Ahh, September. The end of summer, with its indulgent holidays, lounging by the pool, eating too much ice cream, barely waiting for the sun to cross the yard arm before cracking open a bottle. If you’re like me, your jeans might be feeling a little tighter, your waist a little more tanned, but also a little more rolly. You’ll be looking back wistfully, but also feeling the pull of the new term; an urge to spruce up and start afresh. Personally speaking, the lure of rich autumnal colours appearing in shop windows and a snap in the air has me shrugging off the lethargy and wondering if perhaps it’s time to shape up, if only doing so didn’t seem such an effort.
But why do it yourself when you can outsource such things these days? Particularly when outsourcing comes with the last word in luxurious country houses and the chance, after the summer holidays (three small children are delightful, but can be quite wearing), to spend a few nights by oneself, being cosseted and verily encouraged to navel-gaze.
Which is how I found myself, one slightly frazzled Sunday afternoon, abandoning my husband, children and all their assorted mess, and positively fleeing to the comforting embrace of Cowdray Park in Sussex to be pampered, fed and sorted out in body, mind and spirit. That’s the aim of Bodhimaya, a company whose upscale, eastern-inspired retreats, promising “an unparalleled transformative experience”, swap clinical efficiency for five-star comfort at the likes of hotels such as Cliveden and Villa La Coste in Provence.
I was a little anxious. I’d been sent an email missive in advance asking me to abstain from alcohol, nicotine, sugar and salt in the days prior to coming, which I’d failed to do (I’m not sure scoffing a chocolate bar en route was quite what they had in mind.) I was joining the six-day retreat a few days late and, meeting a couple of my co-residents on arrival, was unnerved to discover they were following a strict juice diet and hadn’t eaten anything for nearly three days. I sipped fresh ginger tea, wide-eyed, as they expounded on how alive they felt.
In for a penny, however, and after a consultation with Olga, the resident nutritionist (a fiercely glamorous Russian who seemingly had no truck for any sort of exclusion diets in everyday life, which made me like her immediately), that focused on my digestion (poor), energy levels (sluggish) and other malaises (congested skin and sporadic, painful constipation). I decided to join the fasters, eschewing the alternative option of three healthy meals a day and committing instead to drinking freshly pressed juice three times a day and having a bowl of soup for dinner.
Did I get hungry? Surprisingly, no. There was the typical detox headache on day two, but otherwise I felt full of energy with no cravings. Each day started at 7.30am with a cup of hot water and lemon, followed by an hour of yoga, then an hour of meditation. Breakfast was at 10am; thereafter came a variety of choices: a brisk, beautiful walk around the grounds, a swim in the indoor heated pool, or a treatment. I had a bizarrely delightful acupuncture session which, despite involving needles being hammered into my stomach, left me practically comatose, and a massage and facial which made me fall asleep. After lunch came a daily talk from Olga on topics such as stress or healthy eating, followed by more yoga and meditation, dinner, fireside relaxation and bed.
Cowdray Park is one of the most comfortable country houses I’ve ever stayed in. The ancestral seat of Lord and Lady Cowdray, it was the family home until the Cowdrays moved out in 2010 – their children were grown and they had tried and failed to sell the house, so they decided instead to do it up and use it as a venue for events. Lady Cowdray, herself an aficionado of all things spiritual (she’s an avid practitioner of transcendental meditation and has set up therapy rooms on the estate where locals can go for everything from talking therapy to chanting classes) zenned up the place somewhat – versions of the statue she designed, an angular Buddha-esque figure called The Meditator, are dotted around the house and grounds. She also named the 22 bedrooms after her favourite gemstones. However, she has also retained all the trad country house features, so there’s a vaulted entrance hall with an enormous fireplace, imposing oil paintings of family members (it’s quite peculiar doing yoga being overlooked by an 18th-century aristocrat), an abundance of squishy sofas, crackling open fires and gorgeous views from every window. It was almost impossible not to feel a happy detachment from the vicissitudes of everyday life.
So did it work? In short – yes. There were elements I struggled to get to grips with, such as the meditation (I refuse to believe I am one and the same as a chair), although it was a rare opportunity to sit still, notice the niggles in my body and let them be. But nobody was forcing me to turn up to meditation or indeed anything else – and that was part of the charm. You can do your own thing (sleep, watch television, read – I even managed to finish my tax return.) I had space to think – a luxury in and of itself.
The other surprising joy? The people. Eighteen of us, mostly, but not all, women, some detox evangelists, others first-timers, some deep devotees of the transcendental experience, others fellow meditation cynics – but all there, like me, to rest, to recharge, to enjoy the opportunity of conversation over a brisk walk with a stranger. I left with two new telephone numbers, a diet plan from Olga (which included a gratifyingly large and delicious number of foods), a spring in my step and a distinctly flatter stomach. I may have fallen off the food bandwagon since getting home – but I also haven’t argued with my husband once. Now if that’s not a result, I don’t know what is.
A Bodhimaya Wellness Intensive Course at Cowdray House costs from £2,695 for six nights and includes accommodation, meals, juices, one-to-one consultations, classes and talks. The next Bodhimaya at Cowdray retreat is Oct 14-20 2019; bodhimaya.com