Will Williams, has taught hundreds of people to meditate from Kate Winslet to Take That. We sent GTG editor Victoria Woodhall, and her inner control freak, on his weekend retreat. Boy did she need it – and probably so do you
There’s nothing like a meditation retreat for meeting your inner control freak. Yes, the thing that pretty much runs your diary, the invisible friend/frenemy that's always your plus-one and probably your closest relationship. If you’re so used to control freak running the show that you can't even remember how it got there, on a Beeja weekend, you’re about to find out.
Two weeks before the March lockdown, I signed up for a three-day retreat in an old country house in East Sussex with Will Williams, founder of Beeja Meditation. I’d read about Will, a cheeky and charismatic ex-music industry party boy, and a one-time adrenalised insomniac like me , who’d turned his successful but chaotic life around through meditation. I’d heard that he’d introduced hundreds of people to a regular twice-daily practice, from members of Take That to actresses Kate Winslet and Cressida Bonas, ITV news anchor Tom Bradby, singer Natalie Imbruglia and Jasmine Hemsley - and now 1,000 new people online over lockdown.
His jargon-free approach to meditation makes it accessible to anyone and everyone. He’s definitely more Jamie Oliver than Deepak Chopra. Everything is “pukka” or “golden,” and “absolutely dollars”. But that doesn’t mean that this is meditation-lite. Will spent years on an around-the-world meditation odyssey meeting Sufis and shamen in far-flung places to discover the most effective and authentic techniques that could save our frazzled 21st-century souls. He went on to found World Meditation Day on 21 May.
As I was to find out, Beeja isn't fluffy towels and beatific smiles. It's boot camp for the soul.
Victoria with Will Williams
Not that I was entirely prepared. I thought it would be a chance to have a room to myself for a weekend away from my kids, away from frightening talk of Covid and the news, a chance to catch up on a few movies and maybe a few emails and chill out with some nice food and interesting people, perhaps even a celeb or two. (Will, I can hear you snorting).
What happens on a Vedic meditation retreat?
When I arrive at the family-owned manor on a Friday evening, it’s clear this is a home, not an 'at your service' hotel. A log fire roars and 20 of us sit on mismatched sofas and floor cushions and help ourselves to herbal tea. Two of the participants have come from Romania after reading Will’s book The Effortless Mind, someone else has flown in from Sri Lanka (don’t they have meditation over there?) purely for this. There’s a young woman who wants to understand the cause of her PTSD and a cancer doctor with young children who’s overwhelmed. Many like me just want to learn a bit more about meditation or get their practice back on track. One brave soul is using the isolation to give up smoking. A surprising number are here on the recommendation of friends who’ve done the retreat and thought they might really benefit (if anyone ever gives you the nod to sign up, it’s code for “you seriously need this or you’ll burn out”).
We’ve all done a beginner’s course in Vedic meditation, the ancient Indian practice in which you are given a personal mantra, and which asks you to meditate two daily for 20 minutes. It’s the style Will teaches and can be easily learned in person or now online in seven hours over a weekend. For now, the retreats too are being held online.
we’ve made such a virtue of being busy, of overscheduling that not doing, stepping back and taking things as they come, feels rather uncomfortable
After dinner of a delicious organic nut loaf and plant-based cheesecake, Will tells us how things will run. Over the two-and-a-half days and three nights, we’re in for a deep cellular detox. Everything from our mind to our microbiome to our nervous system will begin to reset. There may well be tears. Tomorrow we’ll learn the technique called ‘rounding’ an ancient sequence of basic yoga poses, breathing and meditation that will form the bulk of our practice. It has what he calls a ‘slingshot effect: the more ‘rounds’ of it you do back-to-back the more powerful the healing and detoxing effects. All our meals will be vegetarian and organic, based on Ayurvedic principles, balancing the three doshas (your constitutional or body type) but there are no hot spices, salt or refined sugar as we’re too keep all sensory stimulus to a minimum to create the optimum conditions for a really deep experience.
