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There’s wind howling and rain slashing in a tumult outside Eden Rise and Sandwell Barn, on the slopes of southern Devon. It’s the first week of December and it feels like at the moment that around eight in the morning night breaks into grey for a few hours before darkness descends again. The weather is resolutely gloomy, and it’s a time of year when I do, wanting to hide away from the world.
Retreats with New Moon Yoga are very much about tuning into the impact of the seasons and being part of the rhythms and changes of life. Just like nature starts to close in and take care of itself in winter, hibernating away, we too need to care for ourselves and create a sense of warmth within. And that’s what I’m here to do with Emily Katsuno and her partner Chelan Freeman, founders and teachers of New Moon Yoga Retreats.
Having met in London as dancers and yoga teachers, Chelan and Emily moved back to the West Country only a few years ago, and since running their first retreat in 2012 ‘the universe has taken us on an amazing journey’ Emily says. ‘Chelan just said that we should run a retreat, and once we had manifested it, it happened.’ Whether you call it the universe’s response to a spiritual manifestation, or a mix of hard work, enthusiasm, and luck, they have been successful enough to keep expanding the scope and scale of their retreats, and in 2016 will be moving to some luxury accommodation where there will be a real sense of escape for those attending. ‘It’s still the same essence though’ Emily says. ‘For us it’s all about the work.’
That work is yoga, in its pure form of union – with the self, the earth, the universe. They very much believe in the connection between individuals and the infinite cosmos, and so their practice and retreats are reflective of this and the relationship between the two.
There is a often a feeling that yoga is something physical that happens on the matt. This weekend was about more than that. Rather than just asana, they ‘want to create a space where people can connect with everything that yoga involves, the spirit, the inner knowing.’ Over the weekend there is fifteen hours of yoga, meditation, bodywork and connection, but all sessions are more spirit than body – or rather are about the connection between the two. There’s no intense dynamic cardio work; instead the sessions are much more yin in style, tapping into the feminine energy of the seasons. A moon yoga flow, sun yoga flow, expressive dance, yoga nidra, sound healing and earth flow make up our schedule, and although it’s full and intense, it’s never demanding. As dancers themselves much of the asana is more movement meditation, merging the form and the formless, and as such there’s a freedom and purity within it.
As they say, ‘A New Moon is symbolic of new beginnings and the retreats provide the space for new intentions to manifest or to simply just be and breathe!’ An invitation to create harmony and vitality is extended to everyone, and a wholesome space provided in which to do so. As well as the gorgeous countryside and delicious vegan food that spilled out over the table three times a day, there was a presence to the environment. Whether it was the supportive touch on the shoulder, the quiet word in the ear, the motivational notes on the stairs or the welcome gifts on the bed, a sense of comfort and tenderness infused the space. Poetic soft tones over gentle chimes, lovely lilting flute melodies, beautiful scented oils and flickering candles make a sensual and stimulating space in which to explore our bodies and hearts.
Chelan and Emily might be the organisers and teachers, but as they remind us throughout the weekend, the real work happens within. ‘Follow your own inner guru’ Chelan tells us and it’s wise advice. Deep down there is something within us that knows, whatever it is trying to know, and a space away from the world gives people a chance to listen in and reflect upon that. It can be difficult, painful even, being only with one’s self and without distractions, but it’s a valuable process and one that can be rejuvenating and renewing. There are few times in life when any of us let down our guards, even to ourselves, but the mat is one place in which we can. It might feel hard in a class of thirty in a busy gym chain, and that’s why retreats are so powerful – they offer the space to be ourselves. Having lived and taught in India, Goa and Malaysia, among other places, they are well versed in the ancient teachings and mystical traditions of the practice, and it’s clear that yoga truly is a way of life for our hosts. It infuses every moment, because it’s every breath.
Friday evening, sitting in a circle in the barn loft, we each place a stone of intention, a representation of what we want to honour, focus upon, or manifest this weekend. There’s hesitation and guardedness even in the sharing, but we are reassured that this is a place of safety where we will be held and supported. It’s clear by the closing circle when we reflect upon what’s happened how well this has been achieved. There’s tears, honesty, vulnerability, laughter and revelation about love, loss, illness, anxiety, joy, heartbreak, marriage, family and more – the vicissitudes of life then – and the security that the group felt in opening up is testament to the work of the girls.
A retreat like this isn’t a withdrawal, but a coming home. ‘It’s a time of year for softening, coming home to the self’ Emily Katsuno, co founder, tells me over a delightful vegan loaf, crushed coleslaw and braised kale one evening. ‘So much of yoga in a class is often about pushing the physical self harder, but actually we need to nourish ourselves.’
You can only ever be where you are. And you have to know yourself as part of this. Yoga and life are a daily practice, full of tensions, struggles, stretches and strains, but also freedom, joy, opening and brilliance. The day may be grey outside, but that’s ok – there’s still so much to feel, learn, and be. I’m here, now. And that little bit of acceptance is something I will take away from New Moon and Eden Rise.
New Moon Yoga Retreats are holistic weekends of health, nourishment and empowerment designed to awaken the spirit and beauty within everyone through the healing power of yoga. Chelan and Emily, experienced yoga teachers brought to yoga through dance, are are honoured to share their knowledge and passion for movement and meditation through the ancient art of yoga, and invite you to share their practice.