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Jennifer O’Connell: I am scared of yoga. Could a two-day retreat change my mind?

I step on the teacher’s foot as she helps me with the downward dog, she’s gracious enough never to speak of it again

I’m not the most obvious candidate to review a yoga retreat. For one thing, I am scared of yoga. The idea of lying in a room full of strangers, trying to contort my unyielding form into positions I suspect were not designed for bodies over the age of three, fills me with stress. In truth, I have only tried it once, during a pregnancy. I bailed out directly after real birth stories section – somewhere around the words “third degree tear” — and decided I am just not one of those people.

But after a bruising couple of years culminating in an emotionally taxing summer, an invitation to review a two-day Harvest Yoga Retreat at Ballymaloe arrived. Maybe it was the timing, or the word “Ballymaloe”, a place associated with wholesome food, country air and a legendary dessert trolley. Whatever it was, a couple of weeks later, here I am: sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in the Ballymaloe Grainstore, surrounded by strangers and humming “om” without a trace of self-consciousness.

Most of our all-female group – not always the case, but it was on this retreat – are experienced at yoga. A couple of us (well, me) would struggle at Twister. But there is no pressure to try to keep up, as our warm, preternaturally kind yoga teacher Dearbhla Glynn constantly stresses that we should take it at our own pace.

A mindful walk follows midmorning, which proves a struggle for a talker and pathologically nosy person surrounded by potential new friends, but I power through

At some point during that first evening in the Grainstore, as I follow her invitation to stretch and open and twist my joints, I realise that I’m no longer silently compiling to do lists or scrolling through the endless list of worries about my children. It feels like a small miracle.


There’s something about the intensive nature of a retreat that makes it difficult not to surrender. “It sounds like a lot of yoga,” I think, when I read the programme that has been left in my beautiful, blessedly quiet room under the eaves. There’s yoga before breakfast, preceded by a sea swim at 6am for the brave (I draw the line at surrendering to this). A mindful walk follows midmorning, which proves a struggle for a talker and pathologically nosy person surrounded by potential new friends, but I power through. There is yoga involving breath work and relaxation before lunch. Afternoons are for rest or a trip to the cookery school with Bree Allen, who is a font of passion and knowledge about the history of Ballymaloe. There is yin and restorative yoga before dinner – all meals during my stay are around a big table in the main house – and yoga nidra before bed.

The bits in between are almost entirely dedicated to food. There is heaps of it

It is a lot of yoga, but by day two, I’m grateful for the complete immersion. Several poses are challenging, and my body is still uncooperative, but I wasn’t expecting to unlock “future yoga instructor” in two days. I step on Glynn’s foot as she tries to help me with the downward dog, and she’s gracious enough never to speak of it again. But it’s what happens in my mind that feels most profound. As I lie there, I feel myself cycling through emotions, sometimes sad, sometimes close to elated.

Every session ends with a 10-minute interval called savasana – or less lyrically, “corpse pose” – during which you lie on your back, palms turned upwards. I discover my gift: lying there, doing nothing. “Your only job now is to relax,” Glynn says soothingly, as she glides around the room and makes sure we are adequately supplied with bolsters and blankets – everything you need on the retreat apart from your own clothes is provided. Afterwards, I feel transformed and oddly lighter. Both nights I sink into a luxurious, undisturbed sleep.

The bits in between are almost entirely dedicated to food. There is heaps of it, and it is as delicious and nourishing as you’d expect, as is the chance to chat to the other retreat-goers. On Sunday we experience the famous carvery, created during Myrtle Allen’s time, so that she could enjoy at least one meal with her family. The dessert trolley does not disappoint. Breakfast comes from both a buffet and a menu – the poached eggs with tomato and red pepper fondue are exceptional – and lunch is light and wholesome, focused on soups, salads and risottos.

It turns out I am the perfect candidate for a yoga retreat, and Ballymaloe is the ideal venue – not as sunny as Marbella or Ibiza, but close enough for a quick getaway. There’s something special about the place. You can see why people come to do a cookery course and never leave. I feel a bit like that about yoga. The first thing I do when I get home is go online and book myself in for a block of eight of Glynn’s online classes. I am one of those people now.

Jennifer O’Connell was a guest of Ballymaloe. The next yoga retreat with Dearbhla Glynn takes place in the Grainstore from November 30th to December 2nd, from €600 pps, see

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times