End of year reflection: 3 ways to go with the flow

It’s not very British to write an end of year reflection, especially on going with the flow.

The last time I did something similar a friend from the US said I sounded very American.

I think she meant positive – beyond all British possibilities. Haha!

But I still have that healthy dose of scepticism – it’s kind of essential for the journalist job.

I also just deleted an exclamation mark which is a definite sign of Brit norm.

What I have succeeded most at this year is going with the flow.

I know as a yoga teacher you probably should be going with the flow all the time. All while eating raw food and hugging trees, to use a few more cliches.

My issue has been that I focus too much on how something turns out, daydreaming of how it will be perfect in the future.

But the past year I feel I’ve made big shifts in my life by going with the flow and being more carefree.

Stuff I dreamed of actually happened because I stopped holding on to those expectations.

This ‘method’ is based on traditional yoga techniques, which I teach in my classes.

For me it’s very much a work in progress, as ever.


This is how I’m learning to go with the flow more –

Being aware – watch your thoughts about how you’re not doing well enough at this or that. Notice feelings or expectations that arise and let them go. Observing thoughts and feelings as a witness – not getting involved with them – takes the heat or sting out of them. This is something I teach in my teen yoga classes.

Being mindful – practise mindfulness of breath. This releases habitual ways of thinking and keeps you rooted in the present instead of craving certain outcomes. The breath reflects what is going on in the mind and body, so when the breath calms so do you as a whole. I can honestly say that this technique is mind-changing (in a good way!). Find out more about the courses I and other Traditional Yoga teachers offer.

Sending metta (loving kindness) – a lot of our expectations are based on our comparison with others, peers or even strangers on social media. Practice a meditation in which you send loving kindness to yourself, then a loved-one, a neutral person (someone you see on the street but don’t know) and a person who have a difficulty with. Then widen this out to the world. Research shows this has positive results.

These are just three simple techniques. There are many more.

The main thing is being more relaxed about what happens. This may come very easy to some but to others (me!) it’s hard.

This practice has truly led to great things happening in my life. Work opportunities, connections, relationships and generally being a lot more free in my mind. Life flows when you’re not het up on the result.

Yes, bad stuff happens but you’re more able to deal with it.

I am an optimistic American now? I don’t care.

My imperfect yoga practice

What does your yoga practice look like?

Bathed in sunlight, sat on the mat in your best gear, all peace and light?

Me too. Yeah right …

My yoga practice can actually be more like this experience.

Recently, I was sat on my mat meditating when a strange mixture of drilling and whistling began next door.

Bear with me, there’s an important yoga message here – honestly!

I breathed through it for a while, and it worked … Then, the drilling took over the whistling.

My practice continued, witnessing the inhale and exhale.

I noticed my feelings come and go – the heat of annoyance rise and then fall away.

‘Brilliant’, a thought popped up, ‘I’m so calm amidst the frenzy of DIY’.

‘Nee-nah, nee-nah!’ The sound of the police. The sirens got closer and then faded.

My practice continued … then the doorbell rang.

The thing is there are always distractions.

They may be external such as neighbours doing early morning home renovations.

Or internal like the ‘monkey mind’ jumping from thought to thought – even if it is, ironically, about your yoga practice.

Your best yoga work

I’m not saying you should torture yourself with noise to make yourself more mindful. That would just be cruel, and not practising one of the yoga principles, ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence.

What I am saying is that the yoga practice (‘yoga’ includes meditation) I do when there are distractions is often my best work.

This is because anchoring yourself to the breath grounds and calms you. It stops you from getting your freak on.

Some simple breath meditