A magical day in Devon of yoga and tree hugging at Powderham Castle
It was a crisp January morning when I was invited by lovely local yoga Goddess, Gillie Sutherland of Happy fit to come along to her day-long yoga retreat at ‘the home of Devon’, Powderham Castle. And how could I refuse? Two of my favourite things combined; yoga and history.
I’ve had the pleasure of participating in an Ariel yoga class with Gillie so I knew I could expect a wonderful day.
Driving into a castle early in the morning and parking in the courtyard made me feel a bit special, and when Gillie said we had the castle to ourselves, it felt positively magical.
Despite our move to Devon being a great one, it’s been quite a journey emotionally. After moving 4 times in three years, losing our baby and coping with family illness, we finally bought a home in the city at the end of last year. Workwise, I had finished at Age UK Exeter and completed a contract for WOW Exeter. Then December came with birthday and Christmas season (both kids birthdays plus a visit from my Dad) – I didn’t have time to scratch my bum. Work and stress was taking its turn physically – I wasn’t well – I had outbreaks of spots, I was bloated, overweight, anxious and feeling the post-Christmas blues, man, I needed this retreat!
Powderham Castle is just the perfect venue. There really is something magical about it. I knew it from the first time I drove up that magnificent driveway… I’d never noticed the seasons so much as I do now – Gillie
Powderham Castle is located in Kenton, a little village on the edge of Exeter. Known as the home of Devon, it has been the home of The Earl of Devon for over 600 years. The castle itself was built by Sir Phillip Courtenay in the 14th century and is lived in by the current Earl Charles Courtenay and his wife Allison Joy.
Driving up the path through the main gates, the castle looked magical in the misty winter morning. The cold blue sky behind the solid grey stone walls steeped in history and the stories of many lives. Despite extreme tiredness (it was my first early morning of the Christmas break), I couldn’t wait to get started. I parked and went in to find Gillie sitting by the fire in the great hall, looking small and sublime in the grandiose setting.
The great hall was warming up with a fire burning in the huge hearth, the previous Earls of Devon look down from the walls into the centre of the room. This is where our yoga sessions would be. The room is spacious and welcoming – the perfect setting for what was to be a wonderful day.
The first thing Gillie invited us to do was to select an animal card to find our spirit animal for the day, mine was a dove, representing peace and serenity (exactly what I was in need of) then we wrapped up and headed out for a walk.
Exploring the grounds
After a hot drink and a chat by the fire, we began our day with a walk around the grounds and a spot of tree hugging! I know it sounds weird, and some of you are probably thinking, ’silly hippies’.
But I recommend you suspend your cynicism and try it for yourself, it is very grounding. Gillie told us about a documentary by Judi Dench, her love for trees, how they communicate through their roots. The tree we gathered around must have been hundreds of years old, its trunk could have fitted 10-12 of us around it holding hands.
I’ve become obsessed with the trees there. They are so old and there’s a whole hidden life of trees going on that I’m only just discovering. They are powerful healers and this has been scientifically proven. So of course, tree hugging is now an integral part of the programme! – Gillie
After getting acquainted with the trees we got our hands dirty by exercising outside, stretching and squatting, Gillie taught us a really easy routine for exercising outdoors.
We talked about Ahimsa – respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others (in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist tradition) and the importance of being kind to ourselves. There’s a great article here on Gaia’s site which talks about how we can practice ahimsa in everyday life, it’s worth a read if you want to know more.
Our first yoga session was light and breezy setting us up for some well-deserved food. It was lovely to get moving in the great hall in front of the fire. We practiced some sun salutations, breaking them down and really feeling each asana.
The preparation email says: ‘wear layers’ and I can confirm that this is very necessary! The hall was getting warmer, but you do need to wrap up in the winter – it makes for a toasty yoga experience.
We were all invited to bring two dishes large enough for two for a community lunch. Amazingly, we all managed to bring different things and the spread ranged from goats cheese and spinach frittatas to salmon and bulgar beans. It was perfect and well received. We took our lunch into the great hall and ate around the fire sharing stories.
Finding ourselves in nature/exploring Powderham Belvedere
Then out for a walk again, this time to the Belvedere. Built between 1771 and 1774 for the second Viscount Courtenay, the Belvedere suffered some damage in a fire, but the current Earl and Countess are keen to bring it back to life. In fact, Gillie is planning a camping retreat in August there that I’m very keen to get along to!
It really is a magical kingdom. The castle is steeped in history, every nook and cranny has a story. On the banks of the Exe estuary enjoying stunning views, it’s the perfect setting, with so many different gardens and buildings to explore. The deer are mesmerising to watch, they always take people’s breath away -Gillie.
We walked in silence to the Belvedere and did some Tai Chi style movement (and some yogic voguing) while looking out across the fields into the estuary.
