The Breath of Life healthy weekend review | healing holiday, Oxfordshire UK
Kundalini Yoga & Wellbeing in a gorgeous Queen Anne house
The quick read: Osteopath Sam Kankanamge runs a Breath of Life holistic health care clinic on Wimpole Street in London, and now also offers an occasional 3 night Kundalini yoga retreat in an easy-to-reach bucolic English setting near Bicester in Oxfordshire. A rambling but beautifully kept, flower-bedecked mansion provides the perfect backdrop to encourage inner calm, while twice-daily Kundalini classes facilitate the rekindling of depleted energy. Two osteopaths efficiently sort out physical issues with gentleness and generosity, and they also (with host Natasha) join in the yoga classes, dissolving any sense of ‘them and us’ and providing a friendly welcoming space where openness is encouraged. The vibrant veggie food and divine countryside views also do their part in doing what it says on the tin and making Breath of Life a welcome breath of fresh air amidst the bustle of everyday life. Private groups can book a personalised Breath of Life retreat, and the group is in the middle of building a purpose-built, year round centre in Sri Lanka to open late December 2015.
Who it’s best for: Anyone interested in Kundalini yoga, who also wants to replenish. The retreat has a strong group atmosphere, so would best suit those wanting to share stories and experiences and connect strongly with others. Although nothing was compulsory and there was plenty of time between sessions to be alone if you need to, there was an emphasis on the communal experience, so it wouldn’t be the right choice for those wanting to retreat into themselves and escape others. The inclusive feel was evoked and nurtured by the friendly team, who were available and encouraging, so the retreat would also suit those new to retreating who need some hand-holding. It’s also good for those wanting an experience that goes beyond asana, to discover what music and sound can offer, and to work with connecting to the elements, as this side of things was offered in a very accessible way.
What you can do: An opening ceremony kicks everything off – a bath of cleansing sage smoke wafts each participant into the yoga room, marking the transition into a retreat state of mind, before the teacher introduces the chants that go on to figure prominently throughout the weekend. Candles are lit, angel cards chosen, and a talking stick passed round so hopes and fears for the weekend can be shared. The first day’s theme is earth, so the organisers gives every person a pebble to symbolise this element. Each day takes a different element as its theme, so other gifts for instance include a candle to represent fire, and a shell to represent water.
A yoga class follows, and from then on the daily routine is to have both a morning and afternoon class, followed by an evening meditation session, although on occasion this might be replaced with a fire ceremony under the stars, complete with singing and possibly guitar accompaniment.
The Kundalini yoga, taught by Maren Lander, is quite hard core. The two hour morning session starts at 6.30 and is pretty intense from the word go. Strong, challenging postures and powerful breathing techniques certainly wake you up! Each session starts with a long chant, more chanting is incorporated within the class, and a group song ends it. The 2 hour afternoon session is similar, accompanied by music, and often held outside on the grass weather permitting – delightfully bringing into play a very real connection to the earth, and even more pleasingly, with the water element when set up alongside the tinkling fountain. The selection of movements is also tied to the day’s element, with different asanas chosen for their relevant elemental qualities. For more information, read our short piece So What’s Kundalini Yoga anyway?
Two 45 minute treatments are included in the retreat – one with Sam, one with Bryan. Both men are osteopaths, and Sam also offers acupuncture and craniosacral therapy, so between them they can sort out a wide variety of complaints.
In between yoga and treatments there are opportunities to walk in the idyllic countryside, lounge around the gorgeous grounds or house, or swim in the elegant swimming pool. You can also watch the chef at work if you feel like it – everyone really is very accommodating.
Where you stay: Queen Anne Revival era Poundon House dates from 1908 and is absolutely delightful. It retains all the elegance and sense of history of the traditional country house, but has been brought tastefully up to date with furnishings which are gorgeous without being intimidating – invitingly comfy sofas, fresh flowers and white linen to add calming, enticing touches that work alongside the eclectic mix of buddha statues, ancient family portraits and landscapes on the acreage of wall space. It is still run and lived in by the owners, who are nowhere in evidence, but whose family photos adorn every surface, and whose friendly dog occasionally makes an appearance. The combination of unpretentious home comfort and discreet professionalism somehow shouldn’t really work, and yet it does to gratifyingly good effect, conjuring up fantasies of a world in which a wealthy aunt should suddenly invite you to make good use of her fabulous home whenever you like.
Massive rooms with wooden floors, high ceilings, and original features and fireplaces provide super spaces to dine, read, relax, and practice yoga, while the bedrooms are individually furnished, tasteful and comfy. There are no modern distractions such as televisions or speakers, and no en-suites, but there are enough bathrooms for it not to feel a chore to have to share.
But if the house is a dream, the 10 acre landscaped grounds are even more impressive. The view from the vast terrace – which features a second vast dining table, and al fresco sofas and bean bags – is sublime, comprising rolling hills and wheat fields without a road or car as far as the eye can see. Closer to home, different gardens provide an array of options to sunbathe or stroll. A stunning lavender path leads to an orchard where free range chickens – erm – range freely, while in the next field along, two sleek horses happily take grass from your hand. It’s a bit like being inside a child’s fairy tale.
