A soulful yoga retreat in India
Whenever I want to escape the busy Dubai life I go to my little island of peace - the Eco Yoga Sanctuary in Jumeirah, which is an amazing little Yoga studio tucked away in Village Mall. Owned by an even more amazing local lady this beautiful designed studio provides you all the Zen you need to get through your life. The reception girls are all little jewels and I think the friendliest team I ever saw in Dubai. They have varied daily schedules not all pure yoga also fitness and dancing plus monthly super interesting workshops with various topics. Their full moon meditations are a blast and you will really feel like a different person afterwards. You can start to embark on a journey here for a very positive personal change. The studio is for ladies only, so check them out on www.ecoyogasanctuary.com
The same studio also organizes occasionally their own Yoga retreats (past versions went to Georgia and Zanzibar) plus they promote other Yoga retreats from their various yoga teachers. So this Yoga Retreat here was organized from the lovely yoga teacher Alpa Lokhande (#yogicalpa / Facebook: Alpa N Lokhande) and the destination was the Rakkh Resort in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
Early in the morning our small little travel group got together at the airport in Dubai. Coming all from different nationalities, religions and backgrounds this trip proofed that in a small world like that this can work peacefully together - wish that concept would apply for the whole world out there. My personal first challenge was to take a low cost Indian airline - flying all around the world I am still a chicken when it comes to flying. However I must say that SpiceJet (www.spicejet.com) was not that bad - the higher priced SpiceMax class was still super cheap and buys you some extra advantages like priority check-in, free meals and extra leg-room. Cabin Crew was friendly and the aircraft in good condition and on time.
We flew into Amritsar and as this is a quite small airport the immigration formalities were quickly done. Check on www.indianvisaonline.gov.in which type of visa is applicable for your nationality. A lot of nationalities are nowadays entitled to apply online for an e-visa - well, be prepared that you need some time to type in all the requested information in the online formula and have all necessary documents on hand for the download - I had a bit of a challenge with that as it didn't want to download our pictures, but with several tries I got it done and visas were issued in less than 48 hours.
A visit to the Punjab city of Amritsar was first on our program - I never have been in India before and of course the traffic chaos in Amritsar is en miniature compared to the giants of Delhi and Mumbai - but for me all the honking, crazy rickshaws and all the cows on the road were already overwhelming. India is full of flavors, colors and sounds, you just need to let yourself go and emerge into that foreign world.
As our mini-bus was stucked on the way to the center - Alpa took the quick decision to hop onto a riskshaw to speed up our journey to our first Indian breakfast as our stomachs were calling for it.
Indian breakfast is a hearty and calorie filled affair, but sooooo yummy!
Loaded with new energy we set off for a walk through the busy Bazar area - you really have to watch out here that nobody walks or drives you over and think twice if you want to stop somewhere as the people around you won't stop with you or walk around you - they will just bump into you!
Leaving the maze of the Bazaar behind us we reached Amritsar's stunning Golden Temple (http://sgpc.net/sri-harmandir-sahib/) - this temple is the most important spiritual site of Sikhism and you don't need to be a Sikh to enter and to get infected from this mystic and holy atmosphere. This temple always attracts large crowds - so you will never be alone there. You first have to give your shoes to the storage and then pass one of the four main entrance doors representing the four directions and also understood as a symbol of the openness of Sikhism to all people and believes. Once inside the view of the golden sanctum in the middle will simply take your breath away - it's a lively atmosphere with people walking around, bathing in the pool to clean their karma or filling bottles of water to bring it back home to their loved ones. Take some time to walk around and observe these holy atmosphere or just sit down and let the mystic prayer music transfer you into another world. To visit the sanctum itself you have to expect long queues as worshipers from all over the country are coming here to pay their tributes. To describe this experience in few words I would say just magic and fantastic!
After finding our minibus driver in the street chaos we drove off to our final destination the Rakkh Resort. For the 250 km we took a good 5 hours drive with a small lunch break en route. Was a quite tiring journey and with that old and noisy bus a bit nerve eating, but our beautiful destination in the Himachal Pradesh province was worth the drive. Here are some pictures en route:
The Rakkh Resort (www.rakkh.com) is beautifully nestled away in the snow covered mountains of the Dharamshala area. It is a boutique styled hotel consisting of various rustic bungalows all built with local materials. The eco-friendly resort is surrounded by a stunning mountain scenery and unspoiled nature. Here you can breath in fresh air and unplug from all the modern world. You will not have any internet connection in your room as they encourage you to read, reflect and join together for board games and talks.
All the rooms are spacious with modern and natural design. They create a real feel good atmosphere - and well, I felt so rejuvenated there - the only not so comfortable experience was that, how I call it, killer spider in my room - but to that story later on. The rooms have also nice little features like your own coffee making station, card games and a box full of yummi cookies. You can enjoy fresh mountain water stored away in health benefiting copper bottles. And the best thing ever - every night they will bring some hot water and special sulfur powder that you can pour down into a large copper bowl for a relaxing foot bath - believe me, you will sleep like an angel!
