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Who’d have thought it? A yoga sanctuary at Sandy Lane, albeit one with a pink-neon-lit pool.Lisa Johnson goes holistic in the warmth of the Caribbean. Photographs by Shannon Greer

The sea beneath the catamaran was a pale aqua colour. Francesca sat up front, humming to the gravelly vocals of Jamaican reggae singer Buju Banton, while Lisa shimmied up the mast. We all went snorkelling and as I turned my gaze from a starfish on the seabed, a Hawksbill turtle swam past my nose. I followed it for a while, then I climbed out to watch the sunset. Look out for the green flash! yelled skipper Eddie. We looked and did not see. But the sky was like molten lava, a swirling mass of red and gold. Then suddenly the stars were out and Eddie was massaging Francesca’s feet. I felt more like an extra in a music video than a yoga student on a retreat.

Yogoloji runs retreats in a number of enticing locations from Tanzania and Cyprus to the highlands of Scotland. Barbados was one of its original destinations and works on several levels: as well as providing 10 day of high quality yoga and holistic therapies, it delivers a proper dose of winter sunshine and a Barbados experience that is both rootsy and ruggedly beautiful.

I had worried that the choice of venue “the Sandy Lane Estate“ might be too manicured and flash to provide the right mood. But Jamoon, our private villa, had none of the Palladian pomp of the famous hotel, The seven suite villa is certainly luxurious, with its pool lit up in pink neon and a staff of six, including a chef. But it also has the easy elegance of a private house, with oil paintings on the walls, Etruscan vases on antique cabinets and art books on coffee tables. Furnished by Francesca’s interior designer mother and recently refurbished, the villa doubles as a family bolthole. Francesca has been holidaying here for years. Now aged 32 she has an insider’s love of the island and is friends with many of the locals including a marine biologist, her brother, our surf instructor, adn Bongo Man, a foot masseur on the Sandy Lane beach who has applied fresh aloe to the feet of all four Rolling Stones, and has an album of snaps to prove it!

For anyone who has dabbled in yoga and wants to know what it feels like to really get stuck in, a retreat is definitely the way forward, thought it’s hard work. Every day starts with two hours of vinyasa (dynamic) yoga, followed by an hour of holistic therapy and one or two hours of soft flowing Yin yoga and/or meditating before supper. So it was just as well the yoga space was a balmy outdoor veranda that looked out onto gardens of palm, bamboo and shak shak trees. Fans whirred and incense wafted as Lisa told us that Om was the sound of the universe; green monkeys flashed past as we progressed from sun salutations to shoulder stand; tiny frogs hopped across our mat s as we meditated to the night chorus.

Our teacher has studied with Mark Whitwell and appears in his latest DVD. She is inspirational: sunny and graceful strong and supple, continually adapting the posture sequences and intensity of the practice to suit the ability of the group.

Gradually I began to feel a good deal stronger and enormously smug as I hovered in crow pose. More importantly, I began to understand the real benefit of yoga: shifting the mindset. As I let the breath move me like a current or wind. I pictured myself arriving at a set of doors that were closed, pushing at them gently, and believing that one day they would open, but there was no point rapping my knuckles raw until they did,. A fine approach I decided, that I could apply to other areas of my life.

One evening we went to the beach to meditate. I found myself meditating on meditation is it like hypnosis? Lisa told me later “Yes, both can help you transcend to an alpha state of deep relaxation, which can be scientifically measured”. Eventually I stopped peeking at the sunset and started listening to the waves, and as I let my mind drift I found that issues were surfacing, whirring around, and then settling, quieter than before. It felt faintly exciting, like a natural drug.

Lisa and Francesca meditate daily and are thrilled that Jillian Lavender, who teaches transcendental meditation in London, will be joining the next Yogoloji retreat in Barbados. Like many yogis, they have higher purpose, “it’s about spreading love really” says Lisa. They met in Kerala and came to yoga via complementary routes. Lisa was an ex model who took it up as physical practice and Francesca, a former PR director for Bvlgari, first used it to calm an overactive mind. Francesca trained in Ayurvedic and holistic massage in the east End of London and has been practising for only five years, but she does it from the heart and to the mesmeric sound of Wahs savasana (a western take on Eastern chanting). The company grows organically adding new retreats as and when they are suggested by an expanding network of yoga teachers, therapists and friends.

The other therapists on our retreat are all based in Barbados. Rafael Ramsay is a UK trained osteopath and cranio sacral therapist with a very firm handshake that inspires confidence. Yorkshire born Maxine Depeiza is a vision in white with floor length dreadlocks coiled up in a turban; she discovered Barbados while working as art director for Next Directory and now does a mean holistic massage at the Sandy Lane, Cobblers Cove and Coral Reef hotels. She also co produces fashion shoots in the most atmospheric locations on the island. Natasha Voss Manolakis is an excellent reflexologist who reads hearts and minds as well as feet. (A couple of people in the group felt uncomfortable with this, but she does add that clients are free to take or leave her readings and i found her insights helpful). And Melodie Rodriguez can only be described as a one woman alternative health practice. She studied naturopathy in Canada, so she can advise on diets and supplements and she also practices acupuncture, Bowen therapy (which aims to heal using gentle touches), Anusara yoga (a spiritual form of hatha yoga; Anusara means path of life) and Thai yoga massage, the overall favourite therapy of the group and a great way into yoga for the less flexible.

