A week’s yoga retreat with Mark Whitwell is an intense and exhilarating mixture of philosophy, discussion and practice. Mornings stretch into lunch time as he explains and expounds the thinking behind yoga, and invites questions and responses. Not everyone agrees with everything he says; he talks around the question, offering different ways to understand what he is saying. Some of us make notes; many of us continue the discussion into the afternoon or evening as we examine what he’s said about existence, acceptance, striving and letting go, accepting and giving, setting an intention. Through it all Mark has a lovely sense of humour. Yoga may be about an entire way of life, but it’s one of joy and laughter.
We’re a wonderfully diverse group of 18 – five yoga teachers, several regular yoga practitioners, and a couple of complete beginners. We come from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the UK. We’re aged from 19 to 56. We variously have yoga as a passion, a dalliance and an experiment. Mark welcomes drop-ins too, and during the week we are joined for the occasional session by the husband and son of one of the yogis, and by a Finnish couple staying at the resort. There are three families amongst us: one mother and son, one mother with her two daughters, and the family just mentioned.
The practice itself is a hatha vinyasa flow; Mark instructs it in his gentle yet authoritative way, moving amongst the class to correct and encourage, and remind us again and again of working with the breath. After the standing postures we move into some floor postures and sun salutations. The two beginners (one’s an ex-dancer and one is a rock climber) are very supple and have no trouble at all in keeping up. Mark teaches us the importance of postures and counter-postures, so the body is given a chance to reverse out any taxing stretches. One day we do shoulder stands, which to my surprise I find relatively easy. He offers those who wish to try it the opportunity of doing a headstand, although it’s not something he generally teaches much. He is averse to the showmanship that often creeps into western yoga practices, and recounts with huge chuckles the photo he saw on the front of a US magazine showing a visiting Indian yogi doing a headstand on a hard New York pavement with the headline: “Hip, hot and holy”.
And throughout it all he exhorts us day after day to do a 7 minute yoga practice at the start of the day. It’s like homework; he asks us if we’ve done it each morning as we start the workshop. A couple of the younger ones admit they slept in – and Mark laughs and says that sleep can also be yoga. Others have – and find it’s stretched into 20 minutes without a thought. 7 minutes is pretty achievable even for the busiest amongst us; it’s a nice little practice to put in our pocket and take away.
In the evenings we all come together for dinner and companionship around the dining table; Mark is a notoriously poor time keeper and one evening he wanders in to find that there’s only a small bowl of soup left for him. He’s been busy indulging his other great passion – becoming Eric Clapton. And when it’s time for the traditional leaving ceremony at the end of the week, he brings his guitar and sings a farewell that has many in tears.
The week offers lots more too – snorkelling on the reef, having a massage, picnicking at a beach down the coast, shopping in Savusavu, swimming in the pool, having a cocktail in the evening.
And at the end of it we’re all enriched enormously. For most of us, it’s been a satisfying blend of theory and practice, with some wonderfully practical tools of approach. The idea of a 7 minute practice – I love it! Working within the breath: a back-to-basics reminder that is beautifully calming and invigorating. I’m not sure that all the younger folk will necessarily keep it in their lives, but they have been offered a wonderful introduction and they’ve had fun on the way. And for at least one person there, it’s been life changing. I’ll bring you her story when she’s ready to tell it.
Photos courtesy of Deborah Bassett. Website: www.deborahbassett.com