I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten so healthfully and deliciously for five days.
On Sunday, we arrived on the last train from Lisbon, were picked up from the station, and traveled through the solid countryside darkness down a gravel road to the retreat. Even though it was almost 11 pm, we found a full spread of hot squash soup; dense and moist vegan bread, crisp kale salad with sprouted lentils, ad vegetable crudités and dip, all followed by fresh cherries for dessert.
This would be a theme of the retreat. The chef, Gabi, prepared meals with an overwhelming variety of nutrient-dense and delicious vegetarian (vegan optional) food, served hot and family style.
Gabi was our retreat’s chef, making recipes that had been honed over years of Fiona’s retreat
I felt like we were stuffing ourselves with food from 10 am to 8 pm everyday. There was so much variety of deliciousness at every meal to savor, that we piled it onto our plates likes bears storing fat for the winter. And yet, despite the restorative nature of yoga and the many hours spent cuddled under blankets by the fire with our books and in conversation, none of us felt like we gained any weight during the retreat. Maybe that’s because all the food was sugar-free, and the only carbs were a meal of pasta, and crusty grilled bread served at breakfast every day. Or maybe it was because we naturally followed a time-restricted feeding schedule, not eating breakfast until we had finished our morning yoga.
We felt pampered but not spoiled by the food, full but not stuffed. I could almost feel the nutrients flowing through my veins on their way to perking up my cells and setting my digestive system right on track.
After our welcome dinner, we were each led to our room with the help of solar lamps. Outside the kitchen door, a chorus of frogs in the natural chlorine- and salt-free pool insisted that we pause and listen. The next morning when we woke up, we wandered out of our rooms before yoga and took in our idyllic setting.
The retreat center, in the style of a resort combined with a country home, is nestled in its own small valley, with a creek that flows down to the reservoir lake. It’s surrounded by lush gardens filled with flowers and medicinal herbs. I had been given a king suite a few steps away from the kitchen/living room, and each time I went into and exited my large room, the sweet smell of jasmine enveloped me. Happy bumblebees buzzed, delighted, in the bushes by the kitchen door.
The door to my room smelled like jasmine
As I mentioned above, the Nourish in Nature retreat used to be held on Fiona’s property, with guests staying in tents, and yoga conducted underneath a canvas roof. Fiona spent years carefully constructing her eco-friendly property. That is all gone now, burnt up in the deadly wildfire that swept through the region last summer. It’s clear Fiona is still grieving for her own retreat, as she should be.
This retreat, Quinta Canaval, is more luxurious, a proper villa instead of a glamping site. It was saved by the fire by the sprinkler system, but the woods surrounding it are still almost completely black, except for the eucalyptus trees regenerating with fragrant leaves at the base of their trunks.
(I would later find out that eucalyptus trees are invasive, burn easily, and are blamed for making the deadly fires happen. They also have deep root systems that suck away water from other trees and plants and destroy the habitat of native species. They are now Portugal’s most common tree, which is a tragedy.)
It was a poetic setting for the retreat, in which so many of us, scarred by life’s experiences and stresses and heartbreak, found our souls putting out small shoots of green in response to a week of proper mind and body care.
Solar panels power the property, which is off-grid.
And the property is stunningly sustainable. It was painstakingly built to be off the grid by a former surgeon, a Dutch woman named Mabel Vandersteen. The whole place is heated by water pipes that run under the floor. Boreholes bring up pure water from the depths, which is then heated either by solar panels or, if it’s a cloudy and cold week, the recoupadores, the fireplaces that have water pipes flowing through them.
The property can go four days without sun, including charging laptops and phones, refrigerators, and lights and hot water. We were warned not to spend too much time in the hot showers, especially since it had been cloudy, but even with more than 10 of us at the retreat, we never ran out of hot water. There is also a completely natural pool – no chlorine or salt – that can spill over into the pond and garden below, and the walls are painted with completely natural paints.
Yoga was held upstairs in a yoga room decorated familiarly: simple wood floors, windows that let in natural light, and a few Tibetan and Buddhist decorations.
I had arrived with the expectation, bred in the United States and more specifically in NYC and LA, that we would be doing two challenging yoga classes a day. What is a retreat if not for improving your postures, sweating until you’re sore, and incorporating more impressive moves into your repertoire?
Actually, that is exactly what this particular retreat is not about, as I quickly learned. This retreat was about healing, taking the time to truly retreat inward and having the luxury of gazing at yourself and asking what you and your body needs, and leave feeling better and with ideas and energy for living a little bit healthier.
My sustainable yoga wear in this picture was provided by the ethical and eco-friendly online retailer FAIRE.
Each day focused on a different chakra or element, such earth, water, fire, air, and space. There was one yoga class in the morning, and three days had an afternoon class of yoga nidra, a type of yoga meditation that involves lying on the floor and being lulled into a state of focused yet relaxed half-sleep. For the next hour, you will not have to move, was one of the instructions Fiona read to us.
