At a Yoga Retreat in India: Beach Walks, Body Treatments and Healing

Early-morning meditation at Kudle Beach in Gokarna, India.

Motoring along the mouth of the Aghanashini River, our torsos stuffed inside bulky, bright-orange life jackets, we passed a fishing village and a patch of sandy shoreline called Paradise beach. “There! There!” shouted a woman from the back of the skiff, pointing to a dolphin she spotted in the distance. Our young local captain cut the motor. Watching, we waited in silence. And when our group’s yoga teacher, Larissa Carlson, began to chant the sound of om — a Sanskrit word symbolizing the union of body, speech and mind — and the rest of us joined in, creating a collective, continuous round of the humming syllable. As if awakened by the vibrations of our call, a pod of dolphins emerged, leaping through the air, one after another. This, I thought, is going to be an unusual journey.

While a trip to India had been on my bucket list for years, it didn’t seem imminent. But then, strewn on the mudroom floor where the mail makes its way daily through a rectangular slot, I came across the fall 2016 catalog for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Flipping through its pages, I stopped abruptly on page 20 when I saw the words: “Kripalu in India.”

A nonprofit yoga and wellness center in Lenox, Mass., Kripalu, now in its 40th year, hosts nearly 50,000 guests a year who come for its wide variety of programs. Over the past decade, I’ve been an occasional Kripalu visitor, attending writing workshops, yoga classes and several courses connected to my training as a life coach. Standing in my kitchen with catalog in hand, I suddenly began to imagine myself as one of Kripalu’s first guests to experience its mission of “whole-person education for body, mind, heart and spirit” away from its Berkshires home.

Last May, along with my 23-year-old daughter, Nicole, I traveled to India for a week of yoga, meditation and ayurveda, an ancient Indian medical system aimed at keeping the body and mind balanced and healthy. We spent our first night at the Alila Diwa hotel in Goa. Set among rice paddies and coconut groves, the infinity pool was ideal for cooling off in the intense heat — summer in India lasts from April to June, and humidity is high in the south, with temperatures in the mid-90s. Early the next morning, we met our group under a giant banyan tree for introductions and gentle yoga, led by Ms. Carlson, a Kripalu yoga teacher and former dean of its ayurvedic school.

Our group consisted of 14 guests — 13 women, ranging in age from 23 to 82, and Ms. Carlson’s fiancé, David Lipsius, who, as the former Kripalu chief executive, was involved in the early planning stages of the retreat. Each of us had traveled to India for our own reasons. Taking a break from stressful lives. Learning about ancient health practices. Connecting to our breath and body through meditation and yoga. Because she was between jobs and her mother had invited her, in Nicole’s case.

My initial purpose for joining this trip was to discover and explore the only place where practicing meditation and seeking balance may be as common as cellphone use. But this trip took on a new meaning and significance after the sudden passing of my brother three weeks before our departure. On this retreat, I found a space to grieve, a connection to human kindness and a deepening appreciation for self-care — body, mind and spirit — in a safe, nurturing environment.

A three-hour bus ride — which involved an adventurous pit stop in an elderly woman’s stone outhouse — led us to our home for the next six days, the SwaSwara resort in Gokarna on India’s southwestern coast. As we approached the hotel, our travel guides, Kyra Sudofsky, of the United States-based Academic Travel Abroad agency, and Sandeep (Sandy) Minhas Singh of the India-based Worldwide Adventures, asked us to fill out a three-page self-assessment chart. Munching on giant cashews, I circled my answers to a battery of questions, covering habits and characteristics ranging from taste preferences and skin temperature to sleep patterns and vein prominence. Each response fell into one of three columns labeled vata, pitta and kapha.

We handed our questionnaires back to Ms. Sudofsky and Mr. Minhas Singh, who announced that along with three body treatments, our retreat included a consultation with an ayurvedic doctor. The doctor would be tailoring our treatments after identifying our dosha — the Sanskrit term used for a person’s biological constitution, which is made up of a combination of elements: vata (air and ether), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water).

