How A Portuguese Surf And Yoga Retreat Saved Me From Burnout
“People often tell me that I’m the most chilled person they’ve ever met,” Gabriel tells me. “I think that’s a product of being here so long.”
By ‘here’, Gabriel is referring to a valley in the western Algarve of Portugal, Tipi Valley to be precise. He’s the duty manager of the sustainable eco retreat, and he does seem to be chilled as shit.
It’s a September night and I’m sat in shorts and a t-shirt, wrapped in a blanket for a little extra warmth, with the distant sound of breaking waves hitting my ears while we chat.
In London, it’s exciting when you squint hard enough to see just one of the solitary stars sitting above the blinking lights of an aeroplane overhead. Here, there’s a whole canopy of them above us that I can’t keep my eyes off as we talk.
As corny as it sounds, it’s a pretty breath-taking sight.
I’m not used to all of this; the silence, the nature, the relaxed atmosphere. I feel a sense of separation that is greater than the literal miles I am away from my normal life. Worlds away. Galaxies, even.
I didn’t realise how much I needed to be at Tipi Valley until I was actually here, and the same seems to go for the nine other guests on the retreat with me.
“I was quite stressed at work and I really needed a break,” one of them, Michelle, tells me.
I hear that! In the few months before I arrived in Portugal, I was pretty much running on anything that is emptier than emptiness itself…or maybe just adrenaline.
I had become relentless in my efforts to keep myself busy, driven by an underlying need to constantly be either achieving or doing something. I was trying to balance a demanding job with an active social life, alongside pursuing my therapeutic quest for self-development, hoping to attain my somewhat overly ambitious fitness goals, and trying to tick as many things as I could off my ‘Things I Should Have Achieved By Now’ list.
Put bluntly, I had a lot on my plate. But I didn't realise I was pelting full-throttle towards an unhealthy state of burnout.
Not until my line manager sat me down at work and wouldn’t let me leave until I had pinkie promised on taking two weeks of holiday. With that, I had a pretty terrifying realisation; I couldn’t remember the last time I truly switched off.
Suddenly things seemed to make sense: why my panic attacks had become a lot more frequent than normal, the recent return of forehead spots I thought I had escaped after puberty, the increased use of the snooze button every morning.
The longer I tried to maintain a semblance of somebody who had their shit together, the less I actually did. Maybe having a little break from London was exactly what I needed.
I started to research ‘holidays to restore your wellbeing’, to little avail. The idea of spending a week in a spa that has literally been designed for you to sit and do nothing was the opposite of what I had in mind. I wanted to be outdoors - to feel the heat of the sun beating down on me – and to spend a week doing something that would completely take my mind away from “normal” life.
Surfing. As soon as it popped into my head, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Research suggests that spending even just half an hour surfing can decrease negative effects on the human body. A Netflix documentary - Resurface – shows how surfing can even be used to treat mental health problems such as PTSD.
“I realized that surfing was the one thing that kept my life a little bit in tact,” Van Curaza, the founder of Operation Surf in California, says in the film. “It’s a huge surge of dopamine, a huge natural high.”
I was sold on the idea, and one flight, two buses and a train ride later, I was being picked up by Gabriel and driven to Tipi Valley.
I had been so caught up in the last minute-ness of organising my trip that I hadn’t given myself any time to imagine what it might be like.
I learned an important life lesson in that: expect less and you appreciate more.
I hadn’t painted a picture in my mind of what Tipi Valley might be like. All I really knew was that it was an eco surf and yoga retreat, invisible to passers by, lying hidden in an Algarve valley.
We arrived at around 6pm, just in time for the evening session of yoga (there is a morning and evening session, daily). I quickly dropped my bags into my tipi – unexpectedly decked out with a double bed, duvet and even a floor mat to wipe your shoes – changed into my exercise kit, and joined nine other strangers at the designated outdoor yoga area.
A French lady called Clotilde welcomed us and started leading the practice, but I was distracted. While I was supposed to be flowing into a downward dog, I suddenly became aware of the surrounding beauty.
