Psychologies Magazine (Transformational Retreats)
Beyond the detox bootcamp, there’s the transformational retreat, combining yoga and meditation with the latest in brain-training techniques. Can it really change your mind? Author, journalist and TV presenter Emma Woolf finds out.
After the trauma release session, I am asked to stay behind. “I’ve noticed your breathing and I’d like to do some work on your diaphragm,” James smiled at me, removing the electrodes from by brain cap. Moments later, I found myself very close to tears. Was this the ‘emotional wall’ that I’d heard about? And what was wrong with my breathing anyway? So began day three of my transformational retreat.
There were six of us at Tourne, and old French manor house tucked into the Artillac forest valley on the edge of the Pyrenees, and by the middle of the week, everyone was reacting differently. One of the women had a splitting headache, while another reported sleeping deeply. One man found himself recalling strange memories from 40 years ago. I was alternating between insomnia and vivid dreaming myself, yet mentally alert at all times: engaged and present in my body. Perhaps something transformational was taking place.
My reason for going was simple: I was stuck. I’m in recovery from anorexia and, having focused on my physical health, needed help healing my mind and heart. Aged 19, after the break-up of a relationship, my weight plummeted to five-and-a-half stone – I was hooked on hunger, and addicted to exercise. In the past two years I’ve regained a stone, and my BMI is back in the normal range.
Physically, I was healthy again, but I was still fighting a mindset that involved a cycle of guilt, anxiety and control. I needed to re-learn how to eat with other people, and to relax around food. I had come to France with reservations and, if I’m honest, some trepidation. I wanted to leave the eating disorder behind; feel less anxious, commit fully to my relationship, embrace the future. But the idea of changing scared me.
At the centre of our daily schedule of dawn yoga and evening meditation (by way of life coaching, superfood classes and massage work), were twice-daily sessions of ‘neuro-feedback’. Essentially brain-training, it is sold as a powerful way to reach states of mind that we’re not normally able to access, and to break out of troubling thoughts or habits. There is no external manipulation; the brain – through its own neuroplasticity, given the right cues – is able to learn and change itself. It isn’t a specific eating disorder treatment, but it’s helpful for addictive or problematic habits which result from unhelpful behaviour patterns. On the first night of the retreat, we all sat together on silk scatter cushions, incense burning. A few hours before we had been strangers, but already the vibe was different. Retreat founders and neurotherapists James and Sarah Roy told us what to expect in the week ahead. They warned us that we were likely to feel tired – ‘your brain will be sorting and processing a lot of old stuff, forging brand new neural pathways’. Twelve neuro-feedback sessions in eight days (usually this process is carried out once a week) is pretty intense.
Sure enough, we were soon exhausted and ravenous too: bowls of nuts and seeds were always available to encourage us to keep our protein levels up. Even in a normal resting state, the brain is a hungry organ, using 40 per cent of our daily calories – it craves protein when it’s forming new connections.
Simple meals punctuated our day. It was a shock to find myself looking forward to sitting down at the large trestle table. We came together at mealtimes, and for nutritional masterclasses in the kitchen, but there was no formal group therapy; neuro-feedback is very much an individual process. We worked one-on-one with the practitioners, and we all had different reasons for coming. Among the others – lawyers, accountants, and HR director, ranging in age from thirties to fifties – one was burnt out and looking to change career; another was recovering from divorce and empty-nest struggles; and another felt at a dead end in her life.
We’d been advised to leave laptops and tablets behind and were encouraged to switch our phones off. Back in London, I’d packed a stack of books – how would I fill my time I wondered? I needn’t have worried: a printed-out schedule awaited each of us in our Spartan bedrooms. My room held a single bed, chair and low couch; no TV, radio, or even a wardrobe. It sounds austere, but I’d been close to meltdown when I left, and the simple surroundings were a relief. I didn’t have a mirror in my room either (soon, all the women abandoned make-up).
When my brain was mapped on the first day of the retreat, it was instantly clear where the problems lay. It showed spikes in my theta and beta brain waves – suggesting over-activity in the areas responsible for anxiety, fight-or-flight, panic and danger responses. I had too much subconscious brain activity, leading to over-analysing, hyper-alertness, a tendency to be self-critical and an inability to power down. I hadn’t needed to say a word: everything I was struggling with was right there.
