Mindfulness Journeys, Morocco
Mindfulness meditation with yoga and crystal bowl sound healing in the foothills of the Atlas mountains
Best for: Those who want to learn and understand the essence of mindfulness and how to incorporate it into their lives, but in an accessible way and relaxed setting.
Not for: Hardcore yogis who want to deepen their practice, anyone looking for a detox diet and those who want to fully retreat in an enclosed setting (this is a functioning hotel and there are other guests staying).
Mindfulness Journeys runs date-specific group retreats in January at the exquisite countryside hotel Kasbah Beldi, a charming oasis surrounded on all sides by orange-tinted desert hills with majestic snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains resplendent in the distance. Only fifty minutes drive from Marrakech Airport, it is the perfect place to escape from life outside. You’ll be in a group, which shares private spaces away from other hotel guests. Unwind with daily yoga and crystal bowl sound healing to immerse yourself in dedicated meditation and mindfulness practices – the kind you simply can not gain from downloading the latest app. Mindfulness Journeys also offers virtual retreats.
The setting of Kasbah Beldi is spectacular. Your daily routine is immaculately organised by Shannon – there is barely a moment you have to make a decision for yourself. The hotel staff are delightful and endlessly accommodating, whether procuring Moroccan mint tea, moving beds into the sun by the pool, serving meal after meal. You’re encouraged to switch off all devices and digitally detox.
During colder months the yoga practice is in a smaller room with a roaring log fire. This was disappointing for some who had been looking forward to practising in the fabulous panoramic glass tented space that is used during warmer times. Meditation sessions are in the panoramic tented space.
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The retreats pivot around twice daily yoga and mindfulness meditation sessions, and one session of crystal bowl sound healing, with the emphasis on intimacy and routine. All meals and sessions are done as a group and hosts Shannon and Brian are eager to make sure all guests arrive and depart at the set time to ensure they live the whole experience from the initial welcome to the final closing circle.
Suited to all levels, all mindfulness sessions – one in the morning at 10 and again in the afternoon at 5 – are led by Brian Hilliard. There is also the option of running with Brian, the timing of which is fairly flexible and is normally for around 30-40 minutes. Running is in silence, across the desert sands and you are encouraged to count with the breath, to meditate with the movement.When it comes to meditation teachers, Brian is the real deal. At 18 he was taught by Tibetan master, Chőgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has trained at various renowned places including Ngedon School, Nitartha Institute and Vajradhatu, and completed the traditional Tibetan three-year retreat. He emphasises the importance of posture, of keeping mouth and eyes slightly open so as to stay aware, and coming back to the breath when thoughts start to distract or to clutter the mind.Sessions usually involve initial talks and discussion led by Brian followed by periods of up to half an hour in silent meditation, punctuated by more discussion or by walking meditation. The emphasis is on ‘nowness’ – being in the moment – and on ‘kindness and gentleness’ – with yourself and extending logically to others. The sessions usually last an hour but occasionally are more than that – on our New Years trip the longest was two hours. One afternoon each person is allocated a twenty minute individual chat with Brian, which is a chance to ask any questions you might have about the practice and how to take it home and incorporate it into life.
There’s an hour of Hatha yoga at 7.30 and then of Yin yoga at 6pm, both taught by Brian’s partner and your co-host Shannon, a newly certified Yoga Alliance Teacher. It is suited to all levels but is not for ‘competitive’ types who want to move fast and really prove or push themselves. The Hatha yoga is rewarding, strengthening muscles through a series of asanas which you are gently encouraged to hold and explore using the breath. In the evening, to contrast and compliment the yang there’s Yin, which requires you to hold positions for up to five minutes and delivers a deep and thorough massage for the tissues, ligaments and joints. Lying in Shavasana at the end of these classes, wrapped head to toe in blankets, the fire crackling, we felt a real and rather blissful sense of exhaustion. Immensely rewarding and sleep inducing, it was a group of happy zombies who headed out and into supper afterwards.
For an hour in the morning and a couple more in the afternoon you are free to lie in sun loungers by one of the two pools: soak in the sun, sip mint tea, swim or wander the hotel gardens. Included in the retreat price is also one Traditional Moroccan Hammam, which involves relaxing in a steam room whilst being scrubbed, hair washed and massaged with essential oils and aromatic plants before chilling out in your towelling robe in a firelit room, mint tea in hand. Extra massages at extra cost can be booked with an on-site masseuse, whose boundless enthusiasm and passion for his trade shone through on our visit.
