Yoga breaks: Getaways with gurus

If you think yoga postures can be demanding, the terminology can be just as mind-bending as the increasing number and types of yoga retreats out there. Take a deep, cleansing breath and a step towards enlightenment.

By Sam Lewis
Published 22 Jun 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:39 BST
Aqua yoga, Switzerland.

Aqua yoga, Switzerland.

Photograph by Sam Lewis

Let's be clear. I don't like chanting or incense, and I'm far from flexible. I'm too impatient to meditate, or frankly, even lie still for a few minutes with my eyes closed on a mat. But I would like a body like Gwyneth Paltrow and the inner calm of a Buddhist monk.

In all my travels, I've never set eyes on an unhealthy or stressed out yoga practitioner and I'm 100% sold on yoga's benefits — increased flexibility, muscle strength and tone, an inner peace and calmness, plus, its ability to lower blood pressure. And while I'm far from a hardcore yogi, yoga has taken me to many wonderful places. I've tried hatha on a rocky outcrop in Ibiza and yin in the Maldives on a beach, and I've reached the conclusion that I'm an ashtanga-bikram fan — which involves high-octane moves and leaves you exhausted in a heap of sweat.

Like many yogis, I believe I'm healthier and happier when I practise, though I'm baffled by the terminology, types and increasingly diverse retreats where you can strike a pose from dusk 'til dawn. Should I, for example, ditch the alcohol, go vegan and opt for the ultimate yogic holiday, spending a week or two dedicated to detoxing cleansing rituals in a far-flung mountaintop ashram? Or head for a hip and healthy hotel where you can (literally) dip in and out of yoga, combining sessions with such heart-pumping pursuits as surfing, paddleboarding, free diving and swimming?

Somewhere out there I know I'll find the perfect balance — a yoga holiday that ticks all my personal boxes — but it sometimes seems you have to have the patience of a monk to find the right one. So read on for our selection of the best bendy breaks worldwide.

Mountains & waves

Aqua yoga, Switzerland

A shaft of sunlight slants across the pool while ripples of water shatter the reflection of the snow-capped, pine-clad peaks of the Swiss mountains beyond. I exhale and almost hear my shoulders shudder a sigh of relief. The view itself encapsulates calmness and as I sink just slightly under the water's surface, I discover the ethereal sound of classical music emanating from the Grand Hotel Kronenhof's submerged speakers.

Just down the road in St Moritz, downhill skiers sporting Gucci and Prada insouciantly strike a pose on one of Europe's first yoga slopes, but I've chosen to stay here — in my old Speedos — to try asanas in water. I have visions of gurgling chants while simulating the moves of a synchronised swimmer, so I've come armed with goggles. Should I have packed a noseclip too?

Areti, my yoga guru, laughs and shakes her head. Tall and lithe, an athletic symbol of health and vitality, I'm told to swim a few laps to warm up, then stand 'rooted'. There's no mystical mumbo jumbo as she instructs me to focus on my breathing and the chakra beneath my belly button. The water keeps ebbing me off balance as she guides me through a series of standing asanas, but somehow I feel more graceful than I do on land. Plus, no one nearby can see how inflexible I am, although I spy a child watching inquisitively, eager to either dive bomb or join in.

Between asanas Areti makes me perform aqua gym exercises to strengthen and tone my muscles. Standing on a kickboard, I'm told to paddle from one end to the next, sprint on the spot, perform ballet-like moves and dangle from her arms to stretch and elongate my muscles and spine. It's not really 'zen-like', but Areti believes that for me, the most important thing to do is to stretch and relax
— and she's clearly a tad frustrated at my inability to do either.

My shoulders are too tight and the stress stems from my jaw, she scolds, prescribing Bach flower remedies, a dental check… and a stay at her retreat in Greece in the summer. A holistic therapist for over 10 years and a hatha yoga teacher for more than five, she often tells her land-based students to imagine they're performing asanas in a jar of honey or pool of water. "The resistance helps you move in a more relaxed, calm and flowing movement, while the water supports your body and increases the range of motion," she says.

At the end of the session I feel more relaxed and flexible, but I think I'm more suited to yoga on dry land — where you can breathe without getting a mouthful of water.

How to do it: Aqua yoga with Areti Chatzi from CHF80 (£55) for 30 minutes or CHF150 (£100) for an hour. The Grand Hotel Kronenhof also offers holistic winter retreats with Areti.

New retreat
Tri, Sri Lanka

Where: Overlooking Koggala, the island's largest natural lake, just a short drive from Galle on the south coast.
Type of yoga: Quantum.
Good for: All levels, including serious yogis looking for top-notch instruction in an intimate, luxurious setting.
Why go: Realign your chakras at this eco-retreat with stunning lake views, infinity pool and 11 spacious suites scattered on a hillside. Opened late last year by co-founder and quantum yoga pioneer, Lara Baumann, each guest is assigned an individual programme of yoga sessions, spa treatments, activities and diet plans. Visiting practitioners complete the experience, while quantum-trained yogi and ballet barre teacher Steve Agyei — a former personal trainer to Cherie Blair and Emma Bunton — will put you through your paces.
How to do it: Rooms from US$248 (£170) half board, double occupancy.

