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January 2011. Media Reviews

Tropical yoga immersion at Samahita Retreat

By Lucia Cockcroft

The beautiful island of Koh Samui, off Thailand’s East coast, has become a hotbed of yoga in the last few years.

Koh Samui and the yoga scene

As well as detox and yoga resort The Absolute Sanctuary on the north coast, the 20km-wide island is also home to acclaimed holistic spa Kamalaya, and, ten minutes along a quiet road, nestling in the far south of the island, Samahita Retreat.

Samahita Retreat’s raison d’etre is firmly rooted in the yoga tradition (rather than welbeing).

Founded by Paul and Jutima Dallaghan in 2003, the centre has earned a well-deserved reputation for yoga retreats, training and holidays, hosted in a picture-perfect, beach-side location highly conducive to restoration and study.

Koh Samui has a reputation for being over-developed and touristy, yet the south coast has escaped most of this activity; for now, at least, the landscape is that of lush coconut palms and pristine white beaches. A perfect environment for some serious yoga immersion.

And serious yoga immersion is the name of the game at Samahita Retreat. During an average holiday here, yoga begins at 7.30am with an hour’s meditation and pranayama, followed by an ashtanga practice lasting from 90 minutes to two hours.

It’s a wonderful way to start each morning – but guests looking for a lie-in and a spot of gentle yoga should be aware of the intensive daily schedule before booking!

Guests are in good hands. Paul Dallaghan is a dedicated student of yoga master OP Tiwari, and is one of only three senior students of Tiwari to have studied pranayama and meditation intensively.

Paul’s pedigree also extends to having studied extensively with Ashtanga master the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Sharath, and is one of only a few in the world to be certified by Sri Jois.

Setting the scene

I was here for Paul’s seven-day Chinese New Year yoga retreat. Home for the week was a clean, comfortable room boasting two double beds split between a downstairs and mezzanine level.

A small bathroom lead to an enclosed outside shower area, and a small balcony at the front was ideal for sunset gazing and drying clothes.

The accommodation block is only a few seconds’ stroll away from the main, low-lying complex, which consists of reception area, shop, meditation garden, treatment rooms, large yoga shala, open-air lounge area, and outside swimming pool leading down to a gorgeous palm-lined beach.

Despite the serious yoga schedule (there’s also an afternoon class every day at around 4pm), there is always a welcome four or five hour time-slot in the middle of the day during which the guests do what they please. I found that a nap after 11am brunch and the three-hour yoga session was almost a necessity!

The rest of the free time goes quickly enough: brunch is a leisurely affair, made more so by wonderful views from the lounge, to the beach and swimming pool. Seating is yoga-style: large dark wooden tables with broad, comfy floor cushions, where Easy Pose or Lotus is the sensible way to sit.

Typically, brunch consists of muesli, toast and fruit juice, with a second round of food brought out at around 12 noon.

This could be noodles and Thai or Indian curry; pasta, or brown rice and vegetables. In the main, the food was good, although I would have liked to have seen more Thai dishes on the menu, and a couple of meals were decidedly below average.

If the two daily meals – a lighter meal was served from 6pm – is not enough, extras portions can be bought from early in the morning to late at night: wholemeal sandwiches, delicious soups, Thai curries, super-healthy smoothies for extra ashtanga energy.

Around 40 people in total took Paul’s Chinese New Year retreat – a large group, though the yoga shala, with its wide doors opening to onto the garden, was easily large enough to hold this number comfortably.

In addition to Paul as the main teacher, at least one assistant helped out during each session; a necessary arrangement, and I felt that our large group would have benefited from the presence of another assistant.

Many of the guests at our retreat were living in China, and originally hailed from the UK or US; others had made the trip from Europe or further afield specifically. A couple had dropped in as part of a longer trip around South-East Asia. Surprisingly, perhaps, many of the group were new, or almost new, to ashtanga; while a couple were newcomers to yoga in general.

While a few guests were in their 20s (one was only 13, here with her mother), most, I was interested to note, were older: in their 30s or 40s, older in some cases. Ashtanga is the one form of yoga associated with younger people, so a good mix of age-groups was heartening to see.

On the mat

The morning yoga practice on day one saw Paul introduce some of the fundamentals of the ashtanga Primary Series.

I was immediately impressed at the way he broke down key elements of the Sun Salutations, so that beginners especially could begin to get to grips with the sequencing and their own correct alignment.

An experienced yoga practitioner myself, I found this thorough, steady approach enlightening, and also physically demanding: all too often, Ashtanga is taught as if in a race to reach the finishing post.

Inevitably, in standard classes, key elements of alignment (such as the positioning of the shoulders in plant to chaturanga – crucial to protect the shoulder joints) are brushed over in favour of rushing to reach the end.

To my delight, the first morning’s focus on slowing the practice down, and encouraging a safe, mindful approach to the asanas and sequence, continued throughout the week.

For beginners, this allowed them to become fully acquainted with the poses; for more experienced students, it helped fill a possible gap in knowledge, adding an element of detail and depth that I have found is so often lacking in Ashtanga teaching.

I especially liked Paul’s description in Warrior I to ‘square the ribs’ (rather than the hips, which has always seemed an impossibility with the back foot rooted to the mat), to the front.

