A very special health retreat in France
You’d expect to come back from something billing itself as a health retreat feeling, well, healthier. Depending what’s on offer, you might hope to return home weighing a bit less than you did when you left, feeling fitter, and perhaps more centred emotionally. You may hope to have met some interesting and likeable people, read some good books and eaten some healthy food. Or you might just hope to rest in lovely surroundings.
Or, if you really luck out, you might find somewhere that does all that for you. And then some.
I’d never been on a health retreat before, so I didn’t really have any expectations, specific or otherwise, when I arrived at The Health Retreat run by Yvonne Wake in the beautiful Lot Valley in SW France. All I knew was that Yvonne had worked for over 40 years in the health, nutrition and lifestyle industries, and had run retreats all over the world as well as having a successful business working with individual clients, so I felt confident I was putting myself into safe hands.
It was a confidence that turned out to be more than well placed. For the past seven years Yvonne has been running weekly retreats throughout June, based in the glorious Relais de Roqueiereau (which sculptor owner, Natalie, runs as a B&B all the rest of the year). It’s testament to the restorative power of her finely honed programme, and the quality of the team she gathers round her to deliver it, that there are so many returners each year. Indeed, one of our group had been coming every year since the first retreat in 2001.
What makes the programme stand out
Everything about the activities, treatments and food on offer during the five days of the retreat is designed and delivered in order (to quote Yvonne) to ‘totally relax, heal and teach’ the participants. And it’s that teaching thread that makes her programme stand out from the rest.
Because it turns out, Yvonne is a woman on a mission. A mission to help us all understand the vital importance of gut health to our overall health and wellbeing.
In broad terms, our guts are our digestive systems, consisting of all the organs involved in processing our food from the moment it enters our mouth until it is expelled the other end. But gut health isn’t just about what food and drink you put into that system, it’s also affected by lifestyle, stress, and the toxins in our environment.
I’m going to leave it to Yvonne to explain in her own words in a separate post (read that by clicking here) why it is that she calls the gut your second brain, and what she wants us all to do to make sure ours is as healthy as it can be. But that principle runs through everything she does on The Retreat like the words in a stick of rock (which definitely wouldn’t qualify as a suitable thing to eat!)
Each day begins with an exercise class (two of which were memorable aerobics sessions led by Yvonne, who was trained by no less than Jane Fonda herself!), followed by breakfast.
The morning is set aside for treatments, therapies or just resting.
After lunch there’s an hour-long yoga session and then more time for rest or treatments.
At 5.30 the group, accompanied by the staff team, who also join in the classes, set out for a walk in the glorious, hilly countryside surrounding the Relais, where an added bonus is scrumping cherries and apricots from the trees along the way.
Weather permitting, dinner, like lunch, is eaten outdoors on the terrace, watching the sun slowly set on the fields, farms and villages spread out in the valley below.
Retreaters are encouraged to participate in all the activities (which accommodate each person’s levels of fitness and ability), but it’s purely voluntary. If you prefer not to, that’s up to you. (I can’t help feeling it’d be somewhat perverse to have all that at your disposal and not take advantage of it. And whilst some of the retreaters didn’t do some of the sessions for various reasons, they were the exception in each case).
Not as hard as I expected
What is not voluntary, is the two-day liquid-only detox that starts your gut health programme for the week. For obvious reasons I’d expected this to be the hardest part, especially as the exercise schedule remains the same, but to my surprise, thanks to the delicious and nutrition-packed smoothies and juices we were given at regular intervals during the day, and the tasty, hearty soups we had each evening, I never once felt hungry or lacking in energy.
Which is not to say we weren’t all delighted to be back on solids on day three. And especially as the solids in question were a carefully prepared menu of irresistible dishes created by talented chef, Andrea, from the freshest, seasonal, organic produce all sourced from local farms. Each dish was accompanied by a detailed explanation from Andrea, not only of the ingredients but why and how they were good for you.
As well as accomplished chefs (there were three different ones over the four week period of the retreats) Yvonne gathers together a team of expert therapists who offer a selection of treatments which varies from year to year. (The treatments aren’t included in the cost of the retreat, they’re paid for directly to the therapists) The talented team on our week (again there are different therapists on different weeks) served up a smorgasboard of reflexology - on both the feet and the face, massage, facials, myofacial release (the facia is the connective tissue that surrounds and supports the muscles all round your body) and two, more high tech therapies - PandoraStar, an LED light treatment that can help relaxation, stress-relief and wellbeing and increase energy and focus, and the Body Ballancer lymphatic massage system, a body suit that you zip yourself in to, that contains 24 air chambers which repeatedly inflate at a set pressure gradually, moving up your body from your feet. The action stimulates the lymphatic system which is responsible for the absorption, transportation and elimination of excess fluid. It’s a surprisingly relaxing way to accelerate the removal of waste products and excess fluid, reduce cellulite and improve skin tone.
Give everything a try
Like all the other retreaters, I did most of the treatments (I didn’t manage to get a slot for the facial reflexology) and can report that the massage was one of the best I’ve ever had; the facial was delightful; the foot reflexology was a revelation (I had no idea you could tell so much about someone’s body and how it’s functioning, or not, from the feet), the myofacial release was extraordinary, and extraordinarily effective, and something, like the reflexology, that I definitely want to do more of; the PandoraStar wasn’t for me (I tried a three minute taster session and didn’t like it) and the Body Ballancer was surprisingly enjoyable (I can’t say I noticed any particular effects - I don’t yet have cellulite and my skin tone is pretty good - but it did make me go to the loo immediately afterwards!)
Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention the other key element of The Health Retreat experience. Coffee enemas. The purpose of these, self-administered enemas (which use specially formulated caffineated coffee) is to remove toxins accumulated in the liver and to help eliminate free radicals from the bloodstream. I have to admit, I went fairly determined NOT to give those a try, but when, after the first day, I listened to all the other retreaters talking about doing them, I felt (on the basis of the aforementioned perversity of not trying everything on offer) I really should. It wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable, difficult or unpleasant as I imagined it would be. Without going into unnecessary detail, that goes for the process and the outcome of it, and I did feel less bloated and ‘lighter’ inside as a result of doing it.
Each of us had a one-on-one consultation with Yvonne during our stay, based on a detailed health and lifestyle questionnaire that we had filled out prior to our arrival. As well as her professional health and nutrition expertise, she is a qualified coach, and the session covered not just our health but our wider wellbeing too. It was yet another example of the deep-rooted ethos in every part of our time at the retreat, to care for all aspects of our welfare.
My fellow retreaters
As for the other retreaters, there were nine of us altogether (the maximum number Yvonne will take). Two on their second weeks, two other returners and five newbies. Some of them already knew each other, either from previous retreats, or because they came with a friend. But we were all strangers to at least a few of the others. And some, like me, knew no-one beforehand. Over the course of our week together we shared experiences and emotions, tested ourselves and nurtured and supported each other. And after a final laughter and tear-filled finale feast from Andrea, we danced into the wee small hours together.
We left the next morning, grateful for our new-found friendships, delighting in our healthier bodies and brimming with determination to continue all Yvonne had shown and taught us. If our WhattsApp group messages are anything to go by, that’s going pretty well so far.
For more information and details about The Health Retreat and Yvonne’s other work, click here
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