Our final session was a restorative yoga session and a talk about habit-making and habit breaking, according to Gillie (and lots of experts) it takes 21 days to create a good habit, Gillie encouraged us to think about something we might like to do more of and plan to integrate it into our lives. I chose to practice a little yoga every day.
The yoga really helped sooth the aches and pains in my body and Savasana (the bit at the end when you lie on your back in corpse pose and relax) was sublime – I might have had a little snooze.
I’ve been practising yoga on and off for around 17 years, and I have been to many retreats and had some fantastic teachers. Gillie is up there with my favourites, her retreat is not only in a beautiful setting, but it is also brilliantly planned and delivered with love and care. You don’t have to have any experience of yoga to enjoy it, it’s great for people of all abilities.
Since the retreat, I have been practicing yoga everyday and eating well, I’m feeling like a new woman. THANK YOU, GILLIE!
The next retreat is on February 3rd and I wholeheartedly think that EVERYONE should go! If you fancy the experience, email Gillie: firstname.lastname@example.org
About Gillie, her book ‘Slivers of light’, yoga at the castle and getting into nature by Gillie…
Gillie Sutherland is a yoga teacher, an author, last year she wrote a book called ’Slivers of light’, she is also a wellness coach and a columnist for Express and Echo.
Wellbeing at the Castle
Slivers of Light Retreats and Yoga At The Castle is just the beginning of a new venture at Powderham Castle.
Alongside AJ, Countess of Devon, Gillie is developing a programme of wellbeing, including residential retreats, which will benefit both the local community, local businesses, and those who are most in need. Part of the mission is working with companies with a social purpose and helping those who are helping others.
AJ, who has been a regular at Gillie’s classes for the last three years, and herself an expert in the area of healing, having had to overcome fibromyalgia, is a strong advocate of wellbeing and in particular, integrative medicine.
Slivers of Light – The Book
This year, I found I had to use pretty much everything I had ever learned into practice to help me get through a particularly dark time.
What I found helped me most was “walking the beach” every day, and looking out to nature and seeing all that is magical around us. It helped me make sense of what was going on around me, and I also knew the only control I really had was where to place my focus and how I took care of myself.
It was the light on the water, the rays of sunshine through the trees, the sunsets over the Exe – the Slivers of Light – moments of magic- that got me through…. and the more I focused on the “slivers”, the more I noticed.
I decided to turn my pain into purpose. I decided to take some of my articles I had written for the Express and Echo, the ones that related to the subject of looking for the light and the magic and put them into a 21 chapter book.
So the book became a process, a process I used myself as I read it all again.
People had kept telling me “you need to listen to your own words”… so I did. I followed my own advice, and as I did, I edited the articles, I put them in order, I lived and breathed the principles, and I managed to get it out to print.
It was such a nourishing and rewarding way to spend my healing time. I had to take time off work after surgery and this book gave me a sense of purpose, a reason to keep going. I knew that in healing myself, and in sharing my story, I would be helping others to heal.
That is one of the main points I wanted to get across in the book. By sharing our stories, who we truly are, warts and all, we make it feel safe for others to do the same. Our story may just hold the key that unlocks someone else’s pain. When we heal ourselves, we help heal the world.
When we find some light again, we help someone else find some.
We live, we learn, we pass it on.
Un-plug and Re-charge in Nature
I can’t stress enough the importance of nature.
I could put into four short words the most important lesson I have learned in the long, long time I’ve been in this field….
“Let Nature Heal You”.
The closer we are to nature, the healthier we are. When I take people out into the Deer Park, exploring the grounds of Powderham Castle, or down on the beach, walking barefoot in the sand, I see them literally go “from black and white to colour”. They are glowing, not from fake tan or make-up, but there’s a natural radiance, the whole being is happy and healthy.
It’s a game-changer. We get our energy from nature. The Earth is a battery, it’s that simple.
Like mobile phones, we need re-charging, especially when we are switched on all the time, usually with too many Apps open all at the same time. We need to un-plug ourselves from the madness of the modern world and re-charge in nature.
We need to let the light get back in.
As Jack, Charlie and AJ’s 9 year-old son put it:
“Mummy”, he said, “did you know that light is the most powerful element? Light heals everything”.
He’s so right.
Kids and animals are the best yogis. They are “naturals”, quite literally.
Fancy getting into yoga this year? Gi
Yoga Class schedule
Monday 645-745pm Powderham Castle
Wednesday 715 -815am Ocean Physio, Woodbury
Wednesday 930 – 1030am Powderham Castle
Friday 845-945am Exmouth Leisure Centre
Saturday 10-11am Ocean (Top Deck), Exmouth
*** You can drop in and pay in cash for all classes except Monday nights at Powderham Castle which are bookings only