I almost didn’t go to New Life Portugal. My friend asked me to come along. He works for them remotely and was booked to go there for a week in September. Even though I said ‘yes’ pretty much instantaneously and based on a gut feeling, I was very reluctant, to say the least. My body and heart were aching to stay in my cosy countryside flat, go mushroom foraging and watch the leaves turn colours. After years of living a nomadic life, travelling the world, and finally having found home in bonnie Scotland, I just didn’t feel like jumping on a plane. At least that was the story I told myself – and my friend when he tried to share his excitement with me and found me to be quite insufferable. With the wisdom of hindsight, though, there was a lot more to my reluctance than I could’ve admitted at the time. The truth is: I was full of fear – and got humbled in the most extraordinary ways.
“This is not who I want to be and how I want to live”
Back in 2015/2016, I spent nine months at New Life Thailand – after initially only booking a six weeks stint as a volunteer. It was a serendipitous and deeply transformative healing experience. I was in the early stages of what I call “the journey home to myself” – spoiler alert: it’s still ongoing. It’s been very much an inside job even though the journey started as an outside adventure.
After working in what I’d thought would be the job of my dreams for five years and becoming not only completely disillusioned with it but also standing at the brink of burnout more than once, I asked myself “Is this really what life is supposed to be about?” It wasn’t just the job, though. I was leading a life that was not in alignment with what I was yearning for deep inside. This yearning, this longing wasn’t specific yet but rather a vague sense of “This is not right. This doesn’t fit. It’s not sustainable. This is not who I want to be and how I want to live.” Shining through the deep cracks of my life was the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic father, a co-dependent mother who suffered from undiagnosed depressive episodes and a wider family that lived out some deeply dysfunctional and, at times, toxic patterns. Then there were the years of bullying – all the way from kindergarten up until tenth grade. I was only slowly becoming aware of how all of this affected my mental and physical health, how it impacted who I was and how I showed up for myself and in this world – or rather, how I didn’t. I felt stuck and was desperate to break free.
After taking every available shift at work, saving up for a year and selling most of my worldly belongings, I left my hometown Munich behind to take on the world. The only plan I had was to travel as lightly as possible for as long as possible and stay open to whatever experiences would come my way. My first host was Tim in Ireland. I helped him in his organic vegetable garden for room and board and we got to know each other’s life stories over some of the healthiest and yummiest meals I have had in my life. Two weeks into my stay, Tim mentioned this place called “New Life Thailand” and said rather mysteriously “I think, they’d be a great fit for you and you’d be a great fit for them.” I looked at the website, watched the main video on their homepage and something just clicked. I knew in my bones that Tim was right.
How New Life Thailand changed my life
When I arrived I felt like I’d entered a magical bubble that was somewhat rough around the edges, had a radiant core – the people from all around the world who dared to show up as the perfectly imperfect humans that we all are – and was full of wondrous offerings like meditation, yoga, different counselling and life coaching approaches, TRE (Trauma/Tension Release Exercises), EMDR, Enneagram, Inner Dance, Ecstatic Dance, Family Constellation, Buddhism retreats, … I tried all the different modalities – some got me way out of my comfort zone, some were eye-opening and mind-expanding and others just weren’t for me at all (mainly the dancing). I did some deep, deep healing work with different life coaches, integrated nuggets of wisdom from teachers of Eastern and Western philosophies as well as from my fellow New Lifers and added tools like breathing and mindfulness techniques, non-violent communication or how to set boundaries to my toolbox. Six months into my stay, I wrote a blog post about the “13 Things I learned at New Life”.
