Finding softness and kindness with Mindfulness Journeys

A committed carnivore and watersports fanatic who is new to meditation, Julian Calder reviews this Mindfulness Journeys meditation and yoga holiday on Lefkadas and finds kindness, softness, exceptional yoga and expert meditation tuition

It was with a curious mix of emotions that I crested the unpaved track, hewn from the cliff, which leads down to Urania Villas – the base of Mindfulness Journeys’ week-long meditation and yoga holidays which take place here twice a year. A dedicated foodie and carnivore, this week I would be eating a low calorie, vegan, macrobiotic diet. An avid sailor and water sports junkie who likes nothing better than to get windburned, wet and wild, I was going to be practicing two hours of Vinyasa flow yoga every morning and meditating each day instead. I was an absolute beginner when it comes to meditation, and this week would see me doing a daily two hours of hardcore practice in the Tibetan tradition.

The charming cluster of villas, pools and terraces nestled in the hillside commanded an uninterrupted view across the Bay of Vasiliki, shimmering in the blazing sun, and it was impossible not to be inspired. Still, it occurred to me to wonder what on earth I was doing. But that was not an entirely new thought. Ever since deciding to buy a sail boat, home school my children and move the family from Surrey to St. Lucia, the thought had occurred more than once. I know how unlikely it is that such ‘sailing away from it all’ is going to result in some sort of endless summer, with a coconut in hand and a surfboard under my arm. Rather, I am expecting that in the coming months that almost everything will probably break down. I really can’t afford to be one of them. So, this was why I was here – to bullet proof my mind and body before casting off into the unknown.

The body bit was simple. Firstly, plenty of sleep, helped by soothing tones of my softly luxurious, understated double room. Secondly, the Yoga, which I’ve been practising slowly but steadily over the past two years. Through the effortless guidance, graceful demonstration and detailed instruction of our yoga teacher for the week, Karen Bennett, I found that every day brought more flow, more strength, more flexibility than I had ever experienced. I was able to co-ordinate my breath with the asanas almost perfectly and with such feeling and confidence that my practice gained a dreamlike quality. Thirdly, a little vigorous activity – I was able to simply walk out of my villa, scramble down an old goat trail for a kilometre or so, and dive into the gin clear and equally refreshing Agean sea for a 30 minute swim twice a day. Bliss.

The food fed me well. Clearly it is a labour of love to make a low calorie, vegan, macrobiotic menu satisfying to the appetite, the taste buds and the eye, but Kostas managed to do so in many interesting and varied ways. And it tasted good too! I felt a physical lightness, never felt hungry and never once took advantage of the second helpings available, despite undertaking two hours of yoga, two long swims and two hikes every day. I am still not sure how it was possible.

‘I no longer felt the urge to re-adjust my posture. A kindness and softness – usually buried deep inside me – rose to make itself known’

The body then, was in good shape, but the mind? Well, that was a bit harder. I must admit, I really did not enjoy the first meditation session. I think I was expecting something warm and comfortable, easy and relaxed. It turns out that there is an ascetic element to the practice, it is quite hard at first, and can be physically and mentally uncomfortable. So again I was asking, what was I doing here?

The second session didn’t start much better. “Just get through it!” I found myself thinking, when Brian suggested thinking of an affirmation to guide our practice. But then, something changed. I can’t put my finger on exactly what, when, how or why. Brian’s commentary and guidance got me comfortable and somehow “in the zone”.

I no longer felt the urge to re-adjust my posture. A kindness and softness – usually buried deep inside me – rose to make itself known. I started to think of tweaks that I could make to my being and how I might use them to develop an inner potential that was entirely new to me. It wasn’t just me either, it was impossible not to be aware that, by day two, the group had relaxed into their practice and there was a palpable shift of energy, a settling. It was accommodating, energising, challenging and comforting all at the same time. This was not conscious thought at first, but an awareness that I felt after the third session and throughout the rest of the week.

What made the Mindfulness Journeys experience truly unique was Brian Hilliard. He is the real deal. His experience made itself known in a lightness of touch and an intuitive and instant understanding of what the group and each individual needed, which was no easy task. Our disparate but united group consisted of three high powered young professionals in the finance and technology sectors, an ex-GP now running a team of doctors for a massive pharma company, the London Head of a high-end skincare brand, a retired production manager for a huge French theatre company and me. Individually and collectively, we all thrived under Brian’s guidance.I am still slightly surprised to discover quite how much I miss being there and how much I got out of the retreat. It also turns out that my pre-conceptions were wrong – meditation is for everyone, and not just for coping with stress. Anyone can better develop their potential using these techniques.

Do I feel bullet proof in mind and body? Not quite, but I’ve taken a massive step in the right direction. Would I go back? Without hesitation. But it‘s my wife’s turn next!