The retreat for body and mind

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker flees the corridors of Westminster for an indulgent yoga break in the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains of Andalucia

A four-day yoga retreat in the Sierra Nevada mountains seemed an impossible indulgence. Yet I am still reaping the benefits of the time I spent relaxing in the remote converted watermill in Andalucia, combined with classes designed to soothe knotted muscles and calm a multi-tasking mind. The accommodation was simple, the vegetarian food wholesome, but the time to breathe, read and contemplate life was truly luxurious.

A four-day yoga retreat in the Sierra Nevada mountains seemed an impossible indulgence. Yet I am still reaping the benefits of the time I spent relaxing in the remote converted watermill in Andalucia, combined with classes designed to soothe knotted muscles and calm a multi-tasking mind. The accommodation was simple, the vegetarian food wholesome, but the time to breathe, read and contemplate life was truly luxurious.

By the time I arrived at Molino del Rey I was in need of something rather stronger than deep breathing, though. The last section of the journey was a drive in the dark up a perilous, winding unmade road through the mountains, on my own in an unfamiliar hire car, trying to juggle directions and a map. Negotiating the wiles of Westminster suddenly seemed an easier option.

I hardly dared ask for a glass of red wine when I arrived, particularly as the only person still up was Vicky Oliver, our yoga teacher, six months pregnant and with a serenity that makes you consider a change of career. To my relief, Malcolm, who runs the place, also appeared, and was not only happy to open a bottle of rioja, but shared it with me and provided hot, hearty vegetable soup. It was the first time in more than 10 years that I'd left my husband and two children and spent time relaxing on my own. My work as a BBC political correspondent takes me away from home from time to time, but Brighton for the Labour Party conference hardly counts as a break.

Molino del Rey is just over an hour's drive from Malaga, but is an oasis of tranquillity. The watermill sits on the edge of a tiny mountain village, where the gentle murmur of running water is the only constant sound. I was struck immediately by the quiet. There was no traffic noise, no television, music or mobile phones, which were banned in all communal areas. I had brought along my short-wave radio, which I always take abroad so that I can keep up with the news, and planned to tune in to the BBC World Service quietly in the evenings in my room. The discovery that it did not work threatened to spark a panic attack. This news and politics junkie was entering a four-day detox of mind as well as body.

I have been practising yoga for several years, but all too often it is a quick hour snatched in between work and family commitments. Yoga teachers tend to tell you to empty your mind of all thoughts and focus on breathing. Have done this, mine insists on re-filling itself with repercussions of political stories, arrangements for children's activities and the shopping I need to order online.

The first yoga session was at dawn - well it was 8am, but still barely light in the Spanish winter. Wandering to the yoga studio, lit with scented candles, and beginning the day lying in silence on my mat was certainly a change from the usual combination of Radio 4's Today programme, and preparing the children's packed lunches.

Yoga is, of course, hugely fashionable, with different styles competing to be this season's must-do class. Vicky, who has taught in London for many years, describes her style as "fusion yoga". That means she lulls you into a false sense of contentment with deep relaxation before launching into a series of stretches, twists and bends as challenging as any aerobics class in the Eighties.

The first session made me all too aware of stiff muscles - my neck and shoulders knotted from my journalist's habit of holding the phone under one ear while writing notes. Some of the twists were agonising, but it was noticeable how quickly the moves became easier. The focus of the sessions was on the re-alignment of spine and joints. It may well be medically impossible to breathe into all those areas of tension, as Vicky suggested, but it certainly felt as though this eased away the aches.

My companions included a dynamic former dancer, veteran of numerous similar retreats, a publisher and several young mothers seeking a break from nappies and school runs. We were all women, though Vicky's classes are often half male.

There were two sessions of yoga each day, one in the morning and again in the evening. The approach was relaxed, though, and one or two did opt for a lie-in on the Sunday morning, rather guiltily joining us for breakfast afterwards. The food was prepared by local cooks and we ate together around a communal table. Brunch after the morning class was an ample spread of fruit, home-made yogurt, muesli, eggs, bread and cheese.

After breakfast on day one, I contemplated the weird scenario of hours ahead of me with no deadlines to meet, briefings to attend or children to collect from school. The evening yoga session was at 5.30pm and we were free to amuse ourselves until then. Some seized the opportunity to read and lounge in the weak sunshine. This area supposedly enjoys 300 sunny days per year, although we caught two of the cloudy ones. There is a small pool and sun beds, a sauna and little caves for meditation.

A small group of us opted for a stroll through the mountains to the nearest village. Although a couple of my companions had come with friends, many, including myself, were travelling solo.