To that end, were to avoid anything ‘exciting’ to the nervous system from reading thrillers to sex and if we've smuggled in any contraband Will implores us to stay away from caffeine and snacks especially sugar. Wandering in the garden is fine but no going off-campus, “because you might feel quite stoned,” says Will, and we don’t want to lose anyone! Oh, and there won’t be any breakfast because we’ll be fasting until lunchtime in order to help reset our microbiome . No one even considers whether we'll be losing weight on this particular detox (although it's almost inevitable). We're here to lose the mental weight .
And here comes the shocker – at 7am the following morning, we’ll all have to hand in our phones until it’s time to leave. I feel a low-level panic and definite indignation. I hadn’t prepared for this! How dare they not warn me? What about all those work things I had planned on checking? What was I going to do with my time? This was ruining my weekend! I'm a classic overscheduler with three jobs and two children which means that weekends are always about mopping up the work I don't have time to finish, because I've taken on took on too much. I had shit to do!
Beeja: 1, Control Freak: 0.
Will tells us that the retreat will be “40 per cent less effective” if we check our phones (and don’t even think about Wifi for your laptop because there isn’t any). Scrolling brings up reactions and emotions and keeps us in fight or flight mode, in the thrall of the sympathetic nervous system which governs our stress response. It's become our default existence and the cause of so much mental and physical illness. We’re here to let that go. The rounding technique, the quiet, the calming food, will all help us spend time in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our ‘rest and digest’ mode, unfamiliar to many of us, but it’s the place where the real deep healing can happen.
MORE GLOSS: Why meditation works better for tiredness than caffeine
We can have as much herbal tea as we like (praise be!) and help ourselves to hot water bottles because when we’re detoxing our body temperature drops. And we should scrape our tongue every morning with the Ayurvedic copper tongue scraper we’ve been given “to get all the shit off” says Will. He’s not wrong – when your detoxing there are some pretty lively cultures that come out to play. We should be mindful of each other’s personal space. People may not be in a place where they want to chat, don’t take it personally. Lastly, we also need to have a shower first thing to enter the detox practice as clean as possible.
What is Vedic 'rounding'?
In the morning, with our phones gone, Will demonstrates ‘rounding’. It starts with 12 yoga poses. Even though I’ve been a yoga teacher for 15 years, it's the yoga element that's my first challenge. There are none of the type-A dynamic ashtanga moves I'm used to. These are subtle movements, no engaging the core, “no stretchy stuff” says Will. The idea is to move energy gently through the body, to stimulate the vagus nerve that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Step two in the rounding sequence is five minutes of a breathing technique called nadi shodhana, breathing in and out through alternate nostrils, which balances both hemispheres of the brain. There are a lot of right-brain rational thinkers here - me included- who could do with letting their creative left brain get a look in. This is followed by 20 minutes of seated meditation with our personal mantra that we were given in our previous beginners' courses, and ten minutes of lying down relaxation ‘savasana’. The whole ‘round’ takes about 50 minutes.
Now it's our turn to go off and do more rounds by ourselves in silence. We’re told to take our yoga mat and find some floor space wherever we like in the house. I’m happy that there is something to ‘do’ and find that I slip into the sequence quote easily.
We meet again before lunch to share how it went and what came up. Will encourages us to embrace the art of nonchalance, not to try too hard with the mantra when we're meditating, to let it come and go and find a lightness. It sounds easy enough, but we’ve made such a virtue of being busy, of overscheduling that not doing, that stepping back and taking things as they come feels rather uncomfortable – for me anyway. Will explains that being constantly busy actually has a numbing effect on our feelings. Are we always ‘doing’ because we don’t want to feel? Or have we stopped being able to feel because we’re too busy doing? Either way, without our usual distractions, those moments ‘between things’ that we would otherwise fill with scrolling, chatting, snacking or other distractions will just have to be experienced. Deep breath...
So what does this Vedic rounding do? As a structured form of meditation, it helps strengthen the mind and improves our ability to feel life in all its colours and to be OK with that because it makes us more resilient. “The more you meditate, the more accurate your subjective experience becomes,” says Will. I like the fact that in doing this practice I’m getting better at seeing a situation for what it is rather than through the lens of my past hurts and my conditioning or the buttons that it pushes. That can only be good for me and my relationships at home at work.