The yoga area has a stunning view looking out to the giant tipi below, the communal dinner table and surrounding gardens, and all the way out to the ocean on the horizon. You can feel the warmth of the sun hitting your skin and hear the birds flying overhead as a gentle breeze hits the trees above you. It was a stark contrast to the stuffy, poorly-lit studios of London I was used to.
“Tipi Valley is a retreat in the truest sense of the word,” Stephanie tells me. She looks after the sales and marketing of Tipi Valley, and neighboring Surf Shanti. “A retreat is really a place where you’re not on your phone, you’re just in nature.”
I wrote recently about our addiction to technology; about how there are places where tech designers and neuroscientists work together with the intention of making our technology as addictive as possible. I was shocked, and slightly frustrated that I had fallen for it.
“The two main things here at Tipi Valley are silence and not being online,” Stephanie continues. “I think in this day and age, silence has become a luxury.”
There is no wifi at the retreat, there is not even any phone reception. When I discovered this on my first night, I felt the withdrawal symptoms that come from going cold turkey from any addiction; nervousness, apprehension, even fear.
But my week stay at Tipi Valley left me feeling like I had the last laugh, not the tech developers or neuroscientists.
The retreat has been designed for the guests not just to interact, but actually get to know each other. You do everything together, from surfing and sunbathing, to eating (all the meals at Tipi Valley are home-made using a range of the ingredients that grow on site), meditating and laughing over hot tea and chocolate in the evenings.
Oliver, from Denmark, told us about his decision to leave his home country and come to Portugal to study. Abbie, from England, opened up about feeling lost having graduated from university. From divorces to career changes, everybody had their own reason for being at Tipi Valley, and everyone was able to share their story.
“I feel like it’s been quite enriching, and it’s enabled a lot of us to find the value with talking with people about things that we care about. I never expected this to be the case,” Bianca from Romania tells me.
It was a little bit of proof that I think we could all do with remembering, that actually we can survive without our technology. What I found that was in the absence of technology and social media, humans are free to do what they do naturally: connect.
While the slick organisation and well-thought out plan of the retreat means that guests want for very little while they are at Tipi Valley, the majority of the days are actually spent away from the retreat.
After yoga and breakfast each morning, we were collected by our two friendly drivers and driven to whichever local beach we were to surf at that day. The retreat have forged a relationship with nearby Odeicexhe surf school, who have been operating in the Aljezur region for over a decade, and have surf knowledge coming out of their ears.
The mornings are designated for lessons, regardless of whether you’ve stood on a surfboard before or not. They run through the basics that worry any wannabe-surfer - from popping up to posture - and over the course of the week go into more specialist knowledge like how to read the sea and how to work with a rip.
The afternoons are at your leisure, with the more keen and energetic of the group often opting to head back into the water.
It didn't take me long to work out that surfers aren't just ripped for vanity reasons alone. It's hard work.
The waves in Aljezur can be pretty rough. You get pummeled constantly as you try to paddle out beyond the crashing waves, constantly rolling underneath your board as your arms begin to burn with fatigue under your wetsuit. It can feel relentless as you repetitively fail to catch a wave, emerge from the beneath the water and have to do the whole thing again.
But the feeling you get when you do, finally, catch the biggest wave of your life, is almost indescribable. There’s the surf teachers excitedly hurling instructions your way, your new friends cheering with joy for you, and that calming sense of achievement described by surfers around the world that I had desperately longed to experience on my trip.
“People who have a busy life need to take some time where they don’t think about anything,” Gabriel adds towards the end of our interview, and I’m inclined to agree.
For my week’s stay at Tipi Valley, I really hadn’t thought about anything much more than how I was going to stand up on the next wave. I hadn’t had a single panic attack, my anxiety was down, and ironically considering all the exercise, my energy levels were up.
To anyone who feels the need to have some life injected back into their lives, try surfing. Better still, try it at Tipi Valley. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed.