Do you ever dream about traveling around Europe for a few months without a schedule or a plan? Either alone or with your husband and kids?
Do you ever dream about quitting a life that doesn’t fit you and finding through serendipity an abandoned stone farmhouse near a pond surrounded by wooded mountains?
Do you ever dream of teaching yoga, growing your own food, drinking wine from your own grapes, and raising your kids in nature?
Do you ever dream about making your life and home a healing project?
Most people have some sort of dream like these. But they say—someday I’ll get around to that.
Today meet Vonetta. She’s living those dreams right now in Portugal as the founder / resident healer at Moses.
Bettina of Active Hands Yoga : Tell me a bit about your project in Portugal…
Vonetta : We run intimate meditative yoga retreats from our home in the forests and mountains of central Portugal, known locally here as “Vale de Moses.” Moses being an old Portuguese word for a place of many millstones as there are a dozen or so old water mills along the river that runs through this land. Moses is also, providently, the name of our 7-year-old golden retriever, without whom we never would have found this place while on a family adventure round Europe in 2007. Our retreats here include a mix of daily dynamic Hatha yoga classes with massage and acupuncture treatments.
I know you found the abandoned farm so it was a mix of luck and desire that you ended up there, but why Portugal?
Why is one of those questions that perhaps can be best described as futile; I prefer to think about what happened to bring us to Portugal and encouraged us to stay. Enchantment would be the best word to describe our introduction to this fine country. We are a family and in Portugal there is space, time and respect for the family as a unit. We set out on our European motorhome trip with all our combined skills and experiences from our life in London, yet looking for a new way to raise ourselves as a family.
When we found this place, it seemed like a fairy tale. Young people in the local town said “Good morning” to us and tried to speak English at every opportunity. Old people bright and sparkly at 70, from day one kissed us on the cheeks, hugged us and welcomed us like long lost children. The people in the middle invited us to their homes and offered their friendship and time and taught us quickly how to speak their beautiful language. Of course, there are problems everywhere, and Portugal, like all of Southern Europe at this time, is under considerable economic and environmental stress.
Yet, there is a joyful steadiness about Portugal. Grandchildren still return to the hills each autumn to pick their grapes to make wine and pick their precious olives for the tastiest of olive oils. The landscape is breathtaking, expansive and elevating. We drink the finest purest water, breathe the freshest most fragrant forest air and live in the truly clarifying Portuguese light. Seemed like a good place to call home.
If people want to start a yoga retreat / project like you, what should they do?
Practice, practice, practice and teach, teach anyone who wants to learn, teach when no one is looking and no one can hear you. Teach and practice, practice and teach. Live as if you are on retreat so you can feel what it is like to relax in your environment and then be prepared to work hard on every level of your being. Let your ideas run like a constant stream in your mind and listen to yourself. Get rid of all activity which is superfluous to your business idea and focus. Keep your eyes open to your students and their needs and your business will refine itself along with you. My yoga teacher once said to me, “Running a yoga retreat is a lot like running a family.” The most important words in that sentence are running and running. If there are any mums out there looking for a way to develop their practice as a business, you are well on the way to understand the needs of people who will come to you.
What were biggest struggles / triumphs in setting up your project?
As an overview of triumph and struggle, I am very proud of my family–we suffered a great deal to restore these stone houses in our valley, knowing nothing about building or forestry. When we arrived we didn’t even speak the language. Our learning curve has been steep and continuous. Joshua and Eloise [Vonetta’s children] have always been wonderful at cuddling Mum and Dad when it has all felt too much. They are our biggest triumphs.
However, there are daily struggles and triumphs; some of them can be pretty dramatic. One day I was alone here and the water tubes burst open, while, as fate would have it, our phones stopped working, and I simply could not figure out how to turn the water off. With water gushing down the hillside, I was running back and forth trying to find a solution to the problem. Let’s just say I was well, stressed. I decided to sit on a rock and recognize that I was all alone in the middle of the forest, and I was the only one who could solve this problem. Just as I sat watching the water burst out of the tubes, a lovely Portuguese electrician just happened to pass by our home. It seemed he had come to check our electric cables after a storm. He looked at me, clearly stunned by my soaked appearance: mud- and sweat-streaked face with eyes wide open. I in turn managed to say, “Got a phone?” and with that I called my husband who told me where the off switch was, and the problem was solved. Daily miracles which encourage us to continue with this monumental task are the triumphs we appreciate most.
You say that your passion is healing. How do you see your entire project as healing? How is yoga healing? Do you see yoga and TCM working together?
In terms of the project, we arrived to a place [the stone farmhouse] that had not seen any significant development or human life for over 40 years. No one had built in the traditional mode of stone and clay for more time than anyone could remember. We arrived and simply began moving something, anything–mostly rocks, of course, and after a while of piling up those rocks and mixing clay, it became clear to me that wherever human beings are engaged in natural activity that utilized their natural skills they are acting as healers. So, I guess you could say we are healing this landscape, healing the memories of the old folks here who have been delighted with our new youthful energy and keen interest in the way they live in our desire to live here. This is the larger sense in which human energy can be vastly healing; it is natural for the human being to heal. It is our conditioned competitive thinking that causes such hurt and suffering. Healing is our natural innate instinct.
There are many technical reasons why yoga is good for your entire organism. Yoga is profoundly emotionally balancing. For many of us it is our emotions that invite illness on the mental and somatic level. For those of us working out life as we go, yoga heals you just because it makes you feel good! That is better than feeling emotionally, mentally or physically unable to enjoy your life and that, therefore, is all you need. You wake up in the morning early before the hectic nature of your day has turned itself on, enter your private quiet space set aside for the purpose–and it need only be a small space, place yourself on the most simple of surfaces–a mat. Maybe you are a little lethargic, but as you begin to tune into your breath, the body begins to awaken and move a little at first and then more and more. By the time you have finished practice, you feel great.
Healing is simply moving from a place of feeling worse to feeling better. Yoga does that. You simply feel better. It is also possible to have significant revelations about yourself and situations in your life after yoga practice, as the outer world is quieted and you move towards your inner experience.
Many students begin just for the posture and practice. As they become more in love with this expression of meditative movement, they often seek to make more informed choices about their health, the food they eat, their lifestyle, their relationships. They begin to see more clearly.
The best thing about yoga is that your body already understands it, rather than learning it. It is simply a process of remembering what it was like to be a child rolling around on the floor exploring your fascinating human body and infinite mind, just because you have them, without judgment or speculation on the nature of your body or your breath or your mind–a spiritual practice that avoids judgment. That is powerful medicine.
I find that yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine make a very special combination. Without becoming too involved here, I have found that the pulse and tongue and Qi stimulus of people I have treated are considerably more balanced after a yoga practice. Our guests have reported profound feelings of relaxation and well-being after a yoga practice followed by acupuncture; furthermore, the results seem to last longer. The same is true of massage clients who practice; they have less muscular tension and are, therefore, a little more able to relax deeply. When they come for a massage, often half the work of relaxation has been completed by themselves through their own yoga practice. I suspect if clients practiced Qi Gong, for example, one might find the same.
There are many paths, but ultimately they all lead to the same place, a sense of well-being that remains irrespective of life’s tribulations. We are not meant to live forever, but we are meant to live.
Since I’m a yoga teacher, I’m most interested in the yoga aspect. If yoga teachers want to bring their students to your retreat, what is the best way to do it? As in, what do you do and what do the yoga teachers do?
Well, that entirely depends on the yoga teacher. Hopefully, he or she will teach safe and enjoyable yoga perhaps once or twice a day. I also expect yoga teachers to be available at times to their students during the week. Yoga is so much more than simple posture practice and sometimes students need to speak to someone, so empathy for the human condition is important.
We have had teachers that also bring their knowledge of music, art and poetry; some with a sense of humor; and others who are more serious and philosophical in their approach. While other yoga teachers are here with their students, I am quite happy to simply offer massage and acupuncture treatments as and when required.
In your experience what needs to be in place for a good yoga retreat?
Good food; kind, compassionate people to prepare a space for others and hold that space; and a joy for movement. A beginner’s heart and an open mind for every visitor to your retreat.
How do you find the yoga teachers / students / gardeners who come to your place?
So far people have found us largely through the internet via our website at www.yogaatmoses.com, Facebook.com/valedemoses or our blog at welovemoses.blogspot.com. They contact us, and we start a conversation.
What’s next for you? How can people get in touch with you if they want to teach yoga at your retreat?
I am presently refining my practice after four years of building work and enjoying being a Mum and running our retreats. We are still clearing our land from the huge restoration and landscaping process. At present, we are also remodeling the last of our stone cottages and designing a new yoga shala to be ready for 2013, so it is always “go, go, go” for us, but thankfully at a measured and yogic pace. For our 2013 season we will have accommodation for 10 students plus a teacher. If yoga teachers can contact us before October of 2012, we will be able to include them in our 2013 season which will run from April until October.
I find Vonetta’s story really inspiring–that another world, another kind of life IS possible.
And you? What’s your dream waiting to be made real? Let me know in the comments below.
Photos by Vonetta and Andrew Winter