Ulpotha review | yoga, ayurveda & digital detoxing retreat, Sri Lanka
Yoga & Ayurveda holidays in a jungle eco-village
The Quick Read: Ulpotha (which literally means ‘water spring’) is an enchanting eco-village in the centre of Sri Lanka which offers 14-day yoga retreats with Ayurvedic treatments run by yoga teachers from all over the world from November to March (Winter season) and June to August (Summer season). A beautiful tank (or lake) surrounded by hills, hammocks and tall trees is a central feature of the village, and the owners are passionate about water conservation and traditional farming methods. If you are tired of modern life, Ulpotha is the perfect antidote: the beautiful, rural simplicity of living without electricity in clay huts, eating locally-grown food, and fully immersing yourself in nature is a rare and precious experience. All accommodation is given on a sharing basis only – but you’ll find having a companion in your open jungle hut very comforting! The nearest airport is Bandaranaike International Airport (Colombo), a 3 hour drive away, and the retreat takes a maximum of 20 guests.
Who it’s best for: City-dwellers who want a yoga holiday and who yearn for a digital detox will adore Ulpotha. All the influences of our technological age are absent: no phones, no electricity, no plastic, no glaring screens or newspapers. What’s left is simply the beauty of the jungle, and the hospitality of the Sri Lankan people. If you’re nervous around wildlife, however, you may find the Ulpotha experience too intense!
What you can do: Essentially you come here to do yoga, have Ayurveda treatments and relax. Ulpotha recruits top yoga teachers from all over the world to lead the twice-daily classes throughout their season. Each teacher has their own unique style, but most of them teach a version of vinyasa flow. Vinyasa flow teachers James Demaria (from Ibiza) and Mika de Brito (from Paris) lead a retreat every year, as does yoga therapy and acroyoga teacher Melissa Smith (from Canada). Check out their online calendar for the full range.
A single massage with either Pi Jem, the Thai massage therapist, or Eva, who offers coconut oil massages, is complimentary. It is possible to book more massages for an additional US $80 (approx. £57). To go deeper, you could also undertake a programme of Ayurveda while you are here – the beautiful Ayurvedic village comprises a series of tiny thatched huts. One of these huts is a shrine, decorated with Buddhist iconography, another is a consultation hut, where guests meet with the resident Ayurvedic doctor for a brief consultation, and another is a massage and therapy room. During the consultation the doctor will ask you a few questions about your general health and lifestyle, take your pulse and diagnose your ‘dosha’ (body type). He will then offer you a few diet and lifestyle recommendations for disease prevention, and you can also book a range of personalised Ayurvedic treatment programmes.
Whatever you choose to do here, the daily routine involves waking around 7 am to the sounds and sights of the jungle and heading to the outdoor shower for a cool rinse – a surprisingly refreshing experience in Sri Lanka’s heat. At 8 am guests head to the open-air yoga shala for a 90 minute dynamic yoga practice, followed by a breakfast of rice pancakes, fruit and coconut water in the ‘Kade hut’ (meaning ‘roadside cafe’ in Sinhalese).
The rest of the morning could be spent swimming in the lake, lounging on a hammock, or doing a bit of wildlife spotting. Monkeys are prolific throughout the village, and watching them hop and scramble from tree to tree becomes a daily delight. Buffalos roam in the surrounding paddy fields. Lizards, frogs and the occasional snake can be found if you keep your eyes peeled. Chipmunks scamper around the outskirts of the beautifully decorated main house.
After lunch, the day continues at a relaxed pace. While yoga sessions and meals are communal, guests tend to use the post-lunch period as an opportunity to just be with nature and absorb its healing properties. At 5pm the evening yoga session begins. Normally this would take place in the yoga shala again, however, one evening you might trek as we did right up to the top of one of the hills surrounding the Ulpotha lake and practiced some gentle yoga and meditation with a breathtaking view of the village and surrounding forest as the sun begins to set.
After evening yoga, guests head to the Ambalama hut (meaning ‘traveller’s rest’ in Sinhalese) for dinner. Darkness falls quickly in Sri Lanka: all the winding paths from the huts to the main house are lit by lanterns. There’s something magical about the sounds of the jungle after sunset, the dance of the fireflies and the scattered stars of the unpolluted night sky.
