Excitement mixed with anticipation rises as I turn left off the dirt track and up the dusty driveway. I’m about to do something I’ve never done before; I’m spending Christmas at an Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat in Spain.
At the end of the track I park and take a moment to look around me at the patchwork background that makes up the Sierra de Cádiz. After a relentless summer and long dry autumn, it’s finally starting to turn green. A whitewashed hacienda, stands before me shining against the bright Andalusian sky.
It’s been about eight years since I last came to Suryalila. Back then, I was looking for a venue for a writing retreat. This time, I’m not here as a writing retreat planner, but as a guest on the Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat.
Forty eight hours ago I had no idea that I would be spending Christmas at Suryalila in the hills of Andalucía. A last minute booking – I’d telephoned the day before – brought about my destination for the following seven days. This was a whole new experience for me; I’d never been on a retreat before and, while I’ve spent Christmas in Spain without my family, I’ve never spent it with a group of complete strangers. Plus, it’s been a long time since I have practised any yoga properly and I wonder if I’m up to it.
Settling in at Suryalila Yoga Retreat
Following the white arch into the courtyard, I find the reception where I’m warmly greeted by the lady who took my booking yesterday. She calls someone to show me to my room in Casa Covinda. My home for the next week has two floors, a communal space with a fireplace and central heating (which is a relief as it can get very cold on winter nights in this part of Spain), various en suite rooms and a shared dormitory with a bathroom across the corridor.
My bed is in the shared dorm. There are four beds altogether and two are already taken, so I choose one of the remaining two and begin to unpack. When I booked I was given the choice of a bed in either a shared dorm or a bell tent. As it’s December, I chose the dorm. It’s a long time since I’ve shared a room with people I don’t know and I send a silent message to Buddha that no-one snores.
After unpacking, I wander round the grounds getting a feel for the place. In the yoga dome, that can be seen for miles across the countryside, a yoga session is taking place for those who arrived earlier than me. I’m reluctant to enter in case there are rules about interrupting a session in progress, so I decide to explore instead taking a peek inside the bell tents to check out what could have been my other accommodation choice.
As the December sun starts to lower over the lake at Bornos, I message family and friends to say I’ve arrived safely and share photos of the view before making my way to the dining room. The temperature has dropped and the log burner creates a welcome warmth. I wander up to a long wooden table to explore the beautiful ceramic dishes. Each one is filled with colourful looking food ready for us to help ourselves.
Busting preconceived ideas at the Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat
I choose a table near the big glass window that overlooks the pergola, the pool and the pinkish hues of the evening sunset. Someone chimes the gong for dinner and people start to take their seats. I feel nervous in case no-one sits with me, but before long I’m joined by a lady who introduces herself as Sheila. She tells me she’s a yoga teacher; she’s wanted to come to Suryalila ever since she did her training as an instructor in Bali with Vidya, our host. Petra who is from Germany also joins us and then Shawn who is from the USA but works in Europe.
My preconceived ideas that the yoga retreat will be full of single women of a certain age are quickly dispersed as a married couple take the last two seats at our table. As the evening goes on, we discover that there are 40 of us altogether, ranging widely in age; a multi-national group brought together by yoga and a desire to do something different at Christmas.
Dinner is vegetarian. It’s so good I get up for a second helping. Conversation flows as everyone discusses why they have decided to come on the retreat. Every story is different. After a welcome speech from Vidya, I’m ready to retire to my room hoping to get some rest as the first yoga session begins at 8.00am.
The next day I wake early and take myself into the dining room for a cup of tea before the yoga session. It’s still warm from last night’s log fire. As day breaks, I make my way to the dome. On arrival, I discover two things that make my heart sing – the view across the mountains from inside the dome and the underfloor heating. As someone who suffers from cold feet leading to cramp when I practise yoga, this is like music to my feet. It’s a 90-minute yoga session and half way through I realise the full extent of not having practised for a while. Everyone else seems to be doing fine. I persevere and hope no-one notices how inflexible I am.
After yoga, breakfast is served. It feels like luxury. I’m a big fan of breakfast and this has to be one of the best buffet breakfasts I have ever seen. I tuck in hungrily (after all that yoga) to fresh fruit, freshly-laid eggs, different breads, chia seed and yoghurt pudding, tomatoes and olive oil, homemade jams and marmalade, cakes, coffee and herbal teas.
A quick look at the timetable shows that a walk along the River Maceite is scheduled for today. As I have done this walk various times, I debate whether to stay at Suryalila and chill out instead. My legs win and I find myself on the minibus to Benamahoma to start the walk at the water mill along the river to El Bosque. I’m glad I decided to come; it gives me an opportunity to get to know people as we walk and talk. Back in time for lunch, we are treated again to another filling feast before the afternoon activity and evening yoga session.
