I will be honest, arriving at Villa Mandala near Aourir in Morocco was initially a shock to the system. You see despite the fact we had spent the previous two days in Marrakesh adjusting to the Moroccan culture and climate, and while we had been warned about the concrete remains around the Villa that had not been entirely cleared since the authorities knocked down some illegal construction work, I was still not prepared for all the rubbish littering the road and surrounding area. It reminded Ewan and me of Kathmandu in Nepal where everyone throws their rubbish into the river and surrounded area.
Still I tried to remain positive; I had been told that the Villa Mandala is a true gem hidden off the beaten track and Banana Village’s best kept secret, plus the arrangements for the trip were so painless that I had a feeling it was just meant to be.
And to be honest any concern I may have had disappeared once I was shown around the Villa and checked out the beautiful bedrooms and the communal comfy seating area with a dedicated tea, cake and fruit space, to say nothing of the outdoor terrace with its swimming pool and of course the amazing wooden rooftop yoga Shala with its stunning views of the Atlantic surf which was rolling onto the natural beach.
I am not quite sure how we found ourselves here to be honest. I have a feeling I came across mention of the Villa on Katy Appleton’s website when I was looking into her training dates, and as it has always been a dream of mine to teach overseas retreats with the family in tow, I guess I thought I should make a start now that my son, Elijah, had begun his travels and Morocco is a little off the beaten track which suits me well, so I contacted the Villa and booked the dates and here we are, arrived in person, Elijah now 18 months old and walking.
The Villa comprises eight uniquely designed bedrooms and each has a real feeling of quality, sprinkled with trinkets and designed to a theme such as the Indian room or the Butterfly room, I just love the Moroccan style, it completely resonates with me, all that detail and color. Four of the beautiful rooms are sea facing and all en-suite – they have the most enormous windows offering fabulous views of the endless horizon and then 4 with a view of the Atlas Mountains or garden view at the back (some en-suite). The rooms were all priced accordingly and offered on a first come, first served basis with a supplement for single occupancy.
As for the yoga Shala, wow, this is something else. I dream of owning a space like this all of my own one day and I was incredibly excited to pretend it was indeed my own on that first afternoon as I practiced in front of those marvelous views of the surf, the roar of the waves soothing my nervous system and making me feel very much at home having grown up on the west coast of Guernsey. This was bliss for me in so many ways – not least the plethora of props at my disposal, and the opportunity to burn incense and candles without it being deemed a safety hazard as it is in the community centers back home! Small pleasures - what a joy indeed. I shall have to keep dreaming and praying (and working!).
The outdoor terrace area was a sanctuary with its much needed swimming pool to cool off during the heat of the day and the shaded area where you could sit to escape the sun and chat to one another or read your book, and of course the sun loungers where you could lie in the sunshine and snooze. And then there were all the beautiful flowers in pots and surrounding the walls, such bright colors and so uplifting for the soul.
That Saturday evening the guests arrived from the UK, 14 students from Guernsey and 1 from Jersey, all travelling together on Easyjet from Gatwick and all known to me. This is unusual and a blessing indeed and I was very excited about the prospect of spending a week working as closely as I could with each student to help develop their practice and their awareness of yoga both on and off the mat and share my passion for Reiki with them too.
As for the yoga retreat itself, well I have been on quite a few over the years all varying in their approach so that in Goa we spent a few days in total silence and intoxicants were not permitted and yet in Italy at the Hill That Breathes, we were actively encouraged to enjoy the local wine and coffee should we choose. In Bali we explored mudras and ritual as well as pranayama, asana and meditation. In Goa we chanted and danced and acted. In Devon we walked through the countryside, and in the Cotswolds we sang. In Australia we joined together for kirtan, and we recited mantra with our rosary beads in the early hours of the morning.
On this retreat I was keen for the students to create their own experience, to join in as many of the classes as they liked, to rest and take time out when they needed, to drink coffee and alcohol if they so wished or to abstain completely, but either way, there were no rules and my only request was that they all try and enjoy themselves!
