Finding peace inside and out at Little French Retreat in France

Danielle Hipkins reviews this nourishing wellness retreat in France and untangles her nerves with Sivananda yoga, silent walks, sharing and laughter

I came to a Yoga and Walking holiday at Tamsin Chubb’s Little French Retreat in Gascony straight from work, my head still full of deadlines, with a therapeutic diagnosis of ‘burnout’. What surprised me was how quickly the steady pace here eased my tangled nerves and put a much greater distance between me and work than I thought possible. Despite a good internet connection, by the second day I couldn’t wait to get offline. How did this magic come about? Like all good retreats its alchemy boils down to a unique balance of ingredients.

First of all, the base ingredient is its host. I found Tamsin Chubb to be a warm and gracious person, blessed with a soothing and gentle voice. She has a rare ability to make one feel at home without being overly solicitous, and the community she built in just a few days out of a small group of total strangers is a tribute to this. She is playful and fun, as well as a careful thinker, and game-playing was interwoven through the retreat. Over our first dinner she came up with an ice breaker that still had us chuckling three days later. It might just have been me, but I think all the guests had been apprehensive about socialising without wine, but by the end of our first dinner we barely gave it a thought, despite being surrounded by vines! Later in the retreat Tamsin also led us gently through a new form of circle work she has recently trained in, called the ‘Flow Game’, which allows each participant to bring his or her own questions to the group. Under her wise guidance, the game astonished us all at our own ability to develop new insights together.

Secondly, I also had a lot to learn from Tamsin’s yoga teaching. She is particularly good at explaining why we do certain things in yoga. We practised a form of Sivananda yoga, which was a relatively new style for me. We were given information about its origins in an accessible and light way, and over five practice sessions developed a pranayama practice that it is possible to take home and practise with ease.

‘Tamsin has a rare ability to make one feel at home without being overly solicitous, and the community she built in just a few days out of a small group of total strangers is a tribute to this’

The focus on the breath was further enhanced by a visit from Isa on our first day. A specialist in Tia nu massage, Isa worked magic for all of us, and not only provided me with the most thorough massage I’ve ever had, also taught me some easy, new breathing exercises that I’ve continued to use every day.

The Sivananda yoga style is accessible for anyone with a few months’ yoga practice, and can still be challenging for regular practitioners without being exhausting, using variations on a theme to establish a sense of calm and strength, which one could feel building even over just four days. Practising in the ancient stone walls of the dedicated studio space, with a view over the nearby woodland when standing, and up to the high wooden-beamed ceiling when lying down, to the sound of nothing other than frogs croaking in the nearby stream, undoubtedly added to the great sense of calm.

This brings me to a third important feature: the location. This lovely old house is situated in a tiny medieval village and offers a maze of footpaths through oak woodland and rolling vineyards. In this pretty part of Gascony perhaps you don’t find the most breathtaking scenery France has to offer, but it certainly brings peace and quiet, perhaps precisely because of its subtler charms. Over three good walks we never met any other walkers and barely a car. I had never tried meditative walking before, and it was a real treat to see how silent walking with a group, with a focus on the breath, and the occasional pause for focused meditation, sharpened my awareness of nature. This nature was abundant as we saw falcons, deer and a red squirrel, but I think we were all quite relieved only to hear a wild boar snuffling round the vines.

Finally, we were very well fed. Unusually I never felt any temptation to snack on this retreat, and my poor digestion improved radically.  There was no alcohol available, but I didn’t miss it, despite being in wine country! Under Tamsin’s guidance, Hannah, a charming young cook from Kentucky, provided us with a series of vegetarian, dairy- and gluten-free meals that really inspired me to experiment more with cooking healthy foods on my return. Although each day began with one of Hannah’s wonderful latte creations, we still got a real coffee after our first walk or yoga class. For me this was typical of a retreat on a human scale, providing rest, peace and a fresh perspective on life – quite literally the opportunity to breathe – without ever losing sight of the laughter we can enjoy with others along this journey