sri lanka | a jungle journey to holistic healing
presse agent Charlene Lo
Upon booking a two-week yoga and wellness eco-retreat at Ulpotha, a few images immediately sprung to mind: chilled morning smoothies after a vigorous morning practice, warm Himalayan salt baths, calming kirtan music softly greeting you at reception as you check-in. Less likely images would be mud huts with thatched roofs and no walls, outdoor cold water showers from a hose and no (as in ZERO) electricity… so off-the-grid in fact, that to charge an iPad you would need to hand it off to one of the villagers who would take it to the nearest town by tuk-tuk and return it to you the next day.
And yet somehow, if you search “Best Yoga Retreat in the World,” among the top results will be Ulpotha – a traditional eco-village that’s a three-hour drive from Colombo airport, deep in the heart of the Sri Lankan jungle.
What makes Ulpotha different?
What started out about 20 years ago as a rustic sanctuary from the city for owners Viren and Giles to host family and friends, has evolved organically into a yoga retreat centre and ayurvedic treatment facility. Completely accidentally and unintentionally, which is part of its magic. The self-contained and sustainable eco-village was never intended to be a business venture; it operates exclusively as an organic farm during the Fall months, and only started welcoming yoga groups in 1997 with well-known ashtangi John Scott. Since then, other yogis, meditators and bodyworkers alike have discovered the pristine peace of Ulpotha. And, unsurprisingly, the back-to-basics veggie lifestyle suits them just fine. The most unique part of the Ulpotha model? As a guest, your dollars fully fund an on-site ayurvedic clinic and pharmacy, where doctor give consultations and medicine to local villagers, completely free of charge. Now that’s building some good karma.
Why should you go?
To commune with the natural world in an untouched and intensely healing environment where villagers, visitors and wildlife co-exist in harmony. The land upon which Ulpotha has been created is gifted with lush rolling hills, striking rock formations, rice paddy fields and swimmable water reservoirs (known as tanques). Here, the five elements are represented in their most pure and rawest forms… fire, water, earth, air and a spaciousness that is unrecognizable to city dwellers.
Jungle-farm living is comfortable without being luxurious, ensuring you have little creature-comfort necessities (natural handmade soaps, turndown service in your mud hut, limitless fresh young coconuts) – without the frills (no phone signals, no wifi, no room service). The real 5-star part of our stay, we discovered, was our reconnection with nature and other humans – far away from electronics, send-and-receive signals and the usual distractions of everyday life.
With no artificial light for two full weeks, we effortlessly fell into the natural rhythm of solar and lunar cycles – starting our days at daybreak (around 5:30am) and falling blissfully asleep by 8:30pm each night. Like all the other retreaters, I regressed into the same sleeping/napping schedule of a newborn baby, and couldn’t have been happier about it.
A typical breakfast featured traditional rice porridge, coconut and jaggery wrapped in homemade hoppers, ginger biscuits and herbal teas – which awaited us after our morning meditation and asana practice. Lunch and dinner consisted of a stunning variety of seasonally fresh vegetables from Ulpotha’s own veggie patch, and included such Sri Lankan delights as pineapple curry, manioc, lentils, papadums, dahl, red rice, and sauteed lotus root with aubergine and sesame – all prepared traditionally over a wood-burning open fire.
For those who want to skip the whole yoga part of the retreat – no problem. Everything at Ulpotha is optional, which allows you to truly design your own retreat experience based on your energy and comfort levels. But as an avid yogini who had just started a 21-day yoga challenge, in preparation for the upcoming Lole White Yoga session in Toronto, and a dedicated student of guest teachers Dylan Bernstein and Alice Moulimois in Hong Kong – I eagerly made my way to the shala each morning by about 6:45am.
The morning session was led in Mysore style by Dylan, with assistance from Alice. We started each day with pranayama and preparatory purifications – nadishodhana (alternate nostril breathing), kapala bhati (skull shining), kumbhaka (breath retention) and nauli kriya (abdominal massage and cleaning).
With our prana activated and awakened, we moved into our asana practice. The goal was for each student – regardless of how experienced with the ashtanga sequence – to leave the retreat with a self-practice and the confidence to move freely without dependence on a teacher.
Afternoon sessions were more yin or restorative, led by Alice. Some days we did deep, long holds and yoga nidra, others became spontaneous inversion workshops with a focus on core engagement and bandha work. Regardless of the format, we always drifted mindfully out of the shala afterwards, gently entering the evening hours lit only by oil lanterns, candles and torches.
Ayurveda and Bodywork…
The ‘good doctor’ who did all our consultations (after already seeing 45-50 local patients at the clinic in the morning) placed us each on programs of varying lengths, usually five to seven days. Treatments featured application and massage of specially formulated oils matched to your dosha type (vata, pitta or kapha), along with inhalation, steam, sauna or herbal baths. I discovered that open-air bathing with a coconut shell and cauldron of water while sitting on a slab of rock was not only primal and instinctual, but highly enjoyable.
If Ayurvedic treatments are not your thing, don’t worry. Guests also have the option of deep tissue oil massages by Dominka, or Osteo-Thai style bodywork by Kenny. Let’s just say there were no yoga injuries or muscle soreness that were any match for these two gifted and intuitive healers.
How To Get There…
Fly into Colombo, and Ulpotha will send one of their comfortable Prius’ for an airport pick-up. Bring some snacks for the three-hour journey, and enjoy the vistas en route… you’re on island-time now.
The energy of Ulpotha is a blessing that can neither be described or articulated, but simply felt when you arrive at the front gates. Remember – don’t expect a flash reception, or even signage for that matter. It’s a rare opportunity to experience Sri Lanka’s traditional and tranquil style of community living. Once you’ve spent your first afternoon napping in a hammock, slept your first night listening to the winds through the paddy fields, eaten your first coconut ball, handmade with love, the healing and transformation you’ll experience in this sacred oasis will be undeniable.
But don’t take my word for it – just go.
Charlene Lo is an avid yogini and toured the world to teach and train during a sabbatical in 2013. She is a creative strategist and seasoned communicator currently taking on PR projects in Asia and Canada.