[As featured in The Fit Traveller]
There’s a magical moment when you arrive at Les Passeroses in the middle of rural south-west France. Push open the anonymous blue door by the side of a dusty road, pass through the heady scent of honeysuckle and you unexpectedly find yourself next to an inviting swimming pool by an enchanting French farmhouse. This is what tranquillity looks like – and where I finally found it, after a few days on Kirsty Gallagher’s Yoga Bliss France retreat. I went seeking peace from a jumbled mind, ridden with anxiety from city living – and came back stronger both mentally and physically.
Speaking frankly, deepest rural France screams “eat own bodyweight in cheese and bathe in a vat of wine” to me more than “get your yoga on” – but Les Passeroses is a terrific retreat centre and features in a number of “world’s best retreat” lists. Nestled in farmland not far from the pretty town of Angouleme, there is little to do but walk, relax and just be – something I found overwhelming at first, as my shouty brain refused to pipe down. But after a couple of days the magic crept in; my mind calmed, my body relaxed and I felt fully myself for the first time in a while. Wild hair, no make-up… just me. And a wonderful group of kindred souls who accepted me just as I was.
The house is pure French idyll – thick stone walls, covered in ivy and punctuated with charming blue shuttered windows. It has a relaxed communal feel about it – there are plenty of bookshelves to rummage through, and the yoga studio is a beautifully tranquil and airy space looking out over the swimming pool. The gardens are full of hidden nooks in which to relax, read or snooze – or walk out of that magical blue door and explore the countryside under vast French skies. I walked every day – usually chatting with one of my fellow retreaters about anything from big life experiences to celebrity gossip. It’s hard to worry much about life with views that spectacular and air that sweet.
If you’re keen to get out and about, trips to local vineyards can be arranged – and the retreat includes a mid-week trip to Angouleme for an evening meal and a little light shopping (NB visit the chocolate shop… yes it’s not very “retreat” but just trust me on this).
If that’s all too much effort, potter down the garden to “The Aroma Shack” – where local therapist Jan offers fabulous massages, facials, Reiki and reflexology, using her own line of homemade oils and potions.
Or you can of course just sit. In the evenings I’d position myself by the pool to watch the sunset fade and the moon become brighter, breathing in the sweetness of the jasmine as little bats fluttered and swooped into the water. I could feel my mind healing.
Yoga with Kirsty Gallagher
On the face of it, this is a simple week-long yoga retreat. Kirsty Gallagher, a London-based yoga teacher and “veteran” retreat leader, teaches three hours of yoga a day – Vinyasa in the morning and restorative Yin in the early evening. She steadily builds the programme throughout the week – giving plenty of options to cater to everyone from novices up to trained teachers – so you can dial things up or down as you wish.
But it was when I mysteriously found tears streaming down my face as I sank deeper into “Goddess pose” – blood coursing, muscles protesting – that I realised something more was being released here than just my tight hip flexors. “Dedicate this pose to anyone who’s ever doubted you – to anyone who’s held you back or made you feel you can’t do something”, Kirsty urged. And as the room breathed deeply and audibly in unison, I felt the surge of collective energy – and the underlying anxiety that was plaguing me finally morphed into strength and courage.
Why? Because Kirsty doesn’t teach you to “do” yoga – she teaches you to “be” yoga. Her classes are nourishing and encouraging – with an emphasis on “doing what feels good” rather than being perfect. You’re encouraged to try new things and not worry about failing – with the astonishing result that I managed an arm balance for the first time ever (something I’d written off as flat-out impossible). She confesses to being “obsessed” by anatomy, and helpfully explains what’s happening in each pose and what it’s building towards – giving me a new level of understanding in my practice.
Every other day of the retreat she teaches the philosophy behind yoga, covering everything from the theoretical – the eight limbs of yoga – to the practical – which moudra to use in times of crisis. She inspires with stories – most memorably the tale of Durga, the warrior goddess she has spectacularly tattooed on her arm – and gently explains the importance of looking after yourself so you can look after others. All this with such an accessible and down-to-earth charm that even a cynical Londoner like me can’t help but pay attention.
I was stunned to experience a genuine rush of energy – like I’d drunk 10 espressos in a row – after her guided chakra meditation on the penultimate day. A fellow embattled Londoner quietly confessed to me she’d been left “shaking – like you do on a car ferry”, before quickly adding “and I’m, like, a normal rational person!”.
I don’t pretend to know what this means or how this works. But I do know that by the end of the week my lower back had stopped hurting, my shoulders felt spacious, my arms were more toned, my body had done things I never expected and my mind felt strong enough to ride back home on Durga’s tiger and face life once more.
A journey of tastes
In keeping with the mental and physical journey offered during week – the food is a voyage of discovery too. Each day is themed around a different country, with a 2 course lunch and 3 course dinner in that style. The food is healthy, vegetarian, delicious and pleasingly plentiful. This is not a week to deprive yourself – so if you’re after a punishing diet of lemon water and lettuce leaves, this might not be for you. Alex, one of Les Passeroses’ owners, is a professional chef, and highlights included beetroot tart tartin with fresh goats cheese, carrot hummous, cashew and mango mouse, pilau rice with broad beans and dill, melon with Pineau… the list goes on.
Breakfast is buffet style with cereals, fruit, bread, cheese and home-made yoghurt – and at 4pm every day chai and tiffin is served. As with everything about this week – nourish yourself and enjoy. Alcohol is available for those who want it – although most people in my group abstained. I confess I enjoyed a glass of red most evenings. Well… it’s still France…
Accommodation at Les Passeroses
I stayed in a shared room – much to the joy, I’m sure, of my two wonderful roommates who were greeted first thing with a cry of “argh, my ass!” as my newly opened hips creaked out of bed every morning.
The rooms are simple French chic, comfortable and thoughtfully decorated, with locally made eco toiletries in the bathrooms. There are options to suit different budgets – choose from a private or shared room in the house, or truly get away from it all and treat yourself to one to the two garden lodges in the beautiful rose garden.
Post retreat glow
Back home, and the calm and strength this special week gave me lives on – and if anything becomes too much, I travel inward and relive the magic of sitting under a crescent moon in the warm air and listening to frogs croak in the distance. I’m already planning my next retreat – and keep reminding myself of Kirsty’s words to me: “Some people think it’s selfish to look after yourself but it’s the least selfish thing you can do. Because unless you’re in a good place, you can’t help anyone else”. Namaste.
Images by Nikki Floyd
Kirsty Gallagher runs a number of retreats in different locations throughout the year. She is hosting two more retreats at Les Passeroses in August 2017.
I flew to Bordeaux and arranged a transfer from there (about 1 hour 20 minutes transfer). Les Passeroses can also be reached by train from Angouleme (20 minutes away). Trains run from Paris where you can connect with the Eurostar or airport.