The walk did not start well, as we had to follow part of the road that clings to the mountainside. We cowered on the verge as lorries thundered past, throwing up huge clouds of dust. Eventually we found the pathway and left the traffic behind us, wandering through olive groves and orchards of avocados and oranges.

A million miles from the "Westminster village", the conversation revealed some extraordinary family histories, tales of travel across the world, discussion of history, religion and, yes, politics. OK, as a group of women we might have discussed diets and moisturisers too, but it was refreshing to have so much time for uninterrupted chat with people outside the familiar circle of family, friends and professional acquaintances.

For a few of us, the walks became as much a part of the day's relaxation as the yoga. There are numerous paths through the Sierra Nevada, which vary in their length and difficulty. We took the less challenging options, choosing routes that were easily navigable in trainers, and enjoyed two or three hours each day taking in the unspoilt views and clear air. On one occasion we explored the nearby ancient town of Ronda, perched high on a rocky peak, and bought ponchos that would fly off the rails in Bond Street. On Sunday, an hour's powerful massage with heady essential oils enhanced the laid-back mood.

In the evening the yoga sessions were more experimental and unpredictable, and made use of various props. I'd never considered using an office chair for back stretches before. You lie across it on your back, with your feet on the floor on one side and your head on the floor on the other. Coming out of the position left a sort of weird spinning sensation reminiscent of teenage overindulgence in cheap wine. I should probably include some sort of health warning here, but I certainly found the after-effects preferable to any hangover. It is probably better to get some expert instruction before you try this in the office, though.

Then we had to work with partners. Standing head down, bottom-to-bottom, while clutching one another's elbows certainly removed any remaining inhibitions. The favourite pose of the trip involved hanging upside-down on two chairs, one for each shoulder, with your head dangling between the two. It may sound like the sort of trick you see at the circus, but even the most cautious of my companions were persuaded and hoicked into the pose, and emerged smiling. All this may sound bizarre, but believe me, you do end up stretching and unwinding bits that you otherwise cannot reach, and you certainly have a good laugh doing it.

The evening session ended with an introduction to meditation. I was sceptical at first, thinking it was a bit too "new age" for me. But I suppressed the urge to think about what might be on the menu for dinner and tried to concentrate, as Vicky told us to focus on our breathing and then talked us though some basic visualisation. She's very keen on humming too - apparently it helps clear the mind. Despite my reservations, by the end of the retreat, I found that I was able to stop my thoughts straying over things to do and what calls I had to make.

Devotees say that this is a far more important aspect of yoga than developing triceps like Madonna's. Clearly it is all much easier when you are away from the demands of daily life, but I vowed, at least, to try to remember the techniques for those snatched yoga classes back at home in London.

The evening meal was a convivial affair, around the same communal table. There was thick homemade soup, a hot dish of risotto, pancakes or roasted vegetables, and a selection of salads, cheese and puddings. I can vouch for the local wine, which was available for €6 (£4.30) a bottle. After all those restaurants where hidden extras bump up the bill, it was refreshing to be in the sort of place where you help yourself to whatever you want and leave your cash in a tin.

The exercise, relaxation and mountain air had us all yawning at the sort of time I'd be waiting for parliamentary votes back in London. I relished the chance to have a few early nights and catch up on some reading. Molino del Rey is not a luxurious place - the rooms are basic but comfortable. For me, though, four days of peace, quiet and solitude were the ultimate indulgence. The stretching and breathing in the classes undoubtedly helped to unwind a rather tense, stressed body. The techniques for focusing the mind helped me to switch off mentally as well as physically.

I have never spent a week at a health farm (I've never been to one at all for that matter), but I would be amazed if such a trip could provide a similar sense of well-being, or one that lasted for so long. On the way to the airport for the journey home, I switched on the radio to catch the news on one of the expatriate radio stations. There was something about the Home Secretary and a visa for a nanny. Time to breathe deeply.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

A large number of airlines fly to Malaga from around the UK, including GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) and Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com).

Carole Walker paid £62 return from Gatwick to Malaga on easyJet and rented a car from Malagacars (0871 733 3073; www.malagacar.com) for €78 (£55) for four days.

STAYING THERE

The writer travelled with Free Spirit Travel (01273 564230; www.freespirituk.com). The four-day break at Molino del Rey costs £260 per person based on two sharing, with a single supplement of £100. The price includes breakfast and evening meals - but wine and massage cost extra. Flights from the UK to Malaga, and transfers to Molino del Rey, are not included in the price; Vicky Oliver teaches at regular classes and retreats throughout the year. She can be contacted through the website www.whyoga.com.

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