Stilleben: We trialled the quiet holiday haven in Sweden
Destination: ÅMOT, SWEDEN
Standing in a dense forest with spruce and pine trees rocketing skywards and a bitingly cold breeze on my face, there’s the strangest sound all around me. It’s silence – something my London ears aren’t used to. There’s not a road for miles, the air is fresh and clean, and I can feel my mind empty and shoulders start to loosen and drop.
Sweden is a beautiful country, synonymous with outdoor living; more than two-thirds of the land is covered in forest, and lakes pepper the wild green landscape. Its happy inhabitants seem to have nailed the work/life balance predicament, with most Swedes owning cabins a short drive out of the metropolitan cities for weekend and summer escapes.
Just two hours north of Stockholm by train lies the tiny village of Åmot, with a population of just 300, which is home to the six-room eco-friendly Stilleben guest house, in a small converted school.
Over the six years since it launched, Stilleben has opened up a gloriously quiet area of central Sweden largely ignored by tourists and is slowly building a reputation as a haven for nature lovers and hikers, as well as those wanting to ski and skate in the winter, and explore lakes and streams for wild swimming in the summer months. But even more unusual, is the ‘week of silence’, combining yoga and meditation, which manager Jeroen Sleurs leads four times a year, attracting guests from all over Europe.
The day starts at 7am with our small group of eight gathering in the yoga room for half an hour of guided meditation as the sun rises. It’s followed by an hour of yin yoga with Yolanda Cats, who leads the group through a series of gentle movements stretching you from tip to toe, undoing those aches and pains that come from being permanently slumped at a desk.
To create a sense of community everyone is paired up and given a job to do in the morning after breakfast, usually some light cleaning or preparing that afternoon’s lunch. As a silent first-timer who would usually rush to fill any lull in conversation and having only meditated a handful of times, I had many worries, mainly that it would be lonely in my own silent bubble.
But I feel completely at ease alongside everyone else, falling into a comfortable routine together, occasionally laughing and gesturing at things, but perfectly happy in a companionable silence.
Each afternoon we head out for a walk in woodland populated with elk, wolves and bears, to clearings overlooking lakes or we snake our way uphill to a lookout where we fire up a small burner and prepare a Fika – the Swedish tradition of stopping to enjoy coffee and cake with friends.
The practice of ‘forest bathing’ – slow walks, while soaking in the sights and smells of our natural surroundings – has been gathering pace in Europe since its origins in Japan, with studies proving that being surrounded by nature reduces cortisol production, lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system.
The daily schedule is surprisingly busy, with an afternoon yoga session which ends with a swift walk down to the floating wood-fired sauna perched by the lake outside, before a brave roll in the snow to cool down or a plunge into the lake during the summer.
There’s meditation in the late afternoon at sunset and again in the evening followed by a workshop with Jeroen – the only time the group speak – where we discuss our experiences before crashing out at 9.30pm.
A LESSON LEARNED
I arrived at the retreat with no expectations, but with a niggling suspicion that the slow pace wouldn’t suit my active nature, or would give me too much time to stew on anxieties. But within a day my London march slowed down to a gentle amble, the To Do list I’d slyly compiled was forgotten.
You feel healthier after a week of feasting on dense rye bread, eggs, cheese, fruit and granola for breakfast, pots of warming vegetable stews for lunch, and simple soups for dinner, and with no distractions you eat mindfully – eating what you need rather than polishing off everything on your plate.
A strong focus of the week is on natural light and although it takes a while to adjust to the soft candle lights you use to navigate your way around after the sun sets, over time your body begins to wake up with the sun and slow down as it gets dark.
As the week ends, and I return to a busy life, I still fill any lulls in conversation. But I’m relaxed and fired up with ways I can make my life happier and healthier. And that really is a holiday well spent.
SLEDS AND TAILS
How about a dog sled ride – two people pulled by a team of five or six dogs makes for a breathtaking adventure.
The next silent retreat at Stilleben is planned for 1-7 October. Prices start at around £910 excluding travel. See Stilleben for more details.
FIND YOUR BALANCE
There are many good reasons to attend a silent retreat. Noise pollution has reached such a level that the World Health Organization has branded it a ‘modern plague’ linked to stress, high blood pressure and heart attacks, plus sleep disturbances and hearing problems. Each sudden loud noise causes a small spike in the stress hormone cortisol. No wonder so many of us are feeling drained. Stilleben manager Jeroen Sleurs says: ‘We’ve lost our connection with nature, and this deep relaxation and meditation allows us to regain our natural rhythm.’
FINDING SILENCE CLOSER TO HOME
Nr Newton Abbot, Devon
A variety of silent retreats in a former convent in the south Devon countryside. Prices
start at £122 for a weekend.
WESTERN CHAN FELLOWSHIP
England and Wales
Buddhist meditation retreats, mainly silent; open to all. Prices for four-day retreat start at £220.
Covent Garden, London
Courses and workshops for those looking to learn about meditation. Free, but donations welcome.