If it’s been quiet on the blog, that’s because I’ve just finished organising and hosting the first Write Your Journey Writing and Yoga Retreat Vietnam. And what a magical week it has been!
It’s incredible what happens when you write together for a week. So many stories were written and shared, so many voices were heard and so many discoveries were made.
As always, I learned more than I gave. There is still so much to process and unravel, and I haven’t stopped writing and neither have my writing buddies.
Here’s how we connected with ourselves:
We started each day on the beautiful over-water yoga deck at An Villa soaking up the green lushness of our surroundings and turning inward with early morning journaling.
Early Morning Journaling
Whether you call it Morning Pages or Writing Practice, writing first thing in the morning is one of the best ways to tap straight into your unfiltered voice and to make it flow. What we write in our journals is for our own eyes only. It’s the place where we process our emotions and where we connect with our deepest self in all of its raw messiness. It doesn’t really matter what we write, like meditation and yoga, it’s all about the process.
Gentle Yoga Morning Yoga
To make sure that our bodies stayed nimble during a week that involved a lot of sitting and a lot of eating, we started each day with gentle morning yoga led by the wonderful Victoria Nhan. I’d initially planned to teach the daily yoga sessions myself, and I am so happy that I invited Victoria. It allowed me to ease into each day with introspective stillness, with mindful awareness connecting breath to movement.
Victoria led us through a sequence of gentle asanas each morning. She was the obvious choice. We both follow Thich Nhat Hanh and have sat in his presence at the Plumvillage Monastery in Thailand and we both teach at Nomad Yoga Hoi An.
Practicing Beginner’s Mind & Mindfulness
It was a first visit to Vietnam for everybody who came and there was so much to process. Being away from home, seeing everything with fresh eyes for the first time is the perfect opportunity to practice Beginner’s Mind.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki-roshi Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Victoria gently eased us into our daily mindfulness practice, using mindfulness cues during her yoga session. “Watch your thoughts come and go like clouds on the sky,” is a message that stuck. It’s so simple and it’s not the first time we’d heard it, but it’s so effective when you hear it while you’re trying to balance in a yoga pose or trying to calm the monkey mind during savasana.
Deep Listening and Sound Bowl Meditations
We ended our morning sessions with a 15 minute sound bowl meditation and deep listening practice. Nigel Rowles, who doubled as photographer and ‘man Friday’, beautifully played the bowls for us each day during our morning meditation and the 15 minutes of journaling that followed. It allowed us to become grounded within ourselves in contemplative stillness.
My approach to teaching personal creative writing is based on Natalie Goldberg’s ‘writing practice’. She was the first to make the obvious connection between Zen practice and writing. It’s all about being fully present, writing from the core, not the head. The secret is to keep the pen moving, capturing first thoughts, unedited and raw. As Natalie Goldberg says, it’s about understanding writing as a process and allowing yourself to write junk. Like any practice, the more you do it, the better you get at it until you can’t do without it. And like yoga and meditation, it’s a life-long practice.
“Writing practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t demand any logical form: no chapter 19 following the action in chapter 18. Its a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window. It’s undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment.” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.
Free Writing to Prompts
The blank page is the most intimidating place for any writer, including highly successful ones. But there is a very simple cure to the writer’s biggest enemy. Timed free-writing exercises to writing prompts keep the pen moving. It’s your best weapon to fight resistance.
I use writing prompts as a warm-up regardless of whether I am working on my memoir, a blog post or a newsletter. It’s a way of connecting with my voice quickly. There isn’t enough time to think about what I write, because I’ve got only 10 minutes to say what I have to say.
Beautiful Flora, the young poet from Southern Sudan, kept joking during the retreat that I turned anything and everything into a writing prompt. And that’s so true because anything can become a writing prompt. You could set your timer right now and write for 10 minutes about “this moment”. Who knows where you’ll end up.
Quotes can be great writing prompts. Here is one we used in our first-morning writing workshop:
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Henry Miller
Set your timer, find a blade of grass (or a leaf or a flower…) and describe it using sensory detail. Now look at it again and try to see it with new eyes, say from the perspective of a beetle or a grass snake. Write about it through your new lens. What do you see now?
Sharing our Writing
We covered a lot of topics in our daily writing workshops. From memoir to poetry, to how to bring emotion and sensory detail into our writing, to digging deep inside and identifying the turning points of our personal narratives, to drafting our personal creative manifesto. The best part of every workshop was, of course, the sharing of our writing.
Sharing our writing is liberating, I’ve written an entire post on it. How often did I hear myself and others say during the retreat “I had no idea where that came from”. When we read our writing out aloud it comes alive because suddenly the story that we didn’t even know was ready to be told, takes on a life of its own.
We were a small group and yet I had a sense that there were so many more people present than the four of us seated at the table writing. We were at once writers, readers & listeners and, most importantly, witnesses to our own stories.
Downtime & Exploring Hoi An’s Ancient Town
It was a fine balance between wanting to cram in as much writing (and eating) as possible and making sure everybody had enough downtime. We always had a few hours of free time for rest and relaxation after lunch. We spent our afternoons working on our own projects or exploring the UNESCO listed Ancient Town of Hoi An.
What I learned at our Writing and Yoga Retreat
Apart from the many practical lessons I learned, I took this away from the retreat:
Writers need community and connection.
Writing is by its very nature a lonely business. Writing together isn’t just a lot of fun, it also creates incredible momentum and synergy. By the end of the week, we were all on fire and we haven’t stopped writing.
It didn’t matter one bit that we ranged in ages from 23 to 75. We connected as a tribe with a shared passion to use creative expression to tell our stories, to grow and to heal.
I feel so connected to my creativity. I haven’t felt like this in a long time. What a special week of bonding, connecting and sharing. My heart is full.
Thanks to Terri from Quiet Writing, Heidi and Flora for being the best writing buddies one could wish for. Together we created magic, listened deep inside ourselves and dug up the real stories that need to be told. We opened our hearts to ourselves and to each other. We wrote like champions, we shared tears of joy and of sorrow, and we promised each other to do it all again very soon together.
*Photos by Nigel Rowles, www.feelintune.com
Ready to join me on a writing retreat?
If you’ve been thinking about going on retreat this year, check out our upcoming dates here!