HR magazine tries… A personal resilience retreat

Jenny Roper tests getting away from it all for a weekend learning about the science of mindfulness

It’s 9pm on a Saturday night and I’m dancing round a bonfire with a group of people who were – until roughly 24 hours ago – total strangers. One of us is banging a drum as we shimmy and shuffle, some exuberantly, some slightly sheepishly, around the flames.

Just ten minutes ago our ritual had involved each triumphantly throwing a scrap of paper into the fire. And next on the agenda is standing behind a partner and placing our hands on their heads, then necks, then shoulders to offer supportive energy.

Is this the opening to ‘HR magazine tries… Joining a cult’? you might well ask. Happily no. In fact the bonfire is taking place amid the charming wooded grounds of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate, home to former monastery, royal residence and World War Two hospital Ashridge House, and to Hult Ashridge Executive Education business school.

Our Saturday night festivities – about as far away from my usual routine of sofa slouching with wine and Strictly as you could get – are all part of a new Personal Resilience Retreat weekend Ashridge has just launched, which I’ve been invited to try.

“We had to do four hours of fire safety training to be allowed to do this,” laughs retreat leader senior member of the leadership development faculty at Ashridge Sharon Olivier, offering insight into just how far a departure this ‘fire ceremony’ (a terrifyingly cryptic agenda item if ever there was one) is for Ashridge.

Cut to just over 24 hours previously, when the course started, and this is pretty apparent from the off. We all arrive at various points on Friday afternoon, having been encouraged to take the opportunity to ‘decompress’ for a few hours before the 6pm start. (The reason I need a weekend learning about the power of slowing down is immediately apparent, as I frantically rush to check in and unpack quickly enough to squeeze in a swim.)

Despite the fairly formal surrounds of the business school, we’re greeted as we enter our main room for the weekend with low lighting, the smell of incense and a circle of leaves and candles. The effect is instantly calming.

But there’s plenty of science and psychology to take in too, as Olivier, and her partner and adjunct professor at Ashridge Frederick Holscher, explain some of the key concepts and techniques behind positive psychology, mindfulness and resilience.

“It’s that ability to say ‘I can’t control what happens to me but I can control the inside,’” says Olivier, going on to dispel the myth that resilience is simply about “bouncing back”.

“For me bouncing back means you come back the same,” she says. “When you go through trying times you come back a different person. It’s more about finding your centre.”

She explains that the baseline for how we respond to stress is 50% genetically determined, with 40% about mindset, and 10% circumstances. “Unfortunately we blame circumstances most,” she says. “So: ‘If only I had a job, if only I had the ideal partner…’ Often the circumstance is not really the thing… but we blame everything on that.

“The work we are going to do this weekend is all in the area of that 40%,” she adds. “Yes that 50% is influential; but it’s about realising that doesn’t mean that’s you.”

“It’s like driving a car,” adds Holscher. “If you practice, it becomes second nature.”

So practice – or rather experiential learning – is the name of the game for much of the weekend. Indeed after dinner it’s straight into some Yoga Nidra, or ‘sleep yoga.’

“I’ll be interested to see what you think yoga actually is,” our yoga teacher for the weekend Soraya Allison smiles as I warn her before the session that I’m horribly inflexible, and that all yoga I’ve experienced to date has put me in mind of a series of SAS stress positions.

Certainly Yoga Nidra is nothing like any yoga I’ve ever done. We all lie on our mats in the now darkened room and cover ourselves with our coats to keep warm.

Allison takes us through a series of visualisation exercises designed to get us into “that delicious zone” between sleep and not sleep, advising anyone prone to dropping off to position their arm at a vertical right angle. (Nonetheless Holscher falls asleep nearly instantly. We joke the next day that his ‘sleep train’ - a cycle of two hours for most people dictating when they’ll be able to fall asleep – must be a very regular service.)

There’s a moment – when Allison says to imagine we’re just a recording device picking up the sounds of the room without judgement – where it almost works. But then the control freak in me panics and I come back to the room with a jolt. And I’m left increasingly anxious and angry at my inability to just chill out (what kind of weirdo can’t relax in a darkened room with incense and soothing music?)

Needless to say my sleep that night is not a good one. Allison instructs us to go back to our rooms without speaking to each other and get straight into bed, turning all electrical devices straight off. Wide awake, I go back and instantly start browsing Twitter. It seems I have much to learn.

Saturday morning starts bright and early with dynamic yoga at 7.45am. After breakfast we discuss becoming more self-aware of our ‘derailers' (or black widows), practising how to take a step back to allow time to reframe a stressful situation so we can “react rather than respond”.

Then it’s a guided mindful walk around the Ashridge woods (“Feel free to hug a tree, I certainly will be!” enthuses Holscher, before instructing us to walk for a while in silence to better connect with nature…) Then it’s one-to-one coaching, free time, some more yoga, dinner, and then the fire ceremony, where we all throw a piece of paper with the thing we’d most like to let go of written on it, into the flames.

Luckily we’ve all had a glass of wine at dinner (glancing around furtively like naughty schoolchildren when the waiter offers, wondering if this is really allowed by Olivier, Allison and Holscher…). So the mood around the fire is convivial.

And this really sums up the weekend: great opportunities to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and learn and practice different ways of approaching things. But all with a healthy dose of realism and good humour about what’s practical day to day. And not a meat, alcohol or caffeine ban (the question on everybody’s lips) in sight.

Sunday is an early yoga start again, and then a last session in which we practice breathing techniques (a ‘coffee’ technique to wake up, ‘tea’ to calm down in the day, and ‘water’ to get us sleepy at night). We also hook one of us (not me thank god) up to a heart rate monitor to practice deeper breathing to slow the pulse rate. Then it’s laughter therapy – in which we all visualise that the problem that has blown up in our minds is in our hands, and point at each other’s laughing.

I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself over the weekend. Specifically that just about within my comfort zone is dancing round a fire. But solidly outside of it is the laughter therapy exercise that involves slapping our thighs then waving our hands in the air while shouting: “Very good, very good, yeah!”

The breathing techniques for sleep I’m particularly keen to take forwards. And the weekend has reminded me of the importance of slowing down, particularly when tempted to respond angrily (which can compromise our immune system afterwards for an incredible six hours, Olivier informs us).

Am I now a fully fledged yogi? Perhaps not. And I’ll probably always have to suppress giggles when trying to execute “three deep oms”.

But I’m actually considering enrolling in a weekend yoga course. Something I never thought I would commit to print. So watch this (hopefully ever-more Zen) space…

To find out more about Personal Resilience Retreat weekends at Ashridge please visit:

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