I’m sitting cross-legged in a circle of strangers, in a glass-walled yoga studio in Koh Tao, Thailand. Tired, jet-lagged and waiting to make our introductions, we wait quietly and I listen to the ceiling fans humming above, the murmuring of scooters and the raucous chirruping of birds in the trees outside.
Someone tells the group why she’s travelled thousands of miles to spend a week doing yoga. She’s obviously well versed at these openhearted introductions and explains that she’s training to be a teacher at home. This isn’t her first retreat, but it is her first outside of the UK. The journey to Thailand, she hopes, will prove also to be a journey for her in the cerebral sense. Now, a man speaks. For him, the week is all about the four ‘Bs’: bandhas, balance, beaches and beer.
I sit more in this guy’s camp. While yoga has an important place in my life and I practise regularly, what drew me to this retreat, led by yoga teachers Rachael Waring and Julia Cobban, was that it would be so chilled-out. There was plenty of room for flexibility within the schedule, which allowed a lovely stretch of free time between classes and also included pursuits to complement the yoga we’d be doing, such as rock climbing and trapezing.
Rachael, an Ashtangi who hails from Bournemouth in the UK and Vancouver-born Vinyasa Flow teacher Julia, who is a resident teacher at the Ocean Sound Yoga studio in Koh Tao, were happy for people to skip the odd class if we felt we needed a rest – or if we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the beautiful Chalok Baan Kao beach, just a stone’s throw from our accommodation, the Tropicana Hotel. They were also happy for us to bring along a non-yogic partner or friend, at a reduced price.
Boasting an abundance of places to get a Thai massage, vegan/Thai fusion eateries with names such as Yin Yang and I Love Salad and a choice of yoga studios offering drop-in classes, the diminutive village of Chalok Baan Kao on Koh Tao is a yogi’s dream, attracting travellers from all over the world who come for the year-round balmy weather and laid-back, island life.
With almost 20 years’ combined experience between them, Julia and Rachael are brilliant and inspiring teachers. More like sisters or best friends than colleagues, they emanated an exuberant and infectious combination of warm humour and hard-core athleticism in our two daily classes, which comprised elements of Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow, Hatha and Yin yoga. They also provided optional meditation sessions and two intensive workshops during the week that focused on back-bending and inversions.
“I try to maintain rhythm in every aspect of my teaching and need to really feel it before I can demonstrate it authentically to students,” said Julia, who qualified as a Power Vinyasa Flow and Hatha yoga teacher at Frog Lotus Yoga in Costa Rica in 2006.
Under the thatched canopy of a beach bar one night, sipping fresh coconut water straight from the shell, she added, “I practise every class at home until it’s flowing and seamless. Like dance, so I can essentially, put myself into my students’ bodies.” And it’s true. She speaks the language of yoga as though she’s embodied it, absorbed it into every cell of her being, the way a dancer does.
Rachael, a self-confessed Type-A personality, who trained to be an Ashtanga yoga teacher with The Yoga People in London and still holds it at the core of her practice, explained her approach to yoga with equal focus and clarity. “Put simply” she said, “I do yoga every day at 6am, without fail. I wouldn’t start my day without cleaning my teeth, and I try not to start my day without cleaning my body – to practise yoga is to do this, absolutely.”
After her Ashtanga training, Rachael completed Sivananda yoga teacher training in Kerala. This form of Hatha yoga in which the training focuses on preserving the health and wellness of the practitioner, eventually convinced her to leave London for a more balanced pace of life in Bournemouth.
Unsurprisingly for a yoga retreat, balance was a theme that was revisited frequently during the week. We were taught to trust and listen to our bodies and to accept our limitations – that each day would bring some surprises, some setbacks, but also new strengths.
Despite their holistic and nurturing approach to yoga, our teachers were quite the force to be reckoned with on the mat – and to have both of them together in the studio, one putting us through our practice while the other quietly adjusted, encouraged, and occasionally untangled us, gave every class momentum and the feeling of undivided attention.
And the teaching wasn’t limited to the classroom. By day three we were taken to neighbouring Sairee Beach, to work on our headstands in a SUP yoga class on the water. With the strength of oxen and the grace of ballet dancers, Julia and Rachael demonstrated the basics, before launching into Eka Pada Rajakapotasana or Mermaid Pose, in the setting the posture was made for. Within an hour, with nothing to fall into but the clear, inviting sea, some of us had mastered asanas we’d not had the courage to try on the mat.
Later in the week, those who wanted to could go rock climbing to put their strength and flexibility to the test, feel grace and weightlessness with a scuba diving taster, or face their mental boundaries and fears head-on with a trapeze lesson, led by a dynamic team of circus-trained teachers.
Everything we did off the mat strengthened our determination and confidence back in the studio. After classes and during evening mealtimes, conversations brimmed with lively tales of our adventures. We bonded over our bruises and battle scars; we gained confidence in ourselves and felt true comradeship with each other.
Rewind back to the start of my journey, and I’m in that circle, touching knees with the people sitting either side of me. If I’m honest, I’m not feeling entirely comfortable. Julia is saying, “You are exactly where you should be. You have everything you need here, right now.”
And there’s something in the way she speaks, in the soft yet wilful knowing in her voice that makes me know it, too. Or at least know that by the time my journey here comes to an end, I will believe it. And do you know what? She was right.
Julia Cobban and Rachael Waring teach independently, at Ocean Sound Yoga in Koh Tao and in Bournemouth, UK respectively. Together, they offer day retreats in the UK (dates confirmed in April, May and June 2015) and pop-up, week-long retreats across the world.
Their next week-long yoga retreat will take place from September 12 – 19 2015 in Menorca, Spain. Prices start from £625 (for the early bird rate) and include seven nights’ accommodation in a shared room on a half-board basis, two daily yoga classes and additional activities. Flights not included.
Getting to Koh Tao
Flights from London Heathrow to Koh Samui take approximately 13 hours in total (not including connection time at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport) and cost from £850 per person with British Airways.
Hotel Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport is a short walk from Domestic Arrivals and is a great place to unwind and enjoy the open-air swimming pool and spa while waiting for a connecting flight.
Seatran offers daily ferries until 12 noon from Koh Samui to Koh Tao.
If a stopover in Koh Samui is needed, Cocooning is a boutique guest-house with a private swimming pool, located in Fisherman’s Village and close to the pier. Rooms start from 1,200 THB per night for a double room. The guest house can arrange pick up and transfers for guests.
In Koh Tao, stay at the three-star Tropicana Hotel in Chalok Baan Kao from 1500 THB per night for a deluxe room and practice next-door at Ocean Sound yoga. There are classes daily. Drop in price, 300 THB.
Photography: Emma Lourence www.emmalourence.co.uk