Penninghame Process review | personal growth retreat, Scotland
PROFOUND PROCESS WORK IN THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS
The quick read: If you’ve ever questioned who you really are and what you’re doing in life, the Penninghame Process could provide answers (or stir up even more interesting questions). This is a full-on, deep, immersive week of intense psychotherapy (with similarities to the Hoffman Process and The Bridge). It’s probably one of the toughest retreats you’ll ever attend, but it’s also great fun and wildly liberating. Expect to dig deep and pick off the scabs of years of restraint and unexpressed emotions. Using a mix of deep self-enquiry, bodywork and breathwork, dynamic meditation, ritual drama and individual sessions, you come out feeling as if your entire psyche has been scourged and your heart cracked wide open. It’s a life shifter.
Who it’s best for: Anyone with destructive and dysfunctional relationships and behaviour patterns; also for those with early wounds and traumas. But it’s equally ideal for anyone who simply wants to lead a more joyful, fulfilling, confident and creative life. You do have to trust the process and let go (but in a very safe, secure group setting). Ages range from late teens to 80s with mainly professional people (slightly more women than men) attending.
What you can do: The Process, the Process and just the Process. You really don’t have the time or emotional energy for anything else. Each day starts at 7.30am with dynamic meditation (from Osho), a full hour of intense breathing, expression and grounding before sinking into what is more usually considered ‘meditation’. Sessions run through each day and often quite late into the evening, but with decent breaks for food and reflection time.
The whole process is meticulously and imaginatively planned, with each segment building on the one before, and each day on the one before. Sometimes there is a clear theme to the day – Monday is ‘Mothers’ Day’ for example; Tuesday is ‘Fathers’ Day’. You experience creating healthy boundaries, confronting negative patterns and old emotions and, having worked through all your dross and cleared everything out, you move on to consider how you might create the life you really want. If this sounds a little vague, it’s because Penninghame are keen to keep the precise details of what to expect a secret, so future participants don’t have a diluted experience.
The grounds are stunning and there are opportunities to get out and walk along the river or meander through the woods and gardens. You’re given a journal and encouraged to carry it with you at all times, and it’s common to see participants curled up in armchairs or sprawled on the floor frantically scribbling. Some nights you curl up on sofas to watch a film (with a suitable message). Penninghame operates a digital detox policy with no phones or internet permitted. You are even asked not to listen to your own music or read books, in order not to pull you away from your process – which is a little like silent Buddhist retreats.
Where you stay: Penninghame House is a stonking great ‘pile’ of a house. It was built in 1869 (although some parts date back to 1700 or so) and sits next to a mood-shifting river surrounded by 100 acres of woodland, farmland and gardens (including an overgrown walled garden). It’s solid, imposing and stuffed to the gills with antiques, collections and walls of heavy duty (somewhat stolid) art. Sessions are, at present, held in the vast dining room, a temple of a space, and sometimes spill out into a sumptuous sitting room. A dedicated centre is in the process of being rebuilt in the grounds and future courses will take place there.
Sleeping quarters aren’t in the main house – but a little way off in a tailor-made accommodation block. Bedrooms (some shared, some singles) are super-clean, warm and comfortable with bleached wood floors, cream and grey-painted furniture and crisp white linen. Velux windows mean no view (possibly intentional?) and the overall feel is one of chic monasticism. There are no en-suite facilities – you share bathrooms and also a kitchen for making herbal tea.
How was it for us: I knew I had some ‘issues’ floating around: some I understood (depression following my father’s early death for example) but others had no clear origin. Penninghame felt a little like opening up Pandora’s box – absolutely everything grim and ghastly in me came pouring out. The very first morning, during our initial dynamic meditation, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. The next day crying turned into a scream, so primal, so loud, I nearly deafened myself. Over the next week I plunged deep into my psyche in a way I never imagined I could. I am usually a strictly ‘in control’ person but here I felt safe enough, held enough, to let it all go – all the ego constructs, all the body armouring, all the repressed and hurt feelings. It was intense, often exquisitely painful, yet wildly liberating and, yes, there was huge joy amidst the tears as the barriers came down.
I don’t want to give away the secrets of exactly what happens but I must say that it isn’t all grim catharsis: the programme is hugely inventive and often imaginatively playful too. There were moments of bubbling joy and wild laughter, alongside the tears. The breathwork was extraordinary – many people said it was like being on drugs. The whole process had a mythic quality – I felt like the hero (and equally the wicked witch) of my own fairy tale, hacking through the dark forest and fending off ravaging monsters to reach the magic castle. I came home with no voice, aching arms (don’t ask) and a slightly wild and proselytising look in my eye. If I could send all my friends and family on this, I would, in a heartbeat; and, if this work were available to everyone, I firmly believe our world would be a very different place.
What we took home: A whole new way of living with myself and with other people. A sense of freedom from the past and from past programmes and a firm commitment to my own needs and inner peace. My home life is already shifting in ways I would never have imagined.
Would we go back: When I left, I didn’t think I could do the programme again (the experience was so powerful the first time, I would hate to dilute it by knowing what was coming next) but now I’m thinking that, yes, I would love to go deeper. I would also love to do Step 2 (which is available for those who have taken the first Step of the Penninghame Process).
People watch: The team really is impeccable. There are more facilitators and helpers than there are participants and they are all totally genuine – clear, compassionate, focused and ‘real’. There are absolutely no waffly new agers here – most of the team are successful in their own businesses and volunteer at Penninghame to help other people gain the same benefits they have. It’s impossible to single out any of them – it’s corny but they all felt like family.
Food watch: Food is macrobiotic – vegan comfort food, tasty and plentiful but also rib-sticking; sometimes light and delicious, sometimes a little stodgy and heavy on the beans (wind was a problem for a fair few of us!). Venu Sanz is the chef. She’s also a nutritional therapist and Pilates teacher and cooks all her food with love and mindful awareness. It’s all served buffet-style in a corridor next to the serene Gustavian style dining room. Breakfast is a choice of miso, brown rice porridge (with seeds, nuts, compotes) or home-made granola, plus various breads, oatcakes and crackers with home-made bean dip, peanut butter, tahini spread.
Lunch is two or three courses. Often a soup and usually a pudding (tofu cheesecake, apple crumble, coffee jelly) plus a pick ‘n’ mix choice of mains and sides – pan-fried polenta, burritos, veggie sushi, tempura vegetables, spinach lasagne, tofu stacks, salads, roasted vegetables. Supper is lighter (one or two courses as for lunch but no pudding). Fruit is available mid-morning and you can help yourself freely to herbal teas and water throughout the day. There are always gluten-free options and Penninghame can cater for other intolerances given adequate notice.
What’s queenly: The way the course has been put together with exquisite attention to detail – you feel like you’re following the thread through the labyrinth. The calibre and care of the team is truly exceptional.
What’s lowly: We would have liked an en-suite bathroom and also feel that one really needs one’s own bedroom on this kind of programme (we were lucky but some people were sharing).
Insider tip: If you can’t go make-up free, waterproof mascara is a must! Take easy to slip on and off outdoor shoes and cosy indoor slippers.
Price per person: (either sharing a room or going solo) £1,595 per person for six nights (with extra night optional), fully inclusive of all course content, accommodation and meals. There is also a sliding scale of reduced fees for those on low incomes.
Value for money: What price would you pay to transform your life? You simply can’t put a price on an experience like this.
© Queen of Retreats
Reviewed by Jane Alexander