Going slow in Goa
Sunshine creeps its way into the cracks and crevices of my bamboo hut, dotting my room with light as I wake to the sound of waves outside my door. It’s sunrise and I’m about to have my first ever beach-side yoga lesson. A handful of sleepy bodies emerge from their huts, mine included, and migrate towards the sea-side sofas, where hot lemon ginger tea and fruit salad await, offering a calming bit of energy before class.
It’s day one of a six-week Indian odyssey. As I sip on my tea, I dig my feet into the sand and think to myself: “I’m going to like this place.’
The aspiring yogi
I wouldn’t go so far to call myself a yogi. Far from it, in fact. I’d been practising Ashtanga yoga for about six months and not even “properly”, meaning I was teaching myself at home using a DVD. Yes, I know it’s not the best way to learn, with no-one there to straighten out the kinks in your asanas or correct you when you’re doing something horribly wrong, but it was the most affordable, convenient way for me to start learning at the time.
As I sip on my tea, I dig my feet into the sand and think to myself: “I’m going to like this place.’
When I decided to go to India for six weeks, I thought it would be a crime not to take lessons while I was there, so I booked myself into six nights at Lotus Yoga Retreat in Goa. I was attracted to the chilled-out nature of the place where guests could join up to two yoga classes a day but there was no obligation to take part. That way I could join classes as I pleased, with no guilt if I felt like taking a dip in the sea instead of doing downward dog. I wasn’t after some military-style operation where talking isn’t allowed and sipping the occasional cocktail is considered a cardinal sin. I was going on a holiday, after all.
Located in South Goa’s Patnem, Lotus is a blissful sanctuary that’s perfect for the beginner yogi. Just metres away from the sea, the retreat is made up of two yoga shalas (houses), one ocean-facing and the other at the foot of a small, leafy mountain, a smattering of beach huts and an outdoor bamboo bar with sofas made for sinking into and admiring glorious views over quiet Patnem beach.
Lotus is the perfect place for the beginner yogi, as it allows guests to try different styles of yoga with different teachers. Plus, guests come in all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, so novices need not feel intimated. During my stay, there’s a rotation of ashtanga, hatha, yin, vinyasa flow and iyengar, each offering different degrees of physical difficulty. On day one, I try my hand at vinyasa flow and iyengar, day two I do some yin yoga and on day three it’s ashtanga, where I feel all those hours of DVD lessons in my bedroom paid off.
I begin to appreciate how the different styles of yoga make me feel. I love the physical intensity of ashtanga while the lengthened time in each yin pose feeds my strength and patience and relaxes my mind. We play with different equipment during iyengar, such as blocks and straps, and the tools help our bodies to flex further into the poses than is possible on our own. I begin to understand yoga’s relationship between the body and the mind, where effort and relaxation somehow strike the perfect balance. I also notice the subtle difference in energy between the morning and afternoon classes. Mornings seem to give you more vigour and vitality with the promise of the new day ahead. Afternoon classes take on a more tranquil feel, adorned with a blissful background of the sun setting into the ocean while locals play cricket on the beach and dogs playfully run around them.
A peaceful mind
I had done a very small amount of mindfulness mediation before I arrived at Lotus, so when I discovered group meditation was on offer, too, I was keen to give it a go. Sitting on a yoga mat, posture straight, legs crossed, eyes closed, my aim was to take time out each day and focus the mind on the here and now.
“The mind tends to wander, it’s what minds do,” says Bella, our meditation instructor. “Whether it has wandered once or twice or a hundred times, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have realised it has wandered and that you bring your attention back to your breathing.” Good to know, because my mind has a very short attention span and seems to be all over the place.
For a while we focus on our inhalation only, then our exhalation, then where we can feel our bodies contracting and expanding as we breathe. We focus on sounds that are far away. I can hear a train, dogs barking, horns beeping in the distance. We turn our concentration to closer sounds and I can hear the sound of breath — mine and that of the people sitting around me — and the discreet shuffle as someone shifts their weight to make themselves more comfortable.
“We often let thoughts weigh us down, thinking about what’s happened in the past or worrying about what’s going to happen in the future. If you can push those thoughts aside for a while and take time each day to just focus on what is going on right now, you’ll realise they are just thoughts and what is going on right now in this moment isn’t bad at all,” Bella continues. I take these wise words away with me and I feel myself enlightened with a clarity I didn’t have before.
It’s not long before I find myself in a routine. I wake up for 7am meditation. At 7.30 it’s fresh fruit and tea, followed by a short walk on the beach, then back to the retreat by 8.30 for an hour and a half of yoga. This is followed by a swim in the ocean and a lie in the sun. At 11 I indulge in Lotus’ hearty brunch then I either read, go for another swim, head to one of the local beach bars for a lassi or go to check out another village or nearby town. If I’m up for it, I take in the afternoon yoga class at 4.30. If I’m not, I read or take a leisurely snooze on the beach. Most nights I have dinner at Lotus, which offers a delicious selection of vegetarian food, something this self-proclaimed carnivore never thought she’d enjoy so much.
Food for thought
Did I mention I love meat? Juicy steaks (medium-rare, thanks), snags on the barbie, racks of ribs … if it had a heartbeat, I am generally happy to eat it. And there’s no shortage of the stuff in Goa with lamb, chicken, seafood readily available. (Cows are a bit harder to come by on your plate, mind you, but the living variety are in abundance, wandering along some of Goa’s stunning beaches.)
But vegetarians rejoice: Indian cuisine is ample with flavour-filled vegetarian delights that will seduce even the most hardened of carnivores. I start to find myself becoming a vegie convert, commencing with my time at Lotus, where all the dishes are vegetarian and there’s not a boring salad in sight. I wolf down chilli paneer, satay and veg with rice, lentils, spicy tofu noodles, curried egg omelettes and more.
