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Yoga for the whole family?

Meditation with the kids? Family yoga? We find out whether it’s child’s play or an impossible dream on a wellness week in southern Spain... and discover that quality time with the kids need not be something hard won

Yoga for the whole family?
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The kids are alright. Despite screaming newspaper headlines and government reports to the contrary, our kids are doing alright. At least at Centro Santillán, a wellness retreat in the Malaga mountains, they’re doing spectacularly well. They’re barefoot, swimming costume-clad, and in some cases paint-splattered; they’re grinning and running and cartwheeling, and can usually be glanced disappearing just out of sight, into a secret leafy corner of this sprawling old Andalucian cortijo (farmhouse estate).

Most of this group of 16 children were strangers when we arrived a day ago. They range in age from nine months to 12 years but have begun moving as a pack: big ones shepherding little ones, little ones entertaining themselves and everyone else with gleeful abandon. Parents? We’re treated to a swing by for a cuddle, or to show off some newly made objet d’arts and crafts. You can usually tell when a kid is happy because they leave you alone; they’ve better distractions.

“I heard that Santillán’s owner was edgy about having kids at large,” says one of the mums. “But apparently, she’s sold. She can’t believe how relaxed and respectful they all are.” A few of us raise a wry eyebrow — not least as Adrianna, who recently inherited Santillán from her father. She’s spent much of her professional life as a tour manager for huge acts including Julio Iglesias and Ed Sheeran.

Managing children, apparently, is a more terrifying prospect. But Santillán’s first family yoga retreat is proving a positive litmus test. Known for hosting meditation courses and adult yoga retreats, Santillán has a show-stopping clifftop shala (yoga studio) — designed by Adrianna’s neighbour, British yoga luminary, Simon Low — complete with sprung floor, two glass walls, and two fitted with rope stations, and, as of 2017, a family yoga week set up by the UK’s RoRo Retreats.

Founded in 2014, RoRo Retreats is the born-out-of-necessity brainchild of two yoga-mad north London working mums, Rowena Goldman and Rosie Harrison. “We love doing yoga, we love being with our kids, and we looked all over for yoga retreats that included children, but we couldn’t find anything,” explains Rosie. “So, we decided to set up our own. We’d worked with Tara Fraser before on adult yoga retreats and were really impressed by her work with families. She and her husband, Nigel [also a yoga teacher] seemed the perfect fit.”

Along with match-made yoga teachers, carefully managed simplicity is the key to the RoRo concept. Parents and children come together for a daily yoga class and meals, and inventive childcare whisks them away during twice-daily adult classes. And somehow there’s free time engineered in between, most of which, inevitably, centres on the palm-fringed swimming pool.

Given the wide-ranging ages of the kids, this set-up could have been hit-and-miss but the group’s muck-in instincts and RoRo’s crack childcare team has it down to an organic art. Albero and Chus, two lively Spanish lads from a local sports club, and Lauren, a serenely skilled school teacher from South Africa by way of London, have the kids tailing them Pied Piper-like, doing everything from herb-hunting hikes to dreamcatcher making, water-bomb fights to fairy house-designing. Even the older boys get on board with the latter, creating mini works of leafy architecture, secreted under trees, which became ‘magically’ filled with sweets overnight (thank you Lauren). When the children do come into sight, it’s also rather magical to witness.

“This perfect behaviour… is it a British thing, or a yogi thing do you think?” one of the mums, a Ukrainian settled in London, muses out loud. I’m not sure it’s either. These certainly aren’t yoga-cult kids — while many of the parents are keen yogis, most of the children have never tried it before. Their placid calm is, I decide, simply because they’re happy. They’re free, and (with some artful guidance) feel like they’re pleasing themselves.

