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Reclaim Your Self review | Yoga retreat, Mongolia

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The Quick Read: Reclaim Your Self runs a wide variety of yoga retreats around the world and, while many of their retreats are in familiar (but gorgeous) locations such as Italy and Ibiza, they are stretching out to ever more wild and remote locations. The most wild and remote yet is Mongolia, and the company now runs two retreats per year (in July) in this stunning country – one in the starkly beautiful Ikh Nart nature reserve of the East Gobi desert, and one in the Khan Khentii Wilderness, set amongst the rolling hills and meadows north of the capital Ulaanbaatar. We checked out both locations but our yoga retreat was in the Gobi – with no fixed address, no phone coverage, no wifi, no running water, no flushing toilets – the ultimate digital (and modern lifestyle) detox. The yoga is Jivamukti – vigorous and strong: ‘Tough yoga for a tough environment’, as yoga teacher Emma Henry describes it – you can see her in the photo above inspiring Mongolian horseman to try some yoga. This is something very special but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Budget: £££


Detail on a get door © Richard Pilnick

Detail on a ger door © Richard Pilnick

Who it’s best for: If you like your yoga strong and fearless and you’re a strong, fearless traveller, this is your dream ticket. You need to be fit, healthy and unruffable (if you decide you don’t like it, it’s a long long way home!). Equally you’ll need a level of Zen patience: journeys are long and slow, and there is a lot of free time. While this suited us, some people found the sheer remoteness challenging. The camps are supremely comfortable but, if you’re prissy about compost loos or a bit of a diva when it comes to swift service, look elsewhere.

Mongolia yoga retreat

Camel ride, anyone? © Richard Pilnick

What you can do:  There are two sessions of yoga most days – from 7-9 am and 5-7 pm – predominantly Jivamukti, an athletic hatha yoga practice which incorporates chanting and spiritual teachings. Two yin classes provide a counterbalance, and there are some group meditation sessions too.

The Khan Kentii retreat is an open Jivamukti retreat for all levels (although you will still need a decent level of fitness). At the Ikh Nart retreat, the yoga is intermediate level, and suitable for those with a good grounding in Jivamukti, or a dynamic vinyasa practice. The teacher, Emma Henry, is a popular London-based Advanced Certified Jivamukti teacher, mentor and a Facilitator for the Jivamukti teacher training with a clear talent for teaching and a beautiful chanting voice. Read all about Jivamukti here.

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia campfire Richard Pilnick

There’s a desert camping experience one night © Richard Pilnick

Between times, wander off into the rocks and practise solo (sunset is stunning and stargazing contemplation is a must). At Ikh Nart, local guides can escort you out on foot or on camels (hot tip: take cycle shorts or some padding – the saddles are brutal) or you can hire a mountain bike to explore.

Mid-week at Ikh Nart, everyone takes a long, slow, meditative ride by camel cart out into an even more remote spot in the desert for an overnight camp. Meditating and chanting around a fire up in a circle of rocks where a lama used to meditate, and saluting the sun in an outdoor yoga session as the sun rose over the rocks, was totally magical. Jools offers hot stone massage (in a massage ger of course) – total bliss. At Khan Khentii you can go horse-riding,  river-rafting or try a riverside sauna (all highly recommended). You can also hike out on your own or wander down to the river for a spot of wild swimming.

reclaim your self mongolia inside ger

The constantly on-the-move yurts © Richard Pilnick

Where you stay: Home base is a luxury ger (Mongolian for yurt) camp. It has no fixed address and moves every year, so you’re living like a real nomad. Your ger is a snug haven built around a central stove (in the Gobi this burns camel dung and, no, it doesn’t smell! At Khan Khentii it burns wood). The ger has the feel of a circular Romani caravan, with vivid folkloric designs in bright colours (orange and pink are favourites). Beds are snug with blankets and curtains; if it’s chilly in the morning someone will creep in (if you ask) and light up the fire so you wake to toasty coziness. The ger has a sink but you need to take a short hike to the loos (long drops housed in pine cubicles – they’re fine, honestly, although there’s a curious and rather cool breeze around the nether regions). Two shower gers provide an unusual washing experience – water is heated in the ger then a bucket with a shower attachment is hoiked up high. It’s the opposite of a power shower but all the nicer for it – it makes you appreciate things we take for granted at home.
There’s a dining ger and an outside gazebo with tables and chairs, a cool and pleasant place to read or chill. The library/chillout tent has seats, cushions and a bookcase filled with books on Mongolia to borrow. The yoga shala is – no surprise here – another ger. It’s larger than the others but only just squeezes in 15 mats and gets very warm (hot yoga anyone?) in the afternoons.  Both camps are comfortable but Khan Khentii is more established and hence a little more sophisticated.
Reclaim Your Self Jane Alexander Richard Pilnick

Jane getting yogic in the desert © Richard Pilnick

How was it for us: I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about deserts and the Gobi didn’t disappoint. I relished wandering around the rocks, finding new favourites each evening for my sundown meditation. As each day passed, I became slower and quieter, more in tune with the land – every step became a meditation and every encounter with the natural world (whether rock, stone, lizard or bird) turning into ‘earth medicine’ – this is the land of the shamans after all. I also fell head over heels in love with my ger and, while it was tempting to stay up chatting to my fellow guests (uniformly lovely), it was hard to resist early nights, swathed in blankets, embraced by candlelight and, on cooler nights, the flickering of the fire.

