A homey health and wellness retreat run by a household name in the yoga world has me converted about the body-bending practice that others think is fluffy nonsense.
“Look at the sultana inside your bowl. Think of its journey to end up in front of you at this moment. Think of the energy it holds – the earth, the absorbed sunlight,” says Sanjay, slow and soothingly. “Close your eyes and rotate the sultana between your index finger and thumb for a minute.”
A whole minute? I discreetly open one eye to check if everyone is doing the same thing. They are.
“Place the sultana on the tip of your tongue – notice the ridges you felt with your fingers. Hold it there, now take one small bite. Can you taste the sweetness?” Oops. I’ve swallowed it whole.
We’re practising mindful eating.
I’m at Swami’s Yoga Retreat, a taste of an Indian ashram located an hour from Sydney. Swami Sarasvati is a household name in the yoga world. The now delicate yet refined elderly woman, usually dressed in beautiful sequinned saris, brought yoga to the West, appearing on a daily morning TV show throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with her pretzel poses.
Fast forward 45 years and here stands an active yoga retreat run by her endearingly welcoming son, Sanjay. With the help of young volunteers, the retreat conducts classes in yoga, drumming, stress management, massaging (or “the art of healing”) and vegetarian cooking. During the end of each year, it also holds Mantra Sounds Festival, a community-driven music and yoga festival with all proceeds donated to charities. A whole pursuit that perhaps one day Sanjay will also pass onto his 5-year-old daughter.
On 60 acres of Australian bushland, a village of chalky-white motel-style rooms encompass peaceful green spaces, where scattered Victorian chairs are curtained by draping leafy branches. Glorified by light from floor-to-ceiling windows, the large yoga and dining rooms boast overlapping exotic, colourful rugs with walls decorated with spiritual artwork. Wind chimes whistle through the outdoor pathways, while at dusk, garden lights romanticise Hindu ornaments. Rooms need a little tweaking where some doors hop instead of slide but the rawness brings this refuge to a lovely, humble existence.
I can’t shake the feeling that if I fully let go and welcome in “all the love the world has to offer”, I will return home as a certified hippie. Still, I like the idea of “exhaling negativity”.
A bell wakes us at 7:30am after a blissful sleep on fluffy pillows in a eucalyptus-scented room. For the rest of the day, we participate in a round-the-clock schedule: “affirmation walks” (repeating mantras while walking) through the bush, surprisingly breaking sweats through practicing not the prettiest of poses, workshops on de-stressing with nature, huddling in the country kitchen with its aged wood cabinets to learn how to cook while a volunteer (casually) plays a guitar, and learning a thing or two about something supposedly more intimate than sex: transferring energy through massaging – the result? Cloud ten. Otherwise, the jacuzzi and swimming pool are there with open arms.
The all-inclusive wholesome home-made vegetarian meals are almost a good enough sole reason to visit. For breakfast, we devour rice pudding, bircher museli and fresh fruit downed with cinnamon water and the most aromatic organic chai tea (made from scratch! – not the syrup kind cafes tend to serve). The goodness continues at lunch time with creamy pumpkin soup and a spoonful of tangy yoghurt, and hearty slabs of bread with a spiced chickpea and cashew nut mix. “Gluten-free” paper labels are cut into heart shapes by Richard, a young French volunteer who says he’s “got the heart of a poet and the hands of a builder.”
Perhaps I’m given the answer to the purpose of yoga when Swami sees me gobbling down steaming sweet potato broth for dinner. She taps me on the shoulder, turning around I see her wagging her finger at me with compassionate eyes. “Slowly, slowly,” she insists, running one hand from her throat to her belly. We’re living such fast-paced lives that we need to slow down and feel. Alternatively, it’s when our poised, white-haired instructor Sue describes the day she visited her 94-year-old aunty at a day care centre. Everyone on the left side of the room were getting hip replacements; everyone on the right were getting their knees done. “Yoga,” she unveils, “is much cheaper, my darlings.”
After dinner over buzzing melodies of sitars and drums, I think I’ve channelled my inner Eat, Pray, Love and am ready to really give meditating – “the most important session” – a go for the first time. We’re seated on pillows in a circle with malas (knotted beads) in our right hands. If your energy is low at the time of meditating, you may fall asleep; if your energy is high, you can become distracted, so the mala acts as an anchor and moves in rhythm with the breath and mantra. Our only source of light, a candle glimmers in the centre of the room.
“When people say, ‘I can’t live with myself,” begins Sanjay, “isn’t it funny that they’re talking about two different people? ‘I’. Can’t live with. ‘Myself’. We’re disconnected from our souls.” And yoga is about finding that connection. I finally understand the collective terms mind, body and soul.
Sanjay explains that traditionally, the essence of yoga is within its health and wellbeing benefits through mental practices. However, its introduction to the West saw it evolve into a physical thing, muddling the purpose of the practice and throwing the health industry into a passionate debate on whether yoga actually makes a difference. Whatever the facts, finding a balance between ‘working in’ (yoga) and ‘working out’ (e.g. the gym) makes sense.
“Aummm. Aummm,” we chant, rotating each bead with each “aum”. My mind wanders but I take it back to the chanting sounds, carrying myself into a hypnotic state. Reaching the end of my mala, I can’t help but feel I need to do this more often.
At Swami’s, mindful activities conducted by a charming team of instructors who shoot out pockets of life-affirming metaphors provide truths and reminders that anyone can relate to and benefit from. You leave the no-frills homey safe haven feeling enlivened and ready to tackle daily life again. With selective thinking, comes selective feeling. Namaste!
What are your thoughts on practising mindfulness through yoga? Write me a comment below.
This experience was independently paid for.
Gallery images kindly provided with thanks to Swami’s Yoga Retreat.
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The all-inclusive package starts from $249 single and $349 twin share/queen accommodation for one night.
Swami’s Yoga Retreat
183-185 Pitt Town Rd, Kenthurst NSW 2156