How it was for us: On arrival at Poundon House, I felt I had walked into my dream home, experiencing almost instant calm and contentment. It is huge without being intimidating, comfortable without forsaking cleanliness, and I resolved to resume my lottery ticket buying habit instantly. With a couple of hours to go before the opening ceremony, and just loving the feel of the ‘French Room’, I lie on my bed and drink in the white, calm space with its sumptuous, flowing, blue and beige curtains, the mound of blue pastoral toile de jouy cushions reflecting our rural environment, and the sight of an old fireplace beautifully offset by a Delft tile surround. It is not long before I fall asleep – an afternoon ritual that I, unusually for me, manage to repeat each afternoon that I remain resident in the French Room, and for which I am supremely grateful.
Despite practicing yoga for over 20 years, Kundalini was a new approach for me and felt very different to what I normally associate with yoga, so I had to reassess some ingrained assumptions. Our classes consisted of lots of simple movements, mainly from the arms, done repetitively, followed by long holds, with sometimes repeating a practice up to 30 times, accompanied by strong breathing techniques and loud pulsing music. All of which induced a rather trance-like state, which provoked deep emotion from some – I experienced it as energising, interesting, quite fun and tiring all at the same time.
Most successful for me were the less recognisably yogic elements – the loud music booming out, the strong arm movements designed to release anger or open the heart, and the more freeform moments when we could just allow ourselves to move to the music as we felt it. This emphasis on chant and song was surprisingly enjoyable, and the daily gong bath, played live by Marin, was also an interesting experience. There was a lot of intense core work throughout, which many loved, though for me, being exhorted to ‘push’, ‘hold’, and ‘come on, come on, come on’ went beyond what felt comfortable for me and conjured up less than pleasant memories of the ‘go for the burn’ attitude of the 80s.
Least successful for me were the bits that borrowed from classical yoga as I understand it. When recognisable postures such as camel, cobra or bow were included, there was little spinal warm up, no instruction as to safe technique or alignment and no suggestion as to variations. Maren explained this by telling me that Kundalini places less emphasis on creating the perfect posture than do other forms of yoga, and that they see corrections as intrusive, but my experience of this was to feel less safe and attended to than I normally do in a class. That niggle aside, the weekend was supremely relaxing, the food was lovely, and all the people very welcoming.
What we took home: The pebble, shell and candle representing the elements, along with some energising homeopathic pills sent out as a pre-retreat gift which are made by host and homeopath Natasha.
People watch: Breath of Life founder, osteopath, cranio-sacral therapist and acupuncturist Sam Kankanamge inspires loyalty in his Central London clients, many of whom come on the retreats. His osteopathic colleague Bryan is also very skilful at addressing old injuries. Kundalini teacher Maren Lander is committed, passionate and very kind, making herself available at any time for one to one sessions if people have questions or issues they want to work on. Together the team create a warm and inclusive atmosphere.
Food watch: The vegetarian meals are served buffet style at a long communal table and all dietary requirements are catered for. Breakfast is home made bircher muesli, buckwheat porridge with coconut milk, or jam with home made bread. Fresh fruit is abundant and left out all day for snacking purposes, and herbal tea and a kettle are similarly available 24 hours.
Lunch brings adventurous salads, bursting with fresh veg. While not strictly dairy free, dairy is kept to a minimum, so there are glorious combinations such as watermelon and feta, alongside vibrant green bean feasts or leaf salads of roast squash with hazelnuts, and the occasional bit of protein like frittata.
Dinners are slightly more robust – fennel risotto alongside a tangy herby salad with grapefruit nestled in amongst the leaves on one night, or a wild rice salad with aubergine puree on another. Meals were sometimes late on our retreat, which is not great when you’ve been working hard and are starving – we’re told that this was a teething issue.
What’s queenly: The venue is delightful, and the evening yoga on the lawn with an infinity view of English countryside in front, a gorgeous manor house behind, hawks and swallows overhead, and the tinkling of the fountain alongside couldn’t have been more atmospheric.
What’s lowly: Kundalini Yoga will not suit everyone – try a class before you go to ensure it’s the right style for you. On our retreat, timings were a bit fluid. The schedule changed a few times, and some of the meals were late, but Breath of Life have assured us this is being fed back to the chef and so will improve.
Insider tip: Be sure to take your own toiletries as none are provided. The house is wonderful, but it is someone’s home, not a hotel , so be prepared for certain quirks, like doors that don’t shut brilliantly, and having to remember to take your own towel to the bathroom when you need the loo.
Price per person with a companion: £230-250 per person per night.
Price per person going solo: £330-£380 per night for a single room.
Value for money: This is a good weekend, but the price is on the high side.
Sister retreats: Private groups can book a personalised Breath of Life retreat with a choice of venues around the country, as well as occasional private and public retreats in Europe. They are currently building a purpose-built, year round centre in Sri Lanka and the plan is to open it in December 2015.
Reviewed by Sasha Bates
© Queen of Retreats