Where you stay: Guests stay in neatly painted clay huts with thatched roofs. Nearly all the huts are twin-based (one is a triple) and though you could pay for one all to yourself, we found the presence of a companion comforting – for while the huts have walls and are slightly elevated from the ground, there is no ‘front door’, the huts are essentially open air and there is a sense that the tiny mosquito net around your bed is the only thing between you and the great outdoors of the Sri Lankan jungle! There are no mirrors in the huts, which is quite refreshing: this seems fitting for such a ‘back to nature’ experience. Each hut has a clay pot with fresh water (and a coconut shell cup), which is refilled daily.
How was it for us: I had been dreaming about visiting Sri Lanka for years, and this trip didn’t disappoint. Ulpotha differs from many other yoga retreats I’ve been to in that it is first and foremost an eco-village: the preservation of nature is the primary goal, the yoga and ayurvedic are important but secondary. However, the twice-daily yoga classes did undoubtedly enhance the experience of being in nature.
Lisa Garratt, a Hatha yoga teacher and massage therapist from California who teaches at Ulpotha every year, led the classes on my week. I found Lisa to be a warm and compassionate teacher: her classes were thoughtfully composed and seemed to work in harmony with the rhythm of the retreat. The morning classes were dynamic (but not fast-paced) and strengthening, with different themes each day. The evening classes were primarily Yin, restorative and meditation-based. One morning we practiced outside in a rocky enclave shaded by banyan trees, in front of a beautiful statue of the Hindu elephant deity Ganesh, known as the ‘remover of obstacles’.
The ‘off the grid’ location of Ulpotha offers a rare opportunity to be blissfully idle, and what I really adored here was the unstructured time in the morning and afternoons, where we could just sit by the lake, gaze up at the surrounding hills and forests, chat to fellow retreaters, and feel the gentle breeze on our skin (when I visited the climate was a perfect balance of warm and cool).
What we took home: A deeper appreciation of the restorative benefits of simply being in nature, and a desire to learn how to cook Sri Lankan dishes! The subtle use of herbs and spices, and the freshness of the ingredients, made the meals at Ulpotha nourishing and delicious.
Would we go back: Absolutely. On my return to England I found myself missing the stillness of the lake, the sound of the monkeys playing in the trees, the nourishing food and wonderful conversation with like-minded guests.
People watch: On our week yoga teacher Lisa Garratt taught beautiful, mindful classes that really complimented the Ulpotha experience, and our Thai massage with Pi Jem was helpful in getting rid of some of the tension knots we’d developed from our desk job in the UK.
Food watch: The food at Ulpotha is fresh, delicious and lovingly prepared. Heritage red rice from the surrounding paddy fields is served daily, alongside lightly spiced Sri Lankan vegetable dishes, fresh fruit juice and ginger tea. Using ingredients grown in the local garden, and cooked in terracotta pots on open fires, the dishes are mainly vegan, although buffalo curd with treacle is served after lunch. Lunch and dinner are served buffet-style in a beautiful ‘outdoor room’: it’s a laid-back and social affair, a great opportunity to connect with the other guests and share stories.
What’s queenly: The sheer beauty and simplicity of the Sri Lankan jungle. If you find meditation tricky, Ulpotha is the place to go: observing the gentle, unhurried rhythm of nature is an excellent way to calm and soothe an overactive mind.
What’s lowly: The communal showers and bathrooms. Given that many guests will find the concept of a cool, outdoor shower something of a culture shock, it would be nice if each hut had a dedicated bathroom and shower.
Insider tip: Bring a powerful torch. The walk from the main house back to the huts after dinner is very dark, and the sounds of the jungle can be a little spooky! You’ll also need the torch to light the way if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Price with a companion: US$ 2940 (approx. £2080) per person for a 14 day yoga holiday programme, which includes: accommodation on a twin sharing basis, all meals, snacks and drinks, two yoga classes a day, a consultation with the resident Ayurveda doctor, an excursion each week, a massage each week, a laundry service and the use of bicycles, sauna and steam bath. Airport transfers to Ulpotha are US$100 (approx. £70) for one person or $115 (approx. £80) for two. Ayurvedic programmes cost from US$300 to US$1,600 or £210 to £1130).
Price going solo: The price for solo travellers is the same as for those travelling with a companion: all accommodation is on a twin-sharing basis.
Value for Money: While Ulpotha is not a budget retreat centre, it is a sustainable eco-project that also runs a free Ayurvedic clinic for the local community: so Western guests who visit Ulpotha are supporting a worthwhile venture.
Reviewed by Kate Bermingham
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