“Vegan yoga retreat”. I typed these words into Google as I was hunched over my desk eating some sad looking salad. I was working through the last of my notice period with a looming stretch of free time ahead of me to fill. I’m not sure what prompted me; I’ve never been able to get into yoga (despite trying), yet a small suggestive inner voice reckoned that this was the thing that I needed. Yoga retreats are where you go to relax and get your life together, right? I needed to relax and get my life together. And of course, it would have to be vegan!
A few clicks later via some kind of listicle and a TripAdvisor page, and I found myself on the website of Vale De Moses, a beautiful retreat stationed in a mountain valley in a remote part of Portugal. I quickly discovered that not only did the food look freaking delicious, but it was 100% veggie and pretty much vegan if you wanted it to be. That was it—I was sold. Big bonus points that I could stay in a giant tipi WITH A HAMMOCK and simultaneously fulfill my long-held dream to do “glamping”. The whole yoga part just didn’t really occur to me.
Fast-forward a few months, and I’m on a coach from Porto to the nearest town to the retreat, where we were picked up and driven to the valley. It was late at night, so the first thing that struck me were the stars. My god, I still cannot get over those stars; by the end of the week I actually had a strained neck from the amount of time I spent staring at those twinkly constellations. You could see the Milky Way for reals. Add that to the continual murmur of the crickets chirping and the scent of pines and eucalyptus and you get the idea. This was already too much.
Then the food came out. I could have cried. A big rainbow of a buffet, to list a few dishes: salad greens grown in the onsite garden, hot lentil soup, veggie curries and those juicy cherry tomatoes that always taste so much better grown in the Spanish/Italian/Portuguese sunshine. After surviving on beige food for over a week (the French think a veggie burger is a hash brown in a bun FYI), the array of colours and aromatic spices looked like a dream that I had lucidly engineered.
If you know me, you’ll know that I loooove Indian food. And you’ll probably also know that my favourite Indian dish is Tarka Dahl. So it was about 9.30pm on Saturday 3rd September 2016 that I tasted the best Tarka Dahl I’ve ever had, and at that moment, I knew this week was going to be amazing. (And that I had to get that recipe).
After a few rounds of food, the word satiated took on a whole new meaning and I was shown to my quarters—a large soulpad tent in the forest. The tent had two single beds and all “mod cons”: mosquito nets, electricity, lighting and a radiator. Not that it would be needed that week—we were in for a heatwave of 40 degrees+. Bring. It. On. Outside were two hammocks for daytime shade-seeking. A tap (pure mountain mineral water, no less), a sawdust toilet and an outdoor solar-powered shower were also nearby (with the option of regular hygiene facilities further afield if desired). It should also be noted that Vale de Moses has a number of stone cottages with more conventional rooms if the outdoors life is not for you!
It turned out that the outdoors life totally was for me. I took a secret pleasure in navigating by torchlight and receiving minimal 3G signal (don’t worry, there was WiFi at the main cottage!!). Having no mirrors for a week was also a welcome break—I let my hair explode into its natural curls and wore zero makeup to give my skin a breather. And ohhhh!—the outdoor shower was a magical experience. The temperature may have been impossible to influence and completely unpredictable (i.e. mostly cold), and the curtain was basically a pointless endeavour since the wind blew it anywhere but the doorway; but when the water sprinkled down, the sunlight refracted into hundreds of rainbow droplets and I stood amongst the pines lathering my hair and wondering if I was secretly a nudist-hippie tripping on LSD.
Each day followed a similar pattern:
7.30: herbal teas and fruit (if you could make it out of bed. I did not)
8.00: meditation walk around valley (see above side note)
8.30-10.30: yoga morning session – Ashtanga sun salutations and pacey Vinyasas
10.30: breakfast – yes oh my god yes.
14.00: lunch – mother, may I?
17.00-19.00: yoga afternoon session – more languid yin style and strength/endurance based
19.00: dinner – round three, ding ding!
I’m really an awful person in the mornings. On a good day it will take around 8 alarms to get me conscious and I don’t tend to like people very much. So I was onboard with the etiquette which encouraged silence pre-10.30. It was even deemed appropriate to ignore people until then! Perfect. I just had to pretend like I was introspective and meditative vs. bumbling around in a groggy stupor. For this reason I couldn’t really get on board with the morning meditation walks. It seemed like a lovely idea, it really did; but in practice I couldn’t cope with the group-ness that soon after waking so I mostly sacked it off for a few glorious extra rounds with the ole’ snooze button.
Yoga was an entirely different shout, however. Now as alluded to, my dealings with yoga have been somewhat limited in the past. I have in the course of my adulthood, signed up to three or so yoga schools, always taking out the unlimited trial pass but never going to more than one session each time. I also flirted with the idea of doing yoga every morning at home via YouTube. Again my good intentions lasted a few mornings at most. I had no patience, mainly because I didn’t feel like it was “doing anything”. I always favoured more intense exercise like long-distance running, HIIT programs and errr…. Beyoncé dance workshops since my fitness goals were always geared towards cardio fitness and weight loss (or in the case of the dance, feeling like a Bo$$ A$$ B*tch). So I came to the retreat with the view that yoga would be like a nice little ‘add-on’ to this indulgent week of relaxation. More like a nice side of potato dauphinoise than the roast rump of beef (I’m not sure why I’m using a carnivorous metaphor here).
