful.

In the immaculate candle-lit therapy room, I stripped down to a paper thong and April took my measurements and then slathered on a detoxing mixture of algae and clay and wrapped me tightly in bandages like a mummy. I eased myself into a thermal bag and lay there sweating while she gave me a soothing head and face massage. When April measured me again I’d instantly lost almost 14 inches! I could feel my waist again!

Florence, an elegant French naturopath gave me an exquisite reflexology treatment hitting all the key points before my first colonic hydrotherapy session with Helen, who has been dedicated to this health-giving work for several years.

Like everyone else on the course, I marvelled at the amount of old rubbish that came out of my body and was thrilled to be rid of it! Waste accumulates over the years and toxins can leach through walls of the colon made porous from Candida, which some health practitioners say is the root cause of a host of unexplained illnesses.

Vivien says the Detox is ideal for women and men over 50 to lose flab, correct nagging health problems and rejuvenate. “People aged from 50 to 80 come here and clean their colons of a lifetime of rubbish.”

I had a second colonic treatment with Carolyn who also set me straight on the mistakes I was making with my diet. She advised against the ready-made vegetarian meals, made from soya protein, with the wisdom that anything processed is not as pure as meals you make yourself. So I will now take the time to whip up my own scrumptious lentil burgers, bean chilli and chickpea curry.

Carolyn also suggested I break a lifelong habit of eating huge evening meals. She offered the homespun motto; “Eat for what you are going to do, not for what you’ve done!” It is far better to eat a hearty breakfast and lunch when you need the energy during the day and have only a light, carb-free evening meal. I know this will be a magic key to continuing weight loss.

And two more tips from Carolyn: Eat natural foods every colour of the rainbow and chew each mouthful 20 to 30 times to help your poor digestive system and eat less!

Natalie gave me the best and deepest massage I’ve ever had. It was painful (in a good way) as she released the tension I’ve been carrying in my neck, shoulders and back from endless hours hunched over the computer.

On my last day Aor gave me another deep tissue neck massage and I had an intriguing Hopi Candle treatment with Carolyn to clear the ears and nasal passages. It really worked! I now feel much clearer in the head!  
The all-female team of expert therapists are not only skillful and knowledgeable but
profoundly nurturing, which is salve for the soul as well as the body.

Kate and Vivien made the delicious juices, which seemed to be just perfect for our needs each day. My favourite combinations included Strawberry, Plum and Apple and Lime, Apple and Sweet Potato and I loved the savoury broth brewed from a variety of fresh veggies.

The course was ideally paced between treatments and free time to laze on the sun lounges or rest in your room. Kate led us on brisk early morning country walks and we relaxed around the open fire at night with guided meditations.

The whole experience is so easy for the guests yet obviously much hard work is going on behind the scenes to make the colourful, energising juices appear on the table every few hours and ensure that everything runs like clockwork.

Vivien and her family established Alliblaster House in 2000 so they have fine-tuned and perfected the Detox program over more than a decade with countless exuberant guests (who have scrawled their glowing reviews replete with superlatives and exclamation marks in the Visitors’ Book). 

I went home feeling like a new woman, 10 pounds lighter, with a fierce commitment to continuing healthy self-care. The Detox has kick-started the fat burning process in my body and I’m determined to continue losing weight with juices, soups and salads and a fresh new outlook. I would love to return every year for a tune-up!

Who would think it possible to achieve so much healing and transformation in just five days! I am grateful for to the wise, healing, nurturing women of magical Alliblaster House for the gift of regaining my health and energy!