Lying in shavasana on the floor of the yoga shala, a thatched rooftop studio atop an elegant colonial-style guesthouse, I watch coconut-laden palm trees turn to dark silhouettes as the sun sinks through a mauve sunset.
I’m in Kerala, a verdant sliver of a state in India’s deep south, practising yoga besides the soul-quenching blue of the Indian Ocean. The 10-day retreat, organised through the Brighton-based company Free Spirit, has taken me to the Palm Tree Hotel in Kovalam, a cluster of spacious, balconied houses, framed by tall, spindly palms above a sleepy yellow-sand cove. It’s the picture of serenity, and many hot, languid days on the beach drift into warm, languid nights in the lantern-lit local restaurants, punctuated only by vitalising morning and evening yoga classes.
Our teacher hails from Hove, Sussex, and while each retreat attracts various top-class yoga instructors, I can’t help but feel our group has lucked out with Jacqueline Wigglesworth. Morning classes are 90 minutes of vinyasa flow yoga, a dynamic series of exacting stretches, bends and balances that work not only muscles, Jackie explains, but also the channels and centres of energy, or prana, within the body.
Her classes are devised creatively around themes (non-violence, strengthening, the elements, to name a few) and include yogic philosophy, quotes from western thinkers and eastern gurus, and even the occasional fact. ‘Did you know that scientific research has found that the electromagnetic field of the heart is 5,000 times stronger than the brain?’ we are told as we attempt to radiate compassion from our heart centres.
Sundown sessions alternate between the modern discipline of restorative yoga, a series of easy, supported poses, held for several minutes to a backdrop of calming music, and yin yoga, an ancient practice that involves clearing the mind while holding demanding stretches. The sessions conclude with yoga nidra, a form of deep relaxation that encourages ‘yogic sleep’: lying on my mat, I try not to drift off as a transcript that encourages mindful visualisations is read out.
There’s something appropriate, holistic even, about studying a range of yogic exercises and teachings here, in India, where the philosophy was born over two millennia ago. I close my eyes and relax deeper into this final pose of the class. On the beach below waves are crashing and receding in rhythmic sets; the jubilant sounds of drumming and flutes float in on the breeze, soft and discordant, from a nearby temple. The air is fragrant with nag champa incense and smouldering white sage, believed, in many cultures, to dispel negative energies.
I can’t vouch for the white sage, but this certainly feels like pure bliss.
While sunbathing, trinket-shopping and lively encounters with gregarious locals in the retreat’s sun-drenched crescent of Keralan coast could entertain me for months, I know the wonders of the wider region await. Mr Halin, the friendly, industrious manager, offers to organise a local day trip — to drift through the edenic backwaters in a traditional, punted canoe; drive to the very tip of India to watch three oceans collide; or, perhaps, bathe elephants at a nearby sanctuary?
The next morning I find myself stepping into a lake as a towering elephant plops down on one ginormous, corrugated flank in the warm shallows. ‘Namaste’, I say to the bare-chested mahout, or elephant trainer, using the local greeting for the first time outside a yoga studio. It translates, literally, as ‘the light in me salutes the light in you’.
He wiggles his head and sets to work with a soft scrubbing brush. The elephant glances at me and splashes her trunk. It’s clearly time for her massage.
Image credits (in order): Deborah Curran, Amelia Duggan, Liz Lark
Best for: enthusiasts of all abilities
Yogi insider secrets: Pick up cheap yoga-wear and mats at the shopping arcade at Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam
Try this… Pair your yoga with Ayruvedic treatments to maximise the wellness benefits of the retreat. Somatheeram Ayurvedic Health Resort is a world famous centre on the seafront in the village of Chowara.
Best time to go: The temperate winter months of November to February offer low humidity and little rain, and temperatures that hover around 28C.
Top tip: Extend your stay in the region to take in the tea plantations of Munnar and a romantic houseboat trip on the backwaters of verdant Alleppey.
Details: Free Spirit Yoga offers 10-13 night retreats at Palm Tree Hotel, Kovalam Beach, from November to April. Prices start at £750, including breakfast and dinner, accommodation, airport transfers, 14 yoga classes. Flights booked separately.
For more information about Jacqueline’s classes, visit luminoustrails.com
Published in National Geographic Traveller – The Spa & Wellness Collection 2016