Sarah Freeman surrenders to the restorative powers of nature at a unique, sustainably-run yoga and ayurvedic retreat in Sri Lanka’s rural hinterland.
Set at the foot of Galgiriyawa Mountains in Sri Lanka’s North Western province, Ulpotha is an off-the-grid retreat in the most authentic sense. I reach this jungle utopia the adventurous way – on a cross-country train ride from Colombo, which culminates in a bone-shaking road. Free from the trappings of modern life, I discard my sandals and walk barefoot along an avenue of coconut, areca nut and kitul palms to the walauwwa (main house), mindful of not just connecting with mother earth, but sacred land. A pilgrimage site for thousands of years, Ulpotha is believed to have been the playground of Prince Saliya, the son of Sri Lanka’s most legendary king. Shamans and cave-dwelling monks still retreat to the surrounding hills. It also lies on the path of an ancient elephant corridor, deemed a holy animal in Buddhist culture.
Thankfully, the elephants have found a new patch to roam. But, as I soon discover, Ulpotha is teeming with other exotic wildlife, from giant jackfruit-eating squirrels, to tree-shaking hanuman langurs.
MUD, GLORIOUS MUD
Ulpotha’s 22-acre plot’s 11 wattle and daub huts, set amongst emerald green rice paddies, tangled jungle and a lotus-ringed lake, are guests’ first test in surrendering to mother nature. Fashioned from mud, clay, sticks and twigs – a simple cadjan roof is all that separates you and the elements, whilst a few tumbling vines protect your modesty in the bamboo pipe shower! For the adventurous, there’s also the option to bunk down in the lake house (only accessed by rowboat) or a treehouse straight out of the Jungle Book! I’m led to my ‘twin sisters’ hut by Tharanga, one of a committee of villagers who lovingly run Ulpotha as a retreat for six months of the year.
It’s a unique concept, evolved by Sri-Lankan-born investment banker Viren Perera, who chanced upon Ulpotha the early 90s whilst road tripping with two friends. A local farmer agreed to sell the land and crumbling walauwwa house to Viren, who, together with Englishman Giles Scott, created an eco-village and yoga sanctuary.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Light headed with hunger and jet lag, I make my way to the ambalama, (Sinhalese for ‘meeting place’). This open-air pagoda is where guests feast, roman-style, for lunch and dinner. One by one, copper and clay dishes pile up on the rattan floor mats. An Ayurvedic smorgasbord of curries like banana leaf, leek, okra and jackfruit are complimented with sides of coconut sambal, paprika-spiced potato crisps and coconut roti (Sri Lanka’s answer to the Indian flat bread). This bounty is pillaged daily from either the onsite vegetable garden, or a two-acre organic kitchen garden located a few kilometres away. The countless bowls of heirloom rice varieties, from dark-grained Kalu Heenati to Pachchaperumal (a divine grain), are the yields of a seed bank Viren collected from traditional Sri Lankan farmers, 20 years ago. In their efforts to keep indigenous farming practices alive, crops are planted according to lunar cycles using organic pesticides like riverbed sand and coconut shavings, which are threshed using buffalo. A true eco-haven, there is no electricity (or phone signal!) and all the food is cooked over an open-fire pit in the fridge-less kitchen.
A BALANCING ACT
A stone’s throw from the kitchen is the wedagedara, where another cauldron bubbles and guests can experience one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems: Ayurveda. Designed to achieve a balance between the mind, body, and spirit, (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge) originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. Resident Doctor Srilal Mudunkothge conducts an intial consultation to establish my dosha (mind-body type), from Vata (Air), Pitta (Fire) and
Kapha (Earth). A special pulse diagnosis and general health and lifestyle questions reveal I am 75% Vata and 25% Pita, and Dr Srilal recommends a five-day Ashinsanaya (Benediction) programme. My first treatment, an oil abhyanga, involves being doused in sesame oil on a giant bagatelle-like board, then slithering around to turn over like one of the retreat’s resident snakes! A stint in the wood-fired sauna follows, where I breathe in air infused with some 25 different herbs and spices. Community-minded Ulpotha uses the proceeds from these treatments to fund a free, local ayurvedic clinic run by Dr Srilal, who sees up to 50 villagers in one day.
