Thirty years ago at 40, I was regularly travel writing for the Independent and without ever having done any yoga before, I found myself on a 10 day Ashtanga ‘holiday’ in Crete. And blimey was I thrown in at the deep end. This was before Madonna started doing it.
In 1993, yoga was still recherche and hadn’t entered its gym era. In fact, the whole transformational retreat thing was in a very early stage. My friends were not psychotherapists and yoga teachers! Unlike in 2023.
This year – as you probably know by now – I became a 70-year-old. I also had a gorgeous close friend die too soon. Death and big birthdays don’t go together. It has been a swirl of intensity. And then a persistent cough. At the same time, I actually went to my local GP and had a blood test, then discovered that both my blood sugar and cholesterol were too high. I signed up to a nutritional therapist who reassured me that she could get them down in two months. I realised that for the first time – I’m not a serial diet person, I’m a serial pleasure person – that I was about to commit myself to a regime of low carbs and almost no sugar.
I fancied a holiday on my own. A rest. But supported somehow. I remembered seeing that Huzar Vadisi in South West Turkey – which I’d reviewed in the late 90s – had a new centre called The Lagoon. I looked it up. The divine turquoise coast. In early May – the time when I could actually go – there was a yoga retreat that was being run by Carol Macartney who had taught my dear friend, Nikki who had died in February. Fate seemed to playing a part. I signed up.
I disregarded the fact that my yoga life had pretty much died. Downward dogs had gone to the dogs. The wheel was well and truly over. Although the dog did make a brief resurgence in 2018 during a holiday in Goa.
The Lagoon turned out to be in a magnificent location. Ian Worrall with his sister, Jane – they run several yoga retreats internationally now – describes the view down from the centre as ‘a truly fuck off one’. He’s right. I find myself on the dining terrace looking down through springtime fresh pines to a beyond spectacular lagoon that joins the river Dalyan. It’s 45 minutes from the airport set in the village of Gokbel which doesn’t even have a shop. The view is untrammelled by tourist infrastructure. Heavenly.
The weather was a little bit rainy and cold for the first day! There were a few initial panics. We were their first customers. There were nine of us. The first day had us in the sitting room with a fire. But by the second day, the sun came out and we were up on the shala amid birdsong and goat bleat from that point onwards.
At 5am, the call to prayer started its evocative journey around the valley. By 6 30 am, we were on our mats for an hour and a half of meditation, chanting and pranayama. I struggled in the sitting cross legged position. But Carol who is warm, friendly and eclectic in her teachings – never insists. In fact, just the opposite, one of her refrains over the week is ‘Do your best’. There are a couple of members of the group who have either injuries or a knee replacement. As well as a two of them who actually teach yoga. That’s quite a gap to bridge.
From 8am, the asanas began. Yes, the downward dog was back. As well warrior poses, trees (not for me because balancing postures are not my strong point), forward bends, back bends and so much more. Failing on the spirituality front – there is a tendency to love all the purging and calm that comes with the breathing and meditating – I like the postures/action the best. Most of them come back fairly easily. I did go to classes in the late 90s and early 2000s. Carol manages – she’s been teaching for 30 years – our differences in ability splendidly. With grace and humour. But never saintly. Thank goodness.
The first few hours of the day were all in silence which is wonderful. Well not quite silence, the animal life in the valley was in full swing. At 10 am, we had a non-talking breakfast absorbing the surroundings. The hibiscus, the vines, the view. And the fresh Turkish village breakfasts were to die for. Fruit, local yoghurt, nuts, herbed feta, juicy olives, cucumber, tomato, home-made bread. And I even managed to restrain myself. No bread! Mostly, just yoghurt and fruit.
Eventually, Carol tapped her Tibetan bowl and we were free to chat, relax at the swimming pool or roam around the glorious spring countryside. Across the week, our group did different activities from going to the hammam in Dalyan to hiking up nearby mountain sides to visiting the nearby beach, Isitsu, or swimming naked in the lagoon. There was also a 40 minute walk through the village, down through pine woods and past abundant meadows – so many flowers from red poppies to yellow mullein to purple mallow – to another part of the lagoon with jumping fish and welcoming water. No-one in sight. Oleanders in pink bloom all around. Beyond divine.
In the last couple of days, I took to relaxing by the pool – with August Blue by Deborah Levy lent to me by one of the group, the perfect read – and then going for a wander in the village taking in the orange and lemon trees, the roses in bloom, and the swifts darting around. I even went into the mosque – Ian said it was okay if you covered up as Turkey is much more secular than many Muslim countries – and found myself alone imbibing the richness of this architecture and interior. A green carpet with broad red bars on it. And I found a café on the main road that made the best cheese pancakes over an open fire. With fresh orange and pomegranate juice!
There was the boat trip day on the Dalyan river as an extra – Carol is so dedicated and passionate about her practice and sharing it with others that we still had the morning session. Ian – who is a brilliant raconteur, historian and character – was brought up in Turkey (in Istanbul during the 60s with his parents and then the South West) so has lived more of his life there than in the UK – organised our trip and told us outlandish tales all day. We laughed a lot. And looked in wonder at the famous tomb carvings from 5th century BC which look Greek because this was a period of time when Hellenism was the chief influence.
My favourite question of the day came from Elena, younger yogi, a journalist for Reuters – afterwards she was going up to Istanbul to cover the elections – who asked me as we were meandering around the fantastic ancient ruins of Caunos, a flourishing huge city from the 9th century BC until the 15th century AD when it was abandoned because of attacks by marauding Moorish pirates. Are you a Hellenist? A question that I’ve never been asked before! We both agreed that neither of us were.
Ian meanwhile amused with tales of the Byzantines coming along and scrawling crosses over Roman stones and how he was recently given an Alexandrian coin, just what the schoolboy in him had always wanted. A magnificent goat family appeared amid the mostly ancient stones – there were some conspicuously new marble pillars – as did a large lizard with orange eyes. There was lots of proof of sophisticated living like a banqueting hall, various temples, a bathing house, an amphitheatre.
Next was a hot springs and mud bath further down the river. It was an offbeat cultural experience with its excavated pillars and white plastic chairs. Not to mention the room dedicated to fish therapy in tanks. We soaked and exchanged stories.
The food on the boat – lunch of sea bass with all manner of fresh vegetables or just vegetables for the vegan/vegetarians – was superb.
The next day we were back at 6 30am on our mats for almost the final time. By this time, I was much improved at sitting cross-legged and even enjoying the fire breath although the stomach-flapping nauli was a bit beyond me. Carol was generous all week with her wildly diverse music tracks – from MC Yogi to Snatam Kaur and lots of new singers for me to learn about – and also the spiritual and often pragmatic quotes or poems that she scattered inspirationally across our days with her.
My high point was having her support me in doing the Wheel or crab!! Ah the other members of the group – aware that I am 70 – burst into a spontaneous round of applause.
I returned home feeling stronger – I actually managed my first halasana, in other words – from shoulder stand putting my feet over my head onto the floor behind for the first time in at least ten years – and rejuvenated. Also, if I’m honest, a little ‘pranayamed’ out. But so impressed with Carol’s versatility and realness. She’s got a great sense of humour. Her words – You’ve always got a choice in how you respond to situations – resounded in my ears as I told the taxi driver off in London for not taking the back routes a little too forcibly.
Long may the Lagoon keep inspiring its guests. And Ian telling his extraordinary stories.
Carol Macartney has a FB page here – https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100054267068546