Switching off meditation, qigong and silent time at Mandali wellbeing retreat in Italy

Imogen O’Rorke reviews the 5 day ‘Mandali Experience’ at a wellbeing retreat in Northern Italy and finds unplugging, rebalancing and ‘getting a perspective’ comes naturally on a mountainside.

The Mandali Experience puts a great emphasis on personal growth: it’s about taking time out from the stresses of daily life and reaching deep inside to pull out the plug that is blocking our progress – at least that was the gist of our Intro Talk. I have to admit, it felt like the main obstacle to my progress on Day 2 of my five day retreat was the fact I didn’t have wifi in my room and had an ‘important’ Skype call to make – but then Mandali challenges you in that way. The invitation is to switch off all your devices and fully engage with the unique – and it is truly unique – experience they have to offer.

So on Day 3 I unplugged and, yes, I felt better for it. It’s incredible how much of a hold personal devices have over our lives – even when we go away to de-stress. But let’s rewind: Mandali is situated on a high plateau overlooking Lago d’Orta in northern Italy with stunning views across to the nearby Swiss Alps. It is known by Italians as La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because it is considered to be a hidden gem, more beautiful than the better-known lakes of Como and Maggiore. After 22 uphill twists and turns on the road from the lakeside town of Quarna Sopra, you arrive: and the view absolutely takes you prisoner. If it is lovely in March, when spring has not yet sprung and the trees are still threadbare, one can only imagine what it’s like in bloom.

In fact, it is a mystery how the founders – two Dutch businessmen with a vision to create a sanctuary where personal growth could be accessible for all – managed to get hold of a large plot in an area of natural beauty to build their retreat village, which opened in 2017. Mandali looks like something between a medieval Italian village and a Shaolin monastery and no expense has been spared. It feels luxury and exclusive but not in a flashy way – everything is natural wood, reclaimed materials, stone, understated, muted tones. Plastic and synthetic materials are refreshingly absent.

We were greeted with a delicious vegetarian buffet which included asparagus, roasted fennel, ricotta with strawberries, and various salads made from borlotti beans, healthy grains and pulses or green leaves. We ate on the lake-view terrace basking in the early spring sun – a ritual which continued all week thanks to the fine weather – drinking in the mountain air and water. The view from my sun terrace in the early morning of the hills enveloped in mist with the lake winding through was sublime – a backdrop from a Renaissance portrait. I had a south-west facing premium room which in winter gets the sun most of the day. The only drawback is it was close to the village’s giant mobile phone mast (ironic, considering phones have to be on flight mode most of the time).

All of the other retreatants were women (from twenty through to mid-sixties) and the majority were Dutch, with a few from Germany and Switzerland. There was no pressure to socialise (breakfast is eaten in ‘social silence’) but it was nice to share experiences. Most of the others were there to escape the pressures of work or family life. The ones who had been there the previous week seemed delighted with the place, the food and the quality of the teaching.

‘The Mandali Experience is ideal for a bit of self-care when you’re feeling run-ragged; or just to bring back some softness when life is giving you the hard edge’

Every day began with yoga with Vira Drotbohm in the Temple. The visiting teacher from Berlin commanded a large class of 30 admirably: she gave firm, clear instructions but all delivered with softness. Vira emphasises mindfulness and “turning inwards” in her postures. Her style was classic Hatha with some simple dynamic flows. She started the lessons with skull-cleansing pranayama (yogic breathing) and some cleansing techniques from the Kundalini tradition. Her evening yoga classes at 5.30pm had a Yin focus and movement was slow and surrendering.

I skipped the evening yoga class on Day 3 to give the qigong a go. Coming to it as a virtual novice, it was far harder than expected. The breath is completely different to yoga and the flow is slow but continuous, which means keeping the Qi energy afloat for an hour. Our teacher Mario Santoni explained that in each move you must consciously regulate Yin (softness) with Yang (fire) or the energy “flatlines”. After about three classes, qigong was starting to feel like a moving meditation rather than an awkward exercise in throwing bizarre shapes.

I also enjoyed the Conscious Movement taught by Niista, despite some initial misgivings. Frankly, who doesn’t enjoy bouncing, skipping and twirling about the room to music like a six-year-old again? Meditation was taken by her partner Shastro, who is also an accomplished musician/composer of new age music. Shastro and Niista’s teachings are inspired by the Osho tradition, where playfulness is a given and everything is open to reinterpretation. The meditations were fairly free-form and involved musical interludes, followed by periods of ‘silence’ with some guiding commentary. As a regular meditator, I found the interpolations a barrier to going deeper, but many people enjoyed them.

By Day 4, several guests were talking about their strong emotional reactions to a group therapy taught by Mario called ‘Conscious Breath’. It’s a kind of circular breathing workout (apparently based on ancient yogic techniques) which loosens and releases emotions stored in the body. I opted for a more familiar therapy: a Thai foot massage with one of the regular therapists. Tara stretched, kneaded and prodded my poor, neglected feet with a reflexology jummy for 45 minutes, while I just lay back and let her do the unplugging for me.

In between classes and therapies, there was plenty of opportunity to lounge around with a book, go for walks and enjoy the marvellous spa facilities. The steam room was, well, steamin’ and the stone-clad jacuzzi overlooking the lake felt like a luxury of Olympian proportions, even if the swimming pool was less than Olympic sized (it fits just two abreast comfortably).

I’m not sure how much personal growth I personally notched up in just five days, but the food was so good that I grew a millimetre or two around the middle. The Mandali Experience is ideal for a bit of self-care when you’re feeling run-ragged; or just to bring back some softness when life is giving you the hard edge.