Learning yoga at luxury farm retreat in Mayfield Sussex
- Credit: Saltwick Media
From the cobra to the cat, cow and corpse, Sussex Life editor Karen Pasquali Jones gets bendy to banish her pandemic posture on a countryside yoga retreat in Mayfield, East Sussex
‘Walk the dog. Into the Tree. Happy Baby.’ The words may have sounded like the first three tasks on my daily ‘to do’ list, but they were, in fact, instructions from a yoga teacher standing – or rather posing – in front of me.
And while her voice sounded soft and deceptively soothing, the moves Kiri was asking my shocked body to make were anything but easy.
‘Warrior. Downward-dog,’ she commanded. ‘Now lift your left leg. No your left one, straight behind you and see if you can grab it with your hand.’
Bending over into a pose dogs naturally do to stretch, my arms began to shake with the pressure of trying to stop myself collapsing.
Gingerly, I lifted – or should that be cocked – my leg, and tried to reach behind me. My entire body wobbled. I leant the other way to try and correct myself, but it was too late. I was falling, the floor coming up to meet my face abruptly. I managed to twist just in time, and crash landed off my mat, narrowly missing the woman tranquilly posing next to me.
‘Sorry,’ I said, crouching down to catch my breath. ‘I’ve never done yoga before.’ Kiri gave me a sympathetic smile, while I consoled myself with a sniff of the lavender essential oil she’d rubbed on my wrist five minutes earlier and began wondering what was for dinner.
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It was 2pm and I’d just arrived at Fair Oak Farm for a three-day yoga retreat. Nestled in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Beauty, in Mayfield, East Sussex, I was now in a barn on the 12-acre estate along with a dozen or so women and one man who’d come to support his wife who was seven months pregnant. ‘I told my friends I was going on a farm stay,’ he said later. ‘I can’t remember if I mentioned there was yoga.’
Aged from their mid-twenties to 69, the other guests were mostly from London and serious Yogis. The only pose I’d ever struck before, however, was on the dance floor, and even that was years ago and not very pretty.
Wellbeing tourism is booming - it was estimated to be worth $639bn globally pre-Covid and is set to bounce back - with one in three people planning to incorporate yoga, spa treatments or meditation into their holidays, according to ABTA, the UK travel association.
I’d been tempted to come along for the fresh air, luxurious surroundings and naive belief that yoga couldn’t be that difficult. Five minutes into my first session and I was in trouble.
I had no balance. My muscles hadn’t been stretched throughout the pandemic and there was a little matter of that lockdown stone (make that one for each of the three in my case) preventing me from reaching my toes.
I didn’t even have anything to wear. Nothing fit, and what do you wear to yoga anyway? So while the others sported colour co-ordinated separates or leotards with cut outs to show off their taut stomachs, I’d slunk into the corner in my husband’s XL sweatshirt, and my teenage daughter’s baggy tracksuit bottoms which were a very snug fit on me.
Half an hour in, and I was desperate for the session of Hatha yoga (it’s a branch of yoga and means force) to be over so I could crawl back to my converted hay barn and lay down. But first it was time for some meditation and, finally, a pose I was good at – the corpse.
Laying splayed out on my yoga mat, I closed my eyes and listened to Kiri telling me to inhale and sink into the floor. She exalted us to be grateful. I was. The torture was over. For now. ‘Namaste’, I repeated at the end and leapt up, muscles creaking, eager to explore.
As well as two award-winning eco tree houses and a Grade II listed farmhouse, Fair Oak Farm offers accommodation in a converted grain barn, shepherd’s huts and lodges.
There’s also a gorgeous two-bedroom Oast house with a bathroom bigger than most people’s apartments, a wet room, and a glossy white kitchen and living room straight out an interiors magazine.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Peacocks roam freely around the estate, while cute alpacas graze outside my window. There’s plenty to keep everyone entertained when they’re not bending it like the Beckhams (yes they’re both fans).
There’s a cinema barn, play barn with ping pong table, a bijou treatment room offering deep tissue massages and facials, an infra-red sauna, and the studio barn where yoga, pilates, fitness and dance classes take place on weekend retreats throughout the year.
Food is a huge part of the attraction at the farm, offering vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes from chef Lottie Brook. Lunch the first day was a ‘creamy puddle of giant butter beans’ (puree to you and me) with crispy sage, caramelised root vegetables and hazelnuts. Supper was a ‘warm truffle mushroom crustini’ with a beetroot and horseradish risotto and a desert of cinnamon poached pear and dark chocolate.
