Monday, 22 November 2010

Yoga at Kailasam, Kovalam beach, Kerela, South India

A two week yoga holiday in India with a European teacher? Coals to Newcastle? A compromised product of our times maybe? There are though good reasons why this is a great way of learning for many people.

A more traditional yoga course in India is probably more bootcamp than holiday - a physical, mental and philosophical shakedown designed to facilitate complete transformation. Some want this, which is fine so long as you know what you are getting into; but many of us are looking for enough yoga practices and ideas to help stay fit and healthy, balance out some of the excess of modern lifestyles, gain some fresh perspective and enjoy some much needed rest and recreation (re-creation).

A two week yoga holiday at Kailasam answers this need with plenty of structured yoga teaching (3.5 hours a day) but in balance with more than enough free time to head to the beach, swim, bodyboard or surf, read, explore ayurvedic massage and/or hang out with new or old friends.

Kailasam itself is a small residential yoga centre tucked behind Kovalam's Lighthouse Beach. Its British/Indian co-owners, Diana and Mohan, provide a relaxed comfortable fusion of European and Indian hospitality. Mohan is from a caste of masseurs, Diana has a degree and background in sustainable tourism and the carefully chosen Indian staff appreciate their jobs and ensure maximum benefit for the local community.

I first visited Kovalam as a backpacker in 1987 when it was just a few shacks and cafes on the beach. Along with the rest of India it has of course changed and become a thriving, but not over busy, resort. There are beachside restaurants and shops plus sun beds on the main beach (civilisation for some, ruination for others). It's relaxed enough, but for those wanting something quieter there are virtually empty beaches ten minutes walk away.

Many visitors to Kovalam are Northern European, American, Antipodean or Japanese, but, in contrast to some touristy parts of India many locals come to enjoy the beach and a new more prosperous class of Indian can now come here on holiday.

For those wanting to explore more of the region, afternoon or weekend trips can be arranged through Kailasam staff. Possibilities include the nearby town of Trivandrum, an elephant sanctuary, the Sivananda yoga ashram and a boat trip (day or overnight) on the stunning Kerelan backwaters.

As a westerner who has practised yoga for 20 years I feel the type of course offered at Kailasam is the right approach for many westerners. Except for the experienced or the very clear headed, direct immersion in traditional Indian approaches to yoga can be confusing in the presentation or too culturally alien.

This type of opportunity to practice many of the life skills yoga has to offer away from your normal routine, but in a safe environment, is a valuable experience and time well spent.

For more on Kailasam For booking through Free Spirit Travel

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

How to choose a yoga holiday.

A yoga holiday is a great opportunity to enhance your yoga practice or immerse yourself more fully in it for the first time. There are, though, some questions you need to ask yourself to make sure you end up in the right place, with the right teacher, at the right level of practice.

Holiday or retreat?

A yoga holiday is essentially an activity holiday with 2 – 4 hours yoga a day and plenty of free time as opposed to a yoga retreat where most of the day will be organised around yoga practices. It is wise to check what the typical daily schedule is and that it accords with how much yoga you want in relation to how much holiday.

Who to book with ?

Small specialist yoga centres generally understand yoga student’s requirements better than large holiday companies – you probably don’t want to end up staying next to a large outdoor nightclub. There are plenty of these smaller operations around the world and they ought to be happy to talk to you directly if their website doesn’t answer all your questions.

Accommodation and food

Standards of accommodation will be reflected in the price. Food is usually vegetarian. If you have specific accommodation or dietary requirements then check this thoroughly in advance.

Choosing a teacher

It is also important that you find out about the teacher leading the holiday as one or two weeks is a long time to be practicing something you don’t like or is at the wrong level for you.

If you are going with your regular teacher then you know what you will be getting. Otherwise a personal recommendation is always good when possible, though this can of course depend on how well you know the person doing the recommending. Alternatively you could start by checking teacher's websites and give them a ring with your questions, they should be happy to talk to you. If practical, take a class or workshop with them.

Style and level

If you are unfamiliar with the style of yoga on offer then it is wise to check that out and make sure that you understand what it involves. Some styles of yoga are very demanding while others are more accomodating of individual student needs.

It is also important to check that the teaching on the course is appropriate for your level of experience, you don’t want to feel either out of your depth, or under challenged. Again, teachers ought to be happy to talk to you on the phone about your interests and experience and what they teach.

Travel alone or with a friend/partner?

Many people come alone to yoga courses and of course you will automatically be introduced to a group of like-minded people. You would need to check the accomodation situation if you don't want to share a room. Coming with friends, family, partner or spouse generally works best if you are both interested in yoga or if the non-yoga-doers are happily self contained.

What to bring

Yoga mat, loose clothes/shorts as appropriate to the climate and an open mind!

Getting started with your research

There are a huge range of yoga holidays available these days often but not always tied in with seasonality.
I run three courses in on Dartmoor in Devon a year, and some years I have an option to travel abroad; see

Monday, 22 March 2010

Massage at festivals?

Feeling a bit lost in the healing field? A guide to finding a decent massage this summer.

