Mill Retreat Centre review | Yoga retreat, France
Enchanting rural hideaway in northern France
The Quick Read: This beautiful converted mill house is set in 30 acres of its own wild and beautiful grounds surrounded by the peaceful farmlands of Normandy. Owner Kolinka Zinovieff hires out the centre to groups and teachers ‘working for the good in some form’ whether that be through holistic health, charitable or environmental work. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong retreats occur frequently – with a wide range of yoga styles on offer and also yoga teaching – but other types of retreat are also hosted here. It’s not luxe (we noted a few lowly points) but, overall, it’s a good venue – the location is stunning – and it seems to be attracting a great calibre of teacher.
Who it’s best for: Anyone who really wants to connect with nature – the surroundings are delightful. It’s an ideal choice for solo travellers – groups tend to be quite large (around 20) so there’s plenty of opportunities to mingle and meet like-minded people. However if you’re used to high standards of service, best look elsewhere.
What you can do: The schedule varies depending on the type of retreat and who is leading it (see the calendar for full details of upcoming retreats). Although the main focus is on yoga, tai chi and qi gong, the centre also runs aromatherapy training courses, yoga teacher training and even lovemaking retreats.
When you’re not involved in your course activities, there’s plenty to do and it’s easy to lose yourself for hours exploring the grounds and lake. You can go for a bike ride (they even have tandems) or just rest and soak in the peace.
The Mill Retreat Centre attracts teachers who aim to provide a tranquil and supportive environment for their students where the focus is on both the teachings and being in nature. This is particularly the case for yoga and qi gong, where ‘learning from nature’ is a key theme.
Where you stay: The Mill Retreat Centre is a grand yet picturesque mill house right next to a swift flowing river and a short wander away from a gloriously tranquil lake. It has 22 bedrooms (a combination of singles and doubles – bathrooms are shared). There are also two gypsy wagons in the garden for anyone interested in more of a ‘glamping’ experience. Rooms are simple and clean but far from glamorous – you’re required to bring your own bath towels and strip your own beds, so it has more the feel of a smart hostel. On the plus side, the views from the bedroom windows are wonderful…overlooking the river, the lakes, the garden and the grazing animals in the neighbouring farm. The gentle sound of the river is deeply soothing.
Downstairs there is a big communal dining room where all meals are provided buffet-style by a dedicated vegetarian cook. When the weather is good, guests can take their plates and sit on the stone steps leading up to the front of the mill house – a lovely spot for sitting, chatting and taking in the beautiful scenery. There is also a cosy living room with an open fire for snuggling up with a cup of tea and a good book after dinner.
Meditation, yoga, tai chi and qi gong take place in an airy space at the top of the mill – perfect place to listen to the birds singing!
How was it for us: I had a delayed journey to Normandy and so walked in just as everyone was sitting down to dinner. I was welcomed by around 20 new friendly faces plus Mimi and Jodi. After a fresh, nourishing meal I was shown up to my bedroom and was pleasantly surprised to have a fantastic view of the river right outside my window. I tried to keep my bedroom window open as much as possible throughout the retreat to listen to the flowing water.
That evening we gathered in the garden around a bonfire. The warmth of the fire was welcome on a cool spring evening – it was lovely to be in nature after sunset without freezing to death!
At 7.30am each morning we would begin with silent qi gong self-inquiry exercises. The ‘sound’ exercise involved listening intently to any sounds in your immediate environment – a beautiful practice for listening to the birds singing or leaves rustling in the wind. The ‘sight’ exercise involved putting a drop of dark green ink into a glass of water and watching the ink diffuse. This simple but intriguing exercise was one of the highlights of the retreat for me: it reminded me of that sense of wonder you have as a child. This combined with the early morning birdsong and crisp springtime air created a perfect prelude to Mimi’s led meditation in the yoga studio at 8am.
Mimi teaches a beautiful flowing practice, integrating yoga and qi gong. She is one of the few UK teachers who offers this style, and is deeply knowledgeable about both traditions. While the ancient yoga texts contain many references to fire, qi gong is associated with water, and is a cooling, grounding practice so it felt appropriate to practice qi gong next to the rushing water of the river and the calm stillness of the lake. Jodi encouraged us to experiment with practicing near water flowing at different speeds, and explore how this changes the energy of the practice.
While I loved the morning classes, I also started to crave the unstructured time in the early afternoon, when we were free to stroll around the lake, spotting dragonflies, ducks, baby otters and wild flowers.
On the Sunday morning we took our mats into the garden for a gentle, flowing yoga and qi gong practice followed by a long savasana. It brought back another childhood memory of simply lying on the grass in the garden, feeling the warm sun on my skin and watching the funny patterns that clouds make in the sky. Blissful.
What we took home: A deeper understanding of qi gong, an intriguing practice that forms the basis of all Chinese martial arts. Qi gong encourages the practitioner to heighten their self-awareness through listening to the body and mind, and learn how to conserve energy (rather than expel too much and burn out quickly) in both the practice and daily life.
Would we go back: Yes. The lake, river and gardens were heavenly. Mimi and Jodi’s yoga and qi gong classes were superb. The food was delicious and wholesome.
People watch: Senior yoga and qi gong teachers Mimi Kuo-Deemer and Jodi Smith run an annual joint retreat here. They have an incredible combined knowledge and are warm compassionate people. Sophie Tunnicliffe, a massage therapist from Paris, offered deeply relaxing 60 minute treatments: a choice of deep tissue, aromatherapy or acupressure (£60) – highly recommended.
Food watch: Food is buffet-style and vegetarian, with gluten-free and dairy-free options at every meal. Ingredients are locally sourced and organic where possible. Breakfast is typically either croissants or granola and yogurt with fruit and coffee or herbal tea. Lunches and dinners are a variety of wholesome and hearty dishes. For example, freshly made pizza and green salad, vegetarian tarts, home-made humus and roasted vegetables…and delicious vegan chocolate cake. French batons and brie are also served at lunch and dinner. This isn’t a weight loss retreat by any means, but it is certainly a great opportunity to enjoy fresh, nourishing local produce. No alcohol is served on the retreat.
What’s queenly: The tranquil lake is a real beauty spot for either formal practice or informal wandering. Practising qi gong on the decking next to the lake, listening to the birds playing in the water and feeling the warmth of the morning sunlight on our skin was a highlight of the trip.
What’s lowly: The cook had no assistant and came across as ill-tempered, which jarred with both the ethos of the yoga and qi gong retreat and the beautiful and peaceful environment of the retreat centre.
Insider tip: Bring a duvet cover and pillow case – bizarrely, these are not supplied. Also pack an eye mask and ear plugs: the curtains are thin and the water tank can be noisy from 5am or so!
Price with a companion: £530 per person (based on two people sharing a twin room). This includes all meals plus yoga and qi gong classes. NB: Prices are for Mimi and Jodi’s retreat: other Mill Retreat Centre breaks may vary in cost.
Price going solo: £580 for a single room. This includes all meals plus yoga and qi gong classes. As above, check programme for prices for other retreat breaks.
Value for money: On the whole yes, although we were surprised at having to supply our own bath towels and strip the bed.
Reviewed by Kate Bermingham
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