Scotland has thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of islands that the Calmac ferries can’t reach. Onboard the Emma Jane from Oban with Hebrides Cruises I set sail to explore some of these special places…and packed my yoga mat and an open mind.

Most of the trips run by Hebrides Cruises have a wildlife focus but I’m on a new trip that is a little different. Serenity at Sea combines the luxury of a small boat cruise with the opportunity to begin or develop a yoga and meditation practice, while visiting islands around the Sound of Mull.

Leaving Oban on the top deck of Emma Jane, a glass of champagne in hand, I already feel hugely lucky to be on board.

The Herald:

The Emma Jane sleeps up to 10 guests in compact but luxurious cabins with private bathrooms. She is designed for pleasure cruising: stabilisers limit the sea swell and every detail on board is impeccably designed. My favourite spot on the boat is up at the very top, hair flying, kittiwakes soaring and diving above me. Others prefer the hot tub.

Experienced skipper James Fairbairns is at the helm. He has spent his life on boats in these waters and knows where the calmest moorings are for a peaceful sleep or yoga on deck, and which islands are best to sail to in which exact weather conditions.

Fairbairns can also spot wildlife, or ‘beasties’ as he jokingly calls them, before they seem visible to anyone else.

The Herald:

Magnificent dolphins are our frequent companions, swimming up beside the boat then playing in the wash, jumping and diving.

On one memorable afternoon Fairbairns cuts the engine and calls everyone on deck, moments later a minke whale surfaces.

For a good 10 minutes we watch this magnificent creature, diving and surfacing, the sound of its spout easily audible over the gentle lap of waves.

En route to Ulva on the tender we spot a birds of prey. In the smaller nimble boat we follow the flight path and are rewarded by two majestic white tailed sea eagles flying over the boat.

Each of these wildlife encounters feels like a precious gift.

The Herald:

Our yoga instructors this week, Laura and Iain, trained in the Forrest yoga tradition: a relatively new and dynamic form, partially influenced by Native American traditions and ceremonies. Embedded in this practice is a deep respect for the land, which feels very appropriate for exploring the gorgeous Sound of Mull.

The pillars of Forrest yoga are breath, integrity, strength and spirit and these influence and deepen our daily practice. This week is a journey for the mind as well as the body, and with the landscape as a steady, occasionally challenging and frequently awe-inspiring companion.

One of the joys of a trip like this is the flexibility; the weather guides the navigation and the yoga practice. On a cold and blustery day we explore the island of Inchkenneth on foot, and return to the boat for an indoor yoga and meditation session. When the sun shines, we start early and head west to the Cairns of Coll. These uninhabited islands to the north of Coll are little havens of tranquility: white sand and turquoise water.

The Herald:

We arrive on shore to a circle of yoga mats arranged around a fire, and we’re lead through stretches, songs and a guided meditation.

After working up considerable heat on the mat, a quick swim is beautifully refreshing. The fire and tea and cake ready on the beach afterwards make it even nicer.

On Ulva it rains and after a walk around the coast we unfurl our mats in a forest under a thick canopy of leaves. The smell of the warm damp peaty earth and the soft rain is the best communion with the land I can imagine.

We arrive on Staffa long before the daily tour boats arrive, giving us time to really appreciate the mighty cliffs. We gather in Fingal’s cave and practise our yogic chanting, waves of sound soaring and filling the space, each voice adding resonance and the waves the bass notes, booming deep below us.

The Herald:

We then take our mats to the top of the cliffs, stretch, then settle into a silent meditation in the heather, the salty breeze and dipping seabirds the perfect sensory canvas for relaxation.

Towards the end of our week we sail to Gunna, a sandy paradise between Coll and Tiree.

As a group we know and trust each other now and we move into partner yoga, holding up each other’s wobbly handstands, and trying stretches and balances deepened by a partner’s weight.

We’re then led into an immersive sound bath meditation, with Laura using crystal singing bowls to deepen our meditation. On this retreat meditation practice is deeply personal and not prescriptive, allowing everyone to find their own meaning or just focus on their breath.

After the session we swim, and as we do a pair of seals get closer and closer, curious to see who is splashing around on their usually empty beach.

The Herald:

Coming ashore the crew appear, as if by magic, around the corner, carrying a table which is soon laden with hot tea, a freshly baked birthday cake for one of our group, and glasses of fizz. It’s hard to leave Gunna. It’s almost unbearably beautiful and ever so peaceful. The only sounds are birds and the gentle percussion of tiny cockle shells in the tide. 

During the week we are exceptionally well fed. This is not a wheatgrass smoothie kind of retreat and I couldn’t be happier about it. Our chef this week William Rocks is chef-patron of two rosette Tigh an Truish Inn. Daily we enjoy a cooked breakfast, hearty lunch, afternoon tea and delicious four course dinner with wine.

 Local produce is celebrated and skillfully prepared with west coast seafood a speciality. It’s a very good thing we all brought stretchy trousers. Rocks is aided by steward Sofia who transforms every meal with elaborate tablescapes and impeccable service, and also keeps the boat and our cabins shipshape.

On a yoga retreat you are encouraged to look deep within and listen to your body. To do so feels both vulnerable and brave. Throughout the week Laura and Iain, together with the other guests, created a very safe space for growth and reflection. The added distance from normal life that the water (and lack of internet) gave us, only deepened the experience and helped build trust within the group.

The Herald:

James Fairbairns and his skilled crew ensured we were safe, well fed and looked after, and always learning about the places and the wildlife around us.

During the closing ceremony there were tears and laughter, as a huge harvest moon rose over Ardnamurchan.

We end the week with bodies and minds strengthened, friendships forged, and a deep love and appreciation for this beautiful coastline and its waters.

Ailsa Sheldon was a guest of Hebrides Cruises. Hebrides Cruises sail from April to October from Oban offering a wide variety of west coast trips. Private charter trips are also available.