There were two classes a day except for the yoga free day on the Thursday to coincide with the kitchen being closed that evening and the Saturday when we left for the airport at 4pm. The morning class took place between 7.30-9.30am and was an active, flowing and invigorating class to prepare everyone for the day ahead. This was certainly my favorite time of the day, the air was relatively cool and clear and I loved the light as the sun rose above the Atlas Mountains and shone through the windows at the back of the Shala.
The energy was high during these classes and the students were all very focused so that during the week they were all advancing their practice - some practiced headstands (Sirsasana) and upside down bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) for the first time, others crow pose (Bakasana) and touching their toes (Paschimottanasana and Padagusthasana)and all sorts of other postures that we practiced over the week including backbends, forward bends, inversions, arm balances, twisting, hip opening, balancing and core strengthening poses.
This class was followed by breakfast. Oh how we were spoilt with all the glorious freshly made vegetarian food. I miss it dearly! Breakfast consisted of home-made granola, local dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruits, yoghurts and milk (dairy and non-dairy), local bread, a fresh smoothie, sometimes scrambled eggs, other times boiled eggs, sometimes banana pancakes other times plain pancakes, washed down with coffee and a selection of teas available too. It certainly set us up nicely for the day ahead!
Free time was then set aside each day so that some lay by the pool reading a book and others ventured to the beach to soak up the sunshine, others enjoyed a massage with the on-site experienced French masseur or a trip to the local Hamman for a good old scrub (so that the ladies returned glowing). Yet others ventured into the local town, Aourir, a short walk up the road to use the cash point or follow Karen and Glen’s lead and visit one of the local cafes for some Moroccan mint tea drunk while watching local life take place in the street with all its activities and people going about their daily business - the vegetable and fruit cart sellers reminding us again of Nepal and the freshly baked local bread stalls and then the meat hanging in shop windows and not forgetting the cute and yet dirty kittens waiting nearby (needless to say Elijah loved these!).
Others ventured 5km up the coast to the small fishing village of Taghazout, which has become popular on account of its marvelous surf so it attracts surfers from around the world. A small group of us took a taxi up here one morning and Ewan succumbed to a photo on a camel on the beach with Elijah while I held my breath (he was quite certain before he came away that he was not going to go on a camel!)! Gary, Ewan and I then enjoyed a swim in the Atlantic sea before joining Jackie, Hayley and Amanda for a much needed Moroccan mint tea in one of the many al fresco cafes in the village.
A group of us travelled to Agadir, a popular tourist town, for the afternoon to visit the local Souk, which was fun, albeit a challenge to shop in the 44 degree Celsius heat which had descended by then. Fiona and Chloe got quite some attention as without doubt the Moroccan men were rather taken and their trip to the Souk was far more exciting than the rest of ours with chatter and offerings for tea!
Some did well with their bartering, Margaret and Connie bought themselves some lovely earrings and Hayley managed to buy a rug which impressed me no end. Ewan bartered for some shoes to take home to our Mums and I had a good rummage around the seconds clothing stalls, which was great fun (many clothes are made in Morocco and some find themselves to these stalls so that you can pick up an item of clothing for 80p!). Ewan got himself a haircut and shave with one of the local guys who tried to overcharge but they reached a happy agreement in the end.
It was hot, hot, hot that day though, the mid 40 degree heat-wave had hit town and we were all delighted to head to the main beach for a much needed swim in the sea. Phew, what a relief, even Elijah enjoyed playing in the waves and did not want to leave! However the sun was really intense and while some ate their lunch sitting on the beach, others waited until we returned to the Villa and could sit in the shade.
Another morning some visited the local weekly market a couple of minutes’ walk up the road. This was a feast for the eyes indeed and I could not quite get my head around the plethora of brightly colored, locally grown and fresh fruits and vegetables for sale at such cheap prices compared to what we pay at home. The strawberries actually tasted like strawberries, the cherries were sweet and juicy and the blueberries were amazing!
