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Twist it in luxury

A week-long yoga retreat in Chiang Mai's green valley stretches minds and bodies to new heights.

We'd had a couple of dates at a studio, then done some deep breathing back in my bedroom, but now it was time to see whether my affair with yoga could last out a holiday. Would a retreat help me shed stress, weight and the baggage from all my previous relationships? Walking through the doors of Chiang Mai's five-star Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, there was no pressure - whatever happened, I'd still get to meet an experienced yoga teacher and a new bunch of yoga enthusiasts in beautiful surroundings.

The inaugural yoga retreat at the luxury resort last month was dubbed "Retreat to Nature - With Clayton Horton", and it was well named. The man in question turned out to be a down-to-earth yogi who hailed from San Francisco and the lush, 24-hectare resort gardens were the perfect setting for his teachings on serenity.

Beeped awake at 6.45am by my alarm clock, I had just 15 minutes to climb from under the covers and find the hub of the first day's action. Grabbing the free map from the information pack in my room, I sped out the door in search of Tai Lue Hall.

Outside I was greeted by the kind of dawn traffic I never see at home in Bangkok. Farmers in indigo garb led a pink water buffalo to the rice fields, joining me in an early start. Resort staff rode by on bicycles, flashing toothy grins in my direction.

Shifting my gaze from the tranquil scenes, I checked the map - the yoga hall was proving elusive. I followed the trail round a large pond, took another few turns, then finally discovered the teakwood sala tucked away amid the rice paddies.

The foot of each teakwood pillar was marked with a purple yoga mat, bottle of water and two immaculately white fluffy towels, folded neatly and topped with a sweet pink orchid.

I'd arrived just in time to join a class full of sleepy students for the opening sun salutations, led by a wide-awake Horton at the front.

Following the Ashtanga expert's instructions, we plant feet firmly then lift our arms to greet the new morning's light. It's a strange sensation: the rising sun and I have met before, but only after my nights out partying. Horton's enthusiasm keeps everyone going, and soon we're warming down with some gentle back bends and sitting postures.

Horton brought over 20 years of experience as a student of yoga, having been given formal authorisation to teach by Sri K Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, South India. He runs his own studio, called Greenpath Yoga, in San Francisco, and teaches a dynamic practice rooted in the Ashtanga tradition and Greenpath meditation.

That might sound intimidating, but aficionados who could bend themselves pretzel-shaped were outnumbered on the retreat by those simply curious about yoga's potential for benefiting body and mind. Yes, a few were rubber-limbed, but that didn't stop them from almost passing out with the rest of us in the aptly named shavasana (Sanskrit for "corpse pose") at the end of the session.

Morning class over, we walk back through the paddies passed the same pink buffalo and head towards the Rice Terrace restaurant where sumptuous breakfasts are served. A borderline health freak, I go the whole hog and order a white-egg omelette, rhubarb yoghurt and decaffeinated soy latte with a cinnamon stick to stir it. The less ascetic among us make a beeline for the buffet and pile their plates high.

After breakfast, there's a long break before our 4.30 rendezvous back at Tai Lue Hall for the afternoon class. Some fill it with sightseeing, others by lazing by the pool or taking a nap to catch up on sleep. The hotel itself is worth exploring for its mix of movie-set chic and sanctuary serenity. With its palatial architecture, the resort's spa is probably the swankiest in Chiang Mai, but beneath the beauty there's substance. Visitors will find a source of serious lifestyle changes at the Dheva Spa, founded on a daily regimen of Ayurvedic treatments and diet, and exercise in Chiang Mai's fresh air.

Dr Sunita Shakhar Mahamuni, its Ayurvedic health specialist, gives me a three-page health questionnaire before recommending a treatment suited to my body type. Then I make a date with osteopath Dr Robert Goodrum, who straightens up my spine. The spa also offers yoga and pranayama (breathing) sessions, run by Kirsten Chong, as well as something called Inner Flow Therapy, which combines Watsu (Water Shiat SU) cradling, yoga and "water dance" techniques - Raphael Sadowski is your man for this.

Back at Tai Lue Hall, students gather for the afternoon class, which seems to be more vigorous than the morning's - a trend that continues through the week. Though I can feel my body getting stronger, my mind seems to be winding down to a more relaxed state.

A few days' in, the red-eyed early morning sleepiness has disappeared and the sweating feels almost spiritual. The afternoon classes seem timed to end just before the mosquitoes start swarming, but each of us keeps our bottle of lemongrass-laced repellent ready just in case.

In the nightly discussions on philosophy, Horton reveals that physical practice is just one aspect of yoga's eight-part discipline. He draws the separate strands together to weave an all-encompassing tapestry of moral codes and balanced ways of living. But inner liberation has to wait: our main aim is to get to bed early for next morning's yoga session.

After a week of early-to-rise and early-to-bed interspersed with three hours of yoga each day, I can feel the changes in me. Whether you want to tone up your butt, sleep more deeply, refresh your soul or set out on the road to enlightenment, a yoga retreat seems to have the answer. As the week comes to a close, signs of relaxation, fitness and renewed vigour glow in each of our faces.

I wondered if my new-found natural balance will survive the onslaught of the city. If not, I might need a personality transplant. But for now, the surgery can wait - yoga still works for me.


Yoga and wellness retreats at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai this winter:

"Creating Sacred Ritual -Taking the Spa Experience Home" by Judith Wendell

Dates: December 5 to 11

Price: Bt167,500++

"Healing Sleep and Dreams" by Dr Rubin Naiman

Dates: January 23 to 29

Price: Bt177,550++

"Vibrational Healing" by Raym and Chicchan Richards

Dates: February 6 to 12

Price: Bt177,550++

"Yoga and the Chakras" by Kirsten Chong

Dates: March 6 to 12

Price: Bt117,250++

Call (053) 888888 or visit www.MandarinOriental.com/chiangmai/

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