The beauty of a wellness retreat

A yoga and wellness retreat. Have you ever been to one?

To be quite honest, yoga and I have had a rather rocky relationship over many years. There have been many times that I have been so discouraged with my ineptitude that I lost all hope of the relationship going anywhere. There was certainly no zen to be found in any of our encounters. I tried courses. I tried programs. I tried just going. And yet, so many of the poses continued to be unavailable to me on a regular basis.

After a few years of much needed separation, one of my friends invited me to join her for a yoga class with a teacher she described quite simply as fabulous. Naturally I was wary of rekindling something that so far had produced only angst, suffering and anti-zen. But you know what? As I walked out of Mia’s cosy, calm and welcoming studio that day, everything had changed.

I got me some zen.

As a Performance Specialist, I show people how to weave movement, healthy food, sleep and less stress into their lives to enable them to access their best performance on a mental and physical basis. Of course, I can advise people how to do this in person, over the phone, in an online course or through sharing the written word but these are all delivered over short periods of time.

My friend Siobhan, a fellow Australian, had moved to Italy seven years previously and had been running amazing yoga retreats in the ever popular Tuscan region of Italy. We have much in common in the wellness arena and ironically fuelled by many a caffeine driven conversation, I quickly realised that bringing people together for an wellness retreat was something I would love to do. My mission was to incorporate all aspects of wellness and health in addition to amazing food, local wine full of antioxidants, a spectacular and restful setting, a spot of culture and a healthy dose of fun all underpinned by oodles of zen in the form of yoga incorporated into each day. Tall order you say?

Well, now more than two years of busting yoga moves, I have just realised a dream and finished running my very first Yoga and Wellness Retreat in Tuscany, Italy.

It seems that there are people around the world that agree with my tall order and last month, fourteen people joined me at the Yoga in Italy’s Il Borghino villa in the hills overlooking beautiful Lucca, Tuscany for seven days and nights. Quite the international cohort, the retreat attracted people from Western Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US, all looking for a slice of wellness.

By bringing people together from various corners of the world with unique personalities, outlooks and different life experiences, I worried that my retreat goers wouldn’t like each other or they wouldn’t enjoy what I had planned or the yoga would be too hard or too easy or they would struggle with vegetarian food. The list goes on. It became obvious within the first few hours of everyone arriving that I needn’t have spent a single second wasting energy on creating those elaborate scenarios. I had 14 beautiful people along for the ride and let’s face it – anyone making the effort to travel to a yoga and wellness retreat in a foreign country requires a positive mindset and willingness to be open to new experiences.

On that first night, whilst enjoying our welcome dinner of authentic Italian lasagne overlooking the shimmering pool under the stars, accompanied by the wine grown around us and fireflies drifting between the garden foliage, the week stretched deliciously ahead.

Each morning started with freshly brewed coffee or tea followed by 90 minutes of Iyengar yoga. Let’s be clear from the outset that I have not performed miracles and become a yoga teacher in the shortest time frame known to man. No, no, no.

Our yogi Vicki was a New Yorker but had been living in Italy for the past eight years. Along with everyone else in the group, I have never experienced yoga like this before. It is difficult to find the right words to describe Vicki – her way of teaching, her life lessons and the way that she instilled the love of yoga into every single person over seven special days was truly unique. The yoga experience in the room varied hugely, all the way from never having done a single move through to occasional yoginess and then right up to getting bendy every other day. Somehow Vicki catered to each level, making it comfortable yet challenging for each and every person and with gentle firmness throughout the session, she would remind us that we could do better or we could do more in particular poses and encouraged us to imagine what could happen if we held a pose for just that bit longer. Vicki made us all want to go that bit further and reminded us not to forget that time and space are essential for anything to grow. Namaste Vicki.

An activity marked each day and included – a scenic walk down (and of course, then back up again) to the very picturesque Tenuta Maria Teresa – a local vineyard where we sampled their wares, a bike and walking cultural tour of Lucca with the talented and entertaining Federico, a hike between the villages and over the mountains of the Cinque Terre with all its spectacular views and scrumptious seafood, a night out at the Puccini opera in one of the oldest churches in Italy and a delectable cooking lesson making pesto, gnocchi and tiramisu with Maria Angela our 76 year old chef.

