Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tropical retreat: surfing and yoga in Sri Lanka

When I asked Ed Templeton, co-founder of Soul & Surf, why there’s a growing trend for healthy retreats combining surfing and yoga, he said they go together so well because “both activities are all about being in the moment”. It’s easy to see why: Riding on the crest of a wave is as exhilarating as it sounds and yoga can liberate the mind and do wonders for the body.

Photos: SuppliedPhotos: Supplied

But how do you even begin to find a moment (let alone be in one) in just a week, when you are an out-of-shape 52-year-old with next to no experience in either, have an arthritic lower back, creaky knees and are about as co-ordinated as Jeremy Vine on Strictly?

That was the slightly daunting challenge I’d set myself when signing up for a week at Soul & Surf, in the village of Ahangama on the gorgeously tropical south coast of Sri Lanka. Our group of 14, half Brits and half other Europeans, were of mixed level, but after our first surf lesson it was clear I was bottom of the class – a status I hung on to when it came to yoga.

Head surf instructor George has the bolt-upright posture and quiet authority that comes from serving for eight years in the British Paras and another five in the French Foreign Legion. The very first time I tried to haul myself onto a board he said, “I can see you work behind a desk, Gavin,” and, a mere 10 minutes later, “Take a break whenever you need to.”

But the support and guidance I received from him and the rest of his excellent team, and the yoga instructor Jess, encouraged me to put my aching limbs through their paces for several hours every day. And the clean, clear water lapping the golden sand on Ahangama beach is so deliciously warm you can surf all day without a wetsuit. Surfing – or at least trying to – here at sunset, watching the sun dip down over the equator just six degrees south, was blissful.

Combining yoga and surfing means that no one – not in our easy-going group at least – is too fanatical about either. “Before we set this place up we visited surf schools all over the world,” said Ed. “And the problem with them is, all everyone does all day is surf, talk about surfing and watch surf movies. It drove me mad.”

I imagine serious yoga retreats can be equally unbearable for the uninitiated.

Although I wasn’t really fit enough before I got here to make that much progress (never send an old man to do a boy’s job), my choice of retreat was spot on. From the fresh coconut water we were given after yoga each day to the way the local tuk-tuks had been fitted out with bars to slot the surfboards into, every aspect of Soul & Surf is well thought-out. It exudes calm and runs so smoothly it was hard to believe it had only opened one month before I arrived.

Our daily routine went like this: Wake at 6:30am for a quick smoothie and coffee; drive to the beach for two hours of tutored surfing; back for a big communal breakfast; free time (in which I’d usually fall asleep); a light lunch; 3pm vinyasa flow yoga lesson; back to the beach for a sunset surf; then return to the retreat to relax; socialise over dinner before crawling off to bed as early as I can ever remember. It sounds like a lot to fit in, but was so well organised it never felt rushed. And, compared with the recent rash of similar but swankier retreats opening up all over Sri Lanka, it seemed like excellent value.

The venture is more grown-up than the first surf school Ed and partner Sofie Templeton opened in Kerala five years ago, on a stretch of coast where no one had ever surfed. That was a real adventure, and they winged it. But Sri Lankan waves have long been discovered by international surfers, and local kids (awed in Kerala the first time they saw the tall white guy riding a wave on a weird board) are already part of the scene here.

This year the couple’s Sri Lankan retreat is based in Duwa Villas, two sets of four spacious rooms around a small swimming pool, on a tranquil stretch of river a 10-minute drive from the beach. The villas have white high-ceilinged interiors with huge beds, some with exotic outdoor bathrooms. The setting is serene and bursting with tropical life: shrouded by palm trees, hummingbirds flitting around the garden between the blazing orange heliconia and red alpinia, while (harmless) 6-foot monitor lizards roam the grounds as if they own the place.

The food, served in the garden on big communal tables, is great too: pulses, veggie Sri Lankan curries with jasmine rice, tuna steak, salads with yoghurt dressing, all both healthy and sumptuous.

The retreat has been such an instant hit that Ed and Sofie are building a permanent Soul & Surf base nearby – the current place is rented – which is set to open in November, “with mid-century modernist touches and [renowned Sri Lankan architect] Geoffrey Bawa influences in the building and interiors”.

By the end of the week I felt battered and knackered, but came to see that surfing and yoga really do complement each other. In the morning surf session I’d be stiff and rarely caught a wave. But then we’d do yoga, and though I felt like I was doing it all wrong at the time, after each session I felt fantastic. So when I went back to the beach at sunset, I was energised and more flexible – and even caught a few waves and stayed on the board a good few seconds. It was a fleeting but joyous, almost magical feeling. And all that stuff about being in the moment made perfect sense.


IF YOU GO
The trip was provided by Soul & Surf (01273 931 282, soulandsurf.com), which offers a seven-night Sri Lanka retreat from £775pp (US$1097), including full-board and airport transfers from Colombo, surf coaching, board hire and feedback sessions, yoga classes and one guided meditation session, but excluding flights.

– The Guardian