Elijah, Ewan and I ventured into one of the local tea tents to escape the heat and one of the older men showed us how they make their mint tea, which is such a refreshing drink (I just tried to overlook the enormous amount of sugar that goes into each pot)! We bartered in the market here again too, although I suspect that the antique jewelry I bought for friends back home is anything but antique even if I did pay antique rates, especially as one of the guys gave Elijah a key ring, must have helped to appease his guilt!
It was at this market that we felt like really irresponsible parents as one guy told us to “cover the kid”. Elijah was covered in sunblock and was wearing his bandana but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that he was probably the youngest person in the market. It made me also appreciate the reason that many of the local people wear Kaftans to cover their whole bodies and protect them from the sun. Jan had the right idea with her umbrella to keep her head protected from intense sunshine.
Lunch every day was pre-prepared in individual lunch boxes and stored in the guest fridge at the Villa. This was usually a salad of sorts and consideration was given (as it was at every meal) to those who were gluten and/or diary intolerant. You could take your lunch with you if you went out for the day, or eat it at the Villa at your leisure. Not forgetting of course the bowl of fruit and daily and freshly baked cake available for people to nibble.
On Thursday (our day off) Vicki, Estelle and Lisa all tried surfing. Villa Mandala is owned by the same people who own Surf Marroc, which is renowned for its surfing instructors. The ladies certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and they returned to the Villa all happy with tales of standing-up on their surf boards and sunburnt feet to show for it! The next day they all had sore shoulders but were still talking of trying a lesson down at Vazon this summer so this did not put them off!
Jan, Amanda and Jackie all stayed behind at the Villa enjoying some shade and peace while the rest of us headed off to Paradise Valley. It was perhaps a little crazy going inland into a valley in mid-40 degree Celsius heat but it had to be done. We stopped off at a women’s development center en-route where we watched the ladies splitting the argon nut from its husk so that they can make argon oil, a specialty of the region. Wow, how incredible, these ladies crack nuts for 8 hours a day, such patience, meditation in action perhaps, I have so much respect. The oil is very healing and can be used in cooking but also in beauty products and on the hair. Most of us bought a little something to take away with us.
From there we ventured in the minibus further inland before parking up and following the driver a little further inland 20 minutes or so on foot. It was seriously very hot - I have never known heat like it - and I was really concerned for one of the ladies who is really sensitive to heat, let alone Elijah who was in a sling on my back and needed to be watered down every 50 meters or so.
We finally made it to the freshwater pool and to this day I still cannot help giggling to myself as I recall the moment that Hayley attempted to cross the pool by stepping onto what was quite obviously (to me at least) a slippery stone and sliding fully clothed in the most graceful manner into the pool whilst trying to keep her bag above water! I should not laugh really as sadly her camera was destroyed in the incident (not the memory card fortunately) but it was just incredible the way in which she almost floated into the pool and then just took off her clothes (she was already wearing her swim wear underneath) and continued swimming!
The rest of us joined her and I have to say this was the only time I was actually cold during the whole trip as the water was very fresh and when you swam below the rock face in the shade, well little goose bumps appeared, hoorah for some relief from the intense heat! Inevitably we were hot again the moment we clambered out of the pool back onto the sun-heated rocks and within minutes we were trying to move as quickly as the temperatures would allow back towards the minibus stopping along the way in a cool and shaded café for some yummy mint tea and another opportunity for Elijah to see some kittens, albeit angry hissing ones!
On the Thursday evening with the kitchen being closed we all headed out for dinner at a local restaurant. Despite Nadia’s best efforts (French Moroccan she was able to communicate with the waiters much easier than the rest of us speaking fluent French – thank you again Nadia!), the meal was disappointing after the amazing food we had been eating in the Villa all week and I believe that next time we would probably go to one of the smaller street cafes. Still it is all in the experience and at £6 for a meal we could not complain too much!
