“Health in the body, peace in the spirit, love in the heart, clarity in the mind, for each of us and for all beings everywhere. Namaste.” A communal ‘Namaste’ bounces off the hardwood floors, back at our teacher. I mutter it self-consciously as we sit cross-legged in the prayer position. Entirely new to the yoga scene, I am quieter than most. Outside, hot springs punctuate the surrounding hills, bubbling around the banks of the River Varmá, which slices through the southern Icelandic town of Hveragerði.
The country was to be my home for a week: I had joined 11 US travellers for a yoga adventure organised by SolYoga Trips and led by its founder, Ben Crosky. When the company was established two years ago, there were only a couple of retreats planned. Now there are 15-20 trips in the pipeline for 2013. Traffic to the website has doubled in the past year.
This leap in interest is not confined to yoga retreats. Holistic holidays are a booming section of the travel market. “In recent years there has been an increased demand from consumers looking for a holiday that helps them to escape the stresses and strains of work and home,” says Clare Banham, spokeswoman from ABTA, the Travel Association. “We have also seen a growth in the number of specialist tour operators focusing solely on holistic holidays.”
This is a shift that Ulrike Speyer, co-founder and director of wellbeing specialists Neal’s Yard Holidays, has witnessed too. “In 1991, when we first started the business, there were only two holistic holiday centres abroad offering a range of personal development courses and activities,” she says. “By 1995, there were nearly a 100, mainly in Europe. Today, there are thousands across the world.”
The choice of activities is astounding. From body and mind retreats including yoga, tai chi, qigong, pilates, meditation and ayurveda, to creative writing, singing, dance, photography, painting and crafts. “There are also life skills holidays,” adds Ulrike, “focusing on a range of topics like relationships, the increasingly popular life coaching and even laughter, comedy and cooking.”
So just what is it about retreat holidays that are capturing travellers’ imaginations? According to Ben, it’s about feeling connected. “People are paying more attention to what makes them feel more alive, more connected to themselves and the world,” says Ben. “I think we are seeing this kind of travel on the rise because we are finding ourselves in the middle of a movement to make deeper and more meaningful connections in general.”
It makes sense in these uncertain times that more people want to reconnect with feeling good and with what really matters to them. But can a wellness retreat transform your life?
“It can jumpstart someone who is taking their first steps into a healthier lifestyle, offer a gigantic leap forward for others who have already begun — and most interestingly, it can inspire someone who had no idea that they were ready for a change,” adds Ben, whose time as a tour guide and yoga studio employee in Barcelona motivated him to set up SolYoga.
Can the effects of a retreat become a permanent state of mind? It is precisely this thought that brought me to Iceland. A couple of years ago in Italy, I was introduced to the ‘F**k It’ philosophy at a hilltop retreat in Urbino. I can still remember the essentials — basically learning to say ‘f**k it’ to stress — but what really endured was the feeling; the week-long natural high we shared, from practising qigong, and drinking the purest of teas from China that made us giggle as if drunk. This high was one that remained long after the week was over. Would Iceland be different?
The SolYoga philosophy, which is described as ‘the fusion of inspiring yoga, adventure travel, experiential learning and responsible activism’, is easier to understand in practice than on paper. By the end of the first yoga session, I felt incredible. My hands were hot, tingling with a reinvigorated circulation, and I couldn’t feel any tension in any part of my body; everything hung loose. The calming effects of this yoga class were heightened due to an earlier visit to the Blue Lagoon, the geothermal spa that lies in a lava field in the south coast fishing town of Grindavík.
Here, where tourists and locals alike come to bathe in its healing waters, I had slathered my face in curative silica and marvelled at the soothing contrast of the hot water enveloping my body and the fresh breeze against my face. Wonderful. But now, lying on my back on the wooden floor in shavasana (‘corpse position’), arms and legs at about 45 degrees, eyes closed, I wasn’t sure which was more relaxing. A rush of lavender oil suddenly filled my nostrils and hands momentarily massaged the back of my neck. I half-opened my eyes to see our teacher Aarona stopping at each mat, spreading her fragrant magic around the room.
In the evening, we had an opening ceremony. Cross-legged on the floor with cups of wine, we introduced ourselves and shared our reasons for coming to Iceland with the rest of the group. A love of yoga and nature and an interest in Iceland were common reasons, while others hinted at something deeper, mentioning anxiety, work contracts expiring and moving to different cities.
“I’ve recently experienced a lot of stress from work and my personal life and there’s a mindfulness that comes with practising yoga, being in a new place, meeting new, different and interesting people, that I want to bring more to my life in New York,” explained Shaan, 36, a director for a global professional services company. “I’ve worked at the same company, lived in the same city for 14 years and I feel there’s more to life. I need something to change and I figured yoga can help create a level of calmness when faced with big decisions.”
