How I found joy and peace on a woodland retreat
12.02.2024 - 12:07
It is November and I am on a train, halfway through my journey towards Danny Shmulevitch’s Walking Your Promise retreat in Gloucester, when I realise that I am having a panic attack.
I had booked the retreat a few months earlier when I was struggling to recover from Covid, crawling through my days in a fog of anxiety and exhaustion, then spending my nights in the claws of insomnia.
I was physically battered, yet it was more than that. I felt soul-sick and lost. More than a decade of exposure to darkness and trauma in my working life as a human rights journalist, and the relentless momentum of my domestic life, had broken something deep inside me. I felt as if I’d been living life like a high-speed freight train that had suddenly hit a wall, and now the carriages were crashing in behind me.
I had to get away to heal, but I didn’t know how. Then, one night when I was online scrolling through yoga weeks and spa hotels, I found the Walking Your Promise retreat, which immerses participants in the solitude of ancient woodland in Gloucestershire for three days. You sleep under the stars, fast for 24 hours and “tune into the rhythms of the natural surroundings to reconnect with your body and find a deeper way of feeling”.
I signed up immediately. Yet now, as the train nears Gloucester station, my heart is clattering and my hands are slippery with sweat. It suddenly seems ludicrous that I have paid quite a lot of money to be cold and hungry. More worrying is how terrifying the prospect of sitting around in trees on my own for days with nothing to do has become. There will be no yoga, no cooking classes, no craft project. I will have to leave my phone behind and I wasn’t allowed to bring a book. As I’ve never done it, I have no idea what will happen when I just stop, and I suddenly don’t want to find out.
Still, the prospect of pulling out seems too humiliating, so on I go, sweating and panicking all the way to Danny’s house. When the taxi pulls up, he comes out to meet me, a compact figure in dyed wool with a silvery topknot, and he is so calm, so kind and confident that this is the place I should be, that I feel my mind unwind.
An hour later, after lunch and reading some calming poetry, it’s time to head into the woods, so I relinquish my phone and follow Danny’s torchlight down a country lane into the darkness. We walk silently through the gloom, weaving between the dark shapes of trees, owls hooting overhead, until I see a flickering of light through the shadows and we come into sight of the campsite, my woodland home for the next three days.
If Danny ever wants to get out of the nature retreat business he could definitely land a gig as an outdoor hygge stylist because it’s all breathtakingly beautiful. The