The morning class I would describe as deliberate: strong, focused, and calm. Fiona is a remarkably experienced and informed, yet humble, teacher. I was clued into how passionate and well-educated she is through casual conversation after class, in which we would ramble over a wide range of topics. She would bring up this branch of yoga, or that immersive workshop she participated in. To talk with Fiona is to realize just how little you know about yoga, to take a look through a peephole revealing just part of yoga’s breadth and depth. I sensed a kindred spirit in her curiosity and intelligence, her grounding in research and science. She even pulled a slim book out for me called Exposing Yoga Myths, which I devoured in one sitting.
But despite her experience and knowledge, she was never prescriptive. She led us through the poses, but she never said we were doing it wrong. She never pushed us too hard, or questioned our choices. She even gave us permission to sleep during yoga nidra. “If you fall asleep, then sleep is what you need,” she said.
In a sense, the yoga we practiced with her was one of trusting our bodies and instincts, and allowing ourselves to actually and fully relax and love ourselves. This is such a contrast to what I and many others have experienced at festivals or classes in our respective cities, where yoga teachers tell us to try harder, you’re doing it wrong, you should be doing it this way. Instead, Fiona wandered about the room, with precise and helpful instructions, and the lightest of adjustments to our arms or hips.
Sara leading an herbal workshop
The Herbal Workshops
Every day at noon, after we had a little time to digest our breakfast of chia pudding, Greek-style yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit, we would meet in the little tiled kitchen next door to the main area and settle into the plush chairs, wrapping ourselves in blankets, for the herbal workshops. They were led by the retreat co-founder, Sara Rooney.
Sara Rooney is a Medical Herbalist, not to be confused with a plain “herbalist,” “functional nutritionist,” or “naturopath,” all of whom are poorly regulated in the U.S. and Europe, and who, frankly, I rarely trust. To call yourself a Medical Herbalist, you have to do three to four years of schooling in the U.K. that includes pharmacology and biology, 500 hours of time in a clinic, and then have continuing education. Their recommendations are based on traditional herbal and nutritional remedies that are backed by research and clinical trials.
I arrived a total skeptic. But this is a combination that I can get behind: A prioritizing of natural remedies and nutrition that treats underlying causes, but that are based in science and take into account any medications that your medical doctor has prescribed. This mix of natural and modern medicine really showed in Sara’s approach. She gave us the tools we needed to improve our own health, but never made sweeping pronouncements. She said things like, “I don’t think there are any natural remedies that can cure cancer.” Or, “Some people DIY sunscreen and I don’t think that is a good idea.”
The kombucha-making lesson, complete with tastings!
In each class, she addressed another branch of her work: natural and nutritious foods, tinctures and infused oils and how to make them, the functions of various herbs and identification, adaptogens, and herbal harvesting. Like a particularly healthy cooking class, she demonstrated how to make nut milks, turmeric lattes, balm for bug bites, and more. She also gave us a really useful quiz that indicated whether we might have so much stress that it was affecting our health, and we had the option to sign up for a personal session with her, if we had some health issues we were struggling with.
On the final day, Sara took us outside to put the foraging theory into practice.
“Let go,” the card said. I had pulled it from a deck that Aiofe, the retreat’s massage therapist, had spread on the table in the private massage room. Aiofe is a Professional Holistic Complementary Therapist registered with the Federation of Holistic Therapists. She has advanced training in various types of massage, plus certifications in Reiki, reflexology, aromatherapy. And she is intuitive.
“This is spot on,” I said.
I climbed onto the table, and she dug into my tissue firmly, but without causing pain. “You really do have trouble letting go,” she said, working through my tight shoulders. Later: “I can tell you workout a lot.”
I laughed. “The muscle is still there after six months?”
Every retreat attendee received one massage when we arrived from Aiofe, plus had the option to purchase second massage for 55 euros. As with everything at the retreat, this extra session wasn’t pushed on us at all, just made available if we wanted it.
Aoife was always laughing throughout the retreat, dispensing hugs to the attendees, even as she absorbed all of our neuroses through her fingertips during multiple sessions. “I received training on how to manage it,” she simply said, with a warm smile, when I asked her during a dinner about the difficulties of working in a profession where she works through people’s personal struggles through touch.
Sustainable yoga wear in this picture provided by Asquith London.
Usually during June, Portugal is warm and sunny. But that week the heat and sun had moved up to Northern Europe and left us a drizzly, grey week.
Nobody cared. Fiona lit a fire for us in the living room, and we all curled up on the couches with our books or wrapped our blankets around us to have long conversations or naps. On the one sunny day, we collectively played hookie from the afternoon yoga nidra (Fiona didn’t mind at all and simply rescheduled it for the next day) and took an easy 30-minute hike to the lake, where we scrambled down to the edge and went skinny dipping in the protected inlet. The lake was quiet and empty, not a soul in sight except for we ladies gasping at the cold shock of spring water.
