Thursday, 10 February 2011

Adventures with Swenson - Part 3

A long overdue post this (again) but finally, after much procrastination, I’ve gotten round to penning my thoughts on our trip to Purple Valley over Christmas and New Year – after all it’s only been 5 weeks since we got back (tsk!). Warning: it’s a bit of an essay…so if you just want some 'top tips' for Purple Valley then scroll to the bottom.
So…where to start? Well I guess by saying that we had an absolutely amazing 2 weeks: ‘Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, awesome yoga practice, inspirational teachers’ just about sums it up.
A visit to Purple Valley is a bit of a luxury experience and very much a contrast to where S and I had been staying in Arambol the week before…truth be told we felt a bit spoilt during our 2 weeks there, but it’s an exquisite little retreat and we’d certainly love to make it back there again sometime.
The rooms are comfortable and cleaned daily, the staff are lovely…so welcoming and friendly, the gardens are beautiful, there’s a pool to relax beside, a juice bar and an on site treatment centre for massage, Ayurveda and Reiki. There are also shaded chill out areas with cushions and couches – the perfect place to spend some time reading between yoga sessions!
Before we went I’d also heard a lot about the food, and on the whole it was indeed excellent (especially when Sayuri was cooking…she’s a genius). If I was to be a really harsh critic then we did find it a little bit bland on some occasions which was disappointing – especially being in India, the land of spices. Maybe it was because they were deliberately preparing Sattvic fare? But either way I do feel a bit disingenuous here because, in general, the food was very good.
If you ever get tired of hanging out at the retreat (and after a few days we definitely wanted to get back out to see more of the ‘real’ Goa) then there are plenty of beaches that are but a short hop away – Mandrem was our favourite, but Asvem was lovely too and Anjuna (the closest) is definitely worth a visit, if only to experience the madness of the Wednesday markets. One word of advice to anyone planning a visit is that the cab fares do add up over 2 weeks and it’s easier and cheaper to hire a scooter – just beware of the potholes, pigs, monkeys, phone pylons and other assorted dangers on the roads!
But this isn't a travel blog - so on to the yoga. Elsewhere I’ve made no secret of how much I admire and respect David Swenson. What I didn’t know or expect was that his wife, Shelley, is an absolutely incredible teacher in her own right as well. They both radiate life, energy and wisdom and it was a privilege to spend 2 weeks in their company.
Both weeks were structured in the same way – we started with a led primary on the Sunday, there was Mysore practice Monday – Thursday and another led primary on the Friday. There were also 4 afternoon workshops each week (Wednesday and Friday afternoons were free) with a well-deserved rest day on the Saturday.
I must admit I found the first led primary absolutely exhausting. When you’re used to practicing on your own and at your own speed with a bit (ok a lot) of shuffling between postures, it’s something of a shock to be taken through the whole series at a relentless pace. It was incredibly tough, but what I found both interesting and rewarding was comparing how difficult I found that initial practice with the improvements I’d made come the last day – it still wasn’t easy, but I coped much better with the pace and intensity after two weeks of solid practice. “Practice, all is coming!” J
It was in the Mysore sessions however, that I felt I made the most progress in my practice (once I’d gotten used to the early starts!) - David and Shelley's measured advice and kind adjustments helped my practice to improve no end. I had a lot of ‘firsts’ and ‘breakthroughs’ during those two weeks and I attribute these entirely to their teaching.
The workshops were equally brilliant – they injected humour and a lot of fun into these sessions, which helped everyone to relax and get the most out of them. As you might expect, most of the workshops focussed on how to improve asana practice, with advice on how to approach elements of postures that people found particularly challenging. It’s amazing how many little hints, tips and tricks David and Shelley have that really help you to understand and explore various asana. Things that you previously regarded as impossible seem all of a sudden much easier to comprehend and much more achievable. And some of the little sound bites they introduced us to (e.g. “Activate where you must, relax where you can”) now serve as great reminders to use during practice.
At the end of most of the workshops David took us through some pranayama exercises – wow! I’d done very little pranayama before this and although I was aware it would be challenging, I didn’t realise to quite what extent. We only ran through some fairly basic techniques but it was extremely difficult to regulate the breath in the right way without wanting to pass out or gasp like a fish on dry land – I see now why it’s only generally taught to advanced practitioners (of which I am most definitely not one!). But it was an interesting and also somewhat humbling experience to push yourself and be challenged in that way and I look forward to exploring pranayama further in the future.
However, for me the highlight of the workshops (and indeed the entire trip) was the session on yoga philosophy. To hear David talk for the best part of two hours about the broader aspects of yoga was truly an incredible and touching experience and I’ll always feel lucky to have sat and listened to his erudite take on the world. It’s difficult to put into words quite how inspirational I (and everyone else I spoke to afterwards) found this discussion – but certainly if more people were to listen to David speak, and if they were to apply that wisdom to their own actions, then we’d live in a much better world.
The yoga aside, the other major highlight of our trip was the people we met – so many lovely, inspirational characters, many of whom have made the decision to live life the way they want to by doing the things they love (often yoga…unsurprisingly) instead of doing ‘what they’re supposed to’. S and I took a lot of inspiration from this and we’re hoping to apply the same set of values to our own lives moving forward (in fact we’ve already started to put some plans into action).
Equally, it was nice to meet other guys who were also into yoga, who I could relate to in a different way to friends back home and who I could speak to about a wide variety of things outside of the stock 'man chat' about sport and work...a refreshing change.
And it was also really fun – if not a little surreal at first – to sit around chatting with David and Shelley during the down time…they’re great raconteurs with so many fun stories about Guruji and other renowned yoga practitioners and if David wasn’t such an amazing yoga teacher, then I think he’d have made a very solid career out of comic impressions.
So in all it was an amazing experience that S and I feel very lucky to have shared together – and one that gave us a lot of inspiration and motivation to take back to our lives the UK. Although it was just a fairly short trip, I truly believe it had a very profound and positive impact on us both. Purple Valley…we’ll be back!

My 10 Top Tips for Purple Valley

1. Take ear plugs - the local 'dog choir' can be pretty raucous at night.
2. Consider hiring a scooter - but only if you're confident of navigating the various hazards (there are many!).
3. If you like peppermint tea take your own stash - it goes quickly and is a prized commodity (also helpful for making friends!).
4. Pudding also goes quickly - especially when Sayuri makes something chocloate based. Don't be caught out!
5.  Get out to the beaches, spice plantations etc. - the pool and gardens are lovely but there's so much else to see.
6. If you're eating out try to eat Indian - the European restaurants are over priced and the Indian food tastes much better (and you're in India!).
7. Don't worry if you're travelling on your own - you'll meet so many nice people there.
8. Be prepared to remove the odd creature from your room - we and a few others encountered a frog in our bathroom.
9. If, on film night, they propose to play a film about water crystals, protest vehemently and demand something else...I mean it.
10. Enjoy your practice!


  1. oh, that sounds lovely! i have booked first workshops with David here in London in November. can't wait! ivana

  2. loved this post, incredible that you got to listen to david swensen speak at length on the philosophy of yoga <3