ImageIn June of this year, to celebrate finishing my final shiatsu exams, I went on a yoga and meditation retreat at the Dhanakosa Buddhist retreat centre in the Scottish Highlands. After months of intensive revision, I felt the time had come for a really relaxing break, but I also wanted to pick up some skills for coping with the pressures of day to day life once the break was over.

A friend had recommended Dhanakosa to me a while ago: they offer a wide range of retreats in a stunning setting, the quiet and majestic Balquhiddder glen near Callander in the Trossachs. I love hiking, particularly in Scotland, so this seemed like an ideal place for me to visit.

I opted to go on the Yoga and meditation introductory retreat as this was going to be my first proper retreat. This was a seven-day affair, starting on a Friday afternoon and finishing on the following Friday morning. We had three meditation sessions and one two-hour yoga class a day, with a large chunk of free time in the afternoon which we could use to explore the majestic hills behind the centre, go for a swim in the loch opposite, read or just relax. We were also given domestic chores which we could mostly fit into the day as we saw fit.

There were some 25 retreatants in total and three teachers, plus Jean, the fantastic facilitator. Although billed as an introductory retreat, quite a few of the people there had extensive experience of meditation and yoga, but many others had little or none at all – I was somewhere in the middle.

For the yoga classes, we were split into two groups: one for beginners and one for more experienced yogis. Both teachers taught Iyengar-style yoga. Although I had some experience of yoga, I joined the beginners’ group in order to improve my grasp of some basic postures – my downward dog had been bothering me for some time! Our teacher, Jinavamsa, was very funny and made each class very enjoyable. It was far from being the po-faced experience I had feared. I also had some yoga tuition from Claire, who taught the advanced group, and found her excellent.

The retreat leader Smritiratna led the meditation sessions, held in the simple but beautiful shrine room. A lot of attention was paid on finding a comfortable posture at the start of the retreat and this helped a lot. The three daily sessions each lasted about 45 minutes and the morning session started at 7.30am – whereas some retreats get going at 5 or 6am!

There were several periods of silence during the week, the longest of which lasted 24 hours. I really got into these and found them a wonderful way of focusing on my own thoughts and feelings. It also seemed to improve communication with the other retreatants: you become much more sensitive to other people’s needs when there is less chatter.

Although Dhanakosa is a Buddhist retreat centre, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to go on one of their retreats. We heard several talks about Buddhist thinking and the teachers were very happy to answer any question that came up, no matter how challenging. The centre has a bookshop stocked with publications about Buddhism, but I never felt that the retreat staff were proselytising: we were given the choice to take as little or as much from Buddhism as we wanted to.

There were also several sessions for which we split into smaller groups and had some really personal discussions about what had brought us to Dhanakosa. Unsurprisingly, many of those in my group had decided to come on retreat in response to a personal tragedy or life-changing event such as illness. The atmosphere in these group sessions was very supportive and they were one of the highlights of the retreat.

Another highlight was the incredible vegan food! I eat meat and animal produce, but the food on offer was really delicious and I didn’t miss meat at all during the seven days. The volunteer chef had a seemingly limitless repertoire of dishes that inspired me to be much more creative with my own cooking once I was back home.

I greatly appreciated the retreat leader Smritiratna setting time aside for a lengthy one-to-one chat with me about a personal tragedy I had suffered. This was an opportunity for me to ask how meditation and Buddhism might help me, but again I didn’t feel that people were trying to convert me.

Overall, the retreat was a very positive experience. I had plenty of time to sift through some things that had been bothering me for a while and I also improved my yoga skills. I thoroughly enjoyed the meditation sessions and got more into meditation than I have ever managed to do previously. Since coming back to London, I have not meditated as regularly as I planned to, but I still manage at least two half-hour meditations a week, plus two or three yoga sessions.

If you have ever wanted to try meditation and/or yoga but didn’t know where to start, I would highly recommend going to Dhanakosa and sampling its powerful healing energy. You will come back feeling refreshed and better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at you. They have a wide range of retreats to choose from and I’m planning to go on another one early in 2013.

Finally, how much does it all cost? There is a £75 booking fee. For the retreat itself, you pay what you can afford, but the suggested donation for a week’s introductory retreat is £340.

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