Retreat to Sri Lanka
Over the years, I've flipped through yoga lifestyle magazines from time to time, marveling at pictures of supple yoginis in seemingly impossible asanas (poses) amidst even more impossibly beautiful landscapes. Having dabbled in yoga for more than a decade, I value the benefits this discipline offers to my body and mind. But my practice has been a personal one, so outside of a few classes here and there, I've never done more than give it an hour or two of my day. I certainly never considered creating a holiday around it.
Discipline-focused retreats are a popular way for the spiritually-inclined to spend their vacations. Practitioners of everything from Ashtanga to Zen can find centers in exotic destinations around the world, with gurus and teachers of these practices making their living on the tour circuit.
While I travel to ‘exotic' destinations annually, it wasn't until my visit to Sri Lanka that I finally put the two together. Thanks to its natural beauty, amiable people and pristine landscapes, Sri Lanka offers an ideal location for a retreat out of ordinary life and into one's spiritual practice. Clearly, others have thought so too, and a number of centers have sprung up around the country, offering focused itineraries in different systems of yoga and meditation.
One place that stands out for its atmosphere and locational beauty is AshtangaLanka, along Sri Lanka's southern coast. With friendly people, a laid-back atmosphere, an unregimented program, and idyllic, undeveloped beaches, this is ideal retreat for yoga-lovers, or those who want to get ‘away from it all' among others with shared values like healthy living, self-reflection, personal discipline, and peace.
"I always wanted this to be an Ashtanga retreat," says Fred Lewis, owner and long-time Ashtanga practitioner. When he bought the property in 1998 it was a dilapidated holiday let which had been closed down. Retaining the name Rocky Point Bungalows, he made improvements and ran it as a resort. In 2004 he re-opened its doors as an Ashtanga retreat center.
The center offers Mysore Ashtanga (see sidebar for description) six days a week, five months a year, guided by one of its earliest western practitioners, Kathy Cooper. For ‘ashtangis', it doesn't get much better than this, but the thing is, you don't have to be an experienced yogini to stay here. Still, most guests are at least familiar with some form of yoga, and many more are committed to their daily practice.
I wasn't sure what to expect. After all, I was only a ‘dabbler' in the Ashtanga tradition. Would I be shunned by a cliquish community of ‘pros'? Would my form be so disastrous that I'd be assigned some rigorous, after-class homework - or worse, be ignored entirely? Nothing of the sort!
Jacob, one of the Center's staff, greeted me warmly and gave me a rundown of the daily schedule, which was very relaxed indeed. Yoga begins at 7:30am each morning but Saturdays, breakfast is at 9:30 followed by free time for the remainder of the day. Many guests devote that free time to swimming at one of the nearby beaches, snorkeling, kayaking, surfing or taking day trips to nearby towns or wildlife sanctuaries. Optional meditation sittings in the shala run for an hour before dinner each afternoon, and dinner is a group affair, with everyone sharing a fresh meal of Sri Lankan or Western cuisine (alternating daily).
After settling in my room, I wandered the garden grounds, meeting some of the other guests. There was no grilling of who I was, what my experience included, who I knew or even any insider jargon tossed about. Just friendly people welcoming me and striking up relaxed conversation. What was noticeably missing were dour attitudes, political debates, smoking, drinking or even any hint of ‘attitudes'. A "live and let live" mood prevailed here, and I quickly felt at home.
Kathy Cooper leads AshtangaLanka's practice. Lithe and naturally elegant, Kathy has been practicing in the Mysore tradition for 36 years, making her one of the system's early pioneers. In the Ashtanga community, she is well-known, but her warm, approachable personality remains unencumbered by any pretenses of status. I met her over dinner, sharing our meal at the long, communal table.
"What's amazing is that it's very pristine here in Sri Lanka," said Kathy, when I asked her to share her thoughts on Sri Lanka as a yoga destination. "People come for a month and find that they can have a natural retreat." She also pointed out that Sri Lanka offers a great environment for yoga in particular because the warm climate allows the body to naturally open up. "How many people," Kathy asked, "have the opportunity to do their practice, have a swim, then do nothing for a month?" Good question. How many indeed? I was beginning to understand what I've been missing.
"This is a happy, good energy place," she concluded, "and you meet really nice people." I did meet really nice people. Although many had been practicing for years and were ‘in' the Ashtanga scene, several of us were not. For my part, I felt totally welcomed from the moment I arrived.
Fred Lewis is happy with the results of his vision. "Swimming, the ocean and yoga are a great balance," he says, "and this is a wonderful place to retreat, celebrate, enjoy nature and simply be." I was happy with Fred's results too, and happy that I finally decided to bring my personal practice to this friendly center along one of Sri Lanka's wild and pristine shores.
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The Mysore System
The system was developed by K Pattabhi Jois, out of Mysore, India. In the Mysore style, people do their practice at their own pace, following a set series of asanas that do not change. During practice, the teacher moves around the room, assisting others and checking their form. At AshtangaLanka, Kathy leads a primary series each Friday and offers afternoon classes for beginners or others on request.
AshtangaLanka sits on a headland at Rocky Point, straddling two gorgeous and undeveloped beaches ideal for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and surfing. The Center can accommodate up to 30 people at a time, with rooms and private bungalows nestled amidst bountiful gardens. A large shala (yoga pavilion) sits at the top of the property while a small cove at the bottom offers immediate beach front access.
Prices for accommodations and daily yoga are very reasonable compared to equivalent retreats in Sri Lanka and include daily yoga, breakfast, dinner, tea, coffee, filtered water, fresh coconuts, wifi, kayaking and snorkeling equipment, meditation and occasional partner yoga classes.
The center operates from November through March each year but is available during the summer months for private group rentals that can be focused on yoga or any other common interest - including family reunions or girlfriend getaways.
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Published on 8/4/10