My time at Lotus comes to an end and the weeks go by in Goa. I find that I’m only eating meat once or twice a week, which is less often than I ever have before. And I don’t even miss it. My energy levels are up, my weight is down and overall I am feeling pretty fantastic.
Meanwhile, I start taking drop-in yoga classes as I slowly navigate my way up north, beach by beach, even taking the time to meditate on my own some mornings. I do find it hard without Bella there to help keep my mind focused (it really does like to wander) but I keep at it nonetheless.
I eventually find myself in Vagator, North Goa, where I discover the vegan paradise that is Bean Me Up. And my taste buds are quite pleased. A courtyard restaurant surrounded by a jungle Garden of trees, hanging lanterns and parachutes, the ethos here is fresh, organic, vegan fare.
“While lacto-vegetarian restaurants are very common in India, Bean Me Up is a vegan restaurant,” owner Shawn tells me. “We take great care to make our own vegan cheese, tofu and tempeh, using organic non-GMO (genetically modified organism) soya bean. Also, unlike most vegetarian restaurants [in India], we offer a world cuisine and don’t restrict ourselves to just spicy Indian food.”
I begin to understand yoga’s relationship between the body and the mind, where effort and relaxation somehow strike the perfect balance.
It sells wood-fired pizzas, homemade pasta, wraps, burgers, salads, ice-creams, cakes and more, and ingredients include soy products, tempeh and wheat-gluten seitan. “Our vision is to have appetising meals, which are cruelty free and have a low carbon footprint. We use local and organic products wherever possible,” Shawn adds. Having opened about 14 years ago in Anjuna, the restaurant has since grown and expanded, moving to a larger premises in nearby Vagator and also opening a guest house, health shop and yoga space; solid proof that the Bean Me Up’s formula is one that works.
I tuck into a fresh and tasty tofulafel and refreshing zenergy smoothie made of cocoa and strawberry, which I sip through a bamboo straw (nice touch). For anyone who visits Bean Me Up, returning to this vegan-haven is inevitable. I go back several times to greedily gobble down tofu steak, raw granola porridge, quinoa and tabboleh salad and a big slice of tofu cheesecake.
Six weeks in Goa fly by too quickly and before I know it, my holiday is over and I’m on a plane out of there. Despite my departure, I am taking a piece of this amazing place with me. When I leave, my mind is refreshed, my body is in the best shape it’s been in a long time and my overall view on life has shifted to a more positive place. Goa, you have stolen my heart. Oh, yes, I will be back.
Where to yoga
Yoga is extremely accessible in Goa. Whether you want to sign up for a full yoga retreat, take on teacher training or just drop into a few classes, you’ll be able to do it all here. These tried-and-tested options are sure to get your sweat on.
Deepak Kappala, Patnem Beach
Deepak was trained in Mysore (the home of ashtanga yoga) and teaches ashtanga and hatha yoga classes. Drop-in classes at this stunning outdoor shala surrounded by palm trees and overlooking the beach cost from 300 rupees. Classes tend to be small so you’ll get lots of one-to-one time. He also specialises in massage. You’ll find Deepak’s shala located in the confines of Home restaurant towards the northern end of Patnem Beach. yogadeepakkappala.com
Oceanic, Starco Junction, Anjuna
Offering a bit of tranquillity from the mayhem that is Anjuna, Oceanic offers daily vinyasa flow and hatha drop-in classes twice daily in a modest indoor yoga studio. Drop-in classes cost around 500 rupees per class with a discount offered if you buy in bulk. Teacher training, reiki and meditation courses are also available. oceanicyoga.com
Sampoorna Yoga, Fatima Guest House, Agonda
Teacher training, drop-in classes, retreats, holidays — these guys do it all. Daily drop-in classes take place at Fatima Guest House in a spacious outdoor shala packed with yoga equipment. Drop-in classes are combined with the yoga teacher-training classes, so the numbers tend to be quite big. Drop-in classes cost about 300 rupees plus there’s a bulk-buy discount option on offer. sampoornayogaretreat.com
- Air India and Jet Airways offer flights to Goa. There are no direct flights from Australia and you will most likely need to change in Delhi or Mumbai. Be warned, getting through customs in Goa can be a tedious with long wait times. Once you get to Goa, there is a taxi service outside the airport that can take you to your destination with written prices quoted to destinations throughout the region.
- Taxis, motorbike taxis, tuk-tuks and local buses are all available to move you around Goa. Travel around the region is cheap and easy. Hiring a scooter is a great way to get around to nearby beaches and towns and is very popular choice for tourists and locals alike.
When to go
- Goa’s high season runs from November to April.
Where to stay
- Beach huts and very basic accommodation are available all over Goa’s beaches. Generally, you will get a bed with mosquito net and bathroom from anywhere between 500 and 1200 rupees (AU$8.30-20). Prices go up over Christmas and New Year. You don’t need to book these in advance. If you want to stay somewhere more up-market, fancy beach resorts and upscale hotels are also available. Do your research online and make a reservation before you get there.
What to do
- Lotus Yoga Retreat is located on Patnem Beach and prices start from €42 a night based on shared accommodation. This includes two yoga classes a day, wake-up tea and fruit and a full brunch. lotus-yoga-retreat.com
- Bean Me Up is located on Ozran Beach Road, Anjuna-Vagator, and also offers accommodation. beanmeup.in
- Anjuna’s famous market is on every Wednesday: a colour-filled bazaar selling clothing, textiles, hammocks, artwork, jewellery and more.
- Indulge in some relaxation. Massage and Ayurvedic treatments are readily available.
- Take an Indian cooking class. Just look for posters advertising classes and you’ll be whipping up a mean curry in no time.