As a long-time casual yoga practitioner it began to dawn on me that the odd class every couple of weeks was going to do nothing to help me touch my ever out-of-reach toes. I’d hit 30 and my body was just on it’s way downhill, was my depressing conclusion, unless I took some action. So I decided to do something I’d been vaguely thinking about for years - an intensive yoga retreat.
My yoga teacher at the studio I managed to get to when I had nothing better to do told me that Chiang Mai in northern Thailand was where to look for good hatha yoga retreats. A quick Google search lead me to Xhale Yoga in Pai. The quotation on the homepage - ‘there is no age for yoga, you can start at 70’ - reassured me that my flexibility-challenged body wouldn’t be too broken by the experience.
In a few weeks I was in a mini-bus winding through twisty roads through the hills from Chiang Mai to Pai. It was beautiful but I was trying too hard not to be carsick to take it all in. The bus deposited me in the heart of Pai (pronounced ‘bye’ by the locals), a hippy town firmly on the backpacker route filled with organic cafes and handicraft shops.
Ing Doi Guesthouse, where Xhale Yoga studio is located and where the students stay, is a short walk from town. Friendly guesthouse owner Jake offered me a lift on his motorbike (the preferred mode of transport in Pai) but I decided to walk and clear my head from the bus ride. I reached the guesthouse via a dusty track, passing rice paddies and the a contemplative water buffalo with a bird perched on his back.
Accommodation at Ing Doi is in individual huts - some more sturdy ones with their own bathrooms and some slightly rickety ones made of bamboo. I chose to save the 1,500 extra Baht ($48, €39) over the week and went for the latter, which I had to share with a few large insects.
The shared ‘jungle bathrooms’ were an experience. Roofless, they are filled with plants, bugs and the occasional gecko. Communing with a procession of ants while taking my morning shower took a bit of getting used to but after a while I saw it as an opportunity to get in touch with nature - something far removed from my usual city life.
The yoga itself started on the Monday afternoon with an introduction by the lovely teacher Bhud in the purpose built yoga studio. The studio became a communal home over the week with breakfast, lunch and dinner served on a long table, a bookshelf to browse and a hammock on the first floor. The classes were held on the second floor, where all four walls are open so you can do mountain pose while looking at an actual mountain in the distance.
Bhud greeted everyone with a warm hug. She’s from Bangkok but trained to be a yoga teacher in Australia. My fellow yogis were seven other women from their twenties to their forties from places as far-flung as New Zealand, Belgium, Arizona and Switzerland. Bhud explained the daily schedule and that we should be in silence for the first half of the day so that we can focus on ourselves and what we are learning.
Bhud also said that we should imbibe no toxins during the week - no smoking, alcohol or processed food. A vegan breakfast, lunch and dinner would be provided and if we were hungry between those times there was a bowl of fruit and tea that we could help ourselves too. She spoke about how we over-eat because we our stressed and through yoga we will learn about other ways to get energy apart from food.
It was reassuring to learn a few days into the retreat though that Bhud occasionally indulges in iced coffee and a cigarette, and sometimes has a night out with a few beers. ‘One Coke won’t kill you,’ she said with a chuckle.
Over the week I found Bhud an inspiration physically, with her lithe body that looks closer to that of a 20-year-old than her actual age of 46, and spiritually, with her words of wisdom dripping like honey during a difficult yoga pose. She spoke totally without judgement. ‘If your body allows you…’ was always her caveat before explaining a position.
The physical yoga work turned out to be only part of the daily schedule. We started at 7am with nasal cleansing (yes, awkward, but oddly addictive) and breath work, before an hour and a half of the asanas (poses).
A breakfast of porridge made with soy milk and a platter of delicious fresh mango, pineapple and bright purple dragonfruit and a shot of wheatgrass juice was served at 9.45am and then we had a break until 11.30am. During the break, with no talking allowed, I browsed through books on yoga philosophy and Buddhism, lazed in the hammock or just appreciated the time to look out at the lush vista.
At 11.30am we were back to work with discussion on yoga philosophy (talking was allowed here). I learnt that the poses that we usually think of as yoga is only one of the eight limbs of yoga written in the foundation text of the practice. The other limbs include control of the breath (‘pranayama’), meditation and the five abstentions (‘yamas’) and observances (‘niyamas’).
One of the ‘niyamas’ is ‘tapas’ which can be translated as self-discipline. It works by setting yourself a commitment to do over a certain time period. Bhud told us that hers for that week was to clean her house for 15 minutes a day. We all set our own tapas, things like stopping biting nails, not eating take-away pizza and to do daily asana practice.
After the discussion there was more breath work, which had a strong physical effect for me. After I few days I began to have a dull headache and Bhud told me it was the cleansing breath ridding my internal organs of toxins.
Then there was meditation, which I found difficult, especially as it was just before lunch and my grumbling tummy was distracting me from purity of thought. But even though I felt that I didn’t ‘do it properly’, I still felt that I benefitted and after a few days I was more aware.
By lunch at 2pm we were always ravenous, and Mink, Jake’s wife, was a wonderful cook. We had fresh avocado salads and open sandwiches with pesto. Then there was free time until 5pm, when we were allowed to talk to each other.
At 5pm it was back to the physical work with yin yoga, where you stay in yoga poses for five minutes. I found some of these excruciating but it was true what Bhud said, if you could hold out for three minutes your body then stops resisting and your muscles relax. Yin yoga is really good for improving flexibility and I’ve vowed to seek out classes back home (part of my tapas).
After the yin yoga we did meditation again, or on one night, mantra chanting, which felt as lively and exciting as a night out dancing after such a quiet week.
The schedule for the last day, Saturday, was teaching us how to continue with self-practice at home before a brunch of pancakes and a trip to a nearby hot spring, which was blissful.
I expected to be aching after a week of pushing my body to the limits but what I learnt was that yoga is not about self-violence. Over the week I learnt to listen to my body and distinguish good pain from bad. I am still far off being able to touch my toes, but I learnt to accept it. Yoga is about appreciating what your body can do, not criticizing what it can’t.
Find out more about Xhale yoga in Pai here.