Reminiscing yoga retreats

I can’t decide which one I love more – yoga or travelling.

Combine them both and it’s absolute bliss – a yoga retreat! It has been close to an annual affair for me for some time. There is nothing quite like removing yourself from the daily grind, and fully immersing yourself in nature, yoga and general good vibes. 

Though travelling seems like a distant dream for the time being, I remain ever hopeful that the world will heal itself, and that the borders will open very soon.

In the meantime, here are some of my personal favourite destinations around the region, for your consideration when we can start flying again!

  1. Samahita Retreat (Koh Samui)

This is one of my personal favourites as they offer a full-year calendar of excellent yoga retreats, featuring many internationally renowned teachers. It was here that I attended my first full-fledged retreat under Chuck Miller and fell obsessively in love with Ashtanga! This is a full-board type of retreat so accommodation and all meals are included in the package. The rooms are modern, comfortable and well furnished, and I remember each meal being super wholesome and scrumptious! It is also a great place to network with and be inspired by fellow yoga aficionados as the majority of participants are pretty passionate about their yoga practice.

Having said that, a plus point about this retreat is that it also offers numerous non yoga-specific wellness programmes (such as the CoreCycle programme, which is more fitness-based), so this provides a bit more flexibility if you wish to travel with someone who is not that into yoga.

 

2. Yoga Barn (Ubud Bali)

This is more of a yoga school than a full-fledged retreat (though they do offer personalised yoga retreats) but I like it for the comprehensive selection of classes on offer each day, including very interesting ones like Ecstatic Dance in which participants engage in free-form dance to high energy music. Sound meditation and Kirtan are also scheduled. You can just stay at any of the dozens of accommodations located within walking distance away, buy a class pass, and attend all the classes you like! Great for anyone who prefers more flexibility in their schedules than following a strict daily routine.

I also love the cosy cafe that’s situated within the compound. Overlooking lush greenery and offering healthy vegan food, it is the perfect place to chill out after the class.

Speaking of delicious vegan food, Ubud has a really bustling restaurant scene,  offering vegan-friendly creative cuisines in gorgeous settings. I do hope all of them managed to stay open despite the current pandemic.

 

3. Tallala Retreat (Sri Lanka)

Situated on the south coast of Sri Lanka facing a beautiful stretch of beach, Tallala Retreat was definitely worth the slightly longer travelling time. It is set on quite a big space and offers a variety of accommodation options, from ‘glamping’ huts to the more luxurious villas, so it caters to different budgets. The vibe is very laid back here – almost everyone walked about barefooted the last time I was there!

I had only paid for my room, meals and daily yoga when I last stayed there. However, I see now that they offer more holistic yoga packages that also include excursions and cooking classes. Should be interesting!

I would also highly recommend exploring more of the southern coast before or after your retreat as Sri Lanka is such a beautiful and peaceful place.  I had checked out a few more beaches, did whale watching in Mirissa and stayed at the charming historical town of Galle.

 

And finally these are on my wish list (again keeping fingers crossed they will re-open / stay open)

  1. Desa Seni Bali

Love the eco village vibe of the place, and the schedule looks pretty comprehensive too.

2. Purple Valley Goa

For fellow Ashtanga fans

 

No textbook standard

My classmates and I are more than half-way through the Yoga Teacher Training course so the stress of having to absorb such a wide variety of topics while fulfilling all the assignments has certainly built up!

One of the most challenging aspects of the YTT assessment for me personally is the Teaching section, particularly the assessment on accuracy of instructional cues and adjustments for the respective poses.

As such, I have been obsessively researching this topic. While I did uncover some good references and inspirations, what struck me fundamentally is the mind-boggling volume and range of literature that has been created by the topic of yoga alignment. I can’t think of any other practice in the fitness world that has created so much discussion, debate and controversy over the topic of ‘proper alignment’.

What sets yoga apart is its deep historical lineage and variety of styles, each one with its specific set of methodology and techniques. The desire to adhere to tradition, coupled with the proliferation of social media worthy images today, have resulted in many teachers and practitioners trying to adhere to ‘textbook standards’ of performing an asana.

