If only I were the sort of person who takes a break before they need it. But inevitably time passes and there’s a week’s holiday to use up. By this point I am exhausted and want to do little more than flop on a beach. However, in March this year, I found the perfect alternative: a yoga retreat.
As usual I had craved rest and rejuvenation but could neither justify spending a fortune on a luxury spa nor did I fancy punishing myself at a boot camp. I wanted gentle and uplifting. I had practised yoga in the same sort of way you go to church at Christmas and Easter – I’d been diligent enough over the years to know what to do without making a fool of myself.
So I booked a seven day yoga retreat in Santa Maria del Sole, a family-run yoga venue set in the Itria valley in Puglia, organised by Destination Yoga.
Photographs on the website clinched it for me. There was the bright white 16th century former farmhouse or masseria below blue skies with gauzy white curtains lifting in the breeze, a swimming pool surrounded by loungers, a tiny chapel with frescoes on the walls and scrubby grass which hinted at a dry summer. Even the yoga studio – a traditional stone hall – looked stunning.
Guest rooms were either in the main house or in one of the Puglian traditional conical-roofed trulli houses. The term ‘retreat’ can sound monastic and penurious, but the price tag of £895 should alert you to it being more luxurious albeit without the accessories of modern life. Sky news? Forget it. No TV and no radio. There was wifi but you pay for internet access so most guests take the opportunity to switch off completely.
Reassuringly, the company kept in contact in the week before departure, checking if I had any last minute questions, dietary requirements and my boarding pass.
The flight from London Stansted to Brindisi was two and a half hours and the transfer by car took nearly an hour. As road signs became fewer and fewer and olive groves more plentiful it was obvious we were going to be in a remote spot. Indeed, Martina Franca, the nearest town, where we visited one evening for dinner was twenty minutes away.
Our group of eleven included one mother and daughter and we were all shapes and sizes, ranging in age from early 30s to early 60s. There was not one yummy mummy amongst us – we were all professional women, (bar one young London-based Italian man) ranging from a finance director and lawyer, to an occupational and nutritional therapist. On arrival, we looked a pretty weary bunch but by the end of the week we had clearer eyes and were altogether livelier.
Santa Maria is home to hosts Salvatore and Guilia year round and it is their unobtrusive but generous hospitality which has ensured repeat guests.
My enormous room off the main house was sparsely furnished but with high ceilings and a walk-in wardrobe.
The rigorous yoga schedule was fairly typical of a retreat. Refreshments were provided at 7.30 in the morning followed by a two hour class and then breakfast. We were then free to do our own thing – get on a bike, go for a walk, read, or have massages which were given on site, until lunch at 1.30.
The second class of the day was at 5pm and again lasted for two hours before dinner at 7.30pm. Our daily ‘asana’ or practice was taught by London teacher Phillipa Gendall.
The retreat is for ‘all levels’ but this one was definitely not for beginners. While you work at your own pace it would have been impossible if unfamiliar with yoga terms. And a two hour class is a long time for intense physical focus and all the while listening to Phillipa who guides you gently through every posture.
Each class was a challenge but it was amazing to see how in so little time your body can adjust to new positions. For me the hip-openers really helped with flexibility which I lose sitting in an office chair and the chest and shoulder openers were wonderful for relieving tension. So some days you’d be stiff and creaky at the start of class and euphoric with energy at the end, although there was a definite dip in group morale and energy in the middle of the week.
That said, by the end of our course, improvement was obvious and many achieved shoulder stands, headstands and handstands. The great thing about our group dynamic was how encouraging we became of one another. When Clare managed a headstand we all applauded – it was something she had so wanted to do – and it was brilliant to see her chuffed to pieces.
All meals were served en famille at a long outdoor table overlooking the stunning rural landscape and adjacent to the farmhouse. In the kitchen each vegetarian meal was prepared from scratch with seasonal produce and vegans and food intolerances were catered for.
Espresso drinkers like me had to buy coffee pods, as otherwise it was herbal teas and instant coffee. Smoking was prohibited but alcohol not. In the evening, small jugs of red wine were on offer but if that ran dry we could buy our own.
The food at Santa Maria was a highlight of the trip because each meal was so thoughtfully presented. Perhaps our appreciation was enhanced by being ravenous after class but I’ll never forget the lemon risotto or the jewel coloured salads that woke up my palate jaded from eating in the office canteen day in day out.
Indeed, some guests took an afternoon cookery class to see how the fresh pasta and bread was made. Grazers beware though – I knew from my last retreat that I would have access to a fruit bowl and herbal teas but not to a biscuit tin whenever I fancied so packed (and tucked into) quite a few snacks.
I shunned a shopping trip and visit to Ostuni, a white-washed seaside town an hour away as I did not want to disrupt the tranquil spell of Santa Maria. I was content to read, nap or go for long walks in the 15 acre forest. The weather was Cornwall-like on a couple of days with the first rain seen in four months but the hot days made up for it.
What’s the difference with a beach break? With few distractions there is plenty of time to think, and reassess your life. Yoga tackles the unquiet mind as well as the desk bound body.
Did I think I could shift my saddle bags in a week? Never. But four hours hard work a day saw shot of them. Did I return home invigorated and stronger and ready to practise yoga weekly? Absolutely. Now I just have to stick to it…
Destination Yoga holidays cost from £895 per person including accommodation for seven nights, local transfers from recommended flights, all yoga classes and all meals. For further information visit www.destinationyoga.co.uk or call 0845 458 0723.