Who goes to Goa, known for its sunny beaches and all-night parties, to spend time at a yoga retreat? Turns out, a lot of people do, including Friday’s Anand Raj OK who enjoyed sun salutations on the sand
By Anand Raj, Friday magazine
Published: 00:00 April 20, 2012
My wife couldn’t stop laughing. “You’ll leave me with a stitch in my side,” she said, pausing to catch her breath before guffawing again. “It even kind of rhymes – you’re doing yoga in Goa!”
“No, honestly it’s an official trip,” I said trying to explain it all over again. “The editor has asked me to go to Goa, India, along with a bunch of people from Fitness First Dubai – all yoga practitioners – stay at a yoga retreat and write about my experience.” It’s difficult to keep a straight face when your spouse not only doesn’t believe a word you say, but is rolling with laughter with every word you say.
“Yeah,” she said, “and now you are going to tell me that after reading that first piece you wrote about yoga, the editor felt you were just the person to go.”
“Well, actually that’s the truth,” I said.
She burst into laughter once again. “I’m sure you planned this with your pals and on your return you’ll tell me you spent your time doing the bow pose on the beach or balancing your chakras by the chalets.”
Actually, even I was more than a bit surprised to get the invitation simply because the first image that comes to mind when you mention the palm-fringed, beachy state of Goa isn’t exercise of any kind. The most extreme yoga pose I could imagine doing on the beaches of yoga was shavasana (lying like a dead man). But I wasn’t sure that would qualify as yoga at a proper retreat.
But when the editor suggested I visit Goa, a place more famous for its hippies than for yoga, who was I to say no? How intense could it be?
The first thing I did was call Craig who was coordinating the trip with the Fitness First team in Dubai. “Everything’s arranged,” he said. “You’ll meet Sara Bell, another coordinator for the trip, and the team at the Dubai airport on D-day.”
After checking in I began scanning the airport to see if I could spot anyone who looked like they might be heading to a yoga retreat, although I wasn’t sure what people heading to a yoga retreat would look like.
Would they be carrying very little luggage? Yogis have little need for material things, right? Would they look serene and peaceful? If they are already serene and peaceful, why are they going to a retreat? Would they be doing headstands in the lounge to de-stress? Questions, questions… Most people I saw in the terminal looked a bit worried as they scanned the flight departure screens, while some appeared to be in pain hauling their heavy luggage. A few women were teary eyed bidding their spouses goodbye.
Then I saw it. Tucked in the backpack of a woman who was sipping a hot drink – probably green tea – was a pink yoga mat. Next to her was another woman – also with a mat. And another… The yogis had arrived. And then it struck me: I hadn’t brought a yoga mat. How could you forget? I thought to myself. ‘Now they’ll think you don’t have even the basic common sense of a beginner yogi. I considered checking out the duty free shop for a yoga mat, but on second thought felt I’d seem silly looking for one there. After all, who buys yoga mats at duty free? Isn’t it where you stock up on big bags of sweets, chocolates and everything else that’s bad for you? No, I told myself. Part of the package also includes a detox programme.
I decided to forget about my mat and started reading my book, hoping to delay meeting the yogis. But then my mobile rang.
“Hi,” said the caller, “we’re at the airport.” It was Sara from Fitness First. “I am too,” I said. Then I walked over to the nearest woman on a phone carrying a yoga mat and introduced myself. “Nice to meet you,” she said, before turning to a woman sporting a warm smile next to her. “Meet Pee Wee, she’ll be conducting a few classes for us.” Pee Wee beamed and her smile reassured me that I would enjoy the experience.
But after I read the itinerary, I wasn’t so sure anymore. It said: “Day 1. 7-8 am. Shangkapratchalan (cleansing session).” 7am? Cleansing? Deciding to cross that particular bridge when I reached it, I leaned back in my seat and prepared to take off.
It was early morning when we landed in the tiny state that hugs the Western coast of southern India. The sight of the airport that still had Christmas decorations including styrofoam cutouts of red bells and a Santa offered a hint that time really does stand still in this beautiful place known for its unhurried pace of life, kilometres of beaches and moonlight parties on the sand. Either that, or someone had just forgotten to pack away the decorations this year.
Hopping into the car that was waiting for us, we hit the road and headed to Sushumna Yoga School and Studios (www.sushumna.in), a yoga retreat in Ashvem in northern Goa. The 50-minute trip from the airport cut through little villages and past busy market places teeming with people, many of them gathering around what my nose told me was the morning’s catch of fish.
