It’s said to boost wellbeing and reboot an all-but-lost libido (yes, really!). Intimacy-phobe Jane Alexander takes the plunge at a health retreat with a difference.
Humans need touch. We’re hard-wired to cuddle and caress. Yet our society has become critically low on skin-to-skin contact. As a 50-something who’s been separated from my husband for four years, I find myself clinging to my 20-year-old son when he’s home from uni and wishing the hairdresser would massage my scalp for just a tiny bit longer. It’s all about quenching that thirst for connection.
I’m not the only one feeling deprived. It’s been reported that we Brits are having way less sex than we did in 2001. Scientists blame our digital lives for the new celibacy: we’re so busy juggling devices and struggling with FOMO (fear of missing out) that we really are missing out.
But I can’t totally blame my smartphone for my atrophied sense of touch – intimacy has always been tough for me. It goes back to childhood. My mother had a whole raft of issues around sex (she’d suffered abuse) and, while she undoubtedly loved me, she also rejected me as a baby. Growing up, I learned not to show any hint of sexuality and I shied away from having boyfriends. It took a solid bout of therapy in my late 20s to get me into a relationship and another dose to get me down the aisle. Now that I’m separated, I can’t imagine having another intimate relationship.
Then, in one of those wonderful cases of serendipity, a friend suggested that I try Biodanza Aquatica, a form of intimate aquatic dance being touted as the cure for our touch deprivation. ‘It’s done in a group so that we can tap into our tribal instincts,’ she gushed. ‘And the dances reconnect to the embryonic period inside our mother’s uterus, so it can even heal traumatic experiences from that time.’ However crazy it sounds, that struck a chord. My mother had numerous miscarriages and abortions before she became pregnant with me. Could this really get to the root of my touch and trust issues?
As I stare out over the clouds, en route to Malaga in southern Spain, I feel a little queasy (and it’s not because of the turbulence). Google Biodanza Aquatica and you’ll find pictures of people snuggling up to one another in swimming pools. Chlorine cuddles and circle fondling with a bunch of strangers? I’m starting to wonder if this is such a good idea.
Armonia Alpujarra, set deep in olive groves, is a charming finca with a distinctly 1970s vibe. Long-married couple Yair and Ziza Sagy have been running retreats here for 13 years, although they’ve only recently started offering Biodanza Aquatica. I’m sharing a yurt with Nadia and Lallie – huge-hearted women half my age who are both in relationships but are keen to explore their own sensuality. All in all, we number seven – six women and one man (no surprises there: women always outnumber men on retreats; maybe we’re just more open to being frank about our issues). Three of us are single, the others are in relationships (though unaccompanied by partners). Our ages span late 20s to 60s; our work ranges from teaching to acting. We’re an unlikely group of sensuality-seekers.
As we get stuck into supper, Yair explains Biodanza: ‘It’s the chance to experience love – to feel the body as a source of pleasure rather than pain; to experience enhanced sensitivity and sensuality; to discover the blessings of human contact and caress.’ Gulp.
The next morning we start small with some gentle yoga on a deck overlooking the hills. ‘How about we move it into the pool?’ says Yair. Most of the women are wearing bikinis but I’m in a chaste one-piece with a T-shirt on top. Yair and the one guy in our session are wearing baggy swimming trunks – I say a silent prayer of thanks that there are no skintight Speedos on display.
And, who knew? Yoga in a warm-as-a-bath swimming pool is delicious. As the session comes to an end we lie back, letting the water support us with the help of flotation noodles, and enjoy a watery yoga nidra (deep relaxation with guided meditation). We climb out of the pool and wobble around like drunken bumble bees. ‘It feels like being in an altered state,’ says Nadia. ‘Totally trippy,’ agrees Lallie. It’s all I can do to flop into a hammock and stare boss-eyed at the cobalt sky.
Yair explains that spending time in blood-temperature water powers up the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that acts like brakes, slowing us down when no danger is present. It produces a relaxed feeling, decreasing anxiety, reducing blood pressure and allowing the body to rest and repair. Most of us are running on the sympathetic nervous system – the accelerator that revs us up, preparing us for fight or flight. It’s why we’re so stressed and anxious. ‘On average around 60 per cent of the body is water, with our brains and hearts composed of 73 per cent,’ says Yair. ‘So relaxing in water takes us back to our natural state. It’s no wonder we feel blissed out.’
