In early October, Women’s Running were invited to the Vale de Moses yoga retreat near Oleiros in Portugal to explore the benefits that yoga can have on our running. Andrew and Vonetta run this farmhouse haven with the help of their wonderful team to provide world-class yoga sessions, three delicious vegetarian meals a day (side note: don’t expect to lose weight on this retreat!), gorgeous surroundings where you can hike, run and swim to your heart’s content and cosy quarters for a restful night’s sleep.
The retreat is six nights, including five full days jam-packed with yoga classes and other activities that guests are free to attend as they please. Our digital editor Holly got stuck in and experienced as much of Vale de Moses as she could in a week – this is what she took away from it…
For those of you who go on running holidays or sporting retreats in your downtime already, hats off to you. For those of you who don’t understand how that could possibly be relaxing, I’m with you. Or I used to be, until I gave it a go.
Bringing my trainers along on a family holiday and begrudgingly dragging them out of the suitcase and along a nearby trail once or twice during the week was about as much exercise as I fancied doing when I was ‘supposed to be relaxing’. I had, of course, forgotten that exercise can be relaxing and, along with meditation, good food and lots of sleep, it contributed to one of the most peaceful and restorative breaks I’ve ever had.
As runners, we can be so focussed on goal-orientated exercise. Whether we’re trying to beat a PB, chase down a new distance, shift a few pounds or tackle a fresh challenge, we’re always aiming for something. The very philosophy of the Vale de Moses retreat, one of mindfulness and self-acceptance, allowed me to leave my obsessive targets behind and just run because it was glorious outside, or because I wanted to feel my heart racing, or because I wanted to explore a local Portuguese village. I truly enjoyed running, rather than viewing it as a task to be ticked off a list.
I’d considered myself a novice yogi before embarking on my Vale de Moses adventure, but I knew I was out of practice following an injury over the summer, so was prepared to be bottom of the class. As soon as I wandered into that first class of the week with Tashi Dawa (new girl crush alert) it was clear that ‘bottom of the class’ simply didn’t exist. Experience was irrelevant as Tashi’s teachings were new to all of us. The postures may have been the same, but the practice was completely fresh, as we were encouraged to try new breathing techniques, create our own yoga flows and be confident in what felt right for our own bodies.
Yoga is brilliant for strengthening your muscles and ironing out any kinks, as I’m sure you’ve been told many times. But running is already time-consuming and it can seem like too much to take on another hobby, even if it is beneficial for your body. A week of intensive yoga taught me a huge amount, but most importantly it taught me that yoga doesn’t have to be intense. Tashi encouraged us to practise for just 20 minutes a day going forward and I’ve tried my best to stick with it. Armed with my new stretches and postures, I’m pleased to report that I’ve seen genuine improvement in the strength of my right arm, which is where the nasty injury had been lingering.
I meet two other runners on the retreat who turned to yoga after sustaining injuries, Kat and Mari, and both are now complete converts. Kat used yoga to get back in touch with her body following a knee injury a few years ago, as well as to keep moving while she recovered, and is now happily back on the trails. Mari found mindfulness a key take-away from her yoga practice, turning to meditation during tough times. She has a busy life with her wild swimming group and helping to head up her company’s mindfulness programme, but is keen to get running again. Every woman on the retreat has a positive story to tell about how they have benefited from yoga physically and mentally.
One thing that particularly struck me about retreat living was the quiet, or more specifically my response to it. I’d spotted ‘silent meditation’ on the retreat timetable as soon as I arrived and braced myself for discomfort. I always exercise with music or a podcast and had assumed that I’d be bored without the background noise. Even in the less-active moments in my life, when I’m writing or cooking or having a bath, I crave the buzz of some mindless reality TV or another Brexit debate on the radio.
But running, walking and sitting in my own company was surprisingly wonderful. With a daily meditation class, I felt more at peace with my own mind than I have done in a long time, but the real revelation was the new-found connection with my body. ‘Listening’ to your body may sound like a cliché worthy of an eye-roll, but once I shut the noise out and focussed on how my feet felt pounding the rocky trails it was so much easier to pick up on other cues: a tightness in my hips that I’d never noticed before, a clicking in my right knee that I thought I’d previously dealt with.
The expert yoga training and massage therapy helped me to safely work into these areas, arming me with some stretches that I can continue using in future to avoid injury. I’ve since ditched the podcasts (well, mostly!) and try to be more mindful on my runs. It’s considerably harder without the idyllic backdrop of the Portuguese hills, mind, but it’s worth it if I’m being kind to my body.
Vale de Moses will be hosting the Run Wild and Free retreat with expert yoga instructor Mars Gossi for 2 weeks in November. The classes will be exploring the benefits of yoga posture practice for strengthening the body to support running. Whether you’re interested in trying yoga for the first time, challenging yourself to some steep Portuguese trail runs or you simply want to escape for a bit, we’d highly recommend this retreat. It’s naturally beautiful, the staff are wonderfully accommodating and the balance of physical exertion and relaxation is just perfect. Find out more here.