It feels good
Yoga takes place twice a day throughout the week; once in the morning and once before the evening meal, except on Christmas Day, when the afternoon session is replaced by a sound bath. Each session is 90 minutes but what I love is that you are free to leave whenever you wish and no-one worries if you arrive late in the morning or skip a session. Within a few days of practising, I notice that I am starting to feel more flexible and sleeping better. I had forgotten how good yoga makes me feel and practising regularly is having a positive effect on me.
Many of the people on the retreat are seasoned yogis and instructors. Others, like me, haven’t practised for a while and one or two are fairly new to yoga. It makes no difference. Everyone sticks to their own pace and pushes themselves as much or as little as they wish. We practise enlivening Vinyasa flow in the morning with our instructors Vidya and Lidia and restorative Yoga Nidra in the afternoon. Nothing is compulsory. Nobody criticises. Everyone is free to take part as much or as little as they want to.
After a couple of days, I feel comfortable leaving at 9.00am even though the session has not yet finished. I reflect on this and realise that, whilst at first I felt embarrassed leaving early, it wasn’t long before I felt empowered by my choices. I’m no longer worried about my lack of litheness; I’m simply focusing on my own body’s response to the experience. And, the thought of breakfast.
Not just yoga
One afternoon I listen to the talk about Bhagavad Gita. Another evening I watch the video on the story of Suryalila. I am fascinated by Vidya’s story and her project. At the age of 52, after searching worldwide, Vidya decided that an abandoned olive farm in southern Spain would make the perfect place to set up a yoga retreat. She set about transforming the hacienda in Andalucía into a yoga hotel, planting trees in the process to regenerate the land that had turned dry and desert-like from over-farming.
One of my favourite non-yoga sessions is the one on the art of Pranayama (breathing). Liam, our instructor is Wim Hoff trained. The idea behind Wim Hoff’s technique is that control of your breath gives you control of your body. Hence, the technique is often used to overcome the uncomfortable feelings associated with submerging your body in cold water. That is to say, you take control of your breathing and ease yourself gently into cold water and, consequently, enjoy the health benefits associated with cold water dips.
As I lie on a mat in the dome, the heated floor gently warming my back, Liam talks us through the breathing. It feels a little like a guided meditation as we breathe in and out, conscious of each breath. As I focus on my breathing, my mind drifts away into a wonderful dream-like space. It’s the most relaxed I have felt so far.
After the session, Liam invites us to take a dip in the salt water pool. The water is cold but it’s midday and the winter sunshine is warm. Almost everyone who took part in the session gets in. Except me. I’m not quite brave enough to submerge myself fully in the cold water. It’s not the cold water itself that puts me off. It’s the thought of being cold when I get out. Perhaps I need a bit more practice at this technique. Or, maybe, I’m just happy with my choice not to get in.
On the last day there’s a tour of Danyadara; the permaculture project that Suryalila supports. Our guide explains the importance of permaculture – a natural and sustainable approach to land management – as we visit the allotment. At the end of the tour we work together to plant 20 new trees as part of Suryalia’s regeneration project.
Is it still Christmas on the Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat?
Despite the retreat’s name, we haven’t forgotten it’s Christmas. A beautiful tree stands in the dining room. On Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day there’s live Flamenco music from local musicians and classical Indian music with dancing. At our table we share a bottle of local, organic wine over Christmas lunch. We even eat sprouts and mince pies.
What I’ve learnt
By the end of the retreat, I am feeling refreshed. I’ve made new friends, had many interesting conversations, learnt about Bhagavad Gita and developed a new relationship with yoga. Every day I’ve reminded myself how lucky I am to be here and what amazing value this retreat is. I’ve eaten freshly prepared organic food daily. I’ve practised yoga twice a day with fantastic teachers. I’ve enjoyed Flamenco music and danced to classical Indian fusion music.
I’ve reminded myself how important it is to take time out to recharge my batteries, to stretch my comfort zone and to trust the process.
Practical information for the Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat
Suryalila’s Escape Christmas Yoga Retreat in south west Spain usually takes place from 21st – 28th December. (I attended the retreat in December 2022). Please note that activities may vary each year.
Nearest airports: Seville, Malaga, Jerez de la Frontera
What do you need to take?
Enthusiasm, comfy clothes, sensible footwear for walking, a warm fleece or likewise for the evenings, euros or bank card in case you decide to treat yourself to a massage or something from the lovely onsite shop.