But I was mistaken. Getting through a class was quite a struggle at first. By about the third session, my whole body ached—but in a reallllly good way. And by the middle of the week, I could already feel that I was getting stronger. My pathetic right wrist, which usually buckles in pain if I push a door too hard, was soon capably of supporting most of my body weight. My thighs actually changed shape. My middle section that I lovingly refer to as a lava-lamp was slightly less lava-lampy. I felt more flexible and fluid too. I was happy to discover that I was able to get into some of the more difficult poses with relative ease; and simultaneously bemused that some of the most basic stretches were near-impossible for me. Of course it didn’t matter, our gorgeous teacher Vonetta was always on hand to offer alternatives and encourage us to take it at our own pace, even if that meant just laying down in Savasana for the whole session.
By the end of the week, I was looking forward to yoga practice more than meal time, which says it all really. It helped that the sessions took place in the most beautiful Shala: it was suspeneded over the valley with windows for walls, so you could see the sun climbing over the hills as you sweated through the sun salutations. But the best transformation I experienced was emotional. I was already pretty calm and happy before the week, but by the end I was elevated to another level of serenity. Life was just something that seemed to be happening harmoniously around me…
The food really was incredible. Raul, The Chef, was a slightly crazy Spaniard who was big on South Indian food and Ayurveda principles, which basically meant a hell of a lot of turmeric, cumin and ginger. I will save some words here and instead let the glorious photos do the talking.
Being vegan, I rarely have this much choice for one meal a week, let alone 3 meals per day, every day. My digestive system was on cloud nine all week thanks to all the veggies and minimal wheat and gluten. If I could have my own personal chef and eat anything, this is literally what I would choose.
A special call-out goes for Breakfast: every day we tucked into heaps of cinnamon & cardamom spiced quinoa and millet porridge with a fresh fruit salad. The best part was Raul decided to give an impromptu cooking workshop, and I managed to get that Tarka Dal recipe.
If we weren’t eating or yoga-ing, we were free to spend the day as we wished. The first couple of days saw scorching, dry heat that meant that doing anything other than drinking water or sweating in a hammock was simply not an option; forget “Eat, Pray, Love”—this was “Eat, Sweat, Pee”. I attempted a hike but barely lasted an hour in the prickly sun. The rest of the week was more late-twenties temperate, but I still spent my downtime reading or catching some rays by the irrigation tank, which served as a poor man’s infinity pool.
A 90minute treatment was included with my booking, and I was scheduled for Thai massage and acupuncture with Peter, the resident holistic therapist and an alluring ‘free spirit’ type. I didn’t really know what Thai massage involved, so I was a little surprised when he used his full body weight to knead and press and twist and stretch and pummel me into oblivion; and even more surprised when I found our bodies intertwined in positons that could be construed as downright sexual to an unsuspecting observer.
Being very British I kept my eyes shut the whole time to avoid any awkwardness or acknowledge the situation, but I nevertheless managed to transcend the physical and enter a state of meta-relaxation. For the first time in forever, energy surged through my dead-weight calves—it was like someone flicked the “calf muscle” fuse switch that had been flipped the wrong way for years. By the time he whipped out the Chinese head massage I swear I was one step away from levitating. (A few needles inserted into my feet confirmed that I still have a terrible phobia of needles, so we skipped the acupuncture part). For the rest of the day it was as much as I could muster to wobble back to my tent and have a long, leisurely nap.
On the final day we were bundled into vehicles and driven to the nearby lake. And what a lake: a sparkling turquoise expanse steeped by green mountains, and one of the purest sources of water in Portugal (it’s part of Lisbon’s drinking water so its protected by stringent anti-contamination laws). Being an Aquarius, I’ve always been a water baby but swimming in this bad boy was unreal. Now forevermore, when some new-age guided meditation asks me to go to my “happy place” (which was previously at a techno rave in Croatia), this is where I’ll be.
Other activities at the lake included bathing in mud and mud-wrestling. I got stuck in but lost quickly to my opponent, a feisty girl who is more competitive than me (rare) and whose surname is legit the Polish word for Thunder (she’s basically a WWF wrestler is all I’m saying. Magda, I love you!).
This pretty much concludes my week. Yes, it was perfect in every way; and yes, it truly restored my mind, body and soul—as cliché as that sounds. Not that I’ve been to a host of yoga retreats, but the real selling point of this place was that nothing felt pretentious or contrived or “yoga retreat-y”. It was just the home of two wonderful people (and their even more wonderful dogs!) who wanted to share the breath-taking beauty of the place they built from scratch, and for you to have the most blissful week forgetting the demands of the real world while doing so.
Even better, I’m totally inspired to use yoga as a resource to power my every day life. I’ve concluded that retreat life is the dream, but retreat mindset is also attainable wherever you are, if you let it. Since I’ve returned home I’ve treated myself to a giant spice rack (I bought bulk from an Indian store and decanted into Kilner jars), embarked on an ayurveda rice-and-dahl cleanse and practiced yoga for an hour or so almost every day. I don’t feel guilty if I don’t hit the gym or run three loops of the Vondelpark, because I feel the benefits more richly in my mind and body. Sleep and meditation comes easier and I’m ready and braced to take on the crazy tornado of my new job with more poise and self-confidence.
Vale de Moses, I will be coming back for you. Namaste!