Also, his realistic approach to Pashimottanasana (seated forward bend): approaching the pose with bent knees, only sliding the feet forwards if there is enough flexibility in the hamstrings – which, in many people, there isn’t – to allow the spine to remain long.

In the afternoon practice, we sank into some welcome restorative and yin poses – a perfect counter to the intensity of the morning Ashtanga. Holding poses such as Pigeon for up to five minutes is a challenge to most of us; and a wonderful way to encourage a deep opening in the hips.

Morning yoga on day two continued with a thorough look at the Primary Sequence standing poses; a challenging, educational session. I found myself feeling a little concerned for the beginners on the retreat; a two-plus hours ashtanga practice, mixed with tropical heat, equates to something of a marathon, if not an enjoyable, satisfying one.

It would have been nice to have seen Paul emphasise to the group from the start that they are free to take a rest in Child’s pose, or Savasana, whenever a rest is needed.

Paul often leads an hour’s Q&A sessions before the afternoon yoga – a time for people to ask anything they’d like to about yoga.

I found this time enjoyable and informative; on the second day, someone asked if it’s true that Ashtanga is a ‘yang’ practice, as its reputation suggests. Paul’s reply was that any yoga apractice can be ‘yang’ if it is approached in this way.

One of the delights of Paul’s teaching, from my point of view, was its ‘yin’ (soft, mindful, explorative) nature – the opposite of a ‘wam bam’ race to the Savasana finishing line. I found myself nodding in agreement at his explanation.

Gradually throughout the week, we were encouraged to start memorising the Ashtanga sequence, with a view to the whole group practising Mysore-style by the end of the week.

Clearly illustrated practice sheets were available at the shop, and a glance at this every now and again helped to lodge at least some of the sequence in my head.

On the final day, I remembered all the poses until Pashimottanasana, then drew a blank and called on one of the assistance teachers for advice.

Although everyone is encouraged to remember, there is no sense of obligation, and everyone is reminded to simply call over a teacher if they forget the next pose. This is a holiday, after all, and no-one is expected to be perfect, we are told!

After each morning yoga session, I felt a tangible sense of achievement, plus a yearning need for some food!

Perhaps because of people’s enthusiasm to re-fuel at the buffet brunch, Savasana was a too-short affair; the teachers would leave the group to our own devices after a minute, meaning that I was disturbed after four or five minutes by people leaving the room to get showered, or eat.

Given the importance of taking a reasonably long Savasana – especially after a long Ashtanga session – I feel it’s important that the teachers stay with the group for ten to 15 minutes, to ensure everyone rests properly and deeply.

Time Out

Yoga aside, the gap in the middle of the Retreat beachday affords ample time for eating, swimming in the sea or pool, having a Thai massage, walking on the beach, or – should your energy levels permit – exploring the island by moped or taxi.

The town of Lamai is 15 minutes’ drive way, where a fabulous beach and plenty of shopping awaits. I only felt the urge to travel outside of the centre once, and even then, the relatively intense crowds and consumerism were a shock to the system.

A better idea, perhaps, is to stay at Samahita Retreat, soaking up the sun, yoga and sea breezes. This is also the cheaper option – I thought taxi fares (and phone calls) out of the centre were expensive, by Thai standards.

Three meals a day are included in a stay; any snacks, food or drinks outside meal times are extra – and can add up quickly.

Anyone seeking a real detox could arrange a detox programme at the on-site Samahita Wellness centre. Smahita’s three, five or seven-day detox programmes are based on ancient Ayurvedic beliefs, combined with modern nutrition and physiology.

The choice of programmes includes Yogi’s Detox: a simple mono–diet typically based on herbs, juices and Kitcheri, to give the digestion a rest and gently detoxify the tissues.

In the middle of most of the retreat programmes, a group outing to a local area of interest is arranged. I choose a two-hour snorkelling and boat ride to a tiny nearby island; the other option was a trip to a waterfall.

The real joy of Samahita Retreat is a rare opportunity for real yoga immersion, led by an experienced, highly committed teacher, wrapped up in a stunning tropical environment.

Paul and Jutima emphasise that beginners to yoga and Ashtanga are welcome; I would caution, however, that some experience of either is infinitely preferable, as is a reasonable degree of physical health.

Whatever your background, come to Samahita Retreat with an open mind and a real desire to commit to a memorable week of practice and learning.

Yoga messages from Paul: remember….

  • Slow down. Traditionally, Ashtanga was taught learning one pose at a time, with the student only progressing to the next posture once all the others before it had been sufficiently mastered. Remember this when seeking a teacher: learning safe alignment, and building up strength and flexibility, is far more important than speeding through the sequence.
  • CBC – core, breath, concentration: the fundamental component of every asana. Any type of yoga, including Ashtanga, can be practised in a yin way: carefully, mindfully, thoroughly. This should be the cornerstone of the practice.
  • Modify as much as you need to. In Pashimottanasana, bend the knees or sit on a block. From plank to Chaturanga, take the knees to the mat until there is enough upper body strength to practice this movement safely.
  • Keep the quadricep (thigh) muscles working in the standing poses, to support the knees. Be careful not to let the knee ‘flap around’.

For full details of the centre, and the latest schedule, see:

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