THEY say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In my case, however, it was with a bend and a stretch. Little did I know as I tentatively stepped into my first yoga class on a cold winter’s morning two years ago, that I was setting off on a path that would take me more than 8,000km across the globe.
Like most Nineties kids who started school while the Riverdance phenomenon gripped the nation, I danced competitively throughout my childhood and well into my teens. During college and into the beginning of my working life, however, physical activity took a back seat until I found myself out of shape and stiff as a board. Desperately seeking a solution, I discovered Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre, now based in Penrose Wharf and at the Westpoint Retail Park in Ballincollig.
Founded by Yogacharya Lalit Kumar, the popular school offers classes for beginners right up to trainee teachers and combines a dedication to honouring the traditional foundations of the practice with an emphasis on inclusivity through community events. Their highly successful Yoga in the Park summer series, which has recently wrapped up for another year, has raised close to €40,000 to date for Cork Simon Community.
I dipped a toe with a free introductory class and despite the shocking realisation that I could scarcely touch my knees any more, let alone said toe, I was immediately hooked.
Classes swiftly became a focal point of my week as the mindful act of focusing my ‘monkey mind’ on breath and movement for 70 minutes at a time offered a reprieve from a hectic work schedule. The physical benefits were just as welcome, ranging from vastly increased flexibility and strength to a profoundly healthier attitude towards body image.
Freshly reacquainted with my toes, and never one to do things by halves, once I learned that Himalaya Yoga host annual retreats each spring at their sister school in Goa I packed my mat and found myself in India faster than I could say Namaste.
The ten day retreat offers beginners and seasoned practitioners alike the chance to forge an even deeper connection with the yoga practice at its source. Nestled in the scenic rural village of Mandrem Beach, the purpose built yoga centre boasts luxurious modern villas, sumptuous vegetarian food, and on-site ayurvedic consultations and massage.
The daily schedule includes early morning chanting, two yoga classes and excursions to local sites such as markets, Old Goan temples and a tropical spice plantation. Visitors can take on as much, or as little as they please, from rising at dawn for meditation to eating delicious Goan cuisine at beachside restaurants as the sun sets over the Arabian Sea.
Whether packing your itinerary or not, there is also ample time to fit in a dip in the pool, a walk along the beach or trip to a local village to pick up affordable spices, fashions and jewellery.
While the magical allure of Goa’s palm lined beaches and blues skies immediately won me over on arrival, it was the opportunity to experience some of India’s sights and sounds without the stress of navigating solo travel that initially attracted me to the trip. As it turns out, it was with that idea in mind that Lalit established the retreat nine years ago.
“People who have not been to India before may have lots of ideas and fears,” he admits. “We came up with this idea so that when people come they can see how great India is. Goa is a beautiful place and once you come here you see the beautiful nature and that the local community is very welcoming. When a trip is well organised, people feel more relaxed, and we hope that if they have a good experience and a fantastic adventure.”
An adventure it was, beginning with a taxi ride through India’s famously chaotic rush hour traffic. India slaps you in the face with colour, sounds and smells right from the off and while the sight of cows meandering down shopping streets couldn’t have felt more foreign at first, the trip also felt very much like coming home. The family-run centre welcomed each person with open arms, with no query too small or too bothersome and we benefited from local knowledge, taking in some of the best restaurants in the region and avoiding the biggest tourist traps. There were also literal reminders of home, as over half of our intrepid group had travelled from Cork, giving dinner table conversations a particularly familiar lilt. Over the ten days, our counterparts who were drawn from across Europe and the Middle East, were left with no doubt that Lee-side is experiencing a yoga revolution.
“I feel privileged because the people of Cork have given us so much love and support,” Lalit says. “Himalaya Yoga Valley has become like a family, like a community, and that was my motivation and my aim.
“We started our Yoga in the Park programme for Cork Simon Community, so that people could actually see that yoga is about community. When we started those classes there were 20 people, now there are 200 people participating weekly.”
Lalit hopes that more people embrace yoga as a holistic way to help deal with the stresses of the modern world. Everybody can benefit from the physical and mental aspects of practising yoga,” he believes.
“A lot of people have challenges with stress and anxiety and we have designed our classes for everybody’s needs beginning with classes for children right up to older ages.
“The whole idea is that yoga belongs to the community. That is my motivation and my aim, to set up a Cork community of yoga and to make it a lifestyle.”
Booking is now open for next year’s retreat which runs from February 24 to March 5. The package, priced at €795 excluding return flights, includes airport transfers, nine nights shared accommodation, two meals a day and all classes and workshops. For full details, see www.yogagoaindia.com.