My relationship with yoga is a complicated one. I’ve become fast friends with some poses, while engaging in long-standing feuds with others. It’s taken me some time to accept that yoga is not about performance, but practice – both on and off the mat.
My hour-long evening yoga classes are camel humps on the workaday back of the week - the only chance I really get to connect meaningfully with my body and mind. I’ve heard it said that the primary aim of yoga is to help us engage with life with more awareness, compassion and joy. I am (slowly) working towards a synergy between my ‘real’ and ‘yoga’ lives – my inner and outer worlds.Slowing down an overstimulated, overtired and incessantly multitasking mind seems likea more important (and challenging!) pursuit than balancing on one ear.
Navigating an ancient path through a modern world can be challenging, and I’m always relieved to encounter teachers who are dedicated to making it a fun ride. Jo‘lle Sleebos is the poster girl for yoga as the exercise cum meditation trend idealised by pop culture today. Frighteningly fit, she effortlessly fills the shape of each pose - like cake batter poured into a mould. Watching her move from one asana to the next is a truly humbling experience. As she floats through space, every inch of her body seems to know where it is – and how it’s related to every other part of her.
More importantly, though, she returns – time and again - to the importance of bringing the awareness and calm out of the yoga studio and into everyday life. Picking up where a typical yoga class leaves off, Jo‘lle explores how the practice is meaningful beyond its poses. She is able to stand on her head while keeping both feet firmly on the ground, espousing a spirituality that’s far more rock ‘n roll than oppressive.
While I am thrilled to be able to join one of her Yoga Connection Retreats at the idyllic Penhill Farm in the Nuy Valley, I do have a few reservations about my fellow retreatants.
I imagine Jo‘lle’s followers to be groovy, in-the-know types with an enviable combination of spiritual competence and physical ability. Lithe – probably skinny – girls with glossy ponytails and peaceful faces that would look good in a bubble bath ad.
Instead, I am met with new moms, old moms, a wholesome farm girl with a wicked sense of humour and a hedge fund manager who often starts laughing before he starts speaking.
As someone who’s never been good at sport, I often worry that yoga – like any physical undertaking – will serve as a kind of magnifier of my physical limitations. But I soon realise that this is no place for insecurity. This is my favourite kind of yoga: filled with all different kinds of people of all different shapes and ages. A gentle place for dorks like me to get in shape.
Like any great teacher, Jo‘lle never runs the same game twice. She takes the time to ask what we want to focus on, and somehow manages to stitch together our random desires into a seamless class.
Her instructions and adjustments are spot-on. Here is a place where someone can tell me what to do, and I can enjoy identifiable results. Unlike in life, where the rules seem to shift all the time and the standards can seem as high as the moon.
Jo‘lle encourages us to see comparison as inspirational, rather than odious. She seems genuinely happy for us when we manage to will our bodies into a fresh shape. I like practising with her. She makes me feel wonderful and strong and like I have good hair.
Under her expert guidance, almost every retreat participant conquers a new pose. I hope that mine will be chaturanga. The fulcrum of vinyasa, it’s the most difficult part for me – the one that haunts me when I fall asleep at night. A kind of evil nexus, it is where I encounter the impossible, over and over, each time I move through a vinyasa.
Alas, doing a chaturanga like Jo‘lle remains out of my reach. So I decide to try my hand(s) at crow instead. While my fellow yogis are popping into and falling out of the pose, laughing and growing red in the face, I want to make everything pretty. I straighten my mat, squat and spread my hands, widening my fingers and pressing down on each pad. This is the point where my feet are supposed to lift off the mat. “Crow is about maintaining a state of play,” coos poster girl. Yeah, right. “Don’t be afraid of falling!” Not much chance of that, since I’m not really able to lift off the ground at all.
Just when I start resigning myself to the fact that the floor is the place for me, I discover side crow – the less beautiful but easier to nail sister pose. It takes a little doing to set up, but finally I am able to lift my feet a few inches off the ground. Triumphant, smug, I am flying. It feels like my first real moment of yoga competence. Needless to say, this becomes my go-to pose for the rest of the retreat, regardless of the fact that it is never again called for.
Duly emboldened by my new accomplishment, I am surprised by the humbling I encounter in the evening yin classes. There’s something about holding still – about inhabiting a pose – that can be more scary than the strength and striving of vinyasa. All that anxious chatter to face for an entire hour. Somehow I survive, and when I finish in savasana I don’t feel like I have stretched – I feel like I have churched.
My efforts are rewarded with red wine, ‘conscious cocktails’ (God bless Jo‘lle) and far too much food. Yoga, meet life. I am instantly enamoured of our chef, Lapo Magni. When he speaks about Italian cooking and sustainable ingredients, something in him lights up – as if there’s a big switch on his back that’s just been turned on. It is endlessly endearing, and evident in every dish he serves up with childlike glee.
Add to all of this a swim in the dam, a hike up the mountain and a spot of indulgent poolside reading, and you’ve got the perfect unplugged weekend.
From the picturesque countryside venue to the rock ‘n roll yoga and conscious cuisine, I can’t fault the experience. If you feel like you need more sustenance than what the average yoga class provides – if you can’t quite relate to traditional yoga philosophy in the midst of everyday life – I can highly recommend an immersive experience with Jo‘lle. If you’re lucky, you might just be reminded – as was I – that the main reason you do yoga is simply because you love it.
UPCOMING YOGA CONNECTION RETREATS
GREYTON: 29 November – 1 December 2019
MCGREGOR: 2 – 9 December 2019
GREYTON & WITSAND: 19 - 26 February 2020
KAROO: 19 – 22 March 2020
BRITANNIA BAY: 15 – 17 May 2020
NUY VALLEY: 21 – 23 August 2020
A NOTE FROM JOèLLE
“I offer these retreats as a way for people to take some time out of their busy schedules to connect to themselves and practise much- needed self-care through yoga, sleep, good food, time off and engagement with a supportive community in a beautiful natural setting. They can be powerful journeys towards self-love, and a healing space for those who feel the need to reconnect to life in a healthier way. “