As I nod along in conversations about urine therapy, microdosing truffles, and spending £160 on a distiller to rid tap water of toxins, it becomes clear I’m deep in woo-woo wellness territory.
That’s a sense that only grows as we assemble into a ‘sharing circle’ on Thursday evening, sat on cushions on the wooden floor of a barn at Brimpts Farm in Dartmoor.
We pass around a talking stick wrapped in gorse and dangling an owl feather found at a festival. As it’s handed around the 20 or so participants, each person shares how they’re feeling and what brought them here, in two minutes or less.
This is the Waking The Wild Ones Retreat, run by Alana Bloom, Gaia Harvey Jackson, and The Psychedelic Society. I find myself here for a reason simpler than most of the group: I received an email invite, skimmed bullet points about playing, voice work, and ‘sensuality exploration’, and thought something along the lines of ‘that’s the last thing I would ever do, so f*** it, I’m in’.
Others are brave enough to share tales of disconnection, destructive relationships, loneliness, and sickness.
This sets the tone for the next four days; one of vulnerability, of letting go, of wanting something different.
We kick things off with a game of ‘spectrums’, aligning ourselves from one side of the room or the other in answer of questions of how old we are, how nervous, and exactly how much we read about this retreat before the hours-long journeys to a space in the middle of nowhere.
The retreat took place at Brimpts Farm, in the middle of nowhere in Dartmoor (Picture: Ellen Scott/Metro.co.uk)
Next, we’re divided into our ‘pods’ for the weekend; smaller groups of five, each with a ‘facilitator’ working with Alana and Gaia to make sure we’re sticking to the practices of good sharing: no interrupting, no jumping into offering advice without first asking if it’s wanted, total privacy. Each morning we’ll meet up in these pods to share in a smaller circle, while eating breakfasts of vegan porridge topped with mulberries and almond butter.
Friday morning starts in silence. We’re instructed to not speak to allow for introspection, and, when we go out for a walk in the woodland, to let us notice the nature around us.
I’m a London cliché wearing flimsy trainers as I don’t have walking boots, and quickly get soaked sludging through boggy grass. I’m surprised to find I don’t mind – I’m too taken in by the plushness of the moss on the trees, the gentle chirp of birds, the crunch of acorns and autumn leaves beneath me.
It’s strange that all it takes is the absence of chatter and Alana’s instruction to really notice what’s around us to help me finally switch off my anxiety-riddled inner monologue and feel the calmest I’ve been in months. Could it really be so easy, so basic, as a stroll without a podcast or playlist?
There’s something so restorative about being by water (Picture: Ellen Scott/Metro.co.uk)
I’m not completely free of neuroses and one with nature in a matter of a morning, of course, so I don’t join the members of the group stripping naked and plunging into the icy river, instead continuing to wander and trying to ignore the urge to snap a picture (it helps that there’s absolutely zero phone signal here – is there any point in documenting a tree being beautiful in the woods if you can’t Instagram it?).
We return for breakfast, then get started with one aspect of the getaway I’m dreading: play, dance, movement.
Music is turned on (no top 40 or Taylor Swift, alas, but the kind of ambient wordless tunes I can imagine being played in a yoga class) and we’re told to ‘let our feet lead us around the room’, to ‘let them guide us’. My feet would quite like to run back to my bedroom. Perhaps our feet might meet someone else’s feet, and say hello however feet would do that, says Alana. My feet are antisocial.
Next the knees. Then our chests. Our elbows. I hate it.
Others are great at letting loose and dancing like no one’s watching… I am not (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
Now we need to become different animals – predators, prey – and move around the room as them. I’m impressed by the people who really commit to skittering around as squirrels and pounce and roar as mysterious creatures, but I’m rigidly going through the motions. My ‘wild one’ certainly isn’t awoken yet.