Almost everyone at the retreat was not vegetarian and yet, the food was one of the highlights. Maria Angela makes the food each day with love, love, love and it showed in every single dish she created. There were ooh’s and aah’s around the table at every mealtime and animated discussions about whether we could recreate these delights back home. Thankfully, last year Maria Angela and Siobhan compiled “Food for Thought,’ a cookbook containing all the ancient recipes that are prepared on a daily basis for the yoga and wellness retreats. I think I have ticked off five items so far – only another 30 to go! Time and space, time and space.

How do you know if a retreat has been successful? It’s in the little and the big things and just like beauty, I think it is in the eye of the beholder. It’s having time and the space to check in with your physical and mental wellbeing, the opportunity to create a plan for how you could implement positive changes in your day to day life, feeling that sense of increased flexibility and strength in your body, the joy that comes from making new friendships and laughing a bucketload, the increased energy that results from putting the freshest, healthiest ingredients into your body and your senses being taken to another level by being soaked in Italian history, culture and countryside.

As retreat leader, I took so much away from those seven days. I know that the conversations that were had and the fact that my gorgeous group of attendees were refusing to entertain the idea of leaving Il Borghino EVER, were pretty clear indicators that they too, took much away back to their corner of the globe. Ciao for now Italia.

I truly believe that we all need something to look forward to and with that in mind, registrations are open for my 2017 Italian Yoga and Wellness Retreats. The first week in June is fully booked but the second week from the 1st-8th July is now open. If you or anyone you know would like to find some zen, drop me a line at julie@juliemeek.com.au for a brochure and further details.

Friendship Friday

Have you ever received a gift you didn’t quite know what to do with? Let me tell you about one of those gifts.  My best friend at primary school was Fiona and she had a very friendly and community minded mother called June. When I was around 10 years old, June gifted my mum an unusual package containing some interesting smelling batter. It was a Friendship Cake. Mum kept that cake going for a long time and every 10 days we were treated to a delicious cake originating from this Friendship Cake batter. It drifted around our school community and beyond for several years. Of course everyone baked then and buying cakes and biscuits was frowned upon. The original Friendship Cake or Bread (as it is known in the US) is thought to have been developed by the Amish. There is even a website and a novel dedicated to it. Fast forward some years to present day where I find myself immersed in Friendship Cake. I love to bake and baking is making a comeback thanks to the plethora of reality cooking shows such as Masterchef. But there is another aspect to this cake that appeals to me.  Life just keeps getting busier and in our rush to get everywhere fast and do more we don’t seem to have the time to stop and say a meaningful hello to people or engage with our neighbours or get that sense of community that is so vital. My Friendship Cake has been travelling around the neighbourhood, school community, up north, down south since June this year and is going strong.  Its not a chain letter and no one will suffer great mishaps if they drop it, forget to stir or feed it.  Although if you drop the batter, its not pretty. My parents always taught me that you should accept a gift with good grace and the spirit in which it was given even if you don’t think it is right for you and of course, always remember to say thank you. With this in mind, when offered the gift of Friendship Cake many people are intrigued by the concept and some are doubtful that a batter can thrive over 10 days at room temperature.

Friendship Cake

Combine 1 cup each of plain flour, milk and white sugar in a large bowl with lid using a wooden spoon. This Day 1. Do not refrigerate and don’t be deterred by the interesting smell that emanates from your mixture, its just doing what its meant to, fermenting! Day 2 through to Day 10, stir with a wooden spoon.  On Day 5 feed your batter again with 1 cup each of plain flour, sugar and milk. (You may need to use a whisk when feeding the cake to prevent lumps).  On Day 10 take out three cups and give one each to three friends.  The remaining batter is yours to make a delicious cake with!  I have a few recipes that I use that have been modified but today I share my Carrot Cake recipe. I also have Chocolate and Lemon Coconut, so if you are planning on getting one started just let me know and I will post them up too. ______________________________________________________________

Carrot Friendship Cake

To the remaining batter from Friendship cake once divided and given add: 1 cup sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons each of cinnamon and bicarb soda 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 teaspoons baking powder 2 teaspoons vanilla essence 2 eggs 1/2 cup poly or monounsaturated oil 1 cup sultanas or chopped dates 2 large carrots, grated Mix all ingredients well and pour into one large or two smaller loaf  tins and bake in a moderate oven for approximately 50 minutes. ______________________________________________________________ If you happen to live around the Scarborough area in Perth, I have three portions of the batter to ‘friend’ today, just let me know if one of them has your name on it. Otherwise, start your own, engage with your own community and every time you stir your cake, think about the great friends you already have and those that you are yet to meet.