How I found joy and peace on a woodland retreat | Health and fitness holidays

It is November and I am on a train, halfway through my journey towards Danny Shmulevitch’s Walking Your Promise retreat in Gloucester, when I realise that I am having a panic attack.

I had booked the retreat a few months earlier when I was struggling to recover from Covid, crawling through my days in a fog of anxiety and exhaustion, then spending my nights in the claws of insomnia.

I was physically battered, yet it was more than that. I felt soul-sick and lost. More than a decade of exposure to darkness and trauma in my working life as a human rights journalist, and the relentless momentum of my domestic life, had broken something deep inside me. I felt as if I’d been living life like a high-speed freight train that had suddenly hit a wall, and now the carriages were crashing in behind me.

I had to get away to heal, but I didn’t know how. Then, one night when I was online scrolling through yoga weeks and spa hotels, I found the Walking Your Promise retreat, which immerses participants in the solitude of ancient woodland in Gloucestershire for three days. You sleep under the stars, fast for 24 hours and “tune into the rhythms of the natural surroundings to reconnect with your body and find a deeper way of feeling”.

I signed up immediately. Yet now, as the train nears Gloucester station, my heart is clattering and my hands are slippery with sweat. It suddenly seems ludicrous that I have paid quite a lot of money to be cold and hungry. More worrying is how terrifying the prospect of sitting around in trees on my own for days with nothing to do has become. There will be no yoga, no cooking classes, no craft project. I will have to leave my phone behind and I wasn’t allowed to bring a book. As I’ve never done it, I have no idea what will happen when I just stop, and I suddenly don’t want to find out.

Still, the prospect of pulling out seems too humiliating, so on I go, sweating and panicking all the way to Danny’s house. When the taxi pulls up, he comes out to meet me, a compact figure in dyed wool with a silvery topknot, and he is so calm, so kind and confident that this is the place I should be, that I feel my mind unwind.

An hour later, after lunch and reading some calming poetry, it’s time to head into the woods, so I relinquish my phone and follow Danny’s torchlight down a country lane into the darkness. We walk silently through the gloom, weaving between the dark shapes of trees, owls hooting overhead, until I see a flickering of light through the shadows and we come into sight of the campsite, my woodland home for the next three days.

Danny Shmulevitch, who leads the retreat. Photograph: Andrew Brooks

If Danny ever wants to get out of the nature retreat business he could definitely land a gig as an outdoor hygge stylist because it’s all breathtakingly beautiful. The main camp is laid out under the protective embrace of a huge oak tree, from which canvas is stretched over a crackling campfire and a bubbling pot of turmeric and orange peel tea. There are sofas and armchairs, a lot of sheepskin, and flickering altar candles in glass jars. Danny tells me this is where he will stay for the duration of the retreat, tending the fire and providing company and conversation if I need it. The rest of the camp is just for me.

He leads me through the trees to where a surprisingly comfortable-looking bed is laid out on the ground, covered in blankets and sheepskin. Nearby is a hammock lined with more sheepskin. Beyond that is a meditation space looking out into the woods.

We go back to the fire and have dinner, and Danny tells me about his childhood growing up in the Sinai desert; working with Bedouin tribes; and his quest for stillness and connection. He believes we humans are becoming unhappy and sick because we have been conditioned to live in our heads, ignoring our innate ability to sense and connect with the natural world around us. He sees his job as helping people rediscover their connection with their bodies and hearts. He’s a lovely companion, wise and thoughtful, and able to sit in silence without it feeling weird.

The bed under the forest canopy. Photograph: Andrew Brooks

A while later (who knows what time without my phone), I fill up a hot-water bottle, turn on my head torch and make my way to bed, where I crawl inside my sleeping bag.

Above, through the swaying branches, the velvet black sky is studded with glittering stars. I’ve never slept outside like this and at first it all feels too strange to be able to sleep, but soon I drift off to the sound of the swoosh and creak of the trees in the darkness.

In the morning light, the woods shine green, gold and fiery red. I am surrounded by old beech, oak and sweet chestnut trees and, tangles of ferns and holly bushes.

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I sit by the fire for a while and then, when I am suddenly overcome with a deep fatigue, I head for the hammock, where I fall asleep. When I wake, I walk down to the meditation space and sit there looking at the trees.

I realise that my mind, usually a churning torrent of to-do lists, work stress and self-flagellation, has fallen silent. For a long time I sit there, watching the branches move in the breeze and leaves spiral to the ground. I’m not bored. I don’t think about my kids, or work, or any big life questions. I notice tiny mushrooms growing in the roots of a fallen tree and a beetle moving through the undergrowth. Everything feels vividly alive. My nervous system stills, and I sit and feel my heart beating and the breath entering and leaving my body as the light wanes and woods darken.

Without my phone or a clock, time thickens. Today I’m not eating, so without anything to do or consume it ceases to matter what time it is. The night ends, the day begins and then rolls out minute by minute. It is a wonderful feeling.

When I go to sleep that night I dream of dystopian city skylines, trains screaming out of tunnels, and oil-belching trucks. At some point I wake up and go and lie in the hammock, looking up at the buttery moon and watch as the night slowly, quietly, retreats and the day begins again.

The next morning we break our fast with nuts and fruit, then walk a couple of miles up to the top of May Hill, where I sit in a cluster of old pines looking over the Gloucestershire countryside. The things that scared me before I came here – hunger, cold, solitude and boredom – proved to be phantoms. Instead, it is no exaggeration to say that on Danny’s retreat I discovered a sense of expansion and connection with the world around me that has changed everything.

Two years on, I still find it difficult to explain, but it’s as if the woods gave me an inner reservoir of joy and peace I am now able to access whenever I need to. Sometimes this feeling bubbles up when I’m walking or swimming outside, and I can tune out of the churn and chatter of my mind and become part of the living world around me, even it is only for the briefest of moments.

It still astounds me that something as simple as putting away my phone and sitting in the woods for a few days would be such a transformational experience. But there you go. It turns out the most difficult thing was just stopping and looking around; the rest was around me all along.

The individual Walking Your Promise retreat is £1,150 for three days/two nights; the group retreat is £595 (bursaries available)

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