The whole resort is built up quite steep over a hilltop - so from the reception area to your bungalow it can be quite a climb, so either you take that sportive challenge or otherwise they will drive you around with small golf buggies. Half-way through you will find the public areas like the dining hall, spa and sport room. They also have two do-it yourself food stations where you can either boil your own Indian chai tea or cook your pasta on the other one.
If you don't have the luxury like us bringing in your very own yoga teacher you can arrange your classes through the hotel as well as various other activities they have on offer as nature hikes, mountain bike tours, a climbing wall and different workshops like pottery or weaving....and of course a Spa treatment should not be missed. All the activity team and hotel staff is super friendly and experienced and they really do everything to create an unforgettable experience for you.
All people at the resort are great - but here I really have to raise the flag for their amazing Chef de Cuisine who surprised us every day with his creations. I must admit that in the beginning I thought - hm, will I survive four days of only vegetarian food? And the answer is YES and it was EXCELLENT. Using only the freshest ingredients from the region the flavors were amazing and due to the great variety I didn't miss my usual meat fixture at all .....and the bread was divine. Well, so not really the place to loose weight :-) but we were here for a soulful retreat and not to count calories :-)
Every day you start with a delicious breakfast where they will create a healthy smoothie of your choice followed by various hot or cold breakfast options. You enjoy all that on their airy terrace taking in the gorgeous view over the valley. What better way to start a great day? The big feast continued then during lunches or dinners which were either buffets or a la carte depending on the number of in-house dining guests.
Once every week they also organize a traditional "Dhaam" feast at their outdoor village kitchen. One good advice first - wear loose trousers or otherwise you will explode your buttons. After some traditional song and dance show you will be seated around an open-air stage on pillows and then the feast begins - I don't know how many different types of food were placed one by one on our plates - but each was more delicious than the previous one and no way to stop until the very end. We had a beautiful clear night sitting under the stars and you just felt like emerging into the universe.
We visited at the end of March, which is spring time over there. So during the day temperatures were pleasant, but it got quite chilly at night, so warm cloth and jackets are recommended for that time of the year. They organize at some evenings some campfires where you can mingle with other guests and enjoy the tranquility of a countryside night.
As mentioned we had the luxury to bring in our own yoga teacher. Alpa prepared for us great morning sessions that were held in the yoga room at the main building. These sessions were a mix of physical and mental exercise to tune us in into the day ahead. Each evening before dinner we had another yoga and meditation session which was held outdoors either on the rooftop terrace or at the activity platform in the garden of the hotel. All great sessions that also brought us closer as a group as often some team activities were included.
For sure there are other retreats in which you will do much more Yoga, but for me as a "normal" yoga practitioner it was enough and I really liked the mix of yoga and other physical exercises plus sightseeing.
Beside Yoga, Hiking is the main thing at Rakkh and of course all the mountains around literally are inviting you for some amazing nature hikes. At Rakkh Resort the activity team knows the area around like their own home and they will find the right routing for each level. For me coming from the Bavarian Alps the hikes we did were pretty easy, but sure for first timers and mountain newbies that was already some mini-challenge. Your guide will also provide you with some useful walking sticks.
In late March we had that beautiful snow capped mountains in view and walking through the forest inhaling fresh air and listening to the sounds of the wild mountain rivers was purely energizing for city slickers like us. Our first hike brought us through some nice hill terrain to a small temple. We passed by some local farms and their inhabitants and had on the way back an amazing meditation at a mountain river, refreshing our feet in the gurgling cold water stream. Here are some impressions of our first hike.
The second hike was basically to the other side of the resort and also on that trail we did a beautiful riverside meditation. On our way back we passed through a local village and as our guide was well-known over there we got invited from a very nice old lady to have tea in her home. Everybody we met was extremely friendly and showed real hospitality towards us.
The third hike was a night hike - equipped with torches we left the resort after sunset and lead by two guides ventured off to a trail around the resort. Somewhere on an open field our guides surprised us with some freshly brewed tea and we sat down on the grass observing the stars above us. Sure you can come to Rakkh just to simple do nothing and relax, but if you are from the active side the team here keeps you entertained over the whole day and night.
As I said the good thing in this retreat was that it not totally focused on Yoga, but that we also got something to see of the real interesting area around us. So one day we set off for an excursion to Dharamshala a beautiful city at the edge of the Himalayan mountains and surrounded by cedar forests. The city gained international popularity as it is the home for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Our first stop was at the Gyuto monastery that had beautiful artworks and a lively atmosphere with the monks walking around. The monastery was founded in Tibet, but now has found its exile home in Dharamshala since the Chinese invasion. It is nowadays one of the most famous monasteries of the region and famous for Tantric meditation and practice as well as the Buddhism philosophy. For tourists it is a very picturesque place with the snow-clad mountains in the backdrop.