Wow, I thought to myself, seafood! And then I remembered reading the brochure that said food at the resort would be vegetarian.
All the elements for relaxation
Spilling out of the car an hour later in front of the white-washed walls of the resort, I stretched my limbs and breathed in the warm, fresh air. “The air’s so pure,” said Ida, a lithe 30-something who was part of our group. The weather was a pleasant 24 degrees. Coconut palms were swaying lazily in the breeze and banana trees were growing wild. The grass looked inviting and I looked forward to walking barefoot on an early morning when the dew would still be glistening on it.
Greenery was everywhere and combined with the faint smell of the sea in the air, the place seemed to have everything you need to relax. I closed my eyes and breathed in the clean air deeply before I was rudely interrupted by a scooter whizzing past, emitting noxious fumes. Riding it was a guy with dread locks and a T-shirt saying ‘Keep the earth clean!’
A world away from home
Stepping in through the wooden doors of the resort was like entering a new world. Silent except for chirping birds, the place was pretty in a sparse way. No ostentatious architecture, no buildings fighting for attention.
Set on about half a hectare of land, the retreat has 12 cottages, two yoga centres, an ayurvedic massage centre, an open-air restaurant, a swimming pool and a small office.
“Welcome,” said Gitanjali Sahni, who, along with her partner Sonja Appel, operates Sushumna. Then they showed us to our cottages. Ours – I was sharing mine with Marcus Pepperel, a senior vice-president of a PR company in Dubai and a yoga enthusiast – was pretty bare, or what design guys might term ‘minimalist’. There were a couple of beds, a chair, a table and a wardrobe without a door. The bathroom was just as sparse, but luckily it had a door. There was no TV, no AC, no newspapers or magazines. For a moment I wondered whether I could survive without the TV, but the moment I stretched out on the bed I realised that I had all I really needed. And who’d want to spend time in a room when the beach is just three minutes down the road?
We arrived later than expected so we missed the cleansing session. I had been a bit worried about what that would entail, so I must admit, I wasn’t too disappointed.
“It’s time for yoga,” Marcus said. It was 9.30am and as much as I wanted to explore the place, I dragged myself off to the yoga studio. The entire team had already assembled there and everyone was stretching their limbs. I grabbed a mat and took a place at the back of the room.
Sonja Appel, our yoga guru, began the class with a short talk on the various asanas (positions), then showed us how to do them.
“We’ll practise vinyasa flow,” she said. For those who came in late, vinyasa, in simple terms means, breath-synchronised movement. It involves a series of postures where you move from one to the next in simple, fluid movements in tune with your inhalation and exhalation.
“Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing,” she said. But my attention promptly slipped from my lungs to my stomach as it started to rumble. The last meal I’d eaten was on the plane at some unearthly hour.
“Imagine your spine and breathe deeply,” she said, but I could only think of a nice fluffy omelette, a stack of toast, a large glass of fresh juice…
The series of sun salutations seemed endless and just when I began to tire, she called it quits and we finally headed to the restaurant.
The buffet table was set for us – home-baked wholemeal bread, butter, omelettes, muesli, oat porridge, fresh fruit, honey, lime juice and green tea – and it was all organic and fresh from the farm. The muesli was out of this world. With fresh milk and a dollop of wild honey it rivalled a brunch at any fancy restaurant. Back in the room after a relaxing shower, I found Marcus studying the schedule. “Hatha yoga at 11.30,” he said. “You’re coming, aren’t you?” he asked. I followed meekly.
This class was taught by a man named Ivan. Hatha is a slightly slower practice than usual. It involves holding postures for a relatively long period of time.
“How long have you been practising yoga?” I asked Esther, the woman next to me after our class was over. “Oh, for about five years,” she said. “I’m in college but I make time for it every day. I prefer yoga to mall crawling,” she said.
The sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid 30s and the pool was already busy.
I decided it was a perfect time to head to the beach then I heard Marcus call out to me. “In half an hour we have an experiential introduction to the chakras by Pee Wee,” he said, holding the schedule like it was his passport to peace. “Sure, I’ll be there,” I said hesitantly as I looked longingly at the road to the beach.
I had a plan. Just like in my college days I chose to sit in the very back, determined to make a quick and silent exit during the session in order to ‘do some research’ on the resort.
But the session, which was about the role of chakras – or energy centres – in maintaining good health was so engrossing that an hour and a half later, I was still in the studio listening.
