As if by chance or maybe destiny, I find myself in the lucky position to be able to attend a week long yoga retreat taught by Paula and David from ashtanga.ie in the small hilltop town of Montefiore, on the east coast of Italy. The road to Angeli di Montefiore where the the yoga centre is located is steep, winding and narrow but offers the most beautiful panoramic views overlooking sloping valleys down to the sparkling blue Adriatic Ocean. The owner Heike, who picks me up from the nearest bus stop, tells me that angels brought her to Montefiore and indeed the old stone farmhouse and courtyard alongside the purpose built yoga shala do seem to have a celestial mystique about them.
The yoga shala is a lovingly created room and well equipped with mats, blocks and blankets as well as a small altar of Buddhas, angels and precious stones that seem to twinkle during practice. We start each day with mysore style yoga on cool floorboards with floor to ceiling views out across the valley. Initially my practice is fast and I have to be gently told to slow down. I feel stiffness in my hips and find myself holding Paschimottanasana (forward bend) for longer than the normal five breaths to try and release the tension in my body. With time and some help during the week, I manage to make the bind in Marichasyana A (seated forward bend with a bind) on and off. I also get some assistance in Urdhva Dhanurasana (bridge pose) and feel a great stretch in my lower back. I make a small breakthrough with Sirasana (headstand) preparations which no longer seem as terrifying as it has in the past. While my Padmasana (lotus posture) is corrected several times to ensure alignment of the posture and to lengthen into the spine – it all starts to feel good.
After asanas and pranayama (breath work), we eat a breakfast of creamy porridge with bowls of fruit as the sun floods the terrace. It is a vegetarian week and in many ways a detox, but the food is so good and comforting that it feels like the perfect accompaniment to a week of letting go. Lunch is packed full of local produce with classic dishes of riso al radicchio, fried zucchini, baked pomodori, zuppa di minestrone, rosemary potatoes, with each dish served up by the passionate Italian hostess to a chorus of oohs and aahs. As well as the outdoor eating area under a tree canopy with wind chimes, the centre has a turquoise blue pool and sits amid olives fields making it the ideal setting for lazy swaying hammock afternoons.
Midweek, David holds a discussion ‘hedge school style’ in the shade of trees where we talk about attachments, the need to balance the doshas in the body and how yoga helps bring harmony to the mind, body and spirit. The class of 13 students from varied backgrounds and countries falls into a companionable bond. There is laughter and jokes and stories shared. We think about why we are doing yoga, our purpose, our practice and its meaning. In the evening, we chant together and feel the beautiful vibrations fill the air with the Sanskrit words playing on in our heads long after we have stopped singing. I rediscover again the power of the breath and the many types of yogic breaths. I am sure I have been taught it many times in the past, but finally I connect with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) and its calming effect on the nervous system. Paula tells us about the feminine and masculine energy through the left and right sides of the body released through our left and right nostrils. All of a sudden yin and yang starts to make sense as well as the bodies connection with the five elements. We work on our chakras and on the kaleidoscope of energy fields symbolized by colour and vibrations within the body. One night the energy in the room is so intense that it feels electric and like we are connecting with the flashing thunder storm that is lighting up the valley outside. Emotions are released and we are reassuringly encouraged to go with the flow and let it go.
On another day, we take a trip to a local pasta maker and stroll along the shoreline in San Benedetto. Although weirdly being back in civilization seems odd and the thought of returning to the hills, to the faint humming of bees and white butterflies in tall grasses is more desirable. A local shiatsu masseuse and reflexologist come by to offer therapies, to sore bodies. The days start to cool as the week closes, our practice becomes more focused and aligned with the breath. I work through asanas and barely notice the time passing, my body finally seems to be releasing tensions with audible creaks and cracks of bones. A sereneness descends on the group, with everyone reluctant to leave. The final evening creeps around and it seems fitting that we end it by chanting in unison. One by one we drift off on our return journeys, calm, content and invigorated from the wonderful seven days of yoga in the beautiful hilltop town of Montefiore.