Bowen technique is a subtle therapy: Melodie gently plucked my neck, back, shoulders and backs of my legs ( a movement she eloquently compared to a musician retuning and instrument) then left the room for several minute at a time to allow the body to react. I found it rather odd, but it can be very effective in relieving pain after several sessions, I was told. The overall approach of the retreat was personal and heartfelt, making many spa treatments I’ve had seem businesslike in comparison. As Maxine said “Lots of therapists look the part, but they just don’t get it. They don’t even ground themselves before a massage”.

Everyone singled out my lower back as a problem area, which was news to me (I thought it was my neck and shoulders). Lisa tackled this in one to one yoga therapy sessions by substituting the typically linear movements of the asanas for more circular movements set to music. I was glad I knew her by this point; I felt like a teenager pretending to be Kate Bush. Bongo Man did his bit form my wellbeing too, as he rubbed aloe into my feet on the Sandy Lane beach while I flicked through the pictures of Mich and Keith. Is it meant to be agony? I winced as he pinched my achiles tendon. I’m trying to help your lower back he mumbled.

The gentle detox diet wasn’t gourmet or refined but it was very tasty; porridge made with water, bananas, dates, figs and raisins for breakfast; mixed salads incorporating lots of seeds, butternut squash and homemade hummous for lunch. So superior was the porridge that I asked lovely Jamal a 30 year old beanpole with a gold cross at his chest, paste diamonds at his ears and three sons  to show me how to reproduce it at home. (I also asked him what grew on Barbados other than sugar cane Beach bums he said). I didn’t feel particularly deprived of anything. Especially when I discovered that roast barley and chicory makes a perfectly satisfactory substitute for coffee., but nothing on the retreat was obligatory; the two Americans in our group sneaked out to teh Sandy Lane hotel for a caffeine fix every morning and there was definitely more than one cocktail consumed at the magical Cliff restaurant where we went for a treat.

There were seven of us on the retreat, aged between 28 and 42; me, four women from the giddy realms of high finance, and a Chelsea based couple with two young daughters with whom everyone was besotted. We were a particularly easy-going group, we were told; issues were being processed, said Francesca, just not out loud. In the mornings we lazed by the pool or at Sandy Lane beach, listening to the patter of old Sam (Cool as ice and twice as nice), as he scraped fresh aloe into a bottle of Old Brigand, or at the adventures, or to the adventures of Yellow hat man (aka Geoff), who paraded along the beach with an open briefcase on his head, selling shell necklaces to the hotels celebrity guests.

In the afternoons, we did our own thing. Two of the women in the group played gold with two ancient cadies on the Sandy Lane Old Nine and declared it the best game of their lives. Others bought beach dresses, board shorts and cowboy hats from the shops at Sandy Crest. I had a surf lesson at Surfers Point in the south, which turned out to be a highlight of my trip. The board was long, the waves friendly, the water bath temperature and the surf instructor, Chris, blue eyes straw haired and gorgeous. How are you doing? he asked me, as I paddled out to where the waves were breaking. I don’t think I am fit enough I replied, cursing the bike accident that had resulted in a broken clavicle, seven years earlier. The suddenly he was telling me to go and I was paddling like a being possessed and then, somehow, I had scrambled up and was standing on the board. Later in the week, three of us made a pilgrimage to the famously beautiful Crane beach in the South-East.

The sea is jewel like but the once charming hotel has morphed into a hideous timeshare complex and the powdery white sand is almost blotted out by loungers and umbrellas. We moved on, bought some golden apple juice from a roadside stall and picnicked at Harrismith Great House, where the wind blows through meadow grasses and the ruins of a plantation house high above a clice-perfect cove of rocky cliffs, towering palms, soft sand and crashing waves. There are other ruins on the island too, including a house built in the 1960’s by Oliver Messel, which is now choked by vegetation in the centre of the island. We meditated nearby in a Rastafarian’s garden.

Development is certainly rife, but Barbados still has a lot of soul, and I can think of few better ways of tapping into it than a yoga retreat. I came back with a few new friends, a looser body, a calmer frame of mind and my feet firmly on the ground ‘Sthira Sukham Asanam: Your connection to the earth should be steady and joyful.

Beyond the Om
There are many other spirit lifting things to do in Barbados as well as meditating or holding warrior pose at Jamoon.
1) Surf the Soup Bowl the islands best surfing spot. Then lunch on the beach at Bathsheba, on breadfruit roasted in the sand while you were in the water, or at the round House Inn
2) Head to Six Mans Bay for sunset, watch the fishermen bring in their catch and feast on fish fry, macaroni pie and rice and gravy salad
3) Learn to kite surf, windsurf or just plain surf at surfers Point, then walk for ever along Long beach
4) From April to September it is turtle nesting season. Contact the Turtle Project to see the hatchlings. Donations welcome.
5) Join and extra-curricular Anusara yoga class or workshop at Chimborazo Great House with Christie Eames or Melodie Rodriguez
6) Take a sunset or moonlight catamaran trip with skipper Eddie and crew from Rubaiyat Catamaran cruises they have the best vibe and the best tunes


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