Aside from Thursday, the late afternoon class took place from 5.15pm – 7.30pm. This class was slower and more meditative and introspective than the morning class, especially considering the temperatures, which were intense in the yoga Shala by that time of the day. Not only is the Shala on top of the roof and therefore subject to the heat of the sun all day long but it faces west and therefore faces the sun as it slowly descends at this time of the day.
This meant that during the heatwave (which lasted pretty much all week) we had a daily balancing act of opening the front sliding doors and the side windows and yet having the necessary curtains closed so that a breeze was able to come in and yet no one was practicing in direct sunlight. I opened the back windows during a mindfulness session on the second afternoon but quickly realized that this encouraged the garden flies into the room, which created quite a reaction from the students so we voted to keep these closed the rest of the week deciding the heat was more bearable than flies crawling all over you, especially during relaxation! It was a relief the final Friday afternoon when the temperatures eased and we could enjoy the class without the constant concern about curtains and windows!
I must admit I have found this quite a lot over the years; that when you come to focus on your practice on retreat or intense training courses, the flies and the mosquitoes will appear, and so too in this instance the heat (fortunately a dry heat, I have been suffocated by humid heat too in the past). I believe they come for a reason, to teach us a little bit more about the manner in which we can let go of irritation or wanting things to be different to how they are, of the manner in which we create our own suffering by our reaction to those things we cannot change in our lives. You have to laugh really, the Divine works in mysterious (and not so mysterious) ways!
These afternoon classes were organic and I tried to give consideration to the temperatures and the conditions within the Shala so that each day was different and we incorporated a variety of practices so that students could deepen their experience of yoga beyond the mat – these included chanting, meditation, pranayama, restorative yoga, gentle asana, mindful movement, yoga nidra, relaxation and Bija mantra.
One day we attempted a more active class to opportune the heat, a little like Bikram which is practiced in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius, and this was received a little like marmite, some loved it and some loathed it, so at least everyone has a better understanding of whether the latest craze for hot yoga is for them or not!
Immediately following this class, evening nibbles and dips were available on the terrace or inside the comfy communal living area depending upon how warm we were all feeling. The dips were always really yummy, I particularly enjoyed the kidney bean one and the humus. Some drank wine and others stuck to water, there was no pressure either way. Dinner excitedly followed and was always incredibly tasty - oh my gosh what a shock to return home and have to cook for the family again!
Over the week we enjoyed a plethora of dishes including vegetarian kebabs, lentil shepherd’s pie, beetroot with green beans and tapenade, broad bean Tagine with carrots, Moroccan salad, pumpkin and green bean thai curry, eggplant lasagna with zucchini (the dairy-free one was my favorite!), creamy spinach with mushrooms, beetroot patties, couscous with mint and cucumber and pumpkin and walnut salad. There was more and we were all given a copy of the recipes when we got home although I doubt the dishes will taste as good as they did there with all those super fresh and local ingredients and spices.
There were deserts too including a chocolate and avocado tart, orange with cinnamon, lemon sorbet, seasonal fruit salad and a selection of Moroccan cakes. Yummy! After dinner most students headed off for bed although some chose to sit up and chat together enjoying the warm air (one evening it was 30 degrees at 10pm) and another glass of wine. On our second evening together we joined on the scrub land just ahead of the Villa and Ewan made a fire for us so that we could burn our pieces of paper where we had written down all we wanted to let go of from our lives as part of a burning bowl ceremony, with the stars shining overhead and a lot of orbs floating around us in the air.
Another evening a few of us ventured to watch the surf from the shoreline and Mohammed, the wonderful Moroccan guardian of Villa Mandala took Elijah, fully clothed, into the surf and then took him back to the Villa and plonked him on a surfboard in the pool – his first surf experience and in Morocco too, my brother Ross would be most envious as he dreams of surfing here, not that Elijah was really surfing!
