By Gillian Baxendine
After quarter of an hour warming up our shoulders, arms, legs, wrists, hands, we go upside down. Hands pushing firmly down on the grass, elbows strongly locked, I shift my ribs and hips over my arms and with one foot on Tasha’s shoulder, lift the other leg straight up in the air. After a moment’s exhilaration I lower myself with as much control as I can manage and turn the right way up. I can’t stop smiling.
We are camping in a secret clearing near Archerfield House in East Lothian, four of us on one of Anna’s Wanderwomen overnight retreats. The handstands are a bonus, alongside all the other relaxing, nurturing, invigorating plans Anna has for us. I never managed handstands or cartwheels as a child and I’m not particularly strong or fit, so my mind was saying silently, “You can’t do this!” But after 18 hours of trusting Anna to decide what happened, I wasn’t going to back out now. And a few minutes later, I was upside down. Not supporting myself but getting a glimpse of what that might feel like and believing that it was possible.
In real life I’m (among other things) a life coach but I wasn’t expecting this weekend to have so many connections. My coaching explores the pathways that our brains have learned throughout our lives and how these unique patterns of meaning and habit guide how we react to every experience. By bringing these into awareness, especially in a safe space created by a coach, we can decide which habits aren’t serving us any more and begin to lay down new pathways that open up possibilities.
So for me the handstands were not just playful but also a realisation that my body might be capable of much more than I’ve always assumed. I’ve been known as clumsy and uncoordinated since I was a child, tripping and falling, breaking things, permanently bruised from walking into furniture. I’ve learned how to counteract it by paying attention to my movements but as soon as I’m rushing or distracted either my shins or my glassware are at risk!
Anna starts the weekend with a silent walking meditation. It’s comfortable walking alone in the woods together. We’ve all chosen wisdom cards – mine tells me to be ready for a miracle. I don’t believe in miracles in the sense of experiences that defy natural laws, but I do believe that so much more is possible within natural laws than our minds expect. Our brains are pattern-making machines – it can work against us when the patterns keep us confined in small safe places but when we consciously look for expansive patterns, it’s a superpower. I was coaching my daughter just before I came away (with a completely different set of cards) and by some serendipity the word miracle came up there too. I walk in the woods expectantly. Spikes of deep purple Vipers Bugloss, glimpses of deer, sunlight on leaves. It’s easier to be open to miracles here, walking quietly towards the sea.
As I walk I realise I’m frequently stumbling on the uneven ground. I focus on my feet and notice that I treat them as if they were unconnected to the rest of me or even each other. No wonder I trip! I start to imagine my feet connected to my ankles, ankles to knees, knees to hips…a long smooth line from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, walking with every part, not asking my feet to balance my weight on their own. Just like the handstands – stacking each part over each part evenly – everything matters, from thumb tips to toe tips.
After a picnic lunch, we go swimming. One woman hasn’t swum in the sea since she was a child. She’s uncertain but four of us are alongside her, telling her it will be ok. As she paddles in, her face relaxes and her body becomes less tense. In coaching I was taught to look for these “Aha moments” – when you can see in someone’s face and body a new connection that wasn’t there a moment before. It’s warmer and shallower than her mind was telling her it would be and by the end she’s laughing and wondering what it was she was worried about. It’s another brain superpower, being able to lend our confidence to someone else until it becomes theirs. Almost every new thing is easier with someone alongside you who believes in you. When she goes home, she will be able to go in with her children and like ripples their world will get a little bigger– “Ah, so swimming in the sea is for grown-ups too!”
Instead of dipping our toes in at the edge of the sand, this weekend we’ve plunged right in. Tasha and I dive under and agree it feels better to be soaked all over rather than trying to keep our hair and faces dry. Even though these are people I’ve never met before, it feels (a bit like in coaching) that there’s permission to ask deeper questions: what matters to you, what do you want, how does that feel?
Of course, there’s also lots of lightness – exploring caves, toasting marshmallows, making a beach mandala from shells and stones, eating good food prepared for us by Anna. We end on Sunday with a final wisdom card and solitary walk. Mine tells me to clear away the debris. More serendipity. I was planning a week of decluttering when I get back – sitting in a willow bower next to the Archerfield fairy walk, I’m wondering if it’s the clutter in my mind that really needs attention.
At the end of the weekend I feel calm, light, content. The balance of space and being together – of doing things for the body and things for the mind – letting go of responsibility and being free to play. Thank you, Anna, for creating a space where miracles can happen!