Yoga retreats. What do you think of? A Paradise of relaxation & pampering? To me, that’s a spa holiday. But still, the usual response to where I was going was as if I’d just said I’m off to be waited on hand & foot, enjoy morning massages* and a week of doing very little.
*To be fair, at both yoga retreats I did have massages, some blissful, some a little more medicinal..
But what I think of, and what I wanted from a yoga retreat was something a little more challenging; especially mentally. I feel I don’t practice yoga that much, but I suppose that’s subjective, probably depending on how much you do or don’t do. I never thought I’d go on a yoga retreat, but when a friend in passing asked me when my next trip was and I realised I had nothing booked, the thought just popped into my head, ‘why not go on a yoga retreat?’ and that was it. I stayed up most of the night googling and reading reviews.
I chose Goa, because, I didn’t feel there was much else I wanted to see or do aside from some beach time after, and so I wouldn’t feel locked in, instead wanting to go and explore! Coincidently (I didn’t know at the time) the retreat was run by those trained at Sivananda Yoga Centres, one being where I did a beginners yoga course in Fulham 18 years ago! (Sivananda London). Perhaps not so coincidental as I loved the style of teaching, the warm surroundings and the importance placed on all the aspects of yoga.
I flew with my friend Lauren, though she was just gonna chill on the beach whilst I was at retreat. We landed at Mumbai airport with a 4 hour layover. Enough time to clear immigration and change terminals right? I mean I’d already gotten my visa in advance.. nope. Despite doing everything as quickly as possible we still missed our connecting flight. They just put us on the next plane & I tried to contact my pick up to let them know I wouldn’t be there.. but it was 4am…
Landing at Goa airport I picked up a taxi easily and headed to the Swan Yoga Retreat. I felt pretty fuzzy headed and nervous. I had no idea what I’d really signed up for, and if I’d enjoy it, but tried to reassure myself it was a yoga retreat and everyone would be super friendly and chill.
I arrived around breakfast time and after being checked in to my lovely little bungalow (I’d paid a bit extra not to share) by friendly staff I was feeling a little better. Heading down to get some food I was faced with unsmiling, unresponsive yogis and I thought ‘what have I done – 6 days of this?! and resigned myself to an intense, boring, fairly silent, self evaluating retreat.
The structure of each day was roughly:
6am: Meditation followed by some tea and fruit
7:30 – 9am: Asana class, followed by brunch (Asana – yoga poses/movement, physical part of yoga)
11:30am – 12:30pm: Yoga Philosophy or Yoga Nidra
4 – 5:30pm: Asana class
5:30pm: Tulsi Puja. Tulsi (Holy Basil) is a plant used widely in India, and the most important plant in Ayurveda medicine. Puja is a tantra practice in which you pray to mother tulsi for health & healing after offering fire, air & water (as below!) whilst reciting a mantra. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. It felt cleansing and there was a real sense of it being a communal offering and shared experience.
Dinner – All food was veggie (mostly vegan) & absolutely delicious.
After dinner was either free time, or on certain nights the Havan (fire ritual) or Trataka (candle gazing) – more later.
The two main yoga teachers were amazing, exactly the kind of practices I love. A mix of holding poses whilst focusing on Pranayamas (yoga breathing exercises) as well as more dynamic and challenging movements, interjected with restful poses to bring your heart rate down for a bit. There was one exception to this, the easiest way to describe him was a born again yogi. The fevor in which he lectured us on all he now knew, as if all was fact, and his hypocrisy was a tad irritating, though some of the other guests seemed to lap it up. Still, he had a good heart and am sure in time his rather shouty approach, especially annoying during Savasana will lessen. Sadly he took the Asana class the day Lauren came to join barking at us, ‘LEFT FOOT. RELAX. LEFT LEG. RELAX. LEFT KNEE RELAX’ after a throughly boring lecture, which took up half the class time…
One of the most incredible and interesting experiences I had there was during a yoga nidra class. Effectively these were guided meditations, done whilst lying comfortably flat on the floor. The first one was pleasant, and after initially finding it hard to calm my buzzing mind I settled into a relaxed state in which I felt zoned out yet still connected to his words. The second time though. Wow. The energy I could feel rising in the areas I focused on was so intense. I felt I would have been able to shoot fire from my hands, felt I would have been able to levitate (I didn’t, to my knowledge.) but what was most incredible was the time I lost all sense of my physical being. I was walking through rooms in my mind, visiting places I’d been before, exploring, them, guiding myself around rather than being in a passive dream state. Especially given how I hadn’t even touched a drop of alcohol for 6 months at this point I found it incredible the places your mind could reach and the physical sensations that went with it. It was so vivid when I came out of this state I felt energised, but also as if I had been on some intense spiritual journey.