Change was a common theme, not only in the travellers’ personal lives, but also during the yoga session the following day. “Make transitions mindfully with attention to how we’re moving with breath,” said Aarona, who knows how change can impact our lives, having relocated at least 10 times when she was growing up. “Then we can sharpen our ability to transition mindfully in our lives.”
Christina, a 43 year-old investment banker from New York who has practised yoga for more than 10 years, is a strong believer in its transformative power. “I wouldn’t say these trips have transformed my life per se but they have made for some very strong memories,” she explains. “What has transformed my life is a daily yoga practice. It appears these trips attracts people who are using yoga as a guide for mid-life introspection.”
The second day of the retreat turned out to be an ideal time to reflect. Our morning yoga lesson was preceded by an invigorating hot spring hike. Shortly after setting off, we found two groups of tame horses by the roadside, eager for human touch. Further along, the two-mile Reykjadalur-Klambragil trail led us up the luscious green Reykjadalur Valley, dotted with bubbling hot springs, to the warm Reykjadalsá River in Klambragil.
Once there, we stripped to our swimming costumes and shorts and waded into the flowing water. I lay with my head resting on the riverbank and legs stretched out, glowing in the warm water and early afternoon sun. Five members of the group were busy covering themselves in mud, celebrating the earth’s goodness, becoming tribal within seconds. The others didn’t share their enthusiasm for being at one with Mother Earth. I opted for a few markings on my face. I’m not convinced it made a bit of difference to my skin but it was fun to get involved all the same.
Our days were divided between yoga and excursions, including a morning trip to a fog-shrouded Eyjafjallajökull. This Icelandic volcano, which caused so much travel chaos across Europe after it erupted in April 2010, has become a magnet for tourists. We called in at a nearby cinema, which screens a heart-warming short film about the effects of the eruption on a nearby family farm. In the gift shop, you could even buy pots of ‘Ash to-go’.
Our course also included lessons at Yoga Shala Reykjavík. The class was opened up to locals and the cramped conditions added extra heat, making the workout much more intense. Afterwards, we spotted Björk coming out of a coffee shop opposite our hotel. I ran after her as discreetly as possible and said: “Excuse me, Björk?” She turned around, looking as if she wanted to be someone else, before replying: “It’s my private time, OK.”
Deflated, I returned to the van, reminded once more of the importance of contemplation, this time from a rather surreal encounter with Iceland’s most famous singer. Thankfully, we were off to the Golden Circle tour, covering three of Iceland’s most spectacular sights, which gave me plenty to think about. First stop, Þingvellir National Park, home to the first Viking parliament, where
the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. Next came the geyser, Strokkur, that shoots water up to 100 ft in the air every 4-8 minutes. Watching everyone line up around the rope that frames the geyser, poised with their cameras, was nearly as entertaining as seeing Strokkur build momentum before spurting skywards.
Our final destination, Gullfoss (‘Golden Falls’), is a vast waterfall created by the River Hvítá as it plunges into a crevice 100 feet deep. A double rainbow arched over the cascade made for an enchanting scene, like something out of a Disney film. But with the real world calling me back to meet work deadlines and tackle my very own transition — moving to the Middle East for a new job — it was time to call an end to the retreat.
I’d spent a lot of time with childhood friends, Vikas, 33, and Jonathan, 32, during the trip and this morning was no different. While most of the group returned to Yoga Shala, we explored Reykjavík’s streets in the drizzle, discovering old bookshops, walrus murals, cosy coffee shops and vintage clothes. The boys waited with me until my bus to the airport arrived, surprising me with a ‘The Iceland Horse/Simply the best’ slogan mug to take pride of place on my desk in my new job, a kitsch and touching reminder of our time together on this exotic island.
Had this week been life changing? The yoga made me feel rejuvenated, the scenery was beauty I’d never seen before and, yes, I fell in love with Iceland, but it would be a stretch to say it changed my life. What I can wholeheartedly say is this: the experience, shared with a group of lovely people, is one I will long cherish. I will treasure the memories and keep in touch with the others and, ultimately, try to hold on to that feeling of wonder at my surroundings, enjoyment of simple, natural thrills and deep-rooted gratitude for being alive. Other times I will simply drink from my horse mug and smile.
ESSENTIALS more information
SolYoga offers yoga adventures worldwide: www.solyogatrips.com
Aarona Pichinson, yoga teacher and guide: www.yogaofnourishment.com
Yoga Shala Reykjavík: www.yogashala.is
Visit Iceland, travel guide: www.visiticeland.com
Be open: Even if you think a retreat’s philosophy is a bit far-fetched, try to stay as open-minded as possible.
Respect: You might not have the same knowledge or faith in this area as others but try to respect their views.
Feel free: Make the most of doing what feels right for you during a retreat. Classes generally aren’t compulsory so if you fancy a nap or walk instead, do your own thing.
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)