RoRo Retreats, Centro Santillán, Malaga

RoRo Retreats, Centro Santillán, Malaga

Freedom
These days, kids rarely have any real freedom. Scheduled to breaking point by parents, tested to within an inch of sanity by teachers and private tutors, and chased into confusing corners by social media and alarming news stories, our children — if we believe the stats — can barely breathe. And the stats are woefully compelling. In one year alone (2015-16), the NSPCC reported that Childline dealt with 11,706 child counselling sessions that mentioned anxiety; a 35% rise on the previous year. Meanwhile — according to a Department for Education study last year — more than a third of teenage girls in England suffer from depression, while recent NHS figures show cases of anxiety in children and young people rising by 42% in five years.

Stop. STOP, many of us want to weep. But how? For all the current clamour about the importance of mindfulness, few of us actually manage it, let alone practice it with our children. And while the wellness sector is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry, catering to the ever-growing ranks of the desperately over-subscribed, very little of it extends to families. Spa and wellness holidays are something a weary mother drags herself off to, if she can leave kids behind. Or, if a hotel is forward-thinking enough (aka expensive), there may be token treatments for children.

Meanwhile, activity travel specialists have benefitted from the boom in parents kicking back against the standardly depressing holiday resort kid’s club. Seeking something more spirit-lifting, many families holiday to a schedule of hiking and biking, sailing and abseiling. But — phew! — the exhaustion of trying to do it all together, beholden to high-octane pursuits that perhaps not all family members really enjoy.

“This is the best family holiday I’ve ever had,” says Sev, dad of three, including a nine-month-old baby. “What’s not to like? There’s wi-fi, I get to spend time with my girls, walk in the mountains, and no one is making me do yoga.”

The yoga is, of course, optional. For Sev, who works with technology start-ups and spends much of his time on planes between London and New York, family holidays are precious. His wife Zoe, a foundation yoga course graduate is returning to the practice after her third child. “I saw this retreat and thought: I’m making that happen!” says Zoe. “Sev’s learning to play the piano, and once we found out there was one here, it tipped the balance.”

It’s a win-win, not least as our morning practice is accompanied by Sev’s own tuneful practice, his classical piano drifting into the yoga studio on the ever-present mountain breeze. With its Buddha-decked patios and tree-lined paths, terraced gardens and a vast view tumbling down to the burning blue Costa del Sol, Santillán’s setting alone provokes a yogic ‘ahhhh’. And those rusty practitioners, like me, who might be ripe for intimidation from pretzel-posing yoga braggarts, need fear nothing. Yoga teachers and foundation course graduates are present among our group, but the classes are accessible and the atmosphere without exclusivity or assumption, much aided by the sobering presence of the kids.

“I think it’s good not to separate yoga practice from life,” says Tara. “Not to make it something mysterious, to make touch and being in touch with the natural movement of your body more part of everyday life. Not something that goes on, necessarily, in a separate place or at a special time.” Family yoga sessions have the kids ‘help’ and ‘correct’ our positions — leaning onto our hands while we’re in a downward dog, for example, to deepen the posture. This light, contact yoga session aids stretches but also reverses the usual parent child role. “It brings humility,” says Tara. “So, we, as parents, aren’t always giving and children aren’t having to receive.”

Yoga here is led by families’ mixed abilities and needs, rather than ‘serious’ yoga tenets — but they subtly underpin everything. During our first family class, Tara has us arrange ourselves in a circle, laying down outside on the lawn, on our backs to make bee humming noises: an unselfconscious way to get an ‘om’ chant from a group of strangers who range in age from not-even-two, to 52. “And for the sausages in the room,” says Tara, smiling encouragingly at two of the younger kids who’ve wrapped themselves into the yoga mats, pink faces staring out like the filling in a sausage roll, “see if you can sizzle.” She manages to lead a surprisingly cohesive class; proof that you can herd cats — or at least little downward dogs.