Sitting meditation on the other hand, is hard. Anyone that has tried to meditate knows this. Firstly, for most people, sitting up with a straight back is hard. Then it becomes painful. Then it becomes impossible. So that’s the physical challenge, which for me was a lot harder than the mental one (though I only came to realise this at my second yoga retreat when the use of a meditation bench changed all this!) Stopping yourself from having any thoughts is pretty difficult, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wakes up, has about 20 seconds of peace before the bombardment starts. Of today’s plans, tonight’s plans, a to do list, a life list, a what shall I do with my life list and a few random paranoid thoughts to boot. To calm these at 6am whilst also trying to sit straight up and cross legged was quite a difficult, frustrating & even anger inducing challenge (‘why the fuck am I here!?’)
Physically I could feel and see these thoughts. Pulsations through my eyes brought changing colours and patterns under my eyelids. Now I use this as an easy way to recognise I’m not calm, when I may think I am! When the pulsations stop and the colours blend into one, I know I’m feeling true peace with a contented mind.
Morning beach meditation was amazing though. Of course, how could it not be…? 😉 In reality, I ‘cheated.’ The group was positioned near some rocks and I put myself at the back of the group, and leant against one much of the time, so could focus on the mental meditative state rather than trying not to ignore the physical pain I was in. Afterwards we had a little walk and breakfast on the beach, topped off with a swim; it was perfect morning.
A slightly less perfect morning was after a standard meditation class, where I hurried as usual to enjoy my reward of the cardamom-cinnamon tea and fresh fruit. A little shocked to see the empty tables I had it explained to me that because of the following cleansing practices (yogic kriya) there would be no drink or food this morning.
Before and during my retreat I received quite a few messages about how I must be having the most ‘amazing, relaxing time’ and what happened next was ultimately pretty unpleasant but gave me joy in now being able to respond and explain to those who thought I was on some blissed out pampering retreat that that wasn’t quite the case.
First up was the nose cleaning. It made me really nervous. I imagined it would feel like I was drowning. But, it was pretty simple and actually kind of fun. Pouring water in through one nostril and letting it flow through to, and out the other. The next cleansing exercise was to make ourselves sick. Yup. Downing pints of water and then making ourselves wretch. In front of each other, just out on the lawn.
And for the finale? Downing a pint of water and then doing some exercise. Then another pint, then more exercise. Exercise included star jumps, burpees, sprints.. Then after that, to go and sit and shit on the toilet for the next hour. Which we all did. Not wanting to give too much information or conjure up visuals (I guess it’s all pretty obvious anyway) I remember being sat laughing at myself that the first time I’d had an even remotely dodgy stomach since I’d given up drinking was due to being a yoga retreat.
Did I think it was a worthwhile cleanse? Would I do these things again? Nope. But it was fun in a really weird what the hell am I doing kinda way.
I really enjoyed the Havan (fire ceremony) but would have a little more if I wasn’t constantly trying to make myself more comfortable. Together we chanted mantras whilst throwing offerings (seeds?) into the flames. Same goes for the Trataka (candle gazing.) When I found myself in a comfortable (or vaguely bearable) position I got lost gazing at the flame, though failed at not blinking throughout… I tried, I tried.
Lauren & I joined the cooking class and learnt how to make some absolutely delicious vegetarian dishes, which inspired an Indian themed Mother’s Day lunch the following month. One morning we went to a local side of the road eatery and consumed some very fried, but very delicious foods and then with the spare time left I met Lauren at Anjuna Flea market for a few hours buying myself tea, spices & jewellery. Originally a hippy market and hangout spot, its placement just behind a beach meant we had a great view for lunch, and I had a dip in the sea. The only thing I felt missing from the retreat was a plunge pool by the Juice Bar on the Fake Beach… but I survived without…
I had a few great massages at Swan, but the ayurveda consultation was a total waste of money and time. The Doctor hardly listened to what I said, and wrote down things I didn’t say, and then gave his opinion based on his writings.. I’m not saying that ayurveda itself is a waste of time, but hopefully now they have a slightly more engaged practitioner..
Overall I loved the retreat. I found the program varied, interesting & challenging. I really enjoyed the yoga philosophy discussions (which really were discussions rather than just lectures as often is the case) and the owner was fantastic. The staff were all very warm, fun and friendly, and I was lucky after my initial encounter with the miserable teacher training yogis (that left that day) the group I was actually with were lovely. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I feel cleansed, better off, more spiritual? Or would I think it was all a pile of shit? I think I surprised myself by genuinely feeling that I had learnt a lot, and opened myself up a little more, let go a little more and smiled and laughed a lot. It was a pretty challenging time in my life and I honestly can say I gained a lot more from it than I could have expected, or hoped.
I spent the last few days in Goa living in a little pink hut on the beach hanging out with Lauren. Even managed to get her to a 7am yoga class down the beach. We decided against joining the hotel front ‘yoga’ class, which I think was in Russian? (see above!)
We enquired about things to do or see, but told, really, there wasn’t much, and not to bother going to Old Goa unless we had a real love of a specific type of Portuguese architecture. So the hours were spent walking along the beach, swimming, sunbathing, scrabbling & eating. And man the food was good! On the last night we went to the Arpora Saturday Night Market, via tuk tuk, which was actually really fun, and as well as selling much of the same stuff on different stalls, there were a lot of beautiful boutique shops as well. It was a perfect end to a pretty damn wonderful, and holiday.