Updated on October 18th, 2021
It was with a sense of anxiety that I boarded a plane again for the first time in 18 months. I was headed to Iceland & didn’t feel I was quite ready. But the timing was perfect. I learned so much from this epic country & its amazing people. Here I share how I found my freedom again through enriched my mind, body & soul on a yoga retreat in Iceland.”
Akureyri, North Iceland
I was supposed to be going to a yoga retreat in Iceland in May 2020. My sister was flying over from Australia to join me. We were planning to take a drive around the Ring Road together. My gorgeous friend Marie was also coming from the UK to join us. The retreat was run by my amazing friend & yogi Kathy, who owns The Santosha Life. Her retreats in Cuba have been a whole journey of self-discovery for me.
It was going to be amazing!
The pandemic hit. The world stopped turning. We all stopped travelling. My dream yoga retreat in Iceland, as with life, was postponed.
It was rearranged for May, then August. Flights had begun from the UK & people had started to travel again. Iceland was on our Green List.
My sister was still locked away with no sign of escape on the other side of the world, so she had to cancel. Marie secured her dream job & is preparing to move to Shanghai, reluctantly she also had to cancel.
I was anxious & uncomfortable to travel so soon. But I had committed to the retreat & to my yogi friend. I bit the bullet & went. Alone.”
It turned out to be transformational & a breath of fresh air in so many ways for me. Here is why…
For more check out my posts on Top Tips for Travelling During COVID-19 & Travel During COVID-19 – How to Choose a Holiday Let.
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A Yoga Retreat in Iceland – Finding Freedom Again
Arriving in Akureyri, North Iceland, felt like an overwhelming privilege. Here I was, ready to spend a week indulging what my body & spirit needed. Seeing the majesty of this planet from the air was already nourishing my soul. And when I met up with my fellow yogis & Andreas, our host for the week, we all felt the same. We had all been in & out of lockdowns, masks & sanity for the last 18 months. Some had been waiting in anticipation like me for over a year, others had arrived late to the party. We all had vaccinations. Everyone had tested negative. We were a bubble. As we hugged “Hello”, the reality & relief started to hit.
I haven’t been to many yoga retreats, but I find Kathy’s extra special. There’s something about the care & attention she pays to every bit of the experience which resonates strongly with me.
From the intricately crafted playlist to the encouragement, teachings, use of all the senses through oils & balms, it all makes me come away feeling like I am a better, more rounded person.”
And she always chooses the best locations!
(By the way, I’m not on any sort of commission, she’s just my friend & I think she’s brilliant!)
For more information on the amazing things to do in North Iceland, check out my post on 20 Best Things to do in Akureyri.
My yoga experiences with Kathy have charted my progress through grief & healing. They have always been emotional & full of gratitude for the people who I have loved & lost along the way. Mum, Dad & my beloved husband Terry. But I have grown into the loss & arrived in Iceland from a place of peace & calm. After almost 7 years, I recently realised that I am not in turmoil anymore. That realisation was huge for me. I considered that this may be the first time I have not cried during a retreat.
We began our Iceland yoga practice with some breathing exercises. Kathy said the words “Take a deep breath” & tears began to stream down my face. They surprised me. It felt like a release of everything that has built up over the last 18 months. I couldn’t stop it. We set an intention for our practice. It had to start with “I am…”
“I am here”.
That’s all I needed.
The tears kept flowing throughout the rest of the practice as I moved my body to places it hadn’t been for a while. I had sprained my ankle 8 weeks earlier so the movement felt awkward & clunky but so good! I needed this in my life. We all do.
Decisions were made in my head. Plans were hatched, my body moved & the tears flowed. It was the perfect start to what I knew would be an enriching week.”
Our first excursion took us to Hrísey Island. It is the most northerly point I have ever been to in my life. Just short of 660 latitude. The Arctic Circle. In summer its population swells to a tiny 150. Hrísey is a nature reserve & one of the power places in Iceland. It sits on a lay line & we were going to do a silent hike before lying in the meadow, surrounded by wild blueberries to meditate.
Andreas led us on a meditative walk, past the sign:
Open your mind – tread softly. You are entering a world of energy & harmony which will renew both body & soul. Discover in this place the healing & life-giving force as it flows around you. Feel the energy of life surge within you.”
We walked in silence in this beautiful place, in the middle of a fjord on the Arctic Circle. It delivered all its promises. Then we lay down & I watched the clouds which seemed to be still but changed shape as I stared. I saw the grass dance above my eyes. I heard the wind whistle through the valley but leave me untouched. It was precious time. I was excited by what Iceland would teach me & so open to its lessons.
I am here.
A smooth ride on Icelandic horses
The next morning, my yoga practice felt good & there were no tears. The overwhelm was subsiding. Then we headed for a date with some Icelandic horses.
The Icelandic horses are unique in the world as they have a special gait called ‘toit’. This means that they are so used to the rough terrain that they can trot over it & stay stable. They say that you can hold a glass of beer in one hand while the horse trots & not spill a drop. Anyone who has read about my experiences on horseback, knows I’m not a natural equestrian so even with the skills of these horses, I believe this would be a challenge for me!
I was matched with the only white horse in the pack, Princess. It soon became clear why she got her name. Princess was her own woman. Strong-minded, independent & totally indifferent to me & any of the commands I had just learned. We attempted a trot & I must admit, it did feel smoother.
The landscape was magnificent & this was the perfect way to explore it. The greens in the valleys were so vibrant they looked artificial. The mountains ahead were snow-capped & the geese gathered before noisily taking to the deep blue skies. We headed up into the hills, along streams, over bridges, past waterfalls. I was in awe once again.
