I felt as if I had arrived in the Garden of Eden - our home for a week was a luxury eco retreat, perched on the top of a hill, surrounded by four acres of fruitful Spanish gardens. The owner of Finca Paradiso, an artist, created a vibrant, colourful environment with Spanish and Moroccan influences. On each walk around the grounds, you could discover another hidden area to retreat in. The rooms were dotted all over the hills; my suite was set high up with a powerful view of the surrounding mountains and magnificent sunsets would draw each day to a close.
Sixteen of us (fourteen women and two men), from all over the world, were taking time out of life in the Sierra Cabrera mountains to learn Jivamukti yoga.
Most of us were escaping or getting over something - the death of a loved one, divorce, a broken relationship, redundancy, work overload...
As a Sagittarius, I don't do things by halves - I had recently left my job, relationship and home in one fell swoop and I was craving a week of solace. So we were united on a mission to de-stress from the real world in our own little village - a haven of unblemished beauty and tranquility where only the humming of birds could be heard. All that was required of us was to practice yoga, enjoy delicious homemade Spanish cuisine, indulge in massages, pick exotic fruit from the trees as we wandered the hills, bathe in the sun and swim.
DURGA DEVI, THE WARRIOR GODDESS
New Yorker, Durga Devi, was our instructor - she was given this name by the founders of the Jivamukti centre, which in the yoga world is considered to be a great honour. Her name translates as The Warrior Goddess and she embodied every bit of this; small and slender, perfectly toned, bronzed by the sun and in her late forties she exuded a youth and vitality that gave the impression that she was in her thirties.
Before she embraced yoga, Durga was the lead singer in a rock band (Lady Luck). Tattoos all up her arms and back told the story of her journey from rocker to yogi - "Viva Le Rock" was splashed across her wrist and from her arms yogic gods, Shiva and Laskshmi, stared out at you. When Durga's band split up in 2001 and she was in search of peace, it was the music element of Jivamukti yoga that drew her to it.
Durga, a Virgo (born the year of the horse), was both assertive and kind as a teacher. She let us know from the start that "this ain't yoga boot camp," teaching us fast but not pushing any of us beyond our limits.
Each morning in the two-hour class after sunrise and the evening one before sunset, we moved to the soundtrack of Durga's life - every song a surprise as the music transitioned from devotional, to house to jazz. It was all timed perfectly to the flowing sequences, which Durga said took years to perfect. Down dog, Chaturanga Dandasana, upward dog, warrior one.....We warmed up slowly and then as the beat of the music increased, the sequence got faster...This was yoga where your heart rate increased and you sweated out every unwanted emotion.
Gam Ganapataye namah
Ganesh shara nam genesha sharanam
Jai jai genesha
I take refuge in the one who removes all obstacles
Durga likened teaching Jivamukti yoga to performing and as she taught us to chant the performer in her arose. At first we were all quite reserved, chanting in whispers, but as each day passed we found our voices and proudly amplified the mystical words into the Spanish mountains. Spontaneous outbursts could be heard around the swimming pool, at meal times, and even one night at a beach bar where we seemed completely oblivious to the presence of people from the outside world.
Durga was a shining example of what it means to be spiritual in the true, pure sense. This word "spirituality" seems to have gotten confused and lost its meaning with so many phonies claiming to be spiritual leaders. Durga imparted wisdom but did not preach or judge. Quotes from ancient teachings rolled off her tongue throughout the classes, and not in a pretentious way but she seemed to have a genuine want to pass on what she believed.
"Be kind, for everybody you meet is fighting a hard battle"
Durga did not think that to run a spiritual retreat meant she must deny us of a glass of wine, a cigarette, or a coffee if that is what we did in our every day life but instead created an environment of freedom and choice. I find that many who perceive themselves to be spiritual leaders are actually the most judgmental of other people's habits and is that not a contradiction of the term itself?
It was quite clear that we were, on the whole, a group who didn't take ourselves too seriously and most of us enjoyed wine with dinner, some of us also smoked, but we were all up at sunrise, chanting, meditating and practicing the yoga. Our journey together was still an incredibly spiritual, enlightening one; we were in the most serene setting, surrounded by nature and the absolute best of company. We arrived as total strangers but quickly bonded, sharing our stories over the course of the week and a lot of laughter. The people who ran the eco retreat remarked that they had never heard so much laughter from a yoga group - it would simply ring through the hills.
One of the men, who was reluctantly dragged on the retreat by his girlfriend, proclaimed from the start that there would be no chanting from him and he would attend the yoga only when he felt like it. He dreaded entering what he perceived to be a women's world, where he assumed he would be rejected by a group of teetotal vegans who would shun him for smoking and drinking beer. The reality was that we immediately embraced him and he ended up referring to himself as one of the girls. He attended every session and it was hard to hear anyone else's chanting over his. By the end of the week, he told us that he never envisaged having so much fun, that yoga could make him feel so alive... and that he would be telling all his pals to head on a yoga retreat!
"We are called to surrender to an experience of rebirth and rejuvenation"
Ancient teaching (unknown source)
At the start of the week, my mind was so cluttered that it was hard to assimilate the most basic of instructions, but with each day as it became freer I stretched further into the mountains, holding postures for longer as my mind's baggage drifted far off into the scenery.
In our final yoga session, I looked around me and noticed that each of my fellow yogis had also come a long way and where at first we would often be moving at different paces, in different directions, we ended the week harmoniously synchronized.
We departed to a sublime sunrise and I felt revived, stronger, more certain and ready to head back to the real world - the past had vanished but the future shone bright ahead of me.
For a truly unique experience, head on Durga Devi's next retreat
Or check out one of Destination Yoga's many retreats, which run throughout the year