It was the community, though, that has had the biggest impact on my life and me as a person. Imagine an ever-changing bunch of diverse, beautiful human beings who shared from the heart and without any pretence about their pain and suffering, their struggles, dreams and hopes, who laughed and cried together, supported one another, cheered for one another, created art together and engaged in random acts of kindness. For the first time in my life, I understood that I am enough just the way I am. Not only do I not need to, but I also can’t prove or earn my worthiness as I already am inherently worthy of love and good enough. It is one thing to know that on an intellectual level and a completely different thing altogether to experience it in a safe container. The community was of such a nature that people formed the deepest bonds within weeks, sometimes even days. Don’t get me wrong: It wasn’t all love, peace and happiness. Some people annoyed me, some triggered me badly and some became friends for life. Today, some 6+ years later, four of my closest friends are former New Lifers. On top of all that, I also acquired skills and made connections there that landed me a handful of different jobs and contracts over the years.
Was I ready to face potential challenges and could I trust the team and community to hold space for me?
So, what was this fear all about? Why was I so reluctant to go to New Life Portugal for a week? When I heard about them opening a place in Portugal – and I am quite embarrassed to admit all of this – I very quickly formed some preconceptions. I read the website, looked at the new program and saw the prices. Somehow that was enough for me to assume that New Life had sold its soul and become little more than a glorified wellness resort. I took it even further by convincing myself that it would mainly attract people who were more interested in a spa experience rather than healing and transformation. What I doubted most of all was that New Life would be able to keep its core, its spirit, what made it truly special and unique – which is the community and the magic that happens when people dare to show up raw and vulnerable and real – alive in this new setting and with most clients only staying shorter periods of time.
This cynicism is very unusual for me. I am a deeply curious person, tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and generally approach life with a very open mind and an open heart. So, why on Earth would I be so closed off and judgemental? The best explanation I have is that if my worst fears about what had become of New Life were true, I rather didn’t want to experience it to protect the good memories I had created in Thailand. Assuming the worst and therefore not being too keen on going also kept me safe in another way: If New Life was at its core still the same it’d offer me plenty of opportunities to face myself – the good, the bad and the ugly. Knowing that I tend to dive into the deep end and struggle to pace myself in such an environment, I think, a good portion of my reluctance was fear of the intensity of what might come up. I felt that I was in a pretty good and stable place within myself and quite content with the life I’d built. Was I ready to have things shaken up again and face potential challenges? Were there inner demons I was unaware of or would the peace treaty I had made with most of the ones I knew of maybe not hold? And could I trust the team and the community there to support me through whatever layers of the onion would reveal themselves as wanting to be stripped back? In short: I was completely overthinking it.
How I got proven wrong on all accounts
It was a hell of a life lesson and deeply humbling to be proven wrong on all accounts within just half a day of my stay when I arrived at New Life Portugal. The centre is nestled into the mountains of the Serra De Estrela with some truly spectacular views over the valley. I instantly liked how the traditional stone quintas that house the private ensuite rooms are scattered across the land and form little clusters. I found myself sighing whenever I entered a new building for the first time and got to admire how the architecture integrates the serene and stunning surroundings – one of my favourite places being the yoga & meditation hall that left me feeling like I was floating on a cloud in the sky. The accommodation and facilities allow space to breathe, space to take in the millions of stars in a clear night sky, space to let yourself be soothed by the beauty, the vastness and the abundance of nature. The centre in Thailand was quirky and had a “rough and ready” vibe. It was in a state of becoming most of the time. Each building– apart from the guest rooms – was a bit different and I will forever miss the atmosphere of the forest hall. The centre in Portugal on the other hand has a high-quality feel to it as well as a certain level of luxury without being pretentious or over the top. I could see and feel the thought and attention to detail that had been put into creating this place – for example by installing about a good dozen benches and hammocks in various places to invite people to take it slowly wherever they are walking, to provide plenty of opportunities to rest and relax, to sit or lie down and take it all in or to just be.
New Life Portugal is marketed a wellness retreat and mindfulness centre. In regards to the wellness aspect, I really enjoyed the rain shower in my room, the heated, 24-metre-long salt-water swimming pool and the sauna the most. The latter quickly became my favourite spot to hang out. And I absolutely loved the food! The chefs make it easy to enjoy a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. There is meat and fish as well for those who are not vegetarian. My all-time favourites of the week were the sensationally yummy porridge at breakfast and the local cheese served with homemade chutney (available at every meal). Mindfulness has always been an integral part of New Life and it was beautiful to see that this is not only still reflected in the program but also around the grounds. It put the biggest smile on my face when I came across a wooden sign that said “Smile, breathe and go slowly” – a Thich Nhat Hanh quote. Just like in Thailand, there’s the option to sit at a silent table in the dining hall and laminated sheets at the buffet invite guests and staff alike to try various mindful eating techniques. The day still begins with morning meditation for those who want to get up early and breakfast is part of the community practising “noble silence” to allow everyone to enjoy one meal where they can be fully present with themselves and the food that will nourish them for the first half of the day.
“Day 1: The magic is still alive!”
This is the outer frame that holds New Life Portugal and my first impression couldn’t have been better. It’s not what this place is about, though, and if that was everything that was to it I would lament how shiny but empty it is – and it is anything but.
There was a little notebook waiting for me in my room when I arrived. After a cleansing first sweat session in the sauna where my friend and I connected with some fellow New Lifers and attending an evening workshop by Wellness Coordinator Tamas on “authentic conversations”, I wrote into it “Day 1: The magic is still alive!” My little heart was delighted to find that New Life hadn’t sold its soul – it was ever-evolving and ever-changing, but still the same at its core. New Life still attracts kind and genuine people who are courageous enough to put down their armour and show up real and raw. Everything is voluntary and everyone is encouraged to listen to their body and their needs and leave whatever they are participating in at any point if something becomes too overwhelming or if they simply feel tired and need to rest. Yet almost the whole community showed up after dinner to explore questions like “what is something you love about yourself?”, “how do you feel about death?”, “what was your last moment of sheer joy?”, “what do your personal rituals in your daily life look like?”, “what do you need to feel both secure and free in your life?”, … together and everyone stayed for the full two hours. We got split up into smaller groups throughout the workshop and I sat with three men from very different walks of life. They shared so openly and allowed themselves to be so deeply vulnerable that I was moved to tears within 15 minutes.
It was during a yoga workshop on the topic of “Who am I? An Intimate Journey to the SELF through the self” the following day that teacher Silver Kim-Videira explained, “Suffering is universal. Our suffering connects us and through our suffering, we perceive each other’s light.” To me, this is a major part of New Life’s alchemy: How we – through coming together, holding space for one another and courageously sharing our darkness – get to discover this light and become aware of the wisdom each of us carries within. There is such tremendous beauty in being each other’s mirrors for the light within and witnessing each other’s growth and healing that comes from being seen and heard and reminded of it. Many of the things Silver touched upon that day – wounded core beliefs, how our nervous system works, the power of the breath, intuition and the wise mind, and how to access our hearts and true self – I had come across before in some way, shape or form. And even though there were no big revelations or AHA moments for me, I found the workshop profoundly nurturing and nourishing and got stretched out of my comfort zone with the last exercise.
I got to know the human before I learned about their roles and/or titles
It was the morning meetings, though, that were the greatest testimony to the transformational healing work that is happening at New Life every day. There was not a day without heartfelt “thank yous” to the team and community. People shared deeply personal poems alongside stories of how they’d applied what they’d learned in a workshop or counselling session – like opening up about their feelings, speaking their truth or setting a boundary – and the profound impact that had had on their relationships with themselves as well as those with others within and outside the community. And they freely shared nuggets of wisdom and compliments with one another.
The fellow New Lifers I met in Portugal were as young as 23 years old and as old as in their late 60s. I was having the most fascinating conversations with people about life in general, grief, loss, trauma, our struggles, the love we carry within us or that we are still searching for, our hopes and dreams for three days before I realised I was speaking to the CEO of a multinational company. I got to know the human before I learned about the roles and/or titles they had taken on or achieved in their personal or professional lives – which I perceive as a great privilege. And every person that I met was familiar with that yearning deep inside that what Western society tries to sell us as the holy grail can’t be everything that life’s supposed to be about.
I found that even though or maybe because many people only book one- or two-week stays at New Life Portugal, they are all-in and fully committed to whatever healing modalities the program has to offer. Almost every “goodbye speech” during someone’s last morning meeting speaks about how much they got out of their stay. This is obviously down to each individual’s openness and how they are willing to show up but also greatly to the New Life team of highly-qualified counsellors, therapists and teachers. They ensure with great professionalism, sensitivity and humour that every workshop, session and activity offered is a safe space for people to explore themselves and go as deep as they feel comfortable without losing sight of the importance and healing power of laughter and play.
One of my most precious memories: Watching my friend overcome his fear and inspire others
My whole week at New Life Portugal was one massive gift with many big and small gifts and lessons hidden inside of it. Three of my favourite moments – and they are tough ones to choose – were:
- I fell back into some old people pleasing and perfectionist patterns after only three days and was becoming more and more anxious. One of the staff members, life coach Niki Parker, noticed my rising stress levels and offered an impromptu 15-minute session which helped me calm down considerably, get my feet firmly back on the ground and remember all the things I had learned along the way. I got to experience that New Life was still very much a safe container – even during a one-week stay – and the team members (across the board!) were not only extremely skilled but also very helpful and just genuinely caring.
- One evening, the interim yoga teacher Thalien offered an “ecstatic dance” workshop in the yoga & meditation hall. I had been coaxed and coerced many a time during my stay at New Life Thailand and afterwards to try various forms of dancing and I just always felt highly uncomfortable and super self-conscious. Dancing really didn’t do it for me – apart from one time in the privacy of my friend’s living room but those were special circumstances. He encouraged me to go to this workshop, though. “At least try it. You can always leave after 10 minutes if you don’t like it”, he said. We went together and even though I didn’t like every song I managed to lose myself in the dancing and thoroughly enjoyed moving my body to the music. In fact, I found it exhilarating that after years of feeling like a clumsy robot on the dance floor I was finally able to connect with my body and the music. That night, when my bare feet moved to the beat with ease and my eyes got drunk on the blinking lights of the stars in the sky and the lights down in the valley will forever be etched into my memory. It was a big moment for me that showed me how far I have come, how much I have grown and that I can finally let go of the limiting belief that I am just not meant for dancing.
- I met my friend at New Life many years ago. He’s come and left again many times. He usually sneaks out, doesn’t say goodbye – one of the reasons being that he used to suffer from crippling social anxiety. Speaking during a morning meeting was equivalent to a night terror for him. Yet this time was different. I got to witness him giving his first proper “goodbye speech” in front of the whole community and was moved deeply by his words, his honesty and his vulnerability but also just by him showing up to do it. I got to be present when he shed this old skin that he had outgrown and watched him inspire those in the circle that could relate wholeheartedly to the anxieties he spoke about.
New Life Portugal – same, same but different in a good way
To me, New Life Portugal is a safe and beautiful bubble that still holds this special “New Life” magic that fosters healing and transformation. This very subtle alchemy is a co-creation between a team of highly skilled and dedicated people and clients who trust their inner yearning and are willing to allow their hearts to be cracked wide open. There’s more structure to the program than in Thailand but also a lot more freedom in how people can access it as nothing is mandatory anymore. Interestingly, this in combination with the fact that most people can only stay for shorter periods of time seems to lead to more participation and less complacency. Eventually, the lessons learned and skills acquired here will need to stand the test of real life outside of the bubble. For me, New Life played a fundamental role in my journey of self-discovery and personal growth. This process of becoming and simultaneously unlearning is still ongoing – and there always seems to be another layer to it. It felt good to be back and find New Life Portugal to be “same, same but different” in a surprisingly good way.