Sri Lanka yoga retreat

Social highs and spiritual rejuvenation in a jungle hideaway

Sri Lanka  yoga retreat A gloriously colourful, hand-painted hillside temple near the retreat - © Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

A stressful start

The sticker on the rear windscreen said ‘No Weapons’ but the driver was driving like there was a gun at his neck. Houses flicked past, each one so lost amid foliage that the humans seemed to dwell there only on the jungle’s sufferance. We overtook everything: army vehicles, other rattletrap cars and tuk tuks, as well as ‘Mad Max’-style tractors with ropes like reins connecting the driver on his perch with the motor out front. Sounding the horn was a statement of being rather than an attempt to warn of danger. Over the three-hour journey, as we swayed into and out of the path of oncoming traffic, it occured to me that this was a pretty stressful way to start a yoga retreat.

It was the first time I’d tried anything like this. I knew that Ulpotha was in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle at the base of the Galgiriwiya Mountains, that the tourist element was so in harmony with the village that their huts and ours were pretty much the same, and that there were four hours of yoga a day, two masseurs and an Ayurvedic centre – but no hot water or electricity. I didn’t know anyone going except the yoga teacher, Jean Hall, whose classes in London I’d taken for years and who’d been coming here to teach an annual fortnight for even longer.

The yogic journey

I started doing yoga out of curiosity – I couldn’t quite place it, between Madonna’s hard-bodied fanaticism and what I saw as soft-bellied spirituality. It turned out it was all about the teacher, and I was lucky – Jean was only the second I’d tried and she was wonderful.

When my father died, I went to her classes and cried all the way through them. They came as close as anything did to providing comfort. Yoga also taught me to stand still – and, in a subtler sense, to remain in one place, neither regretting what I’d lost nor planning what I thought I needed.

Ulpotha was gorgeous and so peaceful that I began to see the attractions of the monastic life. I woke as dawn stroked the rice paddy outside my mud hut. I pulled back my mosquito net and padded through the trees to the open-air shower. Then I headed for the kade (tea hut), where a cauldron of coriander-and-ginger tea burbled above a stick fire and snacks and fruit fortified me for the two hours of yoga to come. The walk up to the open-walled yoga shala passed more thatched huts, a lily pond and, more often than not, a bunch of curious monkeys waiting to laugh at us.

The morning session was powerful, the afternoon (which required mosquito lotion and a torch, the sun going down with tropical abruptness) less so. All were optional. Some people were here for the Ayurvedic centre, where Dr Mudunkothge dispensed ancient treatments, including sauna, massage, purging and several days spent with a bandanna round one’s oil-wrapped head, for a fee. I’m cynical about the ability of such medicine to help people who return to a non-Ayurvedic lifestyle afterwards.

But, since the tourist payments funded a free clinic for the village and paid the doctor’s salary, I was glad it was there. As the good doctor, who sees up to 50 villagers a day in the clinic, ruefully put it, ‘Money is no good but we need it, yes?’

The location, the history

For the rest of us, there was a huge bathing tank – built a thousand years or so ago to irrigate the rice fields (Ulpotha means ‘water source’) – and the jungle to explore, as well as a gloriously painted cave temple to trek to. Telephone Rock, so called because it used to be the only location with phone reception (there still aren’t many), was a great place for sun-lovers to toast; the masseurs worked out of huts open to a stream. Meals were served in a wall-less room next to the old manor house or ambalama (traditionally, a place for travellers to rest in a Sri Lankan home). Big trays of curry were served with fresh juices and a rare strain of red rice revived by Tennekoon, the farmer who helped Sri Lankan investment banker Viren Pereira and South African property developer Giles Scott resurrect Ulpotha in the mid-1990s.

The place was quietly but exquisitely organised, largely due to Scott’s sister Suzi who spends large chunks of the year here. But it didn’t start that way. First there was the attempt to revive the local agriculture. Then Giles bumped into someone in London looking for a place to hold a yoga retreat, and some huts had to be hastily erected to accommodate them.

‘We didn’t intend there to be no electricity,’ Pereira explained on a fleeting visit. ‘It just took so long. Then we thought… we need electricity – mainly for a fridge. But that’s just a way of eating food that’s not fresh.’ So they installed candles and solar panels instead.

Living in such an ‘organic’ environment, I had to discipline my mind as much as my body. There were wildlife and bugs everywhere – and I’m a Londoner who squeaks when she sees a spider. So the same mental focus that enabled me to stand on my head in class was employed when I had to make my way, torch in hand, through the dark and populous jungle. The journey, each evening, to a hut where only a net shielded me from the great outdoors was an act of will.

At one with nature

The others went boating on the tank at night or sat up talking for hours – it was a wonderful place for conversation, with lots of candlelight and no piped entertainment. But I went to bed earlier and earlier, wanting to get the walk, and the sight of whatever my hut housed that night, over with. There was no actual danger – villagers were always nearby and my hut backed on to another – but over the course of the week, I shared living space with spiders, snakes and millipedes, and three other girls got woken by monkeys fighting in their hut. There was a friendly competition each morning for the worst visitation; nobody wanted to win. But there was compensation: buffalo in the lake, paradise kingfishers flitting through the paddy fields, the cheep of a gecko or the flash of a firefly. Walking to dinner one night, I had to stop to let a terrapin cross my path. Ulpotha is not man dominating nature; it’s a sort of cohabitation. Even Suzi, an old hand, came shrieking out of the trees after she irritated a monkey slightly more than is recommended.

The yoga bunny social

I was quite proud of facing down the wildlife; but the greatest pleasure of the trip was the people. I’d expected wealthy yoga bunnies with underfed haunches and overstuffed wallets, but perhaps people like that don’t want open showers and misbehaving monkeys. Most of the group were young (thirties), professionally successful (well, it isn’t cheap) and interesting.  They worked in the arts and other creative fields and had, without exception, a lot to say for themselves. Which, in a place where reading after 6pm was liable to give you eye strain and none of the usual social lubricators were available, was vital. Over the course of one day, I found myself debating the worst yoga position; hearing about the founding of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire; singing the praises of sherry; pondering the wisdom of sleeping in the hillside hermit’s cave; discussing the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa; and considering the power of the heart, which pumps blood the distance from England to Australia every day.

All the interaction was at least as beneficial as the yoga. Ulpotha is a place to heal if you’re hurting, but also if you simply want to be alone in good company. A place of odd privations and unexpected luxuries, completely different from anywhere else I’d been, it was beautiful and intensely memorable. I have stayed in touch with the group I met there. I am struggling to keep up my yoga attendance, and, occasionally, I manage to stand still and breathe no matter where I happen to be. And spiders be warned: I intend to return.