It was suggested we try a gallop. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I was up for it. Except Princess had different ideas. As the others headed out fast, she turned & stood facing the opposite direction. No galloping for me!”
Eventually, we developed a bit more of an understanding & Princess began to follow my instructions. A couple of times we even joined in the gallop. The first one I enjoyed, the second terrified me. Baby steps. I bid goodbye to my (not very) faithful steed. I loved her, she remained indifferent to me, but my heart was full of the beauty of the experience & this stunning country.
My yoga was getting stronger. I could feel it. The next morning, I could have carried on for hours. That afternoon, most of the group chose to relax & rejuvenate in the facilities at the retreat. Relaxation chairs, hot tubs, saunas & massages. I decided to go whale watching.
I will never stop feeling the thrill of seeing animals in their natural habitat. I have been whale watching several times & seeing these majestic giants makes my heart sing every time. In Akureyri, we spotted our prize, spurting water, before breaching, diving & flicking the tail. Then she returned. Eight times! We were lucky, she was clearly in the mood to perform.
We were also fortunate to be back in time for an additional Yin & Yoga Nidra class. Yoga Nidra is supposed to be equivalent to 2 hours sleep, in 20 minutes. Who doesn’t need that in their lives? It felt energising & restful at the same time.”
The wonders of Mývatn
I knew it would be impressive as all waterfalls are impressive to me. Flowing water releases positive ions & I felt it. It was powerful & in turn, passed its power on to me. Then we went to discover the magical wonders of Mývatn. It’s hard to describe the procession of mind-boggling phenomena presented by the epic natural landscapes here. Watch this space to learn more, but it involved pseudocraters, straddling continents, the Caribbean in the Arctic Circle, the ground bubbling, steaming & stinking before your eyes (& nose!). It is our planet earth at its rawest, angriest, most surreal & yet also most patient. Awe-inspiring.
Then we headed to soak it all in at the Mývatn Nature Baths, also known as the “Blue Lagoon of the North”. Relaxing in the opaque, bright blue, steaming waters while watching the sunset over the lake was a moment to savour.
The Northern Lights – a dream come true?
We headed home full of an unbelievable day in Iceland. Then Andreas stopped the van, got out, looked at the sky & returned with an announcement. The conditions were perfect to see the Northern Lights.
What?!? In August?!?
It has been a dream of mine to see the lights. Before this retreat came up, I was planning to try in Iceland. Going in August I thought meant no chance & I would need to try another time…but maybe…?!”
We went with hope & excitement. And at midnight, they peeked through. I didn’t know how I could photograph the moment, so I just enjoyed watching them appear, disappear & dance before my eyes. It felt like a dream & I was filled with awe & gratitude. As I am for those who did attempt photos, while I just stood in wonder (thank you Alison, Bonnie & Sean for sharing!). My heart was full.
The next morning, we were all a little jaded after our late night, so Kathy adapted the practice to our needs. For the afternoon our goal was Húsavík, THE place in Iceland to watch the whales & famous for the traditional wooden ships they take you searching in. They looked magnificent in the harbour, but we weren’t here for the whales.
We were headed for Húsavík GeoSea. Another lagoon but this was a very different experience to the day before. Much smaller, with fewer people & this time containing seawater which is heated from the ever-present underground thermal activity. What made it special were the views over the water. An infinity pool stretching out to the sea & the mountains. It was the perfect place to relax, rejuvenate & contemplate life & the future.
The final day of the yoga retreat in Iceland brought me strength & tears again. In previous retreats, I have cried for the people I have lost. This was different. I had a realisation.
This week had been filled with gratitude for being here, for meeting like-minded souls, feeling my body again, hugging others. Freedom from lockdown. But it had also been about me.
It wasn’t those amazing people who I have loved & lost that filled my thoughts. It made me sad that they were no longer ever present but also filled with a huge sense of relief & release. I felt changed. Where is next? What is next? Time to create my new future.”
Lessons from the people
But enough about me, that afternoon it was time to learn about the more local area. To find Akureyri. It started with a waterfall just for us, a Christmas shop, a dairy farm making their own ice cream & finally our own private restaurant for the evening.
The couple who provided dinner that evening had truly found their peace & contentment. They had a studio to create art & a gallery to showcase others. Their farm bred horses they loved & sheep that they nurtured. They served us vegetables from their garden with their own lamb. It was presented at its best after they were up at 4am to put it in the oven, slow-cooked for 9 hours. The lamb in Iceland is the best you will eat anywhere. The sheep literally roam free for the summer months. The next day they were up early again for the “round up” where all the farmers go into the mountains to bring their sheep back for the winter. It is the ultimate in free-range.
This couple nurtured their environment. They showed it love. Life was simple & they wanted to share their gift. Andreas taught us that in Iceland you never know when the earth will show you that it’s in charge. When everything you know will change. This makes you respect the present & appreciate it rather than focus on the past or the future. What is better than that?
We are all guilty of searching for something else. Someone else. The next thing that will make us happy.
Stop. Think. Appreciate.
That’s what I learned in Iceland. I arrived with anxiety. I left with a stronger body, a fresher mind & a fuller heart from what this spectacular land & its people have taught me. Surely we can all benefit from a bit of that in our lives?”
Kathy is planning to return for another yoga retreat in Iceland next year. Dates are still to be finalised but if you are interested in joining, then head to her website The Santosha Life for all the details.
I will probably see you there. And I hope this time to bring my sister.
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