All photos by Monique Pantel.
Looking back now, it’s sort of crazy that I signed up for the all-women Nourish in Nature yoga retreat in rural Portugal, without knowing almost anything about it.
I had never been to Portugal before. Though I’ve been regularly practicing yoga since college, I hadn’t done a yoga retreat in a decade. I hadn’t ever taken a class from the Australian yoga teacher, Fiona MacLeod. Nor did I understand or really trust the term “medical herbalist,” which is what the co-founder Sara calls herself. I haven’t spent time in an all-female space since college sorority life, and I am not eager to recreate that experience.
All I knew is that a friend of Fiona’s found me on the internet, and said that Fiona is a wonderful yoga teacher with ten years of experience, and had been running retreats for over six years, but tragically, she had lost her own retreat center last year in a wildfire, and this year she was bringing the retreat back to an eco-friendly resort in the same area of Portugal. And I should come to the retreat.
A straight-up cold email. Why would I trust this stranger and travel hours outside of Lisbon to put myself in the hands of an unknown-to-me yoga teacher and herbalist for a week? This is not my usual M.O.
And yet, something drew me to it. Maybe it was the fact that it aligned perfectly with our travel schedule, which would take us to Lisbon right around that time. Maybe it was something about the retreat website – a humbleness and clarity came through, free of woo-woo speak, overpromises, or overproduced promotional videos that I’ve come to recognize from experience as fronting an expensive faux-spiritual event. My gut said to trust that it would work out well.
Sure, I said. I want to come.
I invited Holly from Leotie Lovely to come down from Paris, knowing she loves Portugal. She invited her friend and photographer Monique Pantel (who took all the pictures in this article) to come from Winnipeg, Canada. And then we spread the word among EWC members, and got a group to go together.*
I’m so glad I did. The universe brought me to a special place, with special people. And it’s just what I needed.
I won’t share my personal journey, with you, though. Because my journey is not yours.
Instead, I’m just going to tell you all about the aspects of the retreat, so you can learn more about it and sign up if it speaks to you. There’s a retreat coming up in March. I urge you to make time and space in your budget for it if you feel like you need something but you’re not sure what. I promise, it’s worth it.
But judge for yourself…
I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten so healthfully and deliciously for five days.
On Sunday, we arrived on the last train from Lisbon, were picked up from the station, and traveled through the solid countryside darkness down a gravel road to the retreat. Even though it was almost 11 pm, we found a full spread of hot squash soup; dense and moist vegan bread, crisp kale salad with sprouted lentils, ad vegetable crudités and dip, all followed by fresh cherries for dessert.
This would be a theme of the retreat. The chef, Gabi, prepared meals with an overwhelming variety of nutrient-dense and delicious vegetarian (vegan optional) food, served hot and family style.
I felt like we were stuffing ourselves with food from 10 am to 8 pm everyday. There was so much variety of deliciousness at every meal to savor, that we piled it onto our plates likes bears storing fat for the winter. And yet, despite the restorative nature of yoga and the many hours spent cuddled under blankets by the fire with our books and in conversation, none of us felt like we gained any weight during the retreat. Maybe that’s because all the food was sugar-free, and the only carbs were a meal of pasta, and crusty grilled bread served at breakfast every day. Or maybe it was because we naturally followed a time-restricted feeding schedule, not eating breakfast until we had finished our morning yoga.
We felt pampered but not spoiled by the food, full but not stuffed. I could almost feel the nutrients flowing through my veins on their way to perking up my cells and setting my digestive system right on track.
I had arrived with the expectation, bred in the United States and more specifically in NYC and LA, that we would be doing two challenging yoga classes a day. What is a retreat if not for improving your postures, sweating until you’re sore, and incorporating more impressive moves into your repertoire?
Actually, that is exactly what this particular retreat is not about, as I quickly learned. This retreat was about healing, taking the time to truly retreat inward and having the luxury of gazing at yourself and asking what you and your body needs, and leave feeling better and with ideas and energy for living a little bit healthier.
Each day focused on a different chakra or element, such earth, water, fire, air, and space. There was one yoga class in the morning, and three days had an afternoon class of yoga nidra, a type of yoga meditation that involves lying on the floor and being lulled into a state of focused yet relaxed half-sleep. For the next hour, you will not have to move, was one of the instructions Fiona read to us.
The morning class I would describe as deliberate: strong, focused, and calm. Fiona is a remarkably experienced and informed, yet humble, teacher. I was clued into how passionate and well-educated she is through casual conversation after class, in which we would ramble over a wide range of topics. She would bring up this branch of yoga, or that immersive workshop she participated in. To talk with Fiona is to realize just how little you know about yoga, to take a look through a peephole revealing just part of yoga’s breadth and depth. I sensed a kindred spirit in her curiosity and intelligence, her grounding in research and science. She even pulled a slim book out for me called Exposing Yoga Myths, which I devoured in one sitting.
