Creativity Blooms at a Writing/Yoga Retreat in Jamaica

Eileen balances in Tree Pose beneath the flowering trees at Bromley.

A late-March blizzard began to blanket Colorado in snow as I left Boulder for the airport. Luckily I was on my way to Jamaica for a weeklong creative writing and yoga retreat.

Goodbye brown, leafless trees; hello bougainvillea.

The retreat was led by two writers/yogis, Jacqueline Sheehan and Celia Jeffries and was organized by Patricia Perkins of Tropical Escapes.

Our headquarters for the week was Bromley, a historic cattle estate house in the hills about half-an-hour’s drive away from the beach and cruise-ship-port town of Ocho Rios.

Far away from that crowded scene, Bromley feels like a dignified matron from a bygone century. In fact, the stately 17th- and 18th-century house is built on the foundations of a 16-century Spanish stone fort, so she’s seen a lot of comings and goings since Europeans first came to Jamaica.

Even the name, Bromley, evokes the romance of a Victorian novel.

Bromley perches on a hilltop overlooking the village of Walkerswood, famous for its jerk seasoning, in St. Ann’s Parish, Jamaica.

Bromley’s high ceilings, open windows and deep verandahs are classic Caribbean architecture—designed to keep it cool in the hottest of weather. So brisk were the hilltop breezes that during evening writing sessions (held in the living room) we winter-grizzled Americans wrapped ourselves in shawls.

We held the group writing workshops in the living room, although many of us migrated to the porches to write.

Bromley has three gorgeous, sunny bedroom suites upstairs with old-fashioned four-poster beds. I opted for the less-expensive digs downstairs in the “Fort,” but I secretly coveted one of the upstairs accommodations.

My room was cute and cool (thanks to the thick, Spanish-era stone walls), but because the windows were primarily gun slits, it was a bit dark. My parched skin and sinuses loved their vacation from Colorado’s ultra-dry climate, but I have to admit that I prefer my bed sheets a little crisper than they were in the damp, ground-floor Fort.

Jamaica’s Countryside

Bromley is surrounded by lush gardens, and morning yoga was a treat held on a covered platform amid flowering boughs and bird song. Some of their squawks made even the most serious of yoga poses seem hilarious. One pair of birds called out with what sounded like a cross between Chip and Dale chipmunks and turkeys gobbling. It was a thrill, however, to spot iridescent doctorbirds (Jamaica’s national bird, also known as the swallow-tailed hummingbird) zipping among the blooms as we balanced in Tree Pose.

Pool with a view

Reading beside Bromley’s pool, which overlooks the verdant valleys of the Diablo Mountains, was popular during the retreat. If you got too hot, the refreshing water waited, and every time you looked up from your book, flowers or one of the owners’ dogs were there to greet you.

Papaya in Paradise

Grapefruit, watermelon and star apple started every colorful breakfast.

Each morning, fresh tropical fruits and steaming cups of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee greeted us for breakfast — followed by other delectables including omelettes with callaloo (a green vegetable like chard or spinach) and gluten-free cassava pancakes (cassava is a starchy root also called yuca or manioc). One morning our group was treated to a typical Jamaica breakfast of saltfish. I was glad I tasted the dish, but fish in the morning just isn’t for me.

Fish for lunch is a different matter entirely. One of my favorite dishes was a coconut-crusted fish with sweet potato fritters. Delish! We also enjoyed a lovely Run Down, a famous dish in Jamaica that involves cooking either meat, fish or vegetables in coconut, Scotch bonnet peppers, onions and other spices.

All this fare was home-cooked by served by a friendly, helpful Bromley staff. We definitely ate well and got a chance to sample Jamaica’s flavors.

Bromley’s formal dining room was the site of dinner every evening.

In between all the eating, the lounging, and cocktail hour at sunset — the retreat favorite was rum and Ting (a Jamaican grapefruit soda) — there was yoga and writing, of course. Collectively, we women created wildly-ranging tales about tribal shamans, 1950s-era Irish Catholic families, memoirs of past Jamaica visits, Saharan Blue Men, family funerals, the Kentucky Derby, and stories of love and healing and of joyful, resilient children.

The words we strung together and read aloud during our week at Bromley were surely nourished by the rains, encouraged by the Jamaica sun, fertilized by vines and ferns. We all came on the retreat for some R&R, some beach time and to exhale. We got so much creative inspiration in return.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and novelist

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Sandy contemplated the next chapter of her memoir while swaying in the hammock on one of Bromley’s verandahs.

