Ask me to name the most luxurious hotels in Thailand, and the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai is right there at the top of the list. It’s a fantasy world of northern Thai Lanna and Burmese architecture. The architecture alone is another story in itself (and the hotel has even published a lovely coffee table book about it). I’ve luckily stayed at the Dhara Dhevi a few times, and one of those visits was an unforgettable Ashtanga yoga retreat led by American yoga teacher Clayton Horton, Director of Greenpath Yoga in San Fancisco.
This seven-day yoga program consisted of 90-minute yoga classes twice daily, plus evening yoga lectures, interspersed with personal wellness consultations, holistic spa therapies, massages, and health cuisine. It was a comprehensive, well-thought out program, and the best part was the luscious environment at the gorgeous Dhara Dhevi resort.
Our first dawn yoga class started at 7 a.m., and was our initiation to the physical rigours of Ashtanga yoga, our teacher, our new retreat companions, and our own bodies.
At our first class, early morning sunlight dappled the banana trees as the seven of us struggled to gain a semblance of consciousness while bending and stretching to soft-spoken instructions from the tall, sinewy man in the elegant open-air pavilion that served as our yoga studio.
Seven a.m. is an hour when I am normally curled in an embryonic ball and shoved deep under the bedcovers in blissful slumber, so I followed instructions through a throbbing fog of rudely interrupted sleep. Around the room, puffy eyes and stifled yawns revealed that this was not anybody’s normal morning activity.
We quickly realized that learning with Clayton was no ordinary yoga class. With 20 years of yoga experience, he had studied and received his formal teaching accreditation at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute of Mysore, India, with acclaimed yoga teacher Sri K. Pathabhi Jois.
Well-versed in Sanskrit and the yoga sutras, Clayton’s passion for yoga and his depth of erudition was revealed in his evening lectures on yoga philosophy, accompanied by the singing of yoga sutras in Sanskrit and English on his guitar. One night he led us in a ritual of a sacred Vedic fire ceremony and Kirtan chanting. We strived to keep up with the polysyllabic Sanskrit incantations that Clayton reeled off which such effortless joy. It was inspiring to be led by a teacher who clearly lives what he practices – something not always true of every yoga teacher.
Each of us had come to the retreat with various personal goals. For some, it was their first chance to attend a real yoga class. Mike and Amber, an expat American couple from Texas, had decided to join the retreat after a recent stay at the resort. For the past five years, the couple had practiced yoga only from DVDs and videos. With Mike as the only man in the group, we had first assumed that it was a classic case of the wife dragging the husband along on her wellness holiday; but the opposite was the case.
Mike, a burly hunk who looked more likely to be at home on a football field than a yoga mat, had originally started practicing yoga as physical therapy for a back injury and had persuaded his petite blonde wife to join him after injuring her knee in a skiing accident. They had developed a routine of practicing a few times a week at home from DVDs. But with two young children, they had never had time to go to a real yoga class and found it easier to practice at home as a family, with their six-year-old daughter joining in as their miniature personal trainer.
“Joining the yoga retreat was a huge revelation”, said Amber. “The difference is between convenience and complete focus with personal instruction. It’s convenient to practice yoga with the DVDs at home, but there are also distractions, so I would often wander off in the middle of practice to take phone calls from my mother or if the kids needed attention, leaving Mike in front of the TV doing asanas on his own.
“During this retreat, my mind and body were completely focused on yoga. Clayton is an amazing instructor who motivated me to hold poses longer and stretch beyond my comfort zone. Clayton is very knowledgeable and skilled so I feel like I hit the guru jackpot by getting to have him as my first instructor, very good karma!”
For myself, I had hoped the retreat would help kick-start me into a regular exercise routine after suffering a painful back injury. Ten months earlier, I had been hit by a motorbike while on holiday in Bali. I had ended up with an injured spine and was bed-ridden, unable to walk for several weeks, and emotionally traumatized for many excruciatingly painful and frightening months. Like many back injuries, recovery had been slow, accompanied by depression. Treatment with acupuncture and physio-therapy had helped with the healing but a frustrating back pain remained as a constant source of discomfort and anxiety.
I’d approached the retreat with some fear – the same fear that had kept me from attempting any sort of physical activity for almost a year. But the yoga retreat seemed to be the perfect solution: a dedicated yet relaxed physical program where I could focus on a fixed routine away from my daily responsibilities in Bangkok.
Within a few days, I’d adapted to the new cycle of early bedtimes and dawn reveille and was arising with ease, slicing through the fresh morning air on my hotel bike and enjoying being one of the first to arrive at the yoga pavilion. As classes progressed, the asanas became easier and more fluid, and the back stiffness seemed to surrender as my muscles gained strength. The class manuals given to us by Clayton explained that in Ashtanga yoga, the breathing and movement system, called Vinyasas, cause internal cleansing and increased blood circulation, which heals body pains. An important by-product of vinyasa was sweat, which removes impurities and detoxifies the body.
I could feel it all happening. But I still had a terror of standing on my head or attempting even the mildest back bend, for fear of hurting my back again. I knew I was making progress but sadly wondered if I would ever really return to my original state and most of all, regain my lost confidence.
On the third morning, something unexpected happened. Clayton, who often corrected our poses, come over to adjust my body in the correct position for utkatasana, a stretching and balancing pose which involves bending the knees while lengthening the spine and arms upwards towards the ceiling. As he re-aligned my spine, instructing me to tuck the tailbone in and down, a sudden burst of loud, firecracker-like pops rattled from the base to the top of my spine as each vertebra snapped into position.