Nicole and I checked into our room, one of 24 clustered Konkan villas made with local laterite stone, clay tiles and thatched roofs. Our villa had its own mini grass courtyard, a bathroom and shower open to the sky, an enclosed air-conditioned bedroom and a second-floor deck ideal for practicing yoga, napping or taking in the black-faced langur monkeys that catapulted from tree limb to limb. Unpacking our pricey leggings and fitted tank tops, we answered the door for a hotel worker who delivered two pairs of off-white cotton drawstring pants and matching boxy tops — a yoga apparel set for each of us. We joked at the idea of putting them on, coming to realize after one yoga class the benefit of sweating in those loose, breathable garments rather than our own.

Four miles from Gokarna village, SwaSwara resort sits alongside the Arabian Sea and extends across 26 acres, although more than half of its land is left untouched and protects the surrounding ecosystem. Devoted to sustainability, the hotel, its farms and swimming pool use only harvested rainwater — accumulated each year during the monsoon season — which is then treated and filtered.

Entering the ayurveda building for my scheduled consultation on our arrival day, I was greeted by Dr. Firoz Varun, a thirtysomething, mustached man, whose wife, Dr. Kripa Krishnan, is also one of the resort’s three staff doctors. After taking my pulse and blood pressure, he asked me if I had any “body disturbances.”

“If you mean injuries, I have a few,” I answered, a bit confused. We discussed my tight muscles, hip pain and hypermobility, and how lifestyle, diet and relationships are all influenced by our dosha. Dr. Varun went on to explain that every person has a combination of the five elements — fire, earth, water, air and ether — but some combinations are more prominent, determining your primary, and often a secondary, dosha. Reaching for the questionnaire I’d completed on the bus ride, Dr. Varun marked in all capital letters: Pitta-Kapha.

To beat the intense heat, our days began with yoga at 6 a.m. Mats were waiting when we entered the yoga shala, Sanskrit for house, and Ms. Carlson led us in breathing exercises, meditations, chanting and poses to awaken our bodies. She encouraged us to pause and be mindful of the sounds — we heard many chirping kingfisher birds — smells and sights outside the open windows. For cooling down the body’s temperature, Ms. Carlson taught us sheetali breathing, during which we exhaled through a curled tongue or gritted teeth. Her teaching and crisp voice were a consistent, calming presence in a place where the heat, aromas, sounds and flavors felt, at times, overwhelming. “I’m here to invite in reminders to be and not just do, to pause and take time to reflect,” she said. “It’s an invitation to slow down and taste test India with some Kripalu-style yoga.”

With more limber bodies and quieter minds, we went each morning from yoga to breakfast at the Cocum, the open-air dining room at the center of the resort — named after the reddish-purple fruit used in aruyvedic medicine to treat sores, improve digestion and lessen arthritis pain. All meals were included in our retreat, and breakfast included a daily selection of eggs to order, oatmeal and freshly cut fruit. In an effort to stay hydrated, I refilled my water bottle frequently from the large water tanks located at the yoga shala and domed meditation hut. I quickly learned, though, that ayurvedic doctrine recommends lukewarm water for optimal absorption into the body, so at meals, the water is served slightly warm with added natural flavors, such as fenugreek or cumin, that changed daily.

Food — what, when and how much — plays an important role in ayurveda. Lunch and dinner at SwaSwara — served at either the Cocum or by the beach in a shady grove called the Beach Grill — began with a juice of the day (blueberry-lime blast anyone?), followed by an appetizer such as cucumber peanut salad or garden almond gazpacho, a choice of two main dishes, like fish curry cooked in Indian spices and cocum, or vegetable korma made with mixed vegetables, coriander, mint and coconut paste. Desserts were lacking in chocolate for my taste, but some, like ginger-baked banana and date squares, went over well with guests. The food is organic and every meal consisted of fresh, locally grown or sourced ingredients — mainly vegetables and fish — with a plated amount meant to leave you satiated, but not full, which, according to ayurveda, is easier on digestion.