But despite her experience and knowledge, she was never prescriptive. She led us through the poses, but she never said we were doing it wrong. She never pushed us too hard, or questioned our choices. She even gave us permission to sleep during yoga nidra. “If you fall asleep, then sleep is what you need,” she said.
In a sense, the yoga we practiced with her was one of trusting our bodies and instincts, and allowing ourselves to actually and fully relax and love ourselves. This is such a contrast to what I and many others have experienced at festivals or classes in our respective cities, where yoga teachers tell us to try harder, you’re doing it wrong, you should be doing it this way. Instead, Fiona wandered about the room, with precise and helpful instructions, and the lightest of adjustments to our arms or hips.
The Herbal Workshops
Every day at noon, after we had a little time to digest our breakfast of chia pudding, Greek-style yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit, we would meet in the little tiled kitchen next door to the main area and settle into the plush chairs, wrapping ourselves in blankets, for the herbal workshops. They were led by the retreat co-founder, Sara Rooney.
Sara Rooney is a Medical Herbalist, not to be confused with a plain “herbalist,” “functional nutritionist,” or “naturopath,” all of whom are poorly regulated in the U.S. and Europe, and who, frankly, I rarely trust. To call yourself a Medical Herbalist, you have to do three to four years of schooling in the U.K. that includes pharmacology and biology, 500 hours of time in a clinic, and then have continuing education. Their recommendations are based on traditional herbal and nutritional remedies that are backed by research and clinical trials.
I arrived a total skeptic. But this is a combination that I can get behind: A prioritizing of natural remedies and nutrition that treats underlying causes, but that are based in science and take into account any medications that your medical doctor has prescribed. This mix of natural and modern medicine really showed in Sara’s approach. She gave us the tools we needed to improve our own health, but never made sweeping pronouncements. She said things like, “I don’t think there are any natural remedies that can cure cancer.” Or, “Some people DIY sunscreen and I don’t think that is a good idea.”
In each class, she addressed another branch of her work: natural and nutritious foods, tinctures and infused oils and how to make them, the functions of various herbs and identification, adaptogens, and herbal harvesting. Like a particularly healthy cooking class, she demonstrated how to make nut milks, turmeric lattes, balm for bug bites, and more. She also gave us a really useful quiz that indicated whether we might have so much stress that it was affecting our health, and we had the option to sign up for a personal session with her, if we had some health issues we were struggling with.
The Other Attendees
“Everyone seems quite grounded,” Sara said at the beginning of a workshop, as she gazed around at everyone in the room.
It was true. I can’t promise every Nourish in Nature retreat will have this particular alchemy of warm, kind, smart and welcoming women. But I was floored with how well everyone on the retreat got along, despite being from different backgrounds.
There was Ruth, the fellow Burning-Man-festival goer, an enthusiastic flower child who dispensed compliments and angel tarot cards. There was Lisa, Ruth’s friend, a young German woman visiting from Berlin with a shaved head and shy smile. There was Emma, a single mum from England whose lilting voice brought me a spark of joy every time she spoke. Laura, a nonprofit arts education worker, and I had long conversations about her time in Ecuador. Jill, the retreat volunteer, was a kind and steady presence throughout the week. And then there were my fellow EWC members: Holly of Leotie Lovely, Florine of The Wasted Blog, Francesca of Ethical Unicorn, and Annie of Terumah, and finally, Holly’s friend and talented photographer Monique.
By the end of the week, during our closing circle, several women cried with gratitude and happiness as they shared what the resort meant to them. It was a spacious retreat that offered the tools to address the issues that plague so many of us modern women – stress, digestive and hormone issues, self-doubt, guilt – but didn’t get offended if you didn’t feel the need to take them.
I teared up too. It hadn’t just outdone my expectations. Fiona and Sara had totally underpromised, and then overdelivered on the love and heart. They showed me a new way of thinking about health and friendship and being in the company of women. My my mind and body was truly nourished by the people, food, and yoga given to me. And for that, I am so grateful – the the coincidence of travel that made this possible, to Fiona and Sara for creating it, Mabel for building this eco resort, Gabi for cooking the food, the weather and land of rural Portugal, and to my fellow resort attendees.
Isn’t this gratitude and being present what yoga is all about?
There is Nourish in Nature retreat coming up in March at a world-famous yoga retreat center in central Portugal. I urge you to make time and space in your budget for it if you feel like you need something, but you’re not sure what. I promise, it’s worth it.
*We partnered with Nourish in Nature to write about our experience in exchange for comped or discounted stays. What you’ve read above is my honest views and feelings about the retreat. You can also read Holly of Leotie Lovely’s review, Florine of The Wasted Blog’s review, Annie of Terumah’s review, and Francesca of Ethical Unicorn’s review.