A long drive or train journey; hoiking heavy rucksacks or trolleys or wheelbarrows; setting up camp, sleeping in a tent, sitting on the ground, or standing up all the time if it’s muddy, dancing all night? We love it, but it’s not surprising that many of us ache at festivals. It’s also not surprising that there is a burgeoning mini industry in massage at festivals.

In many ways it’s potentially a perfect marriage of people enjoying a weekend away, and available massage therapists standing there right in front of them ready to go. How, though, do you know what to have? Or whether the person standing before you in flip flops and spangly make up is reliable?

The questions for the massage virgin, the mildly skeptical or indeed anyone befuddled by the range of complementary therapies available, can be how to decide what is the right treatment for your needs and whether you can be sure the person in front of you is properly qualified and experienced.

Despite our best efforts, many of us working at festivals might not look as neat and clean as in our usual clinic environment, and there may well be the odd spider dangling from our internal tent poles.

Abi Norman, who organises the therapy field at the Larmer Tree Gardens festival in Wiltshire says: “We work very hard at ensuring all our therapists are well qualified and have a minimum of two years experience. We always gather and check qualifications and professional insurance policies, and we don’t take everyone who applies. The Secret Garden, our healing field is an important part of our event and many people look forward to having a professional massage whilst at the festival.” Other big festivals that run a healing field, such as Womad and The Big Chill, also employ similar rigour in their selection process.

So whether you ache, just want a rest from sound systems and people, or want somewhere quiet to take your hangover, the healing field is a place you can head with confidence. Festivals make a big effort to make the healing field environment as pleasant as possible for sitting, lying around or having a quiet wander. So, once there, you fancy a treatment? How do you know what to have?

One of the great advantages of trying a massage at a festival is that in most cases it will be possible to watch therapists in action first and probably get to chat to them, all of which helps to demystify the unknown. Some fields also provide an information tent where knowledgeable staff can tell you about what is available.

Thai massage and shiatsu are perennially popular as they are clothed massages; what you are wearing maybe fine or therapists will offer you an easy change of clothes if necessary. Reflexology is great to relax and ease tired feet, therapists will always have something to wash your feet if needed. If you prefer something oily; holistic, remedial and sports massage is generally available with the therapists appropriately equipped.

If you are in acute pain, whilst most kinds of massage can help, many festivals endeavour to employ an osteopath or physiotherapist. They may be wearing pixie ears, but will likely be the best place to go if you are experiencing a lot of discomfort and want a more medically qualified professional.

With luck, you already feel great and just fancy a bit of relaxing time out, or are feeling experimental and want to try something new.

Healing fields often have a little culture of their own within the festival, there maybe yoga or tai chi classes in the morning and perhaps a health food cafe or mini stage offering a programme of events. Costs for a complementary health treatment at a festival will generally be between £20 and £40

Yoga, what is it again?

Most modern day yoga is the bastard child of an ancient esoteric Indian tradition and the modern western health and fitness industry. Arguably the two backgrounds complement each other.

The ancient Indian yoga tradition is based on a deep spirituality and inner vision and stillness beyond the superficial chatterings of the mind.The modern western health and fitness industry is largely derived from western scientific and sporting approaches and people’s desire to stay healthy and feel and look good.

Both approaches have benefits but are arguably incomplete by themselves. The Western emphasis on health and fitness can limit yoga to mainly its physical exercises potentially leading to self absorption rather than self examination. Traditional Indian approaches on the other hand are part of a particular cultural context that tended to encourage a withdrawal from productive worldly activities, leaving some important matters unattended to.

Neither of these extremes offer a balanced approach for most of us.

Modern yoga

Modern day teachers have met students with a changing range of mental, physical and lifestyle needs created by an arguably more stressful and sedentary modern lifestyle. Teacher's responses to this, combined with a generally more sophisticated interest in health, fitness and wellbeing has led to yoga evolving in new ways.

The teaching of yoga for its health and fitness benefits has arguably improved enormously under the western scientific microscope provided by interested professionals such as osteopaths and doctors, some of whom have become yoga teachers themselves.

Similarly the increased interest in  forms of spirituality that are less dogmatic than traditional religion, such as yoga and Buddhism, has led to a renewal in the presentation of these inner practices in ways that are digestable to the modern mind and require no religious or esoteric beliefs.

In our generally busy, over stimulated, information soaked and outer directed society, there is little to encourage us to look inwardly for quietness, understanding, emotional balance and inspiration.

Yoga postures and breath work help attend to some of the physical manifestations of stress and inbalance. Meditation and some accompanying philosophy can provide a welcome window pointing towards an inner world of greater ease, understanding, freedom and creativity adding many benefits to our external life of relationships, work and attitudes.

Modern western yoga teachers are now trained to a certain degree in western anatomy, physiology and health care as well as some Indian arts, philosophy, healing, esotericism and spirituality. The resultant evolving creative fusion is modern yoga.

As a cross fertilised collection of knowledge, perhaps increasingly typical of our globalised culture, older timeless aspects of Yoga have richly intertwined with modern knowledge and ideas to give us a truly twenty first century discipline.