Mohammed and his team at the Villa were great, they really made us feel at home and did what they could to help. Like with most of the Moroccan’s we encountered, they all took a shine to Elijah and he was frequently whisked into the kitchen for cuddles and kisses (they love to kiss children over there, he even got kissed by a little girl in the surf one day and a teenage girl ran after him on the beach and planted a kiss on his face!) and bless them, they opened the freezer for him one day so that they could all cool down together!
The Villa is managed on behalf of the owners by an Australian yoga teacher called Tara, who is now living in Morocco and would ordinarily teach the yoga to visiting individuals who book with Villa Mandala directly for one of the many yoga and surf holidays they run. She is assisted by a British yoga teacher called Jenny and they both checked in twice a day to make sure everything was running smoothly. They also booked all our activities and taxis so that we did not need to manage this ourselves.
By Friday the heatwave had passed and the temperatures had returned to a more reasonable 25-30 degree Celcius, which was so much more bearable and made taking Elijah to the beach far easier than when the sun was so intense, being that he is so fair skinned. There are a choice of beaches near to the Villa, one which has thus far escaped tourism and which I loved for its cleanliness and the fact you could do your own thing, the other one was a little more touristy and there was the opportunity for camel and horse riding and also people selling donuts – and yes, Ewan tried these too!!
I was sad when Saturday arrived, the whole area had grown on me throughout the week so that I saw beauty where once I had only seen the rubbish littering the surrounding area. Ewan and I laughed about this and it reminded me very much of this fabulous reading by Eckhart Tolle called “Beauty Arises In The Stillness Of Your Presence”, which I shared with the students on that Saturday morning, which reads as follows:
Beyond the beauty of the external forms there is more here:
Something that can’t be named, something ineffable,
Some deep, inner, holy essence.
Whenever and wherever there is beauty,
This inner essence shines through somehow.
It only reveals itself to you when you are present.
Mind, which lives in the past or future,
Can neither recognize nor create beauty.
Could it be that this nameless essence and your presence
Are one and the same thing?
Would it be there without your presence?
Go deeply into it.
Find out for yourself.
It is so true that the more you slow your life down, the more you are present, the more you become present to yourself, your soul then, the more beauty there is in everything, the more presence.
We followed a relatively balanced sequence that last morning, putting together all we had learned over the week, giving thanks to Surya, the sun God and provider of life, and giving thanks to ourselves and each other for a fabulous week. It was truly an honor for me to teach up to 4 hours of yoga every day, I felt energized, alive and clear and hope that the students felt the benefit of practicing this much in a week and spending time in such a healing and happy environment.
After the class and our final breakfast together, we completed our burning bowl ceremony by writing down those things we would like to bring into our lives over the next year, a powerful practice and accompanied with angel card readings, how I love sharing these with others, they are fabulous ethereal beings!
The rest of the day we all pottered as we awaited our evening flight to Gatwick from Agadir. We had to vacate our bedrooms before breakfast but were able to enjoy full use of the Villa throughout the day and a lunch was prepared for us as normal, and we even got a chocolate and banana cake to share too! Some enjoyed their final massage, others scrubbed clean at the Hamman and others soaked up the last of the Moroccan sunshine by the pool or on the beach, us making the most of the opportunity to swim in the beautifully warm sea before returning to the cooler sea back home!
We were all flying back to Gatwick on the same flight that evening, which meant we did not get to our hotels until midnight. Standing in the queue for check-in back to Guernsey the following morning at 7am with some of the other ladies, we commented how, in that early morning and lack of sleep, mid travelling state of being we felt anything but enlivened after our week of sun, yoga and healthy eating. Still after a good night’s sleep I felt great and was delighted to be teaching the next evening and some of the ladies from the retreat even joined the class! Needless to say I have made a provisional booking for 2017 and Ewan and I are already looking forward to some more Moroccan fun and just hope that the planned development work in the area does not destroy what is indeed a hidden gem!
Photos from the retreat can be viewed at the Beinspired Yoga facebook page (this is a private group so you may need to subscribe).