Assagao - in Goa, India - is 45 minutes from Dabolim Airport and 15 minutes from the fabled Arabian Sea. It is the perfect place for a yoga retreat: peaceful and rustic enough to facilitate the quest for inner quiet, but still stimulating to the senses.
I've just returned from two sun-soaked weeks at the Purple Valley Ashtanga Center in Assagao. The brainchild of a British psychotherapist (who stipulated, when she sold the place, that she would be allowed to continue her morning practice in the shala, or yoga school), the center is now managed by the unassuming and pleasant Tenerife-based Lucrecia Cortes. It is expertly run by a staff of Westerners and Indians, with most of the latter spending their days grooming the impeccable grounds.
The retreat's neighbors are a motley crew. There are friendly schoolchildren in neat but threadbare blue uniforms - mending is ad hoc, done with rusty safety pins and string - who scream "picture camera please" at any Westerner who passes on foot.
With the enthusiasm of the innocent, they pose as sweetly as Bollywood stars. Motorcycling Russian and Scandinavian dreadlocked blondes pass through en route to the nearby backpacker havens Anjuna and Arambol. Cows, their horns draped with the ubiquitous red and yellow flower garlands that honor the god Ganesh, saunter languidly past roadside sanctuaries dedicated to a hodgepodge of Christian and Hindu deities.
The pedestrians, cows and motorbikes compete with cars, bicycles and buses for space on the single lanes.
Human and bovine companionship aside, one is never alone in this town. Spiders, frogs and enough repellent-defying mosquitoes to cause a harvest of small red bumps are constant friends.
I could almost hear the soundtrack to a Disney film play when, on a nearby road that cuts through lush jungle, I found myself accompanied by a swarm of butterflies. They followed me for several enchanting minutes, like effervescent jewel-hued fairy godmothers. When they left as suddenly as they had appeared, I was consoled by the sight of monkeys jumping in the trees.
Portugal ruled Goa for most of the years between 1510 and 1961, and the streets of Assagao are lined with Iberian-style homes, painted in shockingly bright pinks, greens and oranges. Some are dilapidated and deserted, victims of property disputes among heirs in Lisbon and other far-away cities.
Others boast painstakingly manicured gardens and serve as residences for Indian professionals or the middle aged boho luxe Europeans (jewelry-making Stevie Nicks look-alikes from Brussels or Milan) living in Goa all or part of the year. Several are used as children's homes, including the well-respected El Shaddai House, doing the blessed and daunting work of looking after some of India's millions of abandoned and orphaned young ones.
When I wasn't exploring the neighborhood, I was enjoying the good taste and seamless management of the Purple Valley team. I felt quite the Mogul princess under mosquito nets in my high-ceilinged, mustard-yellow room.
The daily schedule: morning practice in the shala, which looks like an upscale converted barn with its white walls, red clay floor and wooden lattice ceiling with postcard- sized skylights. The retreat's yoga instructor, Clayton Horton of Greenpath Yoga in San Francisco, and his friendly assistant Maitri, from Manila, fluttered around the room perfecting positions many of us had been contorting ourselves into for years - resulting in many a "aha, this is what a twisting triangle is actually supposed to feel like!" Practice was neatly followed by a breakfast of oatmeal, fresh fruit and freshly boiled spicy chai, heavy on the cardamom. Mid-morning and afternoon were spent on site, lazing on the brightly colored divans while drinking complementary organic tea, or sun worshipping on nearby Mandrem or Anjuna beach.
Then, at four, most of the resort's participants reconvened, in various shades of sunburned, for afternoon workshop. During this time, Clayton helped students fine-tune some of the more nuanced asanas, or poses, led guided meditation, lectured on the history and philosophy of yoga, and directed singing and chanting - a mix of hippie tunes and spirituals honoring the Hindu gods or praising the eternal being. Fair enough, since the retreat's program was accurately described on the Web site, but some of the participants were emphatically uninterested in singing about "opening up in the sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one" or in chanting, hands clasped in a fashion decidedly prayer-like, to Hanuman the monkey god. A fellow retreat-goer, a 30-something attorney from London who declared herself an atheist at 13 (forfeiting her confirmation presents, no less!) and has never looked back, was discomfited by the religiosity and decided not to attend afternoon sessions at all. I did attend, but uncomfortably. As a Jew with agnostic tendencies, it's hard enough to sing about God in the synagogue of my forefathers, let alone pray to the gods of a different religion.
I recently read that a Muslim cleric had issued a fatwa against certain aspects of yoga, stating that it incorporates elements from other religions. After two weeks of authentic Ashtanga, I understood the ruling. What most Westerners know as yoga is actually Hatha yoga, or one of its offshoot styles like Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa, etc. - the physical part of a much broader philosophy. The asanas are useful to the yogi insofar as they increase the ability of achieving unity with a divine being: They produce a body with the ability to sit in the same position for hours to meditate toward achieving a healthy mind. Yoga draws heavily from Buddhism and Hinduism, and the influences are palpable. A very beautiful tradition, certainly - but I issue a word of warning to others who might feel disconcerted.
But my gripe is a minor one, more food for thought than anything seriously detracting from the pleasure of my trip. Plus, I really did appreciate the ethics behind the spirituality; this is a place that practices what it preaches. For many, vacationing lavishly feels a bit perverse in India, where 42 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line, on less than $1.25 a day. While most of the retreat's participants are not ascetics - one could self-deprive in one's hometown and avoid the eco-footprint of the plane trip - they are, in varying degrees, committed to sustainable living and social responsibility.
Purple Valley strikes the right balance, being both sublimely indulgent and conscientious towards people and the planet. Residents are encouraged to use the same water bottles throughout their stay, and towels are only changed twice per week. When forgoing one of the three colorful, creative vegetarian meals, guests are encouraged to notify the cooks in advance because, as the manager pointed out, wasting food is especially sinful in a country like India. Purple Valley trades leftover food for cow manure, which is used as fertilizer on the grounds, and participates generously in funding extras for the local school. Donations for a sound system for students are currently gently solicited.
This is more than a fun eco-friendly vacation: The physical and emotional benefits were apparent even after two weeks. Yoga really does make you stronger, more limber, calmer and, in my case at least, infinitely more patient. On my return to Israel I noticed these changes in myself, beyond my new-found ability to put my legs behind my head.
Case in point: Soon after landing, I went to the Azrieli Mall. The shopping center was brimming, seemingly past fire-safe capacity, with howling children of all ages. Pre-yoga, I would have walked out immediately - or at least bought what I needed quickly and sullenly. In my new frame of mind, I calmly went about my business, occasionally stopping to smile benevolently at a child who stepped on my foot or a middle-aged shchordinit
in four-inch heels and painted-on jeans who suddenly surged ahead of me in the queue.
I even felt myself humming - as I tend to do when I'm happy - a little ditty I learned somewhere magical about opening up to the luminous love light.