Declaring you’re off on a yoga retreat has become something of a lifestyle statement for the self-consciously middle class.
Once the sole preserve of unwaxed meat denouncers, yoga has gone mainstream, with everyone and their mother wanting to get down with the ommm crowd. Fact is, it’s hip to get locust-shaped.
That said, there’s a reason why limbering up is so popular. It alleviates stress and anxiety, improves flexibility and brain function, lowers blood pressure and keeps you in damn good shape. Throw sunshine and nourishing food into the mix, and it’s easy to see why so many strung-out professionals are swapping Sundowners for Sun Salutations.
As yoga retreats go, there are plenty of gruelling options available: spartan accommodation, a rigorous regime of asanas and meditation, and a super restricted diet.
I’ve been practising yoga on and off for several years. It keeps me (and therefore everyone around me) sane. But I’m also a food-loving booze hound – I need my chanting with a side of chorizo.
Cue Sunflower Retreats, which has been running yoga holidays for the less hardcore practitioner for the past 15 years. Based in Casperia in the Sabina hills, near Rome, the company has just opened two more ventures, one on the southwest Italian coast, and another in Costa Rica.
A birthday present from my parents, my four-day trip couldn’t have come at a better time. A hectic work schedule, fuelled by caffeine and mollified by wine, coupled with personal issues, had me teetering on the edge.
I’d been going to a yoga class in the gym beside the office, but Pitbull urging me from the spin studio next door to get my “face down, booty up” wasn’t getting me to Nirvana in a hurry. So, green tea and suncream in tow, I hopped on a flight to Rome to get my Zen on, la dolce vita style.
City habits die hard
If you’re not an idiot, getting to Casperia is a relatively straightforward affair. I successfully navigated the 90-minute train journey from Rome Fiumcino to Poggio, from which it’s a 20-minute bus ride through rolling olive groves to the medieval walled village.
But, on arrival, I discovered I’d left my phone at the bus stop in Poggio as I was checking my emails. “It’s gone forever!” I wailed at Deborah, the Sunflower rep, who had just welcomed me off the bus. Thankfully, Deborah had greater faith in the human race than I did, and called my number. It was immediately answered by a kindly Italian gentleman, who promised to hold on to it ‘til someone picked it up later that day. Welcome to Italy!
I was shown to my accommodation, a simple, yet bright and airy room in a local village house, with stunning views of the Sabina countryside. Apart from the main piazza, Casperia is entirely pedestrianised. You’ll hear birdsong, church bells and lively exchanges between locals, and that’s about it.
And it's tiny, with just a bank, supermarket, butcher, baker, two churches and a coffee shop that doubles up as a bar. It was here I parked myself for the afternoon, getting rightly on pinot grigio at €3 a glass.
That evening, I met my fellow yogis at Sunflower Retreats HQ, a 15th-century palazzo, sumptuously decorated in Italianate style. We tucked into antipasti and local wines in the grounds before decamping indoors for a delicious buffet of rustic Italian fare. There were carbs! Coffee! Panettone! The path to spiritual enlightenment is, quite literally, a piece of cake.
Learning to unwind
Each day starts at 8am with 90 minutes of yoga before an organic breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, muesli, freshly baked bread, eggs, charcuterie, tea and coffee. I instantly warmed to the Canadian instructor Lise, whose laid-back teachings resonated with my eat, drink and be merry approach to life.
Lise’s and Sunflower’s philosophy is simple: yoga should be enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy something, why bother? It’s all about aligning mind, body and soul, and learning to trust your instincts. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’ve had enough, and don’t be too strict with yourself. That sounds like a life philosophy we can all get behind.
Non-judgemental Hatha methods are taught, including Iyengar, Satyananda, Sivananda, Vinyasa Flow, Anusara, Astanga and Yin Yoga, and are suitable for beginners and the more experienced practitioner.
After breakfast, there’s a choice of optional activities on offer, from horse riding to watercolour painting, an outdoor yoga class and a range of holistic treatments. Meals out at restaurants in nearby towns are also organised. Otherwise, you’re left to your own devices.
It took me a while to get into the pace of life in Casperia, away from the constant feeling that I need to be productive. So I decided to use this trip to get comfortable with doing nothing - just sitting still, me and my thoughts.
I begin with my usual procrastination techniques: make a detox tea, light a scented candle, do a couple of stretches. When I eventually get round to it, I struggle at first, but after a while, I barely notice that two hours have passed.
By the third day, I was in full swing. I went for walks, joined Lise for a blissful meditation workshop and signed up for a holistic massage with Chloe, Sunflower’s softly spoken therapist, whose healing hands could have put Jesus himself out of business.
Almost immediately, I felt an overwhelming sense of emotion as months of stress were gently but firmly coaxed out of me. Afterwards, Chloe was eerily accurate in identifying my issues and suggested a few confidence-building exercises. I left the treatment room, shaken and tearful, but purged of my erstwhile demons. In other words, I felt bloody fantastic.
My last day in Casperia was Palm Sunday and, on seeing a procession make their way to the church, brandishing palm and singing hymns, I joined in, positively beatific from my emerging spiritual awakening. I met Lise for a coffee before catching the bus back to Poggio. She urged me not to let my “inner light” extinguish when I returned to London and I assured her I’d keep it lit.
Which I did, until the bus, the last bus leaving Casperia that evening, ensuring I’d catch the only train that would get me to my flight in time, whizzed past us ten minutes early. With no taxis in town, I had to rely on the kindness of a couple of uni kids, who ferried me at breakneck speed to Poggio, whereupon I discovered that regular train services wouldn’t resume until the morning.
Holy Day of Obligation and all that.
The ensuing expletives pretty much put paid to my inner light, but yet more generous-hearted Italian folk offered to drive me to the airport, two hours away, asking only for €20 to cover petrol. I felt like declaring my cynicism at customs – the world is lovely and I am a goddess.
A month later, the world is alright and I’m a decent enough human being when I take the time to practise what I learnt in Casperia. My inner light’s more like an energy-efficient bulb these days. The heat’s not quite as strong, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Four-night stays at Sunflower Retreats in Casperia, including daily yoga, breakfast, bicycle hire and a guided walk in the Sabina mountains, from £342.99, sunflowerretreats.com.