It’s 6.30am in Pondicherry, India, and my sweat tastes like insect repellent. Wiping my brow with a sarong, I contemplate which is the more yogic option: killing insistent mosquitoes with my hand, or lathering my legs with more super-strong insect repellent.
Suddenly, the overhead fans go on and I can focus on the sound of the nearby ocean, and more importantly, the instructions from Byron Yoga Centre founder John Ogilvie as he guides a flowing, early morning practice in the spacious beachside yoga shala.
“The next one is multiple choice,” proffers Ogilvie, before expertly leading almost 50 students safely through six options, ranging from a relaxing Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to—for those so inclined—Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). “Whichever option you take, yoga should always be performed joyfully,” Ogilvie adds, as he assists individuals with their choice. “That’s what I like to see,” he nods to one student who, post-Handstand, has flopped onto the floor laughing. “Rolling on the floor, full of joy.”
On India’s south-east coast, it’s easy to be joyful. We are tucked up three kilometres outside of the French colonial town of Pondicherry, which at only 220,000 people, is almost a village by Indian standards.
As the birthplace of yoga, India is a must-see for those interested in the roots of the practice. Opportunities to practise asana, meditation, pranayama and yoga philosophy abound. Dancing Shivas adorn café walls, and the “namaste” we so often hear at the end of our yoga classes is the greeting of choice throughout much of the country. Its chaotic nature, however, can pose a challenge for first-time visitors.
Having visited more countries than I can count, India is undisputedly the most frustrating of the lot. The simplest task can take hours. Travel between towns chugs along at 30 kilometres an hour, even in a (cheap as chips) private taxi. Personal space is nonexistent. Yet India’s appeal is so far beyond compelling, it’s actually life affirming. Somewhere amongst the noise, the heat and the persistent interest from locals in your every move, the country weaves its magic on visitors. You may leave vowing never to return, but India is likely to get under your skin in a way that six months later will leave you yearning for more.
Which explains why the perfect entree to yoga in India may be attending a western-run retreat. This one, at 14 days, is simultaneously tailored towards teacher trainees, graduate teachers and yogic holidaymakers like myself (known here as “retreaters”). With patience and what appears to be complete dedication, a 10-strong teaching faculty (led by Ogilvie) spend days and nights ensuring that our group of 48 not only learn what they’ve come here for, but also enjoy India in the process.
Byron Yoga Centre teaches Purna Yoga, a flowing practice where plenty of attention is paid to alignment, pranayama and meditation. Trainees and graduates have come for an intensive experience, and there’s no doubt that’s what they get. With classes and workshops on everything from asana to yoga philosophy between 6am and 9pm, they’re immersed in some serious yogic learning.
As a retreater, my world is far more relaxed. Nothing is mandatory, so I soon fall into a blissful daily rhythm, beginning with one of the stronger classes at 6am or 7.30am (or on the four days when Ogilvie is on the morning schedule, or I’m up for three and a half hours of yoga before breakfast, I do both).
Breakfast becomes my favourite time of the day. Our group is an international crowd, dominated by Australians, but includes English, Japanese and Canadians, and as many people are travelling alone, it quickly becomes a friendly one. Over fruit, porridge and chai, I join in chats that range from something that happened in class, through to post-retreat travel plans and other topical issues, like where to find the best crepes in Pondicherry, and which of the essential oils sold at the nearby Sri Aurobindo Ashram shop doubles as a natural insect repellent.
I seal more than one friendship over my regular trips into Pondicherry, a 20 minute-drive away by three-wheeled tuk-tuk. This town was badly hit in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, but it seems to have recovered well, with tourists back in strong numbers. There’s a bustling Tamil area, filled with tailors willing to custom-make salwar kameez, the traditional unisex shirt-and-pant outfit, as well as market stalls that sell everything from “om” T-shirts through to Krishna colouring books; and a French quarter features Western clothing at Indian prices. Of course, there are also temples, ashrams and plenty of India’s mandatory madness.