Our days at SwaSwara were unhurried and spacious, sprinkled with yoga, a late-morning group activity — bird-watching, nature walk, boat ride — a body treatment, a swim in the pool, or a walk along Om beach, where cows amble aimlessly, leaving hoof prints in the sand alongside those of vacationers’. Gathering in the meditation hut in the late afternoon, our Kripalu group — save for those who were napping — sat for a guided meditation or a gentle yoga class, led by Ms. Carlson or a resident teacher. I tried hard not to doze during a yoga nidra class led by Jayalakshmi Moily, whose melodic voice brought me right to the intended dreamy state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

On Thursday morning, we left the hotel grounds for an outing to Gokarna village, a 15-minute ride via tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw. Our guide, Matthew Raj — who doubles as SwaSwara’s art teacher — led us to Mahabaleshwar, a sacred 4th-century Hindu temple and pilgrimage site; to the Koti Tirtha, a sacred water tank used for ritual bathing; and to some shops where we could buy mala bead necklaces, traditionally used in prayer and meditation, and pretty fashionable in yoga and meditation circles.

Thursday is market day, and we joined the meandering cows and throngs of locals, perusing the fresh fruits, vegetables and mounds of ginger piled atop tarps on the ground. Mr. Minhas Singh gave each of us 100 rupees (about $1.50) to buy some fresh ingredients, which the SwaSwara chef would use later that afternoon in a cooking demonstration. I spent 60 rupees on a kilogram of purple eggplants, and the rest on crisp, white daikon radishes. Nicole and another guest, Dana Rhoden, a publicist from Miami, pooled their cash to buy some cauliflower, a pricier choice than mine, costing about 150 rupees, or $2.30.

After our morning in the crowded village, returning to SwaSwara was a chance to fall back into serenity. That afternoon, I was scheduled for a rejuvenation body treatment, with the addition of murivenna oil, made from a blend of herbs, which Dr. Varun selected because, he said, it increases circulation, and would help heal my muscle and joint soreness. All three of my treatments were given with four hands by Anchu Ajikrishna, a petite 20-year-old massage therapist, and an assistant. I held in my laughter as the assistant farted loudly — in ayurveda, passing gas is encouraged for colon health — while heating herbs and oil over a small flame. Ms. Ajikrishna tied a disposable undergarment around my waist and guided me to sit on a stool, before placing her hands over my head to chant a Sanskrit prayer, which, translated by Dr. Varun, asks “the unknown supreme God and great physician to heal the body from all miseries, body and mind.”

The four hands swept in unison up and down my body — front and back — in what felt like a choreographed dance during each treatment. Once the oil rubbing or salt scrubbing part was over, Ms. Ajikrishna instructed me to wash my face and body in an outdoor shower with green mung bean powder, an herbal exfoliant used to cleanse the skin without removing the oil’s benefits. Dry and wrapped in a green robe, I was led back to the stool where Ms. Ajikrishna had recited the prayer. While I sipped a cup of herbal tea with honey, she rubbed rasna churna powder — a mix of plant roots and herbs — into my scalp to maintain the temperature of my body. To finish off the treatment, she placed an orange bindi (a dot, in Sanskrit) made from sandalwood paste, at the center of my forehead, an additional ayurvedic strategy for cooling down the body in the summertime heat.

Our group had its final gathering in the meditation hut on Saturday afternoon, where Ms. Carlson asked us to reflect on our experience and share what we hoped to take home with us. “I’d like to make regular space for a yoga practice that is gentle and nurturing, and not one where I am pushing my body too hard,” I said. A few of us shed tears, touching on feelings of loss and resilience. “As the baby of the group, I’ve gained so much from the wisdom of these women who have shared some of their life experiences with me,” said Nicole, the youngest guest by nearly two decades.

On the morning of our departure from SwaSwara, I unintentionally woke up at 4:30 a.m. Like the dolphins who leapt from the water earlier in the week, I felt some sort of magnetic pull from the outside. Trying not to awaken Nicole, I put on clothes, grabbed a flashlight and made my way along a path in the darkness to Meditation Hill, an open-air cliffside structure with straw mats and a view overlooking the Arabian Sea and Om beach. I sat down, closed my eyes, and listened to the waves, thinking of my brother, and the healing and nurturing this place provided. I opened my eyes and the morning light was just beginning to shine.

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