Next stop was the Norbulingka Institute which was named after the summer residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. This institute wants to preserve the Tibetan heritage, culture and art. First of all a visit to its peaceful Japan inspired gardens will let you feel this tranquil and sacred atmosphere. Beside an interesting small museum you can also visit the "Seat of Happiness Temple" which is famous for its 1173 murals of Buddha, frescoes from all the Dalai Lamas and drawings from the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. We sat for some time in the temple everybody drawn into her own meditation and afterwards had coffee and cake at the garden cafe.
After we drove high up into the mountains and had a stop with some real spectacular views over the breathtaking scenery. Close by hidden in some dense ceddar forest was the St. John Church or also known as St. John in the Wilderness, one of the oldest Anglican churches in the region and named after John the Baptist. It is built in neo-Gothic style and famous for its stained-glass windows. In 1905 a strong earthquake destroyed the bell tower and a new bell was brought in from England.
Last stop for today was the village of McLeod Ganj, which actually is a surburb of Dharamshala and known as "Little Lhasa", because of its large population of Tibetans. I have never been in Tibet but McLeod Ganj was pretty much how I imagine Tibet. We first had a visit to the Tibet Museum, which was quite depressing. I think most of us know the severe history of the Tibetans, but seeing all that enlarged in pictures is a different thing. Most shocking for me was the room with a picture wall - pictures from almost 200 young Tibetan women and men who recently burned themselves in protest of the Chinese invasion. Takes some time to swallow this, but I highly recommend a visit to the museum as we all should not close our eyes to this horrific situation. Also a lot of the precious Tibetan heritage and cultural monuments have been destroyed there till date.
The next visit was a more pleasant one - the Tsuglag Khang or better known as the Dalai Lama Temple and residence of His Holiness. Unfortunately during our visit the Dalai Lama was away on one of his many journeys, however even if he would have been there chances are small you will get to see him as he usually stays in the well secured monastery part. The temple is free to visit for everybody and has some nice Buddha statues and colorful stupas.
Afterwards we took a stroll through "Little Lhasa" - everywhere you can see stalls with all sorts of souvenirs and handcrafts. So calculate some shopping time - the place is also well known among back-packers who are staying in one of the many cheap hostels over here. The town is super lively and the monks from the nearby monastery are having their strolls and shoppings as well - so very likely you will see them on a visit and they are always open for a chat or at least a smile. Somehow the atmosphere in McLeod Ganj is a very special one - just tune in with the locals and you will know what I am talking about. Here are some impressions.....
You also have to try the delicous Tibetan Food - if you have a strong stomach either at some street food stalls or otherwise in one of the many proper restaurants. Most famous dish are the finger-licking good Momo's - pastry filled with vegetables or also meat options are available - super yummi!
Another Excursion Day
On some other day my more adventurous yoga mates went on a paragliding experience organised through the hotel. Me a chicken when it comes to flying as you already know skipped out of that activity from the beginning. Bir-Billing is a very well-known paragliding hotspot and is host to an annual big international championship. For all brave enough to let themselves be tandemed up to the experienced instructor, views are of course breathtaking and all girls made it safe back to the ground. I visited in the meantime a nice temple and monastery school and had a chilled coffee in some cute backpacker hostel and cafe - The Garden Cafe.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a tea farm - as some of India's finest brews are coming from this region. We were introduced into the growing and processing of the tea leaves - when you hear and see how many working steps are involved in this for sure you will zip your next cup of tea more mindfully. At the end of the tour we had some tea tasting and of course could buy our favorite ones to indulge back home. The Himalayan Brew Enterprise company (www.himalayanbrew.com) is a family owned business and you can be sure that you zip on a chemical free tea - bought some Green Tea there and the taste is really amazing.
And there was the story of the spider left.....
Well. I don't have too much problems with creepy crawlies especially when I am travelling EXCEPT spiders!!!!! Even the smallest one will freak me out and that is why most likely they always find me! So sitting on my bed the first night I saw what on the wall - I think you can guess it: a spider!! And it was HUGE! So the only way was to call the reception to send somebody from housekeeping - first time they thought what crazy lady is that. Housekeeping guy came with a broom in his hand - looked at the spider, swinged his broom around and baehm hit it, but obviously not hard enough and it was GONE!!! but nobody knew to where! So after an immense search - second time he though I am crazy - he just sighed and said "No problem Madam it will not come for you" - oh great, so what I will do with that one! Smiled and disappeared. That was an awful night as I was hiding fully under the blanket creating a sauna - and I always thought what happens if it falls down on me from the roof! Next morning Mimi, who was next door reported that she had a spider last night in her room - so I though poor girl the spider escaped to there. I asked her - what you did with it? And she brave as she was "I killed it" I thought wow what a tough girl and over the past days she reported more killed ones. Thanks God my room was spider-free over the next days - until the departure day. When I did the last room check what I saw there on the floor - THE SPIDER and no idea from where she came as obviously she was dead. Showing below picture to the girls during departure Mimi said - oh, that's a big one, mine were much smaller - aha, here we go!!! So that means the mother of all spiders came behind me :-) :-(
Girls and mum - thanks for a wonderful trip with all of you - made some new friends (although I haven't managed until now to see you girls), new experiences and new inspirations.