Finding a lovely corner away from the treadmill of life with Yoga on a Shoestring at The Banyan Tree, Goa

Sharon Walker reviews a magical week with Yoga on a Shoestring at The Banyan Tree eco-retreat in Goa and finds brilliant teachings with UK yoga teacher Jess Horn, oodles of moreish veggie food, affordable local shopping and her grin.

Our hosts at the Banyan Tree, Annu and Chinu, are waiting for me in the reception when I arrive at the Banyan Tree, Yoga On a Shoestring’s venue for their Goa retreat.  After an energy-sapping night flight I can barely stand, let alone talk, yet their megawatt smiles cut through the fog of my jetlag like bright rays of sunshine and I immediately have a good feeling about this retreat.

Annu leads me through a maze of pathways through the lush palm-filled garden to my grass-roofed eco-hut, my home for the next seven days. I have no idea how I’ll find my way back to the yoga shala and, with just thirty minutes before the first class, I need to get organised.
‘Right,’ I think, ‘I’ll just a have a very quick lie down.’ And promptly pass out.

When I wake up two hours later, the adaptor I’d requested has been left on my table and I’ve missed the class.  Never in my life have I been more thankful for a nap, or more thankful that I’d been allowed to rest. A more militant yoga retreat might have wrapped smartly on my door (or knuckles), but this is not that kind of retreat. There are no hair shirts here or stressy expectations, just easy-going hospitality and empathetic service.

In the morning it was off to the open clay-covered yoga shala my first yoga session with British instructor, Jess Horn, who explained that she teaches Ishta, a scientific form of yoga that marries Tantra philosophy with Ayurveda and Hatha.  We were to learn about the eight limbs of yoga, a kind of code for living and ‘way to find our way back to our true nature,’ as Jess puts it. Our focus will be on the breath rather than yogic acrobatics. Jess’s hope is that we will find balance.

Warm, friendly and funny, Jess could easily pass for one of the young mums at the school gates. In spite of her flaxen hair, glowing skin and stellar yogic credentials, there’s nothing intimidating about her, as she chats away in front of the class imparting a deep dollop of yogic philosophy tempered with a lovely light warmth and humour.

‘Oh God I’ve been talking away with my eyes closed for hours, you’re probably all in agony, and thinking: “Get on with it!”’ she says at one point. We are working on our connective tissue, holding each pose for several minutes, but actually none of it is too painful. Or too much like hard work.

The morning classes are more dynamic, the afternoon class more restorative. Everyone is welcome and the adjustments are given without any song or dance. ‘Jess is so good. I never felt out of place even though I’d hardly done yoga before,’ one of our group noted happily, as we lay chatting by the pool, between sessions.

‘In spite of Jess Horn’s flaxen hair, glowing skin and stellar yogic credentials, there’s nothing intimidating about her, as she chats away in front of the class imparting a deep dollop of yogic philosophy tempered with a lovely light warmth and humour’

We were a friendly, arty crowd of women, from early thirties to mid-fifties, with two well-travelled retired couples. Among us were a fashion designer, actress, corporate PR, art consultant and an entrepreneurial former academic with her own cleaning business. Our days follow a relaxed pace beginning with meditation at 7.30am followed by a yoga class and finishing with yoga nidra, a deep meditation or yogic ‘sleep’ after the 5pm session. On a couple of the days Jess started the class early as a show of hands revealed a few of us would like to see the sunset on the beach.

Dinner was served at 7.30pm and was really something to look forward to. The food at the Banyan Tree is spectacular. ‘The best I’ve had in India and I’ve been here five times,’ was one fellow YOAS guest’s assessment. I had to agree. On hearing the dinner gong I would sprint to the table and had to restrain myself from going back for thirds. Tomato and bean stew, delish organic salads (washed in filtered water), coriander rice, okra masala, light crispy spinach pakoras that were so moreish I did actually go back for thirds, roti and poppadoms all served with herbal tea and filtered water. Every night there was a small delicious dessert.  Though, incredibly I lost a couple of kilos, which was an unexpected bonus.

