The Best Yoga Retreat in the World: Ulpotha in Sri Lanka

On the three hour drive from Colombo

On the three hour drive from Colombo

That was my starting point in my Google search.  This past Christmas and birthday were probably the worst in many years and I was desperate to get something in the diary to look forward to.  Ulpotha immediately jumped out at me - I wanted remote and nestled in central Sri Lanka surrounded by the Galgiriyawa mountains it looked like a tropical paradise of jungle huts and teeming wildlife.  The reviews were dazzling - other than a few obviously joyless individuals.  I dithered about how long to go for - one week or two - and opted for only one week (big mistake!!!).

The centre of the site is the old manor house - built a few hundred years ago and renovated by the owners 20 years ago.  This is where meals are taken in an open sided ambalama where food is laid out on mats on the floor - a dazzling array of salads and curries and fresh fruit, much of which is grown in the village gardens, and it's where people come and go between swims in the lake and treatments, and there was the ever present yoga retreat cliche of someone strumming away on a guitar :-)

One of the major attractions for me was the huge lake surrounded by the mountains.  It's used as a reservoir to water the gardens and property.  Every day I overcame my fear of the turtles snapping at my toes and pushed off into the murky green waters to swim up and down the length of it.  Floating on my back and feeling like I was falling back into the universe.  When the rain came it splattered my face and submerged with my eyes at water level I watched the huge raindrops leap high off the surface of the water.

As a child I loved the film The Swiss Family Robinson - and I think Ulpotha is the closest I've come to living that jungle dream!  It really was 5 star jungle - running water, open bathrooms with rain showers and antique beaten copper sinks (which you might share with the tiny frogs that get everywhere!), regularly swept mud huts and view from my bed out onto the jungle with a first class view of the macaque and langur monkey and giant squirrel neighbours.  Even the creepy crawlies didn't bother me too much.   You feel at home - not a hotel and there is no signage or notices to remind you that you are a paying guest.  If you are after air conditioning, cool white wine and an absence of jungle reality this is not for you. 

Ulpotha is renowned for it's world class yoga teachers but I really lucked out my week with Mika de Brito.  A Parisian teacher who has been teaching Ashtanga at Ulpotha for 10 years.  I don't think I have enjoyed classes so much.  He has a playful style  - his favourite words seem to be "I love it" and his enthusiasm and curiosity of the world is highly infections.  He teaches to an eclectic sound track and generally doesn't take anything too seriously.  Not a namaste in sight.  Mostly the yoga was in the shala but some days we went outside - by the lake, under the banyan tree with monkeys and squirrels watching curiously or up high on the boulders above the site as the sun went down.  Pretty dreamy really. 

A favourite night was spent in the lake hut which I rowed out to under the stars one evening.  The jungle sounds different by the water - my hut had the noises of monkeys crashing around on the room but here on the lake it was the gentle plopping of frogs leaping into the water!  As the sun started up in the morning I pulled back the net and lay watching the sky blushing and the jungle life waking up.  The only thing that would have improved it would have been a coffee and a cuddle.

Reluctant as I was to leave the site I headed out on the sunset afternoon trip to the peaceful remains of a forest monastery, Haththikuchi, where we pottered around the ruins before climbing up to a high peak to watch the sunsetting over the jungle - as the light dropped to a haze, the jungle sounds quietened and the soupy warmth became fragrant.

One of the most unique points about Ulpotha is that it is a village - with an elected council of villagers who take responsibility for the running of the retreat - from the food, hiring, money and staff - and as the retreat is only open for 5 months of the year they are free to resume their own lives, education and growing of crops.  They discretely manage the day to day activities in such a seamless way.  A number of the staff (there are around 45 on site) have been living there for over 20 years from when Ulpotha started up and as a result you feel like you are living in a community, not a hotel, helped by the warmth of Suzi the host.  You only have to ask for the smallest thing and it is immediately dealt with.  

At Ulpotha I found a sense of peace, confidence and pleasure in indolence.  I don't find it easy to relax and switch off - when you have your own business you are always on.  It was a revelation to truly switch off and recharge even for a few days.   There is space to roam and find your own quiet spot for contemplation.  Yoga and meals bring everyone together but you are free to come and go and miss anything you feel.  I only ended up reading one book (The God of Small Things) - there was such great pleasure in just finding a place and whiling away an afternoon swinging gently, listening to the sounds the creaking ropes of the hammock and of the jungle and letting one's mind roam gently. 

One week was definitely not enough and I look forward to returning as soon as I can.


The main house

The 1000 year old reservoir 

Open sided living quarters with running water and open showers

Yoga with Mika

A night on the lake

Arankele, a forest monastery