An about turn in vibe comes in the form of an eye-gazing exercise, where we need to look into someone’s eyes for three minutes. The first pair of eyes terrify me – they’re immediately cold and there’s not much behind them. The second are a world of difference; tender, an abundance of emotion. I find myself closing my eyes often just to get a break. The third pair are so gentle and shimmering with tears that I find myself crying.
Crying? Just from looking at someone’s eyes for three minutes? I’m shocked – and a little embarrassed – too. Woo-woo it may be, but there’s something in it. These won’t be anywhere near the last tears shed on this retreat.
We do mirroring exercises, followed by eye-gazing (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
Next up, ‘cyclonic sharing’ – a slightly airy-fairy term for sitting in mini circles and going round and round finishing prompts – ‘I feel wildest when…’, ‘what blocks my wild self is…’. There are some common themes that emerge: being in touch with nature is good, dealing with the weight of ‘should’ is not.
A veggie lunch (all the food here is vegan or vegetarian, with intolerances and allergies catered for) follows, then a break. It’s only 2pm but I’m completely wiped out and need to rush to my room for a nap.
When we regroup, it’s back outside, this time with ‘sit mats’ carefully cut into squares from a large tarpaulin. A spot of meditation, which I struggle with at the best of times, gets interrupted by a friendly farm cat who weaves through cross-legged bodies and makes a camp on my mat.
I don’t take a picture of the cat, as it feels like breaking the rules to whip my phone out during meditation, but here’s part of the river (Picture: Ellen Scott/Metro.co.uk)
I do a lot better when we’re asked to head out around the field to find spots where we can sit and take in nature once again. I select a patch under a tree, by a stream, and get hypnotised by the movement of the water.
After this, we get into pairs (I’m with the person whose eyes made me cry earlier) and do some trust exercises, then take turns blindfolding each other and guiding our unseeing partners around the area in silence, letting them feel mushrooms under their fingerpads, cautiously leading them over dips in the ground, selecting the best tree to hug.
I’m taken aback by how gentle my partner is, and how intimate this all feels – but also how completely I trust in the kindness of the people here.
So no one wanted to tell me how I rough I looked during the blindfold exercise? Okay, guys… (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
That trust and the overwhelm of love between strangers is a key component in what happens next: the grief ceremony.
On the Friday evening, we walk into a room that’s been transformed from the ‘school hall’ vibes present earlier in the day. Chairs are lined up on either side of the room, while five trios of cushions sit in front of a roaring fire.
We’re told these cushions are ‘grief stations’, and that ‘whenever we feel grief during the ritual’ we should sit in the centre cushion of one of the trios, using the pillow in front to cry into, punch, or scream at. The cushion behind is for someone else to sit in the role of support, there to hug or hold hands when asked.
The rest of us will sing a Norse chant, keeping it going even if Alana or Gaia need to go to the grief stations. They tell us that if we feel anything, we should go to cushions – ‘even numbness can be grief’, Alana nudges.
I sit, listen, and think that I’ll be sticking firmly in my chair or in the support roles. I haven’t lost anyone to death, but I know other people in the room have. I don’t really have grief, I tell myself.
Before the ritual begins, we’re divided into smaller groups and asked to each share what we’re grieving for. My mouth moves before my brain, and I hear myself saying that I’m grieving for ‘time lost, I guess, to unhealthy coping mechanisms’. My group pushes me for a little more. ‘I’ve been holding a lot of shame,’ I say. I explain that my main way I deal with mental illness these days is just ‘being awful’ to myself, berating my body, my mind, my past. ‘I’m grieving for myself, in a way,’ I say. I start to cry – and it doesn’t stop.
Still, I sit and watch other people cry, and scream, and let loose in ways that rock me, telling myself that they need this space more, that I’m just here to observe even as tears streak my face and my skin goes numb. I tell myself I’ll hold on until I get back to the bedroom and then I can have more of a sob under the covers.