On Tuesday, I decided that I wanted some wine with dinner – we were in Portugal after all. True to form, Fiona and Sara said that it wasn’t an alcohol-free retreat and I was welcome to walk to the village and buy some wine if I wanted. Sara even offered to fetch me some, but I liked the idea of a long walk and seeing more about the area.
Holly, Francesca, Ruth, Lisa, me, Florine, and Annie.
So I set off with Francesca of Ethical Unicorn up the track. It was a 30-minute walk up a gentle slop out of the burnt valley, and we became out of breath from trying to climb while talking. I collected leaves from the regenerating eucalyptus trees and rolled them in my hands, inhaling their scent. When we reached the main road, we turned right and found ourselves entering the most adorable European village I have ever seen in person.
Sadly, many of the stone houses right on the main road were abandoned, their roofs caving in. Young people are leaving Portugal’s countryside to seek better economic opportunities in Lisbon and Porto, while locals haven’t been able to effectively develop a tourism industry. Many English people have moved down to the area to start a tiny expat community of yoga practitioners. But the tiny village of Bravo has only one cafe, and it was closed for the afternoon siesta when we arrived.
As we studied the schedule on the door, we heard a voice behind us. An old man was leaning out of his window. I told him in Spanish that we wanted to buy wine. He got on his flip phone and called someone, then indicated in Portuguese that someone was on their way to sell us wine. Then he invited us into his home, and poured us two cups of wine for us to enjoy while we waited!
It was a bit frustrating for both of us, as Alfonso didn’t speak any English, and I speak basic Spanish, but we managed to get a few words across the language divide. Francesca had her appointment with Sara, and had to leave. Not long after, a car pulled up and several Portuguese locals got out. One opened the cafe, and Alfonso and I went down. I had a long chat with the younger man, who lives in Lisbon but frequently comes back to visit his family, and paid 1 euro and 40 cents for a liter and a half of locally-produced wine, served in a plastic soda bottle. The group invited me back the next day to have a post-lunch cup of coffee with all the locals, but I had the herbal workshop at that time, regretfully.
With my super-cheap local wine under my arm, I walked back to the retreat, gathering wildflowers along the way. I had a whole bouquet by the time I walked past Sara’s kitchen, where she was talking with Francesca. Sara cracked the door and said, “Watch out, those flowers are poisonous. I would wash your hands.”
It’s so helpful to have an herbalist around!
The Other Attendees
“Everyone seems quite grounded,” Sara said at the beginning of a workshop, as she gazed around at everyone in the room.
It was true. I can’t promise every Nourish in Nature retreat will have this particular alchemy of warm, kind, smart and welcoming women. But I was floored with how well everyone on the retreat got along, despite being from different backgrounds.
There was Ruth, the fellow Burning-Man-festival goer, an enthusiastic flower child who dispensed compliments and angel tarot cards. There was Lisa, Ruth’s friend, a young German woman visiting from Berlin with a shaved head and shy smile. There was Emma, a single mum from England whose lilting voice brought me a spark of joy every time she spoke. Laura, a nonprofit arts education worker, and I had long conversations about her time in Ecuador. Jill, the retreat volunteer, was a kind and steady presence throughout the week. And then there were my fellow EWC members: Holly of Leotie Lovely, Florine of The Wasted Blog, Francesca of Ethical Unicorn, and Annie of Terumah, and finally, Holly’s friend and talented photographer Monique.
By the end of the week, during our closing circle, several women cried with gratitude and happiness as they shared what the resort meant to them. It was a spacious retreat that offered the tools to address the issues that plague so many of us modern women – stress, digestive and hormone issues, self-doubt, guilt – but didn’t get offended if you didn’t feel the need to take them.
I teared up too. It hadn’t just outdone my expectations. Fiona and Sara had totally underpromised, and then overdelivered on the love and heart. They showed me a new way of thinking about health and friendship and being in the company of women. My my mind and body was truly nourished by the people, food, and yoga given to me. And for that, I am so grateful – the the coincidence of travel that made this possible, to Fiona and Sara for creating it, Mabel for building this eco resort, Gabi for cooking the food, the weather and land of rural Portugal, and to my fellow resort attendees.
Isn’t this gratitude and being present what yoga is all about?
There are two more retreats coming up with spaces available: September 16-22 and September 23-29. I urge you to make time and space in your budget for it if you feel like you need something, but you’re not sure what. I promise, it’s worth it.
My sustainable yoga wear in this picture was provided by the ethical and eco-friendly online retailer FAIRE.
*We partnered with Nourish in Nature to write about our experience in exchange for comped or discounted stays. What you’ve read above is my honest views and feelings about the retreat. You can also read Holly of Leotie Lovely’s review, Florine of The Wasted Blog’s review, Annie of Terumah’s review, and Francesca of Ethical Unicorn’s review.