After an almost Dry January, I welcomed the Banyan’s Tree alcohol-free ethos and the found the complete lack of plastic a relief. I didn’t see a plastic water bottle in my whole time at the retreat apart from the one I’d bought at the airport. Instead, free filtered water is on tap from a clay urn next to the dining room. They don’t even put plastic bags in your bin. The whole place is earthy and natural.

By day three I’d jettisoned my sandals to walk barefoot on the cool clay and mud pathways, through the jungle palm garden and could practically feel the negative ions in my cells sigh with relief and realign with the elements.  I loved my hut with its cool clay walls and especially the outdoor bathroom. It was nice to stand naked and feel the breeze and warm sun on my skin after a shower.  I even loved the squat eco toilet, where I was occasionally joined by a small frog. Would it smell? I’d worried, when I was shown how the how to ‘flush’ with sawdust. The answer is ‘nope’, not at all, and there’s the added bonus that your business ends up on the compost heap which is used by the local farmers.

Our hosts Annu and Chinu were always at hand, smiling and efficient, oiling the wheels of this lovely retreat. Their commitment is impressive and I was intrigued to hear their story. The pair met while working at another yoga resort and built the Banyan Tree with their own hands, using traditional building methods, after drawing the plan for the retreat on the beach in the sand with a stick.

After a nail biting first season, with just three bookings, they’re now six years along and their hard work has paid off with sell-out reservations. It’s easy to see why. They’ve intuitively understood that this is what we busy city-dwellers so often crave, a lovely corner away from the treadmill of life, a place to sit back and reflect, surrounded by nature. That was one of the great things about this week for me, it was a moment to step back from the everyday busyness to simply take stock and do nothing.

If it’s absolute quiet you crave rather than inner peace however, you might want to bring some earplugs. I’d wake in the morning to a chorus of birds and a cockerel who took his job quite seriously. Or the beeping horn of the bread man.  On the Saturday I’d dropped off to the sound of Hindu chanting which carries from the Monkey Temple, all adding to the colour and sense of being somewhere exotic.

The dogs would occasionally go crazy. ‘It’s the monkeys,’ said Annu. ‘They like to tease the dogs.’  I didn’t see a monkey but they arrived in one guest’s bathroom running around the top of the wall. As we made our way under the fairy-light strewn arches back to our huts, we’d worried they would they jump out of the trees and bite us.  ‘Oh don’t be silly what would monkeys want with us?’ said one guest sensibly. ‘Unless you’re carrying a great big bunch of bananas.’  But Annu and Chinu do love their animals, with three friendly dogs and, when I was here, a litter of adorable three-week old puppies, all running amok at the retreat.

It would be easy to retreat into Banyan Tree’s delightful compound and never see the outside world, but there’s plenty to entertain on the doorstep, from gong baths with a man who resembles ‘Iggy Pop in a loin cloth’, as one guest described him, worth the excursion for the theatrical entertainment as much as the good vibrations, through to the elegant, but affordable shopping at the Rangeela boutique, a place we came to call The Shop, so many of us had fallen for it’s nice quality, inexpensive dresses. Think Isabel Marant meets Helmut Lang on a budget plus chic earthy toned Eres-style swimsuits.  I didn’t feel too guilty about flexing my credit card as the clothes were so pretty and it’s fine to have nice things, Jess had assured us in the course of her sessions, as long as you don’t feel like you need more and more to be happy.
After the retail exertion we’d walked along the vast expanse of Bora Bora beach and stopped for lunch in a pretty beach front restaurant, La Plage, eating carpaccio of beetroot and mango under the coloured parasols.  After a dip in the ocean you can enter into rigorous negotiations with the beach traders who hawk everything from massages and threading to silk scarves and dresses.

The day before I left the Banyan Tree, Jess guided us through a smile meditation. We smiled with every part of our bodies, from the tips of our toes to the top our ears. It’s an exercise from Tantric philosophy, which she’d considered a little cheesy when she first heard it, but soon came to see the benefits.

A week ago I might have thought it cheesy too. ‘Smiling with your toes? Really?’ But after a week on the Yoga on a Shoestring retreat at the Banyan Tree, top-to-toe smiling seems perfectly natural. I mean, why wouldn’t you?  I defy anyone to leave this place not grinning like a Cheshire Cat on steroids.