However every body is different, and what was taught as a standard could also evolve over time. What I’ve taken away from this is that yoga teaching cannot be perfected through sheer memorisation of rules and concepts, but rather, through on-going self-practice, experimentation and experience.

 

Walking Meditation with Pranayama

Following our theory session on Pranayama in the third weekend of our training course, I thought I could experiment with incorporating in my morning walks the key Pranayama techniques that Master Paalu had taught us. These were:

  • Gentle, regulated and extended breath
  • Using the standard ratio of 1:2 (inhalation:exhalation)

I started with the most basic ratio of 4 counts of inhalation to 8 counts of exhalation. Even then, it was not as easy as I had thought! I had to slow down my steps, and concentrate hard on coordinating each footstep with a breath count to achieve the desired regulated state. I must have looked pretty strange to passers-by in the first few days of my experiment. 

As the days passed, I grew more comfortable with the experience, and was able to lengthen the breath counts slightly, even fitting in breath retention in between. Personally, I still find the mindful walking practice described in my earlier blog which involves focusing on the surroundings more enjoyable. However, I do find this practice of “walking Pranayama” a lot more effective in helping to sharpen mental concentration.

Curious to find out if “walking Pranayama” is just my own somewhat unorthodox approach, I decided to do some research on this topic. I found out that walking meditation is indeed practised in several branches of the Buddhist tradition, typically in between periods of sitting meditation. 

When it comes to the Yoga tradition, Pranayama is certainly predominantly a seated practice. Nonetheless, there does exist a practice named Bhramana Pranayama (“going round” Pranayama) which is the practice of controlled breathing performed while walking. 

Some of the benefits of Bhramana Pranayama include improving stamina and endurance through fine-tuning the heart and lung, and releasing negative thought and energy. 

This practice could be a less intimidating entry-point for beginners to the Pranayama practice, or perhaps a nice occasional alternative to a seated Pranayama practice for more active people who find it challenging to stay focused while staying still. 

I can’t wait for the day when I can practise this without having to wear a face mask!

 

Walking Meditation

I’ve always loved walking in nature, but until this year, this has mainly been limited to holidays (which I used to take a lot of!) and very occasional weekends in Singapore.

When COVID struck and lockdown began early this year, I needed an outlet to release my pent up frustration and a remedy for my cabin fever. 

I turned to walking around my neighbourhood twice a day – first thing in the morning and in the evening. During the weekends, I would go for longer walks in different nature reserves, parks and park connectors. 

At the beginning, the main objective was simply to get out of the house and to ‘escape’ into nature. Quite quickly, I started to realise the calming effect that these daily rambles had on me. It was then that I thought that I might be able to harness more meditative effects of these walks by becoming a lot more mindful, and to really just focus on the ‘now’ as I moved. That is, instead of crowding my mind with all kinds of thoughts and plans, I started tuning my senses towards the details of the surroundings –  the patterns on the trunks and leaves of trees, the varied sounds made by different species of birds and insects, the feel of wind against my skin, the smell of nature, the rhythm of my gait. Whenever I got interrupted by a thought, I would try to let it pass as soon as possible and to refocus my attention on the immediate present.

6 months past my first mindful walking experiment, I definitely feel that my senses have grown a lot more acute. This has, in turn, made each walk more enjoyable and interesting because I frequently spot something new or chance upon unexpected beauty – a newly blossoming tree, an exotic bird, beautiful cloud formations – all of which immediately brightens up my day. 

The cultivation of a deeper level of mind and body connection through walking meditation has greatly benefited my yoga practice, as I have made the same transition from mechanic to embodied movement on the yoga mat. In the past, I had often found my thoughts wandering every now and then during a Mysore practice, especially when I practised alone and not in the studio. Now, I am able to maintain a steady mind and to stay fully concentrated on my breath, asana and drishti throughout the practice. Coupled with that comes the similar joy of constant discovery in every practice despite going through the same sequence.