SwaSwara, Karnataka, India
Enchanting beachside ayurveda and yoga sanctuary in Southern India
Best for: Anyone who wants quiet, reflective, healing time out – come to cocoon yourself or meet like-minded others
Not for: Party people hoping to chinwag into the night
There are 24 cottages, usually taken as single occupancy.
One of the most enchanting retreats we have ever reviewed, SwaSwara near Gokarna just south of Goa is a purpose built sanctuary in exquisite landscaped surroundings next to a beach shaped like the symbol Om. It offers year-round, authentic ayurveda and yoga retreats with real integrity. You are given what you need, rather than what you might want – every aspect of your stay is overseen by the ayurvedic medical team – yet it’s not remotely institutionalised. You can expect impeccable service offered with pure heart and spirit, and a location that feels close to heaven. Here is a place where you can breathe deeply, listen and hear your real self.
Swaswara offers an exceptional space, with quiet and comfort, in exquisitely beautiful and fragrant gardens which sport amazing banyan trees. The freshest, finest gourmet ayurvedic food is served in style. The genuinely caring staff are healthy and smiling.
It’s gorgeously remote – but this does make for a very long drive from the airport. There is no private area of the beach – you’ll share it with young Western travellers, cows and puppies, and local weekenders – though that is part of the magic and the beach is large.
SwaSwara offers retreats with a particular focus, such as yoga, ayurveda and general wellbeing holidays. Each is run by a committed team who offer their skills seriously, as therapeutic medicine. The packages range from therapeutic to relaxation-focused, and alongside this there is a full daily programme of activities and experiences free of cost to guests.
The Swa Wellbeing programme for 5 nights or more allows you to design your own daily wellbeing schedule for a relaxed, healthy holiday including an Ayurveda consultation, treatments and other activities. It provides a beginner’s introduction to yogic kriyas, asanas, yoga nidra, meditation and pranayama, and there is a special focus on yoga-enabled art and music too. Over the course of a week you will learn to relax, slow down and listen to the gentle murmurs of your inner ‘swara’, or voice.
Available from 7 to 21 nights, the Ayurveda Rejuvenation program uses traditional Ayurveda principles to de-stress and revitalize you from inside out. You’ll be able to deal with health issues arising from the rigours of modern lifestyles or get relief from specific ailments such as arthritis, musculoskeletal problems, back pain and poor circulation. You can also take this programme before doing a deeper detox programme at Swaswara.
The type of massage (intensity, which oil is used and so on) will depend very much on the doctor’s diagnosis of your mind-body type and prescription. Four-handed treatments (two therapists working in tandem) are delicious but be prepared to be naked. There are male therapists for male guests and female therapists for female guests.
Treatments might include Shirodhara – continuous pouring of warm medicated oil or water on the forehead; Kizhyi massage – massaging the body with cloth pouches filled with medicated herbs or cooked medicinal rice and oils; Dharas – continuous pouring of medicated warm oil or water over the full body; and Basti – medicated enemas. For a full explanation of ayurveda, see here.
The Ayurveda Detox and Panchakarma Programme can cleanse you inside and out and support healing from severe stress and illness. Come for at least 14 nights – If you want to do the Panchakarma – ayurveda’s ultimate detox – you must come for a minimum of 21 days.
You’ll have a detailed consultation with the ayurveda doctor, and then ingest medicated ghee for a few days (Snehapana) followed by a day of purging (Virechana) before embarking on healing treatments. There’s a personalized, Dosha-specific diet which is pure vegetarian and strictly prescribed by the doctor. You visit the ayurvedic doctors for daily consultations, and receive regular bodywork and bastis (herbal and oil enemas) alongside very gentle meditation and/or yoga sessions. Staff wait on you with great care, as you stay within your chalet in reflective solitary peace. Due to the intense and curative nature of this programme, all physical and outdoor activities including yoga are subject to the Ayurveda doctor’s approval.
Good Hatha yoga is on offer here to everyone, the traditional and ancient system of yoga that aims to bring harmony to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state of being. Daily group yoga sessions are held (for two levels of experience) or you can have private yoga classes. There are also group guided meditation sessions each day to calm your mind. Staff will help you choose the right level of class. The group’s needs are always taken into account.
Wonderfully, art is seen as another path to healing and self-discovery at SwaSwara, and there’s an art studio where you can experiment with a wide range of creative activities including tribal Warli painting, water colours on handmade paper, origami and clay work on a traditional potter’s wheel. The Art studio is open every day and the resident artist is available Monday to Saturday for Meditative Art sessions. Pottery sessions on electric wheels are available every day too (except Sundays).
SwaSwara overlooks the Om beach and has direct access to it from the property – it is a 5 minute walk downhill. Go there to relax and sunbathe. There’s also a weekly 45 minute boat ride to Gokarna included in your stay, which ends at the weekly farmers market, or it’s a 90 minute walk along a coastal track. This is one of the sweetest little towns in India, full of temples, buzzing pilgrim shops, spice traders and irresistible striped hand-loom cottons, and worth a visit. You can also hire a boat at any time to explore the fort and beaches nearby, though not during the Monsoons, as the sea gets too rough.
People tend to dress up for meals, so it’s worth packing a couple of nice outfits. Bring smart cotton casuals, flat soled flip flops, mosquito spray and any medications you need to take regularly. A good sun hat, sun glasses, suntan lotions and a swimming costume are a must. During the Monsoon, bring a waterproof and sturdy, rain proof walking shoes. They provide umbrellas and herbal mosquito spray and toiletries.
When to Go
Most people come between October and March, when the weather is at its most pleasant and dry, but the retreat is fine to visit all year round. March to May is Summer time and hot, while June to September is Monsoon time.
Ayurvedic chefs man the kitchen, which is supplied by acres and acres of organic gardens tended by women in colourful saris. You’ll either be on a purely Ayurvedic vegetarian diet to match your dosha, or cooking is a fusion of western and ayurveda, when thoughtful meals beautifully presented might include today’s catch of fish, seasonal tropical fruits, spiced nuts, exquisite vegetable dishes and puddings of fruit or grains that are caramelized and spiced unimaginably well.
Organic vegetables are grown on site or sourced locally; dairy, eggs and oils are limited. There are herbal waters, cooling fruit-vegetable juices, and herbal teas. Wine is available for those on the Swa Wellbeing programme. Hand baked Indian breads are effortlessly replaced with equally yummy gluten free versions (they love to cater to special dietary needs). Everything is included in the price, aside from wine, juices or snacks ordered outside of regular meal times – not that you’d ever need them.
Swaswara re-uses its waste water for the gardens, flowers beds and farm, turns its kitchen waste into bio gas for cooking and fertilizers, and harvests its rain water. Many of the staff come from local communities in and around Gokarna, and the retreat gets involved with community programmes to support local schools and enterprises. Fresh water is a scarce resource in this region, and so SwaSwara harvest rain water during the monsoon months to meet all their needs.
Om Beach, Donibhail, Gokarna, Uttara Kannada, Karnataka – 581326
Dabolim airport, Goa
Transfer Time: from the train station: 1 hour, from the airport: 3.5 hours