How I Got Hooked on Writing/Yoga Retreats

I wrote from the hammock on my patio at Villa Sumaya retreat center in Guatemala.

A few weeks ago, I went on a trip that ranks high as one of my favorite types of travel: a weeklong creative writing and yoga retreat. (In my next post, I’ll relate the details of this recent getaway — in Jamaica! — hosted by Writing Journeys and Tropical Escapes. First I want to wax poetic about the wonders of writing retreats!)

Back in early 2001, I noticed a small classified ad for a creative writing / yoga retreat in the back of Yoga Journal. What could be more perfect? Here was an opportunity to combine my passion for travel with the relaxation of doing yoga and with the luxury of having time to write twice a day for an entire week.

At the time, I was frustrated because I hadn’t managed to wedge much “creative” writing into my schedule since I finished my master’s degree 11 years earlier. So I signed up with Patchwork Farms retreats and headed to a rural Mexican fishing village of Yelapa, near Puerto Vallarta.

Views of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, inspired our yoga practice and writing sessions.

Led by poet and writing teacher Patricia Lee Lewis and yoga teacher Charles MacInerney, that retreat gave me the opportunity to stretch both my muscles and creativity while staying in a palapa, an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter.

Pen in Hand

My first retreat also exposed me to the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method of writing, which practices the philosophy that every person is a writer and that every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn and develop craft. With this approach, writing is fun, and everyone — from beginner to professional — writes something profoundly moving or funny during the week.

Writing sessions (done twice a day) go like this: Our group (including the leaders) write together for a set amount of time (perhaps half an hour) and then read aloud what we’ve just written. Then the group responds — not critically but gently — by pointing out what they liked about what they heard and what parts from the writing stood out.

Our group worked on our Welsh suntans and enjoyed a picnic lunch while sightseeing in Pembrokeshire (summer, 2007).

According to the AWA, this practice “enables participants to expose aspects of their creative minds that may have been inaccessible, leading the writer to his or her truest voice, and fostering the power to use it.”

International Discoveries

I’ve become addicted to the destinations and the wonderful people who run and attend these yoga and writing getaways. Since my first Mexico experience (I’ve returned to Yelapa three times), I’ve attended similar retreats in Guatemala, Ireland, Wales, and now Jamaica. In the process, I’ve discovered magical places, including the St. Non’s Retreat Centre on Wales’ Pembrokeshire coast, Los Naranjos jungle retreat in Yelapa, and Villa Sumaya on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

St. Non’s Retreat Centre in Wales is a magical place to write and do yoga.

There’s plenty of free time on retreats, and the group always goes sightseeing. In Ireland, we hopped a boat to remote and mythical Tory Island, which still has its own king who greeted us on the dock and invited us for dancing and a pint at the local pub.

In Guatemala, we visited the Mayan town of Santiago de Atitlán to visit the fabulous weaving markets and to see Maximón, a cigar-smoking, scarf-adorned folk saint (a blend of a Mayan god and Catholic santo). And in Wales, we explored Neolithic dolmens and a sacred tree that bleeds.

The Territory Within

Perhaps even more important is the undiscovered territory I’ve explored within. Every morning of these retreats starts with yoga, taught for all levels so you can go as deeply or gently as you like. In this loose, relaxed state, I’ve often grabbed my notebook and let the sentences gush from my pen. Forty minutes later, the leader rings a bell to signal the end of this writing session, and I feel as if only moments have passed.

Over the years I’ve transformed from frustrated wannabe author to actually creating a novel. I’ve heard bits and pieces of other writers’ novels in the formative stages, and now, thanks to the work and environment of these AWA retreats, I actually believe myself to be a novelist.

Our group of yogis/writers sculpted and fired clay masks (Guatemala, 2008).

Whereas I first signed up to prod myself into writing fiction or poetry again, now I go to these retreats to work on scenes from my own novel. In fact, on my second retreat, I wrote a piece (right after a guided meditation) that turned out to be the seed for my novel.

This time in Jamaica I challenged myself to write some really emotionally draining passages from that novel — they were still tiring and hard work, but the environment sustained me.

The combination of yoga, good food and writing recharges my creative batteries. Creativity just seems to blossom where nature, art and movement intersect — and it can happen in any landscape: a beach, a jungle, a field of heather.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor and novelist

Morning yoga at Bromley Estate retreat center in Jamaica