After siesta we gather on the yoga deck, joined by some of Yair and Ziza’s neighbours. It seems that popping round for a bit of Biodanza is the local equivalent of dropping over for a barbecue. First up, we all join hands and sway around in a big circle. ‘Make eye contact,’ Yair instructs. ‘Gaze from your heart, not from your eyes.’ I try but I can’t get past the thought that we look like a crazed cult doing country dancing. We separate off and dance in pairs, still eye-gazing, still smiling. I’m feeling awkward so when the call comes to strip down to swimwear for the pool, I’m actually grateful.
In the water, all our movements slow down. Our group becomes an aquatic kaleidoscope – sometimes we all come together, sometimes we splinter off into smaller circles; we shimmy off into couples, we switch, we move alone. We partner up and take it in turns to cradle the other person in the water. My mind says it’s weird but my body loves being swirled gently around. Then we swap and my partner, a burly guy, lets me take his weight. I start to panic. Despite the buoyancy of the water, he’s a big chap. What if I drop him? I start circling faster and faster, somehow hoping the momentum will keep him afloat, until his feet are creating a serious wake. I’m feeling quite proud of myself until I catch sight of Ziza at the other end of the pool, frantically gesturing to me to slow down.
Although Biodanza seems a bit bonkers, it has been designed with exquisite care. The playlist of music and exercises is precisely calibrated to positively affect our hormone and immune systems, to reduce muscle tension and to take participants into a state of trance akin to that of a baby in the womb.
I go into the pool for our second session with low expectations. How naive is it to imagine I can switch on my intimacy button just like that? Yet, strangely, something shifts. We’re instructed to form conga-like lines, arms wrapped around each other’s waists. The person in front leads and the rest of us are told to relax; to let go and trust where we’re being taken. My mind starts going into its usual critical rant – you’re too fat, too tall, too clumsy – then somehow the gentle swoosh of the water takes over and I relax. My head sinks on to the shoulder of the person in front and I let myself be gently floated around the pool. It feels heavenly. We move on to another exercise, a kind of slow-moving Twister, letting go of one hand and reaching out to find another. It’s all very free-form and, at first, there’s a fear that if you let go of someone you’ll end up floating around on your own. ‘It’s all about trust,’ says Yair. ‘It teaches that you can let go and someone will always be there for you.’
Skin brushes skin as we wind and unwind like seaweed, wafting in and out of the central knot of bodies. I lose track of who I’m touching and who’s touching me. Am I really enjoying it? The answer is a firm yes. Nobody is deliberately fondling me and it all feels natural – sensual, sexual even, yet strangely safe. In that moment I realise just how scared I have been of life, how much I hold back, how little I dare – and how beautiful it can be to let go and trust. The session passes in a blur of bliss.
Back on dry land with my critical hat back on, I wonder: do people use Biodanza as a fast route to fondling, a chance for a group grope? Can it be abused? ‘We are all sexual beings – it’s just that here in Biodanza we acknowledge it,’ says Yair. ‘Sexuality is not intercourse. This is intimate but at a different level. It’s very beautiful to get so close and feel safe.’ I can’t help but agree. As a group, we’re much more at ease with each other but there’s nothing flirtatious or predatory about it.
Yair says that people shift after just one weekend. The exercises work on so many levels – teaching trust, helping to establish boundaries, encouraging greater ease in the body and mind. ‘It can change how you touch, how you react to your job, your relationships, your home.’
Leaving Armonia Alpujarra is hard. I’ve only been here three nights but my heart has been cracked open. As I hug everyone goodbye I feel myself sink into them, rather than holding myself stiffly away. On my return, I am surprised to find that I do feel different. It’s subtle, but I’m less inhibited, less intimidated by people and situations. I go to a networking event that I would usually have shunned like the plague – and chat to strangers. Have I bounced into a new sexual relationship? No. But I catch myself gently massaging my body after a bath and smile. It won’t happen overnight but I’m definitely feeling happier in my skin.
In the past decade there’s been a 49 per cent increase in people who report feeling lonely, and not just in later life. But one piece of research has a more positive message. University College London found that gentle stroking by a stranger reduced feelings of social exclusion. I think back to the bliss of the pool and wonder if maybe Biodanza really is on to something.
Armonia Alpujarra (healing-retreats-spain.com) offers weekend retreats introducing Biodanza Aquatica (around £430 for three nights, including full board and all classes). For land-based classes in the UK, see biodanzaassociation.uk.