“Yoga is truly amazing,” I told Pee Wee after the session was over. She just smiled calmly at me with a knowing look on her face. “The next session…,” before Marcus could continue I told him I wanted to rest. “Oh, I was going to say that I won’t be attending the next session either. I’m heading to the beach,” he said. I was booked in for a relaxing and rejuvenating massage and I was really looking forward to it. My therapist Arjun was all ready for me. “I have eight years experience in ayurvedic massage,” he said, as if to reassure me.
Once I was lying face down on the table, he spread herbal oils generously all over then began to knead, pummel, slap and press my body.
“Wait for an hour and then have a shower,” he suggested at the end of the 60-minute massage session. I’m not sure if I would say it was a relaxing experience, but I definitely felt rejuvenated – and hungry.
At lunch we had mint pulao, vegetable curry, salad and fresh fruit. Everything was so good we all helped ourselves to seconds – some of us even had thirds. Dessert was the chef’s special papaya delight – pureed papaya with chocolate shavings.
The second day began with a session by Sonja. “Let’s begin with some deep breathing techniques. We’ll start with the crow sound,” she said.
After we were seated in a comfortable pose, she suggested we open our mouth wide, stick our tongue out “and caw like a crow”. I was sure she was joking but everybody around me was doing it, so I joined in, and was it fun! I cawed for all I was worth, putting any pesky ravens to shame.
“Good”, said Sonja, “now let’s do the lion’s roar”. I was sure my eight-year-old nephew would have loved to be in my shoes – if I’d been wearing any. Imagine being told by an adult to make bird and animal noises, and loudly for as long as you want! We sat on our knees, threw our heads back, opened our mouths and roared. I must say, at the end of it I did feel better, though we scared the daylight out of the birds that were resting on a nearby tree.
The rest of the day and the next one were packed with yoga sessions by experts in the field. I must admit I didn’t participate in all of them. “I’m going to do some ‘research’ for an article on the beaches of Goa,” I told Marcus. I could hear him laughing as I closed the door.
The Ashvem beach was barely three minutes from the resort. Stretching for as far as the eye could see, it had just a scattering of tourists sun bathing or sipping drinks – ones with those pretty little umbrellas on them – in the shade of the beach shacks (Goan for rudimentary restaurants). The sand was clean and the water turquoise blue. In the distance were a few fishing boats making their way to the horizon.
I sat on the sand and contemplated life… It was so peaceful, beautiful and relaxing here in Goa that it was difficult not to consider giving up my life in Dubai and hitting the hippie trail, if there still was one.
Finding the hippie trail
Since we didn’t have any yoga classes at night we decided to head to the famous Anjuna Flea Market situated along Goa’s old hippie trail, which was very much still alive. The night market starts at around 8pm and winds up at 6am. It’s definitely a must-do for all visitors to the state.
Spread over an area as big as a football field were rows upon rows of little stalls selling just about everything – joss sticks, trinkets, silver jewellery, linen, garments, decorative wall pieces, candles… The only thing to keep in mind is to bargain hard. I was doing just that in front of a T-shirt stall.
I was hoping to spot Jade Jagger, Mick Jagger’s daughter, who reportedly shops here whenever she is in India. No luck on that front.
There were stalls selling all kinds of food and beverages while bands entertained the crowd with music.
It was early morning before we made our way back to the resort. Later in the day, we would be returning to Dubai.
But before we left, I was curious about the other yogis’ impressions of our trip.
“I learnt a lot about the various benefits of yoga, particularly the chakras,” said Denise Monce, a yoga practitioner at Fitness First in Dubai.
“I am planning to return for a course in hatha yoga,” said Sara.
“And what are your impressions of this place?” one of them asked me. I thought about it for a moment then said, “I never knew vegetables could taste so good.”
A full day at Sushumna Yoga School and Studios
7.00 – 8.00am Shangkapratchalan (cleansing)
8.15 – 9.15am Pranayama and meditation
9.30 – 11.00am Sushumna vinyasa flow
11.00am Breakfast then shower / break
11.30 – 1.00am Hatha yoga
1.00 -2.00pm Experiential introduction to the chakras
2.30 – 3.30pm Lunch
3.30 – 4.30pm Beach, sunbathe, massage, chill by the pool
4.30 – 5.30pm Restorative yoga
5.30 – 6.30pm Sunset flow yoga
7.00 – 8.00pm Dinner
9.00 – 9.30pm Guru yoga meditation