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia yoga ger

The ger-based yoga studio © Richard Pilnick

However the yoga caught me out. I hadn’t realised just how athletic Jivamukti is (my bad entirely – I should have checked it out more thoroughly). I beat myself up over my inability to hurtle through the sun salutes and fell into that fatal trap of looking round to see how other people were faring – big mistake as there were a lot of yoga teachers on the retreat! Emma did her level best to help but she was working with damaged goods (two torn rotator cuffs had wrecked both of my shoulders). However I learned an important lesson about working within my limitations and was heart-warmed by the kindness of my fellow guests (a gentle hand on the back when I collapsed, yet again, into balasana); a soft ‘Here, let’s swap places’ when I found myself caught at the front.

Going further into the desert was bliss. The long slow journey felt like a meditation in itself and gathering round a wild fire and listening to Emma’s beautiful chanting was deeply special.  For this one night we slept communally and sharing a ger with four others plugged me straight back to childhood camping – surprisingly good fun (and I’m not usually one for sharing sleeping quarters!).

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia massage Richard Pilnick

The massage ger © Richard Pilnick

Jools’ massage was another high spot – the hot stones seemed deeply appropriate for this rocky environment and her touch was sublime – strong yet supremely comforting. My mind floated off to the hiss of the fire and my strung-out body just melted.

What we took home: A profound love for Mongolia and a firm intent to live more simply and more mindfully. Also a strong determination to master chaturanga!

Would we go back: To Mongolia? No question. I loved both the Gobi and the whole country. But Jivamukti just isn’t my practice – at least, not yet.

People watch: The Mongolian staff, guides and drivers are delightful – often a little reserved but caring and considerate (although some requests are lost in translation). We loved Coral (the young interpreter) for her kindness, enthusiasm and genuine passion for her country. Jools’ massage is not to be missed.

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia vegan food Richard Pilnick

Vegan delights are aplenty © Richard Pilnick

Food watch: Emma Fountain is the retreat chef, conjuring a delicious light, gluten- and sugar-free vegan menu as if by magic (the camp has no mains electricity so everything has to be chopped by hand and cooked over a rudimentary stove). Tea and fruit is available before yoga and then, post-yoga, you’re served big help-yourself platters. Most days there’s a grain-based porridge or Bircher-style muesli alongside savoury abundance bowls (fermented beetroot, sauerkraut, buckwheat, marinated tofu, spinach, greens) or scrambled tofu with spices. Teas are herbal but you can request real coffee or tea (but bear in mind there’s no dairy, only coconut or almond milk).

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia chef Emma Fountain Richard Pilnick

Chef Emma Fountain cooks up a fabulous meal © Richard Pilnick

Lunch and dinner tend to be two or three plates of salad (spiced lentil, kale/apple/celery/walnut; braised cabbage with orange). Maybe a soup as well. Perhaps a surprise such as cabbage rolls stuffed with vegetables, sweet potato and spinach coconut curry, beetroot burgers or samosas with chutney. Sadly no puddings (lack of blender/mixer is the problem here) or snacks. We found there to be more than enough food but some people felt they needed more and canny creatures brought their own tuck boxes.

crown What’s queenly: Mongolia! The Gobi! Stunning scenery, amazing people, blissful wilderness. It’s a totally wildly magical place, and this is the very first yoga holiday in it.

What’s lowly: We experienced the first trip so there are a few wrinkles to be ironed out but Reclaim Your Self is onto it. We’d have liked more group meditation and some people felt there weren’t enough extra-curriculum activities (that’s being addressed for future retreats).

We’d have liked more group meditation and some people felt there weren’t enough extra activities, being that’s being addressed for future retreats.

Insider tip: Pack a good head torch for midnight loo trips and for reading in your ger at night. If you know you get the munchies, take non-perishable snacks (journeys always overrun in Mongolia).

Reclaim Your Self Trans Mongolian Railway by Richard Pilnick

The train trip from Ulaanbaatar is included © Richard Pilnick

Price with a companion: $3,250 (£2,095) per person based on two sharing a twin ger. Price includes two nights in a 4* hotel in Ulaanbator (on arrival and departure), airport transfers, six nights’ accommodation, all meals, teas and water (drinking water is brought in from Ulaanbaatar), yoga classes, overnight camping trip, outbound journey from Ulaanbaatar to Ikh Nart by Trans Mongolian Railway, and jeep and return journey from Ikh Nart to Ulaanbaatar by minibus.  There is a £300 early bird discount if you book before 31st October 2015.

Local activities: mountain biking ($4/£2.50 per hour), guided camel trekking ($7/£4.50 per hour) and guided hiking ($7/£4.50 per hour). Hot stones massage with Jools and Lauren costs $50 (£32) for 30 minutes.

Price going solo: $4,000 (£2,595) per person in a single ger. Price inclusions and exclusions as above.

Value for money: Given so much has to be brought in to camp, it’s remarkably good value. Local excursions are also very reasonable – you won’t blow your budget.

Sister retreats: Reclaim Your Self runs a wide variety of yoga retreats and holidays in the UK, in boutique European locations such as Italy and Ibiza, and in ever more wild and remote locations worldwide. Read about other Reclaim Your Self yoga holidays.

Reviewed by: Jane Alexander

Photos: Richard Pilnick

© Queen of Retreats  Other yoga holidays

Reclaim Your Self Mongolia camp Richard Pilnick

This yoga holiday in Mongolia creates memories to be cherished © Richard Pilnick

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