When it’s all too much I simply jump back into a tuk-tuk and escape to the retreat venue, Kailash Beach Hotel. With helpful staff and a blissfully serene location, it’s the perfect antidote to the intensity of India. Behind the hotel walls lie lush green grounds dotted with Hindu statues and a generous-size bedroom that allows me regular opportunities to recharge, while I decide what to do next. On occasion that’s a walk into the nearby fishing village, where students’ presence is welcomed with much enthusiasm. While the sound of the waves from the ocean is a comfort, the nearby beach is underwhelming with its litter and dark-coloured sand, so I favour the hotel’s quiet pool area for some pure relaxation.
As a retreater, I can do up to four yoga classes a day, which are all held in the beachside yoga shala (trainees and grads spend a lot of their time in another part of the resort). There’s also an evening talk and meditation. I commit to early mornings, but mostly, the heat and the spectacular swimming pool conspire so that I miss most of the 2.30pm classes, my third option for the day (taught by a rotation of graduates and trainees as part of their teacher-training program). Usually, I manage to dry off in time to become a regular at 4:30pm practice, a 90-minute class featuring different themes and teachers each day. I quickly get hooked on the diversity of my afternoon practice, which could be a chakra-balancing asanas, partner yoga session or a vinyasa practice with live music. Weeks later, I still remember my joy during a restorative practice–no matter how long I practise yoga, there’s nothing that makes me happier than an extended period of time lying about on a bolster.
While I find a middle path with the classes, I’m fully committed to taking up all options for exploring India beyond the retreat venue. Husband and wife Stephan and Bettina Kahlert from the Byron Yoga Centre faculty travel regularly to India, where they design an excursion program spanning from the sensual (shopping for essential oils at the above mentioned Sri Aurobindo Ashram) to the spiritual (an exhausting, but memorable daytrip to the sacred mountain, Arunachala). Both are serious yogis, not tour guides, but you’d never know. The two pull off an excursion program so fabulous it quickly becomes a highlight of my retreat experience.
Of course for some, the joy of doing a retreat means not needing to leave the retreat venue to focus on all aspects of yoga practice. While I love the balance of both worlds, I soon start to appreciate the diversity of what’s on offer behind the retreat’s walls. Each teacher’s style is different, but all include meditation, various pranayama and at least some chanting in their classes. They are also universally accepting—embracing the fact that everyone is different, and that the practice that’s right for some, will be wrong for others. Given that everyone’s energy levels wax and wane over the fortnight, it’s an approach I’m grateful for. My own collapse comes on about day four, after the excitement of arriving wears off. I spend a long time in a self-imposed Savasana (Corpse Pose) after adapting the postures to make them suit my energy levels. Most nights I fall asleep within minutes of my head hitting my pillow at about 8.30pm.
Haven-like as the resort is, some of the chaotic elements of India refused to be contained by a well-organised schedule and a serene location. Ayurvedic massage is included for all participants, but within days the word has spread that this Ayurvedic experience is unlike what most had hoped for. Having experienced the long sweeping strokes and oily dousing of Ayurveda on a previous Indian visit, I’m quietly confident I’ll enjoy the experience regardless; but after 45 minutes spent gripping the side of the wooden table to avoid sliding off, and a momentary dose of blindness when the massage oil drips down my face into my eyes–enjoyable isn’t the thought that crosses my mind. But it’s here that the magic happens: I leave relaxed. How, I wonder is this possible?
It’s a question that travellers to India eventually ask themselves. There are times when a visit to the birthplace of yoga feels hard, or tiring, but beneath that are moments of such sheer joy that I know that I’ll soon be yearning for more.
Byron Yoga Centre runs 14-day India retreats annually. The next retreat is held on November 6-19, 2011. Prices start from $1850, including twin-share accommodation at Kailash Beach Hotel, up to four yoga classes a day and all meals. Teacher training and graduate retreat programs also available. Visit www.byronyoga.com
Getting there Pondicherry is a three-hour drive from Chennai. Return flights to Chennai from Australian cities can be snared for as low as $600 return if you keep an eye out for deals (visit www.airasia.com or www.planmytrip.co.in). Flight options from all capital cities are listed on Byron Yoga Centre’s website. Free airport transfers are available if you book the recommended group flights. Visit www.byronyoga.com
This is an edited extract from a story first published in Australian Yoga Journal May/June 2011. Sue White is a Sydney-based freelance writer and long-time practitioner of hatha yoga. She stayed as a guest of Byron Yoga Centre. www.yogajournal.com.au