Each morning I’d sit in front of a large computer screen, with a brain cap tightly encasing my head and sensors on. The exercises – essentially computer games – ranged from small coloured orbs on the screen like flying spaceships to musical waves, all of which corresponded to particular brainwave frequencies. Unlike a computer game, your mind does the work. When your brainwaves are in the right zone, you see the results. It’s an odd sensation, somewhere between relaxing and focusing.
The afternoon sessions tended to be more restful: sitting, sensors on, eyes closed, listening to vocal and musical tracks. These ranged from simple mindfulness exercises, to loving-kindness mantras and visualisations that helped me to meditate, focus, and empty the mind.
It’s the holistic approach combined with the latest brain research that makes transformational retreats unique. For all the talk of ‘balance and harmony’, this isn’t your average mind-body-spirit retreat – as one of my fellow participants put it, ‘this is not somewhere to come and be stroked’. I found myself coming up against some difficult boundaries, and was challenged to let go of old behavioural patterns and emotional ties.
Sarah Roy argues that neuro-feedback differs from talking therapies in that the brain can rebalance itself without having to know what caused the problem. ‘Brain training targets the area of concern with a programme tailored to each individual. There is no need to talk about the traumatic or stressful events that triggered the problems,” she says.
It turned out it wasn’t only anorexia that I needed to leave behind. My first coaching session ended in tears, as I was skilfully guided through a letting-go exercise. Yoga teacher and life-coach Kate Hewett asked me to picture my ex-boyfriend, and to hold him in my heart. Then she gently asked me to cut those cords, to release his image and let go with love. This was painful; I’m still working through the turmoil it created.
As for breathing, I see now that I’ve spent years taking stressed-out shallow breaths from the top of a tight chest. Learning some simple bodywork, such as being shown how to loosen my diaphragm, and how to fill my whole stomach and ribcage with air, has made a huge difference. Most surprisingly, I found myself completely taken with yoga. I’ve always dismissed it as far too gentle for my tastes, being more inclined to live by the notion that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. The sunrise sessions, with the forest around us – even the gentle chanting – gave me peace and brought me back to my body.
Seeing is believing
It’s the last morning at Tourne and time for the final brain scan: this time my map shows the patches of red fight-or-flight activity have almost disappeared. I do feel different – more relaxed around other people and quieter inside my own head. But after eight days of intense seclusion, I’m also a bit wary about returning to the big, wide world. None of us have left the grounds or spoken to anyone ‘outside’ since we arrived.
On the last evening, before dinner, I had wandered down to the river that runs through the gardens of the manor house. Sitting there in the dusk, phrases from that evening’s meditation session kept running through my head: ‘just let it all go’ and ‘no need to hold back the river’. I see now that letting go can be as natural as the way the water flows along the river-bed. Life needn’t be a struggle.
The organisers follow up via phone and email three and six weeks later, and are supportive with everything from relationship crises to perfecting my headstands! Turns out that we all had some ‘wobbles’: I came back feeling like I could take on the world – meditating on the plane, smiling serenely at the traffic delays. A few weeks later, I felt frazzled and burnt out.
Back to life
Six weeks on, how transformative has the retreat really been? Well, those frazzled feelings are perfectly normal: neurofeedback doesn’t promise any miracles; it won’t erase life’s ups and downs. But for the first time I feel like I have the strategies to cope. When sadness, anger or frustration arise, they no longer overwhelm me. I’m calmer in my interactions with others, and I’m not facing every situation as a potential conflict. I’ve turned into a superfood junkie, happily mixing barleygrass and bee pollen into my morning smoothies. I no longer feel the need to punish myself with exercise. And I’m sleeping better than I have in years.
According to the research, the new connections in the brain don’t ‘wear off’ – in fact, scans indicate that they’re strengthened after six to 12 months. Like any muscle, the more you use them, the stronger they become. I know I’ll be able to cope with whatever the future holds. On, and I’m very grateful they taught me how to breathe.