After lunch of rice and dhal, I am totally exhausted – how can this be? I haven’t done anything! I fall asleep for two hours. I wake with a banging headache (possibly caffeine withdrawal) but a hot bath helps. I get going on the three ‘rounds’ we’ve been set to do ourselves in total silence. Although on the outside I am not doing much, my 'inside' is pretty busy, throwing up all sorts of irritation, random thoughts, memories, earworms and general rubbish - surprisingly no worries about the work I'd thought was so vital. When we regroup before dinner many people say they felt the same - experiencing everything from anger to flashing lights, back pain, as well as pleasant sensations of warmth and seeing random floating sofas. Will suggests that it’s all part of emptying the trash, because we’re not engaging it in other activities, we’re giving our subconscious the chance to have a really good declutter. We should let the memories and the feelings bubble up and out without trying to rationalise them. It’s not always pleasant, but I do feel lighter afterwards and take the view that it's better out than in.
That night, I am repeatedly woken by excruciating pains in my legs. If day one was headache day, day two is full-body ache day. I feel like I have flu. My legs haven’t felt this pain since I gave birth to my daughter 16 years ago. Was it a coincidence that I dreamed last night that she went missing? Am I releasing some kind of birth trauma? The places where I'm really hurting are my quads and psoas muscles, which I reflect are actually the fight or flight, running-away-from-predators muscles. I’m pretty much always on adrenaline; clearly my body doesn’t like it when it doesn’t get its fix and is now complaining loudly. I feel like I’m coming off class-A drugs. Maybe I am.
In the morning, I do the four rounds that Will has set me, my mental stamina is increasing and so spending four focused hours in silence is no longer such a stretch; in the afternoon I do five more with yet another comatose sleep in between. That night we eat in silence. No one has the energy to talk anyway.
During the final morning, we do a few more rounds and once we’ve packed our bags and our taxi is here, we’re given an Ayurvedic brownie (to stop us hitting the train food) and our phones. I forgot I even had a phone. I check for any urgent calls from home or work but of course, there are none, life has gone on perfectly fine without me. Everything is in fact OK. I really can let go of control. Will explains that the need to control is often rooted in fear. I’m starting to lose the fear that I haven't done enough. I am enough.
Over the weekend we've had some really deep group discussions about how to manage our emotions and our stress, why we act as we do, why we're on this earth, how we can make our lives better in our choices including what we eat and who we spend time with and rediscover a sense of lightness and joy. The young woman with the PTSD has gained some insight into what might have caused her condition, the smoker is now a non-smoker and I feel like I have been hauled from the edge of burnout in the nick of time. I didn’t realise how adrenalized I was.
We’re advised to avoid too much stimulation for the next few days as our nervous system will be a little raw. I can only describe coming out of the retreat as feeling ‘peeled’ or like a newborn. The train feels very noisy and I'm astonished how much rubbish people around us talk. We are to do two rounds a week for the next few weeks and at least once a week ongoing and of course continue our daily meditation.
I can’t believe what hard (deep) work this has been but just how necessary. Even more so now with anxiety over health, job security and the sense of being part of a huge global crisis, meditation is so necessary to gain strength of mind, better perspective, to boost psychological immunity as well as for physical healing. If you haven't tried meditation, taking a beginner's course in Vedic meditation is an investment for life. I'd tried to learn for years and this is the one style that has stuck.
A retreat like this a true power down. It gave me more energy and clarity and is now something I want to do, I need to do, once a year. Will tells me that wellness expert Jasmine Hemsley has been on about six of these retreats and I can see why. Rounding is a new power tool in my meditation toolbox. I’ve also come face-to-face with my control freak and found a fearful child. All she needs is a bit of reassurance that it’s OK, she does not to have to work so hard. She can go and put her feet up.
For a free introductory talk on meditation go www.beejameditation.com
Beeja holds beginners meditation courses online twice a month. They take place at weekend and involved seven hours in total and cost £199. See here for dates.
The next ‘rounding’ retreats for experienced meditators will take place online from September 26th to 27th and October 23rd to 25th and cost £299 with group sessions 8-10:30am and 4-6.30pm both days.
Images: Beeja Meditation, Claudiu Benu.