The sound alone was sickening, but to hear it coming from my own back made me almost faint with terror. Panicked, I vaguely heard Clayton’s soothing American drawl exclaim “Whoaa, that was major! Your spine has just opened up, well done!”
I continued the class in a confused daze. Going through the poses, I felt mysteriously overwhelmed by tumbling emotions. Waves of fear, grief, loss, and sad memories from the past came pouring out. With mindful awareness, I told myself to observe them and let them go. By the time we got to shavasana, the corpse pose, I was overwhelmed by the tide of emotions and felt tears flowing as I lay on the mat. It was all very strange and disorienting.
At the end of the class, Clayton quickly knelt beside me and gently explained that the opening of my spine might release a lot of old emotions, so I shouldn’t be surprised if I feel unusual emotions like euphoria or depression. He told me to stay aware of my emotions, not to be afraid to let them go, and to let him know if I was feeling strange. I was already feeling strange. Very strange.
I nodded, afraid to speak lest I start bawling like a baby in front of the whole class. I was amazed at his perception (how did he know I was having a meltdown on the mat?) and grateful for his kindness and speed in coming over to reassure me. However, I remained shaky and tearful the rest of the day. Clayton later explained that when my spine was injured, it had healed by freezing itself into a certain position, unconsciously attempting to protect the lower back from further trauma; the yoga adjustment had opened it up again.
“Emotions are energy, and we store energy in our bodies, especially in places that don’t move, so when the spine unlocks itself, repressed emotions are released. This is common in yoga. Physical openings are often emotional releases and when this happens, it is a Healing, because the mind and body are connected. When your spine unraveled itself, the fear and depression that had been repressed from the accident came pouring out.”
I felt increasingly better with the regular routine of daily classes and healthy meals. On sunny mornings we walked to breakfast after class across the resort’s rice fields at the outdoor Rice Terrace Restaurant, which overlooked carefully landscaped rice paddies and an adorable, roly-poly pink water buffalo attended by the resort’s friendly resident farmers. Our delicious program of health meals alternated between the resort’s various restaurants; The Grand Lanna Thai restaurant, Agalico Mediterranean restaurant and the Pool Restaurant, sometimes joined by the spa’s cheerful Director of Wellness.
Between morning and evening yoga classes we were free to go into Chiang Mai on the hotel shuttle bus to explore the city’s famous ancient temples and fabulous shops. I had come with a list of things to do in town, but was surprised to find that I had lost all motivation to leave the seductive tranquility of the resort. Its restaurants, enormous spa, two swimming pools, tennis courts, a temple, library, and a shopping village offered plenty to do. The real world of traffic, motorbikes, noise and pollution outside the gates seemed increasingly unnecessary in comparison.
Our rooms consisted of enormous two-storey wooden villas complete with kitchen, living room, and verandahs with private plunge pool overlooking the hotel’s landscaped rice terraces. There was even a scarecrow jauntily dressed in indigo cotton Thai farmer’s garb outside my villa.
We traversed the vast resort grounds on the hotel bikes, which was great exercise. Pedaling through the leafy paths that meandered through villas and ponds evoked a delicious feeling of childhood freedom that I never felt in my high-rise apartment in Bangkok. One day instead of biking I rang for a buggy to take me to lunch, and was delighted to find a jaunty pony carriage arrive at the door.
The retreat program included wellness consultations and spa therapies at the Dheva spa, an extravagant architectural concoction of pavilions and ornately curlicued spires that was a replica of the royal palace in Mandalay, Burma. Ascending the high marble steps to the spa gives the visitor the feeling of entering a sacred place.
Inside the teak consultation pavilions, we had wellness consultations with the resident Ayurvedic physician Dr. Sunita, who diagnosed each person’s condition and prescribed a spa treatment suited to that need, which ranged from Ayurvedic to Thai and western holistic therapies. She prescribed the Ayurvedic treatment Kati Vasti, using heated medicated oil to heal and soothe my aching lower back. There was also a lengthy consultation with resident Alternative Health Specialist Dr. Rob, who skillfully re-aligned my spine and recommended supplements to strengthen the bones.
By the end of the week, after six days of yoga, three hours a day, we had completed sixteen and half hours of Ashtanga yoga. Dozens of calories had been burnt, some kilos had been lost, our bodies had been realigned, tears had been shed, and new friendships had formed. At our last class, I even accomplished my first headstand while my classmates cheered.
When we said our goodbyes on the last day, I thanked Clayton for helping heal my back. “You were ready for it” he said. “Your back wanted to be healed. It just needed the right conditions to bring it out.”
Several nights earlier, while teaching us the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled by Patanjali over 2,000 years ago, Clayton had explained that the 196 Sutras were divided into four Chapters. The first of these sutras is Atha Yog Anusasanam, which has three interpretations: (1) now the teachings of yoga are being explained; (2) yoga happens only in the now; and (3) now the student is ready to receive the teachings of yoga.
Like the rest of our exhausted retreat group, I had been half asleep during the evening lectures, but I suddenly recalled his words from that class with crystal clarity.
I exclaimed to Clayton, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears!”
If it were a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared on top of my head. Dingggg! It was a precious experience to realize that the ancient yoga philosophy he had taught us in class had become my own truth.
Have you been on a yoga retreat that had a powerful healing effect for you? What was your experience?