Glamping & adventure
Jivamukti Yoga Retreat, Mongolia

Where: Either the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in the East Gobi desert (experienced yogis only) or the Khan Khentii Wilderness, north of the capital, Ulaanbaatar (all levels).
Type of yoga: Jivamukti.
Good for: Yogis who are wild at heart (i.e. aren't put off by bucket showers and al fresco loos) and love a flow-style yoga.
Why go: If you like your retreat to be remote, this one's for you. Camp in a traditional ger (Mongolian yurt) in the wilderness and start every morning with a dynamic class surrounded by silence, space and big dramatic skies. Feast on delicious light, gluten- and sugar-free vegan meals, relax with hot stone massage or reflexology sessions and, during the day, explore the wilderness by foot, bike, camel, yak or horseback.
How to do it: From £1,595 per person for eight nights (sharing a yurt), including everything except international flights.

Traditional mountain retreat
Ananda, India

Where: Situated in a former palace in the serene foothills of the Himalayas, close to the sacred town of Rishikesh, the birthplace and self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world.
Type of yoga: Satyananda.
Good for: Holistic healing and spiritual seekers, but you don't have to be a yogi to go there — partners can hike or enjoy other outdoor activities, including white-water rafting.
Why go: A landmark among serious yogis, you can't get a more positive and inspiring location than this. In addition to the panoramic views, suites have plush four-poster beds, while the palatial villas come complete with private pools. The new Yogic Detox package uses the different hatha yogic cleansing techniques — including postures, pranayama (breathing), meditation and Ayurvedic diet and spa treatments — to cleanse and revitalise.
How to do it: Seven nights from £3,440 per person (£4,340 single occupancy), including full board, yoga programme, return flights and transfers.

Yoga & walking retreat

Where: A luxury villa, in the north-west of the island, 25 minutes from Ibiza Town.
Type of yoga: Vinyasa flow and/or yin.
Best for: Any yogi seeking Ibiza's most magical spots.
Why go: Expert yogi Kirsty Gallagher leads daily yoga sessions and guided meditations at some of Ibiza's most sacred spots. Discover hidden coves and crystal clear bays on two- to three-hour rustic walks. Laze around the villa and read a book, feast on fresh home-cooked food and witness the island's magical sunsets. Kirsty also runs female-only retreats for those that want to discover their inner goddess.
How to do it: Shared room with en suite bathroom £990 (single occupancy £1,750).


Ultimate luxury
Como Shambhala Estate, Bali

Where: On the banks of the Ayung river near Ubud, Bali's artistic centre, surrounded by tropical forest and rice fields.
Type of yoga: Ashtanga, among others.
Good for: Ultimate luxury for outdoors and arty types.
Why: Resident experts include an Ayurvedic doctor, a yoga/Pilates instructor and a nutritionist who will draw up a personal eating plan, but it's neither tough nor regimental and the raw food menu is delicious. Spend your days hiking or biking before heading to the spa for treatments including reflexology, Ayurveda and iridology. There's an outdoor gym and climbing wall, as well as a Pilates studio and yoga pavilion, but chances are you'll find it hard to leave your exquisite suite, beautifully decorated with Indonesian artefacts. Lounge by one of the infinity pools and if you fancy a freshly squeezed juice, just call your personal butler.
Cost: Doubles from US$850 (£609) double occupancy per night, including half board and one activity such as yoga.

Island escape
Four Seasons Resort, Maldives, Landaa Giraavaru, Maldives

Where: 30-45 minutes by seaplane from Malé International.
Type of yoga: Anti-gravity yoga — a hammock-like apparatus suspends you above ground to perfect your inverted postures.
Good for: Beginners. As aerial yoga can help decompress the spine, advocates say it's good for people with minor back issues or those not strong enough to hold more advanced poses.
Why: Christopher Harrison, a former gymnast and founder of Antigravity, trained the resort's resident yogis who teach from a pavilion set in a serene jungle clearing. The resort also has a yoga and fitness trail, with 15 stations scattered through the foliage dedicated to a certain yoga pose or exercise, focusing on balance, strength, flexibility or toning. Strike a 'tree pose' overlooking the lagoon, then head to the spa for an Ayurvedic treatment or go free-diving to spot wild mantas.
How to do it: Group anti-gravity yoga classes from US$80 (£57) for 75 minutes. Seven nights from £3,475 per person, half board, including flights.

Coastal countryside retreat
Santillan, Spain

Where: On a hillside with wonderful sea views, 12 miles from Malaga and 15 minutes from the beaches of Rincon.
Type of yoga: Yin and yang, ashtanga, vinyasa, hatha, nidra and meditation.
Good for: All abilities.
Why go: Set in an authentic Andalusian farmhouse surrounded by jacarandas, palms and pines, this 20-room boutique hotel offers twice-daily yoga classes. Teacher Simon Low developed the new yoga studio with a sprung floor and 24 rope stations designed to improve alignment. Guests can also relax in the extensive gardens, around the saltwater pool or head to one of the many nearby beaches or golf courses.
How to do it: One week's all-inclusive from £985 per person.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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