One of the most powerful physical experiences I've ever had was doing a 90-minute yoga flow session with my eyes closed. As someone who's naturally visually oriented, it was a revelation to tune into pure sound, sensation and internal awareness. And because I needed all of my concentration to ensure I didn't fall over or crash into my neighbour, it also turned into an exercise in mindfulness, forcing me to completely cut the inner chatter that so often accompanies my yoga practice.
The lessons from this experience are something I now take into my work as both a yoga teacher and a writer. In my yoga classes, I encourage people to focus on the internal sensations of each pose, and to move in a way that feels good, while remaining within the bounds of safe alignment. And in my writing, I'm learning to spend longer connecting with the feeling behind the words before trying to articulate it.
In both cases, really feeling something from the inside out - and guiding others to do the same - allows a movement to arise from impulse rather than thought. It's an intuitive approach that puts me in touch with the innate intelligence of my body, and with the less rational parts of my mind. This gives me a far richer experience than when I am processing on a purely mental level. And it also helps me to understand at a deeper level what's truly good for my body, and to connect to my own unique sense of expression.
So I was interested when a friend recently introduced me to Circle Retreats, a new retreat company that combines yoga classes with art workshops. Founded by therapeutic arts specialists Gabriel Marshall and Krysia Howard, the company uses creative techniques aimed at helping people to tap into these same principles of inner awareness and intuitive expression.
"A lot of people are very scared of the word 'creativity' because they relate it to being talented at the arts," says Marshall. "Yet there's no correlation at all between being creative and being talented at life drawing. You can find a creative flow in life drawing, which is lovely, but a feeling of pressure and fear about having to get it right and create something 'good' actually takes you away from that creative flow."
Instead, the pair believe that the creative process is a powerful tool for self-discovery and wellbeing. "It's really about unlocking and expanding potential," says Howard. "We're interested in reconnecting the mind and body - which is so often completely off-balance."
This link between the mental and physical is what I find most fascinating about Marshall and Howard's approach. Daily yoga sessions are a fundamental part of their retreats, alongside somatically led art workshops. "Creativity and the body are so linked," explains Marshall. "When you're accessing your creativity, it opens up the right side of the brain, which is naturally linked to our feelings and sensations. And so when you're in a creative process you're using the same part of the brain which is linked to emotion, feeling, all those things which are so part of a yoga practice or a body-led practice."
One of their workshops involves asking people to draw in response to different sounds from nature - first while blindfolded, and then with eyes open. "When we did this recently, it was quite shocking for everyone to see how their critical brain inhibits them creatively when it clicks in," says Marshall. "Not one person preferred what they had drawn when they were able to see. It looked more literally like a raindrop, it had disconnected them to the feeling sense - they weren't feeling it, they were just drawing what they thought it should be. And that was so fascinating to see."
Other activities range from painting outlines of the body and then being given free rein to fill it in using numerous creative materials, to drawing with a finger on the back of a partner, who tries to recreate the drawing on paper. These simple yet powerful techniques are all designed to tap into a sense of somatic awareness and playfulness. This approach, say the pair, helps people to shift out of judgement and goal-oriented thinking, and instead to focus on the process itself with an attitude of curiosity.
The benefits are profound. "When both the mental and physical parts can feel nurtured simultaneously, that's when there's room for big transformation and healing," says Marshall. "And that's the gift of the creative process, to re-engage the wires, to share the processing between the left and right sides of the brain."
"It's all about enabling people to really feel," adds Howard. "Once you connect to your body and recognise how it reacts to certain things, then you can start to understand more what your needs are. This then translates into every part of your life."