Gaia and Alana call out reminders as we sing – ‘if you’re feeling numb, that counts’, ‘if you’re crying, you should be in a grief station’, ‘we’re all here to support you’, ‘this won’t go on for much longer, go up now if you need to’ – but it takes the person next to me gently saying, ‘if you go up, you know we’ll support you, right?’ to make me finally sink into the cushion by my feet and let everything pour out – the guilt, the shame, the self-hatred.
I go to bed that night feeling raw, but released.
The next morning, silence is comfort. I’m relieved when I don’t receive pitying looks from my fellow retreaters, when I can tell there’s really, genuinely no judgment from people who have released something, too.
We’ve built real trust and intimacy in the space of a few days (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
More eye-gazing follows, this time in a bike chain format, then we’re paired off and asked to say ‘when I look at you, I notice…’ to our partners while staring. I find myself saying things that make my partner weep. ‘You’re really seeing me,’ she says. I feel like I might be psychic, but Gaia notes that this is just the power of eye-gazing. ‘We can’t really hide,’ she intones.
Saturday afternoon is taken up by a cacao ceremony and ‘ecstatic dance’ through the ‘five archetypes’ – the fool, the warrior, the lover, the sovereign, and the sage.
The ceremonial cacao is a bit like a thick, bitter, slightly spiced hot chocolate, and is the closest we’ll get to psychedelics (yes, when I mentioned that I was going to a retreat run by The Psychedelic Society, everyone did expect something a bit more illegal). It’s said to open the heart and boost your mood thanks to theobromine, a mild stimulant.
Time for cacao (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
I’m not particularly keen on the idea of more dancing, and the fool – where we’re supposed to be playful and childlike – is a slog. But the warrior is healing – I punch and push the air, finally letting out anger that I hadn’t known was building up. I picture the things I want to rid from my life – the people, the limiting beliefs, the procrastination, the shame and find myself sweating from the exertion of pummeling them out of my mental space.
The sensual lover is tricky once again, but by the third song I’m into it. The sovereign’s call to strut and show off doesn’t quite work for me (I’m more of a self-deprecating sovereign than a wild queen, it turns out), and by the time the sage rolls around, I decide that the archetype is calling for me to sit down and rest.
There’s a *lot* of dancing (Picture: Alana Bloom)
By Sunday, I’m ready to go home. This has been intense, and I understand why so many attendees choose to dive naked into the river this morning, or why one of my pod-mates needed to run down to the water and scream.
We do some more dancing, some free writing and drawing sessions, then the ‘islands’ exercise – where we sit in our islands and can visit other people’s to impart some positive feedback from the weekend. I feel slightly concerned that my island won’t be popular, but it’s lovely to hear from a few people that I’ve had an impact, and to tell the people that helped me how much it meant.
We head outside for a last bit of appreciation for nature, and I find myself staying outside in the pouring rain when nearly everyone else has gone inside. I want to just feel it all, to be in the grass and forget myself for a while.
It’s a lot to take in (Picture: Gaia Harvey Jackson)
Finally, a closing circle, summing up how we’ve found the retreat and what we’re taking home with us (in addition to an acorn, picked up and placed in a basket by Alana).
I share that I’ve found this retreat unexpectedly freeing, that I’ll be taking home the gentleness I’ve observed from fellow retreat-goers… and that yes, I will buy some proper walking boots so I can explore woodlands more.
This retreat offers to ‘wake the wild one’ within. Do I leave with my inner wild roaring? …Perhaps not. I haven’t had a total personality overhaul, and being asked to be a ferocious creature for a group photo still feels awkward.
But I arrive back in London having unleashed my shame, with a huge dose of self-compassion, and holding a new desire to run to my nearest woodlands, to feel the grass under my bare feet, to notice it all.
Great, wonderful people at the end of a healing few days
I came into this retreat ready to scoff, but I’m amazed by just how powerful I found it. It was like doing months of therapy in the space of four days, with the bonus of delicious food, connections with brilliant people, and a stunning destination.
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