Places to recover your soul
Drama, adventure and the absurd have never been counterproductive to my spiritual seeking. In the face of what is sacred to another, I’m no belly-laughing Buddha. In fact, honouring others was the prerequisite to my travels through 43 countries.
Even when our lives appear to stand still, somewhere, somehow, there is the ever-constant ebb and flow of movement, of change.
That recurring change continuously returns us to the sacred and ultimate path – to the God within each of us.
I don’t believe that God lives within the four walls of a synagogue, church or mosque. I believe God’s omnipresence is in everything and everyone at all times, but the pressures and limitations of living in 21st-century urban environments make it easy for us to separate from the Divine within.
Fortunately, there is an emergence of pristine, picture-postcard locations and therapeutic activities in South Africa that have been built for the purpose of returning and reconnecting us to our true selves. Varying in accessibility and style, but comparable in terms of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical outcome, those of us in search of a space to connect with ourselves can consider the following types of healing holidays.
Like a metaphor for life’s journey, you walk to the centre of a labyrinth holding something in mind that needs resolution. Trying to get out of it is where the work of self-reflection happens during an indefinite journey of being literally lost in your thoughts.
Pausing to contemplate it at the centre, which could have a bench or a hut, you eventually walk out, hopefully with a renewed clarity and vision.
South Africans are spoilt for choice, with dozens of labyrinths dotted around most provinces. Designs vary, as do materials, which are mostly natural and often sourced from the immediate environment, such as the slate and stone labyrinth at The Garden near Magaliesburg, with its curved, crystal-sprinkled centre. Designed in Baltic wheel style, the 44m labyrinth with a view is built on a slope.
“Very personal to the individual, like life, our labyrinth is a windy, twisty, turning path. Sometimes uphill and sometimes downhill, sometimes rocky and other times not,” said owner Margaret Rose. There are also picnic spots at the river’s edge.
The horses at the African Horse Company in the small Overberg village of Stanford in the Western Cape are respected as sentient beings, equal partners and four-legged “therapists” to the humans they serve and aid.
Knowing your needs, specific horses choose specific people, who come to do an outride or any other of the two- to 13-day trails.
Whether you’re cantering on the Agulhas plains or trotting across Walker Bay, you’ll be able to bond with a horse and perhaps even let go of long-term negativity by understanding its reactions to you.
Eighty percent of what humans communicate is by body language and horses tune in to how you feel. They carry the gift of freedom for people, so identifying our limitations first is imperative.
Learning about the art of horse body language, where everything from hoof-stomping and tail-swishing means something, is the first stage of this two-way process. Horses handle their stress by letting off steam through play, snorting, rolling and kicking.
“Shaking it off” for humans is a bit more complex, and sometimes you have just got to fake it until you make it. At least that’s what happens, in part, on a laughter yoga retreat. Have you ever listened to a laughter audio that got you giggling in less than 30 seconds? It took me all of 20 when witnessing a group guffawing recently, before I involuntarily joined in.
Billed as a form of dynamic meditation, laughter yoga is an active way of coming into the present.
“When you laugh heartily, you aren’t planning the future and you’re not worried about the past. You’re in the present, in the now moment,” says Kate Squire-Howe, a retreat facilitator of Laughter Yoga SA.
Because the body and mind can’t differentiate between real and contrived laughter, the unconditional 20-minute group laughter makes way for laughter meditation. This “primes the body” while you make eye contact with the group. A guided relaxation follows. Shown to improve sleep and wellbeing, the one-day stress-busters are held in the Cape’s Noordhoek valley, surrounded by sublime sea and mountain views.
My tongue is extended to my chin and I’m roaring, doing the “lion’s roar”, as instructed by Kate. Now it’s combined to be a crazy mix of my childhood asthmatic wheezy laughter and the roaring, in a kind of intoxicated insanity. Just as well I didn’t tell her I have already been roaring and meowing for some time, as a feline-worshipper of note.
On the other side of the country, the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, amid KwaZulu-Natal’s rolling hills, is filled to the brim with serious-minded souls, wandering around the garden shrines and corridors intent on the proper practice of Buddhism. As proof of concept, the centre has been selected as one of CNN’s Top Ten retreats in the world and is famous for its week-long silent retreats.
The idea of staying there fills me with terror. I could never run the risk of committing myself to a silent retreat for even a full day, let alone a week. My untamed mind and twitchy body would likely get me ejected. People like me are far better suited to dynamic meditation and contemplation, which I practise daily.
Hare Krishna centres
If you’re carless or cash-strapped but still fancy a sampling of the Eastern exotic for half a day, the Hare Krishna Sunday Love Feast is a city journey you can make. The centres are located nationwide, with branches in many cities. You’ll know devotees by their orange robes and their community-based initiatives.
Cooked in a meditative, chanting state, the good vibes of the Hare Krishna’s renowned karma-free fare has long had me hooked as a vegetarian. Especially delicious is their paneer (Indian cheese) dishes. Oh, and their burfi dessert (Indian fudge). But that all comes at the end of several hours of the mantra meditation, talks, questions and Arati (deity worship).
If you’re as nuts about Indian vegetarian food as I am, you’ll find it worthwhile sitting through it. As part of their service to humanity, they don’t charge for meals. So be sure to show your gratitude in their donation box.
My daughter, during her tweenage years, used to nag me with religious fervour to attend the feasts so she could give vent to her obsession. Unlike her mother, it wasn’t for the actual food served at the end of the day, as much as it was for the frenzied, whirling dervish she became during the Kirtan chants and dancing.
Personally, my idea of a perfect retreat is listening for God in an inspired garden setting, or anywhere else where nature dominates. It’s there, among the trees, in quiet contemplation, that my ability to ground myself and hear flows more easily as if nature’s purity helps me along.