Bedrooms: You can stay in a lodge or a room at the hotel. Both are the same price for retreat guests, and Shannon will give the lodges to the first guests to book – an incentive to book early!The lodges are stylish and simple with fabulous large ceiling to floor windows providing sensational views out over the mountains. On clear nights if you keep the curtains open it is rather like being in an observatory. Floors are marble, the large beds have beautifully embroidered linen (made at the Beldi Country Club – the hotel’s sister location in Marrakech). All are ensuite with rounded wooden sticks and a half wall separating off an area with sink, shower room and a separate room for the loo.The rooms are more charming than stylish, painted each in a different colour, and also ensuite. They have smaller wooden windows – many still looking out over the mountains. All rooms and lodges have heaters.
Other spaces to be: Most lodges and rooms have their own private terrace with deck chairs and table where you can sit and soak up the sun and gaze out at the spectacular view. There’s also a round thatched pagoda in the gardens – if you are lucky and no one has nabbed the tables already it is a lovely peaceful spot.
Make sure you pack warm socks and thick jumpers for the nights and early mornings during the Winter retreat. If you are the kind of person who likes or needs your own particular tea, sneak some spare bags into your suitcase. It might be worth booking an extra night at the start or end of your stay so you can see a bit of buzzing Marrakech – there are no excursions on the retreat and it’s a shame not to visit while you are there.
When to Go
There will always be other guests staying at the hotel, but Shannon and Brian choose retreat dates at times when they hope the place will be quieter. The December/January retreat is the coldest time to go, but while the mornings and nights are chilly, it’s wonderfully fresh with a bracing alpine feel and the days are sunny and warm. This is also the busiest. In March temperatures range from around 9C to 26C, and in May they lift to 14C to around 29C. March is perhaps the quietest time to go.
Breakfasts are served on a glorious raised terrace to the front of the hotel, with a turret to one side and spectacular views; lunches (and dinners during warmer months) at the outside restaurant with its own separate kitchen, tables strewn under pistachio and olive trees with Berber rugs, cushions and a relaxed Bedouin vibe; and suppers in cooler months in a large restaurant where white clothed round tables are decorated with roses and candles.
The food eaten on retreat is dictated by the hotel menu which is on a rotation and is the same as the other paying guests. Think traditional, simple Moroccan cuisine deliciously flavoured with abundant spices. As much of the vegetables and fruit as possible are grown in the hotel garden and bread, baked fresh every morning, appears at all meals with wonderful homemade olive oil to dip it in. This is indulgent fare, and not a place to detox.
At breakfast there are jugs of freshly squeezed orange juice, small bowls of grapefruit, yoghurts, freshly baked bread, moroccan style pancakes and a large piping hot egg tagine made with sliced tomatoes and onions. There are flasks of coffee, Earl Grey Tea Bags or the ubiquitous Mint Tea (mint leaves mixed with black tea leaves and sugar – though you can ask for it without sugar or just have the fresh mint).
Lunch and dinner are both three courses. For lunch a typical starter would be either a selection of mezze style salads, roasted aubergine in tomato sauce, sliced tomato cucumber and onion and carrots roasted in cumin, or a large salad – usually with tuna – to share. The main was either brochettes or an array of tagines: large bubbling dishes of chicken, fish, lamb or beef, and of colourful vegetables often on a bed of couscous. For the vegetarians there were separate tagines of vegetables: carrots, aubergines, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions peppers etc cooked in oil and spices. Pudding was typically sliced fresh fruit.
Dinners were much the same though the starter was largely warm vegetable soups and the puddings more elaborate: panna cotta, creme patisserie, cakes, and so on. And then there’s the service. Three or more men in Moroccan garb place the tagines on the table with theatrical synchronicity before the lids are whisked off to reveal the dish below. There is only one rule on the retreat – no alcohol. But the hotel does serve it.
The hotel grows much of its own fruit and vegetables and waters the property with rain and mountain water from its own ancient irrigation system. Locals are employed here, and they also sell artisanal products such as glassware, crockery, linen and cotton made in the sister hotel (they are not for sale at the Kasbah Beldi). Shannon and Brian, champions of eco living who are trying to bring zero waste into their home lives, plan to work with the hotel to try to help them make the place more environmentally friendly on an ongoing basis.
La Kasbah Beldi, Lac de Lalla Takerkoust, Village de Talet, Morocco
Airport: Marrakech Menara
Transfer time: 50 minutes