So many yoga retreats these days tend to be sybaritic holidays first and foremost, with yoga sandwiched either side of sunbathing by the pool. Nothing whatsoever wrong with that but I was feeling the need for something a bit deeper. I wanted to get back to the original idea of a retreat – a true feeling of ‘time out’ from the world, a time to go deep within. Yet, then again, I wasn’t quite in the mood for monastic hair shirts. It was a dilemma. And then I discovered Yobaba Lounge.
Yobaba is the hippest hangout ever – an achingly cool village chateau in Chalabre, a bastide town in southern France, with distant views of the French Pyrenees. Owner Gertrud is one of those people with a perfect eye and a bold touch. If I had tried to combine classic French style with global furnishings and artefacts it would look like a dog’s dinner – yet she makes it look effortlessly chic. If I hung up paintings by six year olds, it would look like a kindergarten classroom on acid – when she does it, it looks like a baby version of the Tate.
My bedroom is a case in point. Its perfect proportions have been left well alone – no poky ensuite carved out of a corner here. Soft white sheets cover my bed, the head guarded by carved wooden pillars. Fake zebra throws on both the bed and the dark wood carved day bed give a dose of Safari insouciance, and the rocking soft toy lion is a playful continuation of the theme in my, equally vast, bathroom. A carafe of water by the bed has a ripe fig as a stopper, and there is a small pile of raw vegan ‘powerballs’ (juicy combos of nuts, seeds and fruits) to tide me over until supper.
But Yobaba is not a case of style over substance, far from it. Yoga teacher Mangalo has spent time in a Buddhist monastery and days are run on a clean clear schedule with silence being kept from after evening meditation (at around 9.30pm) to 11.30am the next day. It’s a wonderful way to keep focused on how you’re feeling, instead of engaging in mindless chitchat.
The clear chime of a bell wakes me at 7.30am and I walk thoughtfully to the yoga shala at the very top of the house, looking out over the rooftops of Chalabre. The yoga here is simple yet elegant. We start by relaxing in savasana, becoming aware of our bodies and where they’re holding tension. Mangalo then brings our awareness through our bodies and eases us into breathing practice. As our breathing slows and deepens, he coaxes us into Ujjayi breath (the hissing breath commonly associated with vigorous ashtanga practice). The breath guides all of his yoga and we maintain Ujjayi throughout the vast majority of the class, using it to bend deeper into postures or to protect our bodies from injury by realising our (present) limitations.
Meditation is the glowing heart of the practice and, while every yoga class is, in itself, a moving meditation, we also practice more formal ‘sitting’ along with guided meditations and ‘loving kindness’. It’s both grounding and uplifting and every time I pad away from the shala I feel as if I’ve quietly deepened my practice.
This is great yoga, whether you’re a total beginner or an experienced adept. Mangolo also has a firm background in yoga therapy and remedial yoga so the classes can be adapted for anyone with health issues.
There are two yoga sessions every day, one in the morning to greet the sun, and one in the evening to bid it farewell and to greet the moon. But that still leaves plenty of time to relax and reflect either in the house or outside in its gorgeous walled garden. My favourite spot is the hammock slung between two beautiful trees and I spend hours gently rocking, either with my nose in a book or just watching the lacework of the leaves above me.
Unlike many retreats, Yobaba is not entirely cut off from the world. You can hear everyday French village life going on outside its high walls – a child’s laugh, a car engine revving, a cock crowing. If you’re feeling in need of a change, there are opportunities to head out and explore the surrounding countryside. One day we head off in the Yobaba mini bus to nearby Puivert Castle. Solid, square and monumental, it looms over the surrounding countryside and we climb up and up, pausing in the small chapel to chant and share a thermos of warming spicy chai. Another afternoon we venture further afield to Rennes-le-Chateau (of Da Vinci Code fame) and meditate in the curious little church there. But the highlight is on the night of the full moon when, after evening yoga, we speed over to Lac de Montbel, a brief ten minute drive away. Gertrud lights a fire on the pebbled beach and we all strip off and wade into the water for a spot of wild skinny dipping. It’s pure magic, bobbing around in the moonlight. We use the fire for our evening meditation, gazing at the shivering flames. It is a moment to savour – a meeting of all the elements blessed by moonlight.
Food is a big deal at Yobaba. Gertrud is a keen and accomplished raw food cook and she’s joined in the kitchen by Anna, who has years of experience in catering for retreats. Much of the produce comes from Anna’s own organic forest garden and the majority of the food is raw vegan – imaginative and beautifully presented with edible flowers (borage, nasturtium). However if there’s a nip in the air, you won’t shiver over a salad; warming earthy yet easily digested dhals, soups and curries appear. There isn’t one day when we don’t end the day’s food with a blissfully indulgent (yet madly healthy) pudding – again, all raw, all vegan, dairy/grain and sugar free. Clever huh?
We were a small group – with ages ranging from 30 to 89. Unlike many retreats, the three ‘staff’ members engage totally with the retreat – we all ate together, yoga together, and meditate together. It makes for a beautifully cohesive group with a very warm, caring atmosphere.
Yobaba really does offer the best of all worlds. I felt the peace and security of a structured spiritual retreat with all the creature comforts of a divinely Boho private members club. Even better, the retreat is still in its infancy, so it has plenty of growing up to do, and will, I suspect, just get better and better. The next stage of refurbishment will see a hammam complex and an outdoor hot tub. The place is vast and the plans vibrant, yet I have the feeling it will always retain its integrity and authenticity.
Leaving was seriously hard. I loved every part of this retreat – the food, the yoga, the people, the house, the warm French sun, the beautiful countryside and the intriguing, beguiling, mysterious history of the area. Yobaba felt like a spiritual home – I won’t stay away too long.
This feature first appeared in Natural Health magazine.