Rosie Walford reviews this enchanting ayurveda retreat in Karnataka, India and discovers authentic ayurveda and yoga in a gorgeous 5-star setting
I went to SwaSwara, which spills down green hills to a sacred Om-shaped beach, to recover from an intense project. I wanted yoga and ayurvedic massage, and the highest quality and luxury, but not some bland, international or expat version of these ancient arts. It delivered, in a distinctively Indian, five-star way.
I was only at SwaSwara for four days of yoga and rejuvenation yet, even so, I had a thorough consultation with the ayurvedic doctors, who diagnosed my constitution and composed a special organic oil to balance my system during the deep, delicious four-handed abhayanga massages which followed. Given my short stay the doctors were adamant that it would be unethical (and pointless) to let me try more specific massages as I wasn’t there long enough to undergo a useful course of treatment. Though my desires weren’t being pandered to, my heart warmed to discover a top-notch hotel which allowed principles to outweigh immediate commercial considerations. Rare and wonderful.
This profound authenticity also surrounded the yoga teaching at SwaSwara. For starters, we were issued daily with loose cotton pyjamas swathing us from neck to ankle. No skimpy lycra here. Teachings were held either in a thatched meditation temple, a glass tree-house shala or on the beach-side platform, all stunning spaces, impeccably maintained. I experimented with classes on kriyas, asanas, pranayama and nidra, and enjoyed them all.
SwaSwara’s teachers were all Indian, visibly glowing with strength and health. Their explanations were matter of fact and thorough, and some asanas were challenging – for example, kapalabhati (rapid in-out diaphragm breathing) whilst upside-down in shoulder-stand. The focus was more internal than I’ve encountered in any European studio. We often practiced with eyes closed to gaze inwards. The work sometimes felt ungraceful – the inner organ exercises in particular – but afterwards I felt hugely strengthened and inspired. This felt like real yoga, not prettied up for westerners, and I carried the felt-sense of these almost austere teachings into my yoga at home.
I had a private lesson with a brilliant, smiling teacher called Krishna. He had an MSc in classic Yogic sciences but also taught me the zeitgeisty Laughter yoga which is spreading beyond the yoga mat worldwide. This was a remarkable workout for the lungs and stomach, and involved a fair amount of horsing around, manufacturing loud laughter at first, until it became upliftingly real.
‘This felt like real yoga, not prettied up for westerners, and I carried the felt-sense of these teachings into my yoga at home’
There were multiple meditation classes on offer, but I spent my days painting in the airy art studio (SwaSwara has resident artists sometimes to tutor you), taking wondrous coastal rides in a dug-out fishing boat, and swimming in the bath-warm sea. The other half of Om beach sported some mellow old-school backpacker shacks and plenty of wandering cows.
My chalet was larger than my London flat, set in stunning landscaped grounds, facing inwards which is, of course, perfect for relaxing, releasing, slowing down and turning inwards to refocus yourself. The clientele was very international. We met psychotherapists and authors, grandparents and young couples, and a few people rehabilitating from serious illnesses. Most are older professionals, enjoying a quiet reflective time and most come here as part of long breaks. Largely, people keep their distance unless you initiate conversation, and of course those on full retreat stay invisible in their rooms. Because the staff are extremely gentle yet open hearted, it’s a very comfortable place not to be sociable, but you can seek out and find camaraderie too if you need it.
It was delightful to decompress inside SwaSwara’s gates, but I’m glad I eventually ventured outside. Gokarna, ninety minutes’ walk along the coastal track is one of the sweetest little towns in India, full of temples, buzzing pilgrim shops, spice traders and irresistible striped hand-loom cottons. Twenty minutes’ phut-phutting in a rickshaw and I was back amongst watered lawns, swimming in the clear, cool pool in readiness for another massage.
The food was wonderful (I spent some mornings learning how to cook it for myself) and the settings it’s served in makes it even better: some days you eat in a huge coconut grove behind the private beach; on others, you’re served in an elevated circular dining room, open to the breezes under a lofty thatched cone roof, overlooking the pool, flowery gardens, and forested hills.
The beauty of SwaSwara is that you can make your visit as recreational or therapeutic as you want. While my four days strengthened and nourished me beyond all expectation, I left wishing I’d had longer to enrol on one of the packages taking me deeper into proper detox or yoga. I’d gladly give myself over to the friendly, discreet staff and let the luxurious space, massage, yoga, nourishment and medicinal expertise work their magic.