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Running an Arvon yoga & writing retreat, Devon

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In Short:

Totleigh Barton, an atmospheric pre-Domesday manor house in Devon.

The Arvon Foundation is a charity that offers year-round writing courses taught by a stellar line-up of published writers on everything you can think of, from screen writing to children’s books. Queen of Retreats editor Caroline Sylger Jones has been a fan since she took a beautifully-run poetry course with uber poets Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson at their Lumb Bank centre in Yorkshire, and writer, yoga teacher and Queen of Retreats ambassador Lucy Greeves ran Arvon’s first ever Writers’ Retreat with Yoga in 2012 at Totleigh Barton, an atmospheric pre-Domesday manor house in Devon. Here she shares her experiences.

‘Ever since I became a full-time writer seven years ago, yoga has been a lifeline. At the most prosaic level, yoga asana work brilliantly to stretch achy shoulders and open tight hip flexors after a day hunched over a keyboard. Teaching and attending classes at my local studio gives me a supportive social network that can be sorely lacking in a freelance lifestyle. And it’s good for my soul: writing is a solipsistic profession but when I’m teaching yoga, I can’t help but focus completely on other people for once! But most importantly, my own yoga practice provides me with grounding and calm when I’m spending too much time in my head.

In April 2012, I finally got a chance to test everything I’ve learnt about yoga and writing on some real live writers. I taught a week-long Writers’ Retreat with Yoga, a programme I cooked up with centre director Claire Berliner when I first visited Totleigh Barton on a writing course last year. We had no idea who would come, but we knew that the place itself is supremely conducive to studious concentration and that the newly renovated barn, with stonking great medieval oak beams above and brand new underfloor heating below, would make a great yoga studio.

Fortunately, the course sold out quickly, and I found myself in a rain-sodden but still beautiful Devon valley with a class of fourteen talented writers – novelists, poets and screenwriters as well as non-fiction types. These were people with substantial work in progress, some on their fifth draft of a screenplay and others on their third or fourth novel. So they didn’t need me to teach them about writing, but they were all looking for some kind of relaxing and balancing practice to support their writing efforts. We started the day with a 45 minute stretching and seated meditation session, then reconvened mid-afternoon for 90 minutes of Hatha yoga ending in a long guided relaxation session. In between, everyone scribbled or typed away furiously.

Arvon yoga barnIn the evenings, we ate and talked together, about writing and yoga and our lives. And on the last night, more than half the group shared a few paragraphs or a few poems – fascinating to find out what people had been crafting and polishing in between our group sessions, and a lovely way to end the week. It was a very supportive atmosphere overall, with lots of sympathetic advice on offer about getting things finished and published, as well as the invaluable sense of being part of a peer group of ‘real’ writers. A writing course wouldn’t be worthy of the name without a tiny bit of daily word count one-upmanship at suppertime, but I’d like to think that in this case, it was somewhat tempered by the general increase in yogic equanimity. (Ahem.)

Most of the time, I teach drop-in classes to busy people in London. Leading a retreat is a real luxury in some ways. You can clearly see the effect the teaching is having, because you get to work with people each day and watch them build on the things they learnt the day before. And you also meet people away from their day-to-day concerns, in a headspace that allows them to really sink into the practice and explore layers of awareness and relaxation that aren’t always available when you’re taking 90 minutes out of a busy work day to do yoga.

As a writer and yogi, I’m thoroughly persuaded of the complementary benefits of both practices. But it was really valuable to share what I’ve learnt with other writers, and see the combination work for them too. One of the retreat participants wrote this to me afterwards, summing it up as well as I ever could: “I found that the morning session, with emphasis on meditation, was extremely useful for getting me to the point of readiness to write. The afternoon session was wonderful for getting rid of aches that had built up over the day and also for moving me on mentally, so that I could reflect on my day’s writing. I found that the yoga enhanced my creativity, preparing me so that the rest of my time was better used.’

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