STARRY, STARRY NIGHT
It’s at dusk when Ulpotha’s mystical ambience really comes into its own. Hurricane lanterns illuminate a labyrinth of pathways, giving way to an almost ethereal glow, whilst the soft hum of cicadas and mating calls of bullfrogs make the whole jungle vibrate. We congregate in the ambalama for more ayurvedic goodness. A bowl of deep-fried garlic in their skins is the most popular dish amongst our group of 19, who hail from all corners of the globe, from Dubai to Sydney. The nights wind down early here, so at 9pm I retreat back to my hut under diamond-studded stars, with just a few swooping fruit bats for company. Any jitters about sleeping alfresco soon disappear as I’m treated to a spectacular firefly lightshow, right above my mosquito net!
ASANAS IN ARCADIA
Dawn strokes the paddy fields and a golden oriole calls out as I make my way to the earthen shala for a two-hour morning yoga class. Our teacher for the fortnight is Bali-based Gypsy Bast, whose explains her Yoga Art Integrity method fuses dance kinesiology, sematic movement therapy, pilates and postural exercises. With a background in performing arts, multi-talented Gypsy has worn many hats – from aerialist and yoga teacher to outreach kids, to dance therapist for the Cirque du Soleil. We begin by slapping our bodies with a meridian cupping massage, a Chinese self-healing practice. After setting a silent intention for the practice, Gypsy explains that “yoga is like tending to the garden” and we work through asanas for a ‘wisdom in the back’ session, “pulling our energy centres through our spinal fluids.”
COMMUNITY AND CRAFT
Following our noses, the group descends on the kade (the breakfast bar-slash-afternoon-tea hut), where a cauldron of coriander-and-ginger tea burbles away and savoury herb porridge simmers. Karuna (the retreat’s master flower arranger) will gladly machete open a fresh coconut (a divine plant in Vedic tradition) from the kade’s enormous pile. Most of the Ulpotha team are skilled craftspeople, like Saman, a carpenter who makes everything from spoon stands to the walauwwa’s doors, and 66-year-old in-house tailor Ranabana, who fashions me a pair of fisherman trousers from handloom cotton.
SPRING OF LIFE
Stifled by the afternoon heat, I seek out the dappled shade of a banyan tree enroute to Ulpotha’s mythical lake or ‘tank’, that’s framed by carpeted green hills. Despite the resident water monitor (occasionally mistaken for a baby crocodile), its silky waters lure me in. Designed over two millennia ago, Sri Lankan tanks were considered an engineering marvel for there ability to capture and redistribute monsoon rains. The name Ulpotha means ‘water spring’ – the source of the untreated water guests’ drink straight from the tap, which also feeds into the tank. It has an otherworldly charm; egrets pose on granite rocks as a dugout canoe glides through a blanket of fallen yellow petals from an overhanging tree. From here you can take a hike to Saliyagama temple, or simply wile away an afternoon in a hammock alongside sunbathing chameleons.
Roused from my hammock siesta by squabbling macaques, I make my way to the wedagedara. My body’s basted in a toxin-eliminating herbal paste of Indian gooseberry; turmeric and bee honey, then ‘cooked’ in a steam basket for 20 or so minutes. I’m then delivered into the healing hands of Eva Thomas, an Australian, dance-loving therapist who practices kahuna, a massage based on the teachings and practices of the ancient Hawaiian Kahunas. Eva uses her forearms, hands and elbows in soft and deep flowing hula movements designed to release energetic blockages. The combination of swaying palms above us, and soul-stirring music, soon transport me from South Asia to the South Pacific! A yoga nidra relaxation in the shala follows, focusing on the parasympathetic nervous system, which leaves me so light I could well be walking on cushions of air.
Entrained to the sun, with no phones or electromagnetic waves to disrupt our body clocks, I gradually fall into the jungle’s natural rhythms over the course of two weeks. On the penultimate day, Gypsy leads us up to monkey rock for a sundown group meditation class overlooking vast swathes of jungle as far as the eye can see. A swarm of butterflies shower down on me like white confetti, and I think to myself, this place is not quite of this earth. It’s a rarity in this day and age to visit such a sacred place, and barely leave a travel footprint.
About the Author: SARAH FREEMAN On the road with no fixed abode, British-born Sarah’s appetite for both adventure and spiritual enlightenment has taken her to some pretty far-flung corners of the earth. The internationally published travel writer and photographer regularly racks up air miles on assignment for titles like Emirates Airlines magazine, Stylist and Bloomberg Pursuits. When she’s not locking eyes with mountain gorillas in Uganda or hanging off a cliff-face shooting rock climbers in Malta, Sarah writes about health and wellbeing.
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