Afterwards everyone gathered by the fire pit, for hot chocolate, while I went back to my room to rub Voltarol on my bruised knees caused by the second yoga session earlier that day.
A glass, or two, of prosecco from the bottle I’d smuggled in helped take my mind off my sore shoulders, creaking back and aching ribs, though I needn’t have been so worried as red and white wine had been served with dinner.
I slept well in my hay barn that night, which was just as well as it was up early the next morning for an 8am yoga session before breakfast. I glanced at the itinerary. There was another session before lunch, and one more pre-dinner.
My tummy rumbled and I stumbled into the barn to try and release my body from what the yoga teachers referred to as ‘pandemic posture’ – caused by months of on/off national lockdowns hunching over screens, slouching on sofas and generally slumping in PJs.
Kiri was especially cheerful. ‘Tabletop pose,’ she instructed. ‘Get on all fours imagining balancing a champagne bottle on your back. Roll your shoulders and let your belly sink towards the mat.’ Mine was naturally already mere millimetres from it, and the bulges would have made a far superior place on which to rest my Moet & Chandon coupe.
‘Now exhale, tucking your chin into your chest and arch your spine. Now up down, up down.’
Kiri was walking around the barn, checking our positions, moving limbs, and dispensing advice. ‘That’s good. I like your cow,’ she whispered. ‘Work on your cat. Arch. More. That’s better.’
My entire body was a wall of pain by the end of the session, and I hobbled to breakfast. The other guests were friendly, and had obviously noticed I’m a yoga novice. ‘At least you’re trying,’ they say, kindly.
I didn’t have enough strength to open the packet of granola. Luckily Sam, who is a natural even though he says he hasn’t done ‘much yoga before’, steps in to help, and I gulp down my cereal with cow’s milk – such a rare request Lottie had to go and look for an alternative to the oat and almond milks on the table.
There’s another yoga session in a few hours, but first we listened to Kristina, a pretty Californian instructor who moved to the UK after falling in love with a Brit, give a talk on self-love. She went on a diet after being called fat at 12 and learnt Ayurveda and Chinese medicine to improve her relationship with food.
MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT
‘There’s an emotional connection with yoga and with food,’ she told us. ‘It’s not about looking good in a bikini, you need to think: “What does my body need right now?” and if that’s a piece of chocolate, then listen to it.
‘I use my yoga practise for meditation – it’s so much deeper than just a way to exercise. You can go for a long walk for that. Yoga is empowering. It teaches you to love your body and your soul.’
She’s right. Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline stretching back 6,000 years to ancient India. This ‘union’ – which has long been associated with Hinduism and Buddhism is to achieve a balance between mind body and spirit.
I just wanted to get through the weekend without breaking or snapping something.
Two more yoga sessions later, and it was time to watch The Holiday together after dinner. Ten minutes in and I snuck off to the swanky Oast house with Hilary and Linda who have been friends for 30 years since working together at Barclays Bank in London. ‘We wanted to treat ourselves, and get better at yoga while having a weekend away,’ explained Hilary, the mother of twin boys. ‘I do my routine every morning at 6am before going to work. It helps keep me supple.’
By this time she’d laid out a feast of crisps, hula hoops and nuts, and opened a bottle of Freixenet rose. ‘Drink up,’ she said, winking. ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’
Yoga with a hangover before breakfast the next morning wasn’t much fun. Though I did see purple and gold when Kiri told us to repeat: ‘I am love.’ I didn’t know if it was the effects of the rose, or a deep meditative connection, but it certainly made the session more colourful.
Next stop was a facial in a teeny shed by the alpacas where Lauren expertly cleansed, massaged and nourished my skin. Then there was just time for a slurp of delicious celeriac soup with wholemeal bread before the next session. ‘Coming to yoga?’ Hilary smiled.
I needed my body to mend before I could do any more bending, and left clutching my Voltarol and with a new respect for yoga lovers. But I may return - if they put on a yoga retreat for absolute beginners.
Fair Oak Retreats offers four to six luxury wellness retreats at the award-winning Fair Oak Farm venue in Mayfield, East Sussex, home to peacocks, alpacas, chickens and sheep.
Prices start at £655pp for a single occupancy room and Sussex life readers can get a 10% discount for any 2022 retreat by quoting SL10 when booking.
2022 Retreat dates:
Revitalise – 21st-23rd January
Renourish – 26th-28th April
Restore – 18th-22nd July
Renew- 18th-20th October
Yoga & Yuletide – 2nd-4th December