Adults and children yoga lesson

Adults and children yoga lesson

The elephant god
But can you successfully ‘om’ with an 11-year-old in tow? My almost-teen daughter makes a near-perfect travel companion these days, but doing yoga with her? Untested territory. As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes. Both keen on dance and gymnastics, she and I enjoy the stretching and balancing together, but more than that, the experience of hanging out, upside down or otherwise, breathing, just being… well, it’s surprisingly moving at points. Each day, Tara teaches us lines from a Ganesh mantra, translating to wide-eyed kids about the elephant god who ‘shines with the brilliance of a billion suns’. By the week’s end, we’re singing in unison, and it’s uplifting, not awkward.

Tara’s evening class for adults is less moving — in so far as we don’t really move much at all by usual yoga standards. Tara gets us into ‘illegal’ yoga moves, positions with slack bellies, necks dropped, and has us stay put there. “All of you who are so well trained with yoga, gym and Pilates… you’re not going to believe this is allowed to happen,” she laughs, moving around ‘correcting’ us, for example, into a slack-backed sphinx, with sunken thorax that allows a stretch where it never otherwise happens. “You’re definitely not going to see this on the cover of a yoga magazine.”

Tara’s theory is that these ‘non-postures’ stop old habits kicking in; stop us making the same pre-movements. “There’s a pre-movement for everything,” she says. “There’s the ‘woah, I’m being chased by lions, run!’ primordial pre-movement but there’s also the ‘we have to go to Tescos’ pre-movement. They’re not bad or good; they’re a tensing, a readying for a learnt movement. We’re avoiding that.” We loll around on our backs, using the weight of our heads to propel us, just like babies do when they first learn basic locomotion, reaching and rolling. It’s stupefying, sedative and I nearly nod off several times (a complete revelation for this uneasy sleeper).

“All that technical practice of yoga — it’s the icing on the cake. It’s an adult, learnt thing,” says Tara. “It’s precious. Our bodies know what to do. My children taught me this. Watching them playing Lego, moving around the floor in squats, on all fours, reaching behind and around in a way that would seem awkward for adults. But these are instinctive movements. We just have to remember them.

Next morning my arms ache like I’ve been weightlifting, and I slept like a log. A practicing Rolfer (a physical therapy that works on realigning the body through the manipulation of fascia — myofascial connective tissue — rather than muscle or the skeletal structure), Tara’s sessions move the body into Rolfing-type positions that help the fascia reset. I’m fast developing a fascia-nation. There are quiet miracles going on. After 15 minutes in certain positions, some of us have a range of motion only countless regular sessions would produce.

By contrast, Nigel’s morning practice features more traditional, dynamic yoga: fast-flowing sun salutations and deep stretches aided by the incredible mountain-to-coast panorama through the studio’s glass walls. The perfect yogic balance. Midweek — kids bonded, adults relaxed, sated on the mainly veggie home-cooked food — we’re evangelical about having found family holiday nirvana. Yes, the price tag is on the hefty side. The costs of childcare, yoga, bed, board and school holiday airfares might suggest a five-star splash out, but yoga jetsetter types need not apply. This retreat is boho not butler-serviced. The cortijo’s rooms are rustic-comfy, meals follow a set menu, and the staff to guest ratio might worry some parents, but it works like a communal dream.

“Holidaying solo with two kids seems borderline insane but to try yoga too?” says Helena, travelling with her two toddlers (three and five, respectively). “But RoRo seemed a good solution. Meals are more limited than a hotel, which might be tricky for picky children, but a hotel won’t have this intimate family vibe; everyone together, but the chance to have time to yourself. I’d definitely do it again.”
Out of eight sets of parents, all eight are saying the same. By the end of the week, I’m relaxed and the daily-life panic button is set to a tentative ‘off’. Yes, the kids are alright. And so are we.

How to do it

A seven-day family yoga retreat at Centro Santillán includes full board, childcare and two or three daily yoga classes; flights and transfers are extra.

RoRo Retreats’ next scheduled family retreat will be 26 May to 2 June 2018 at Loveland Farm in Devon. Rates from £850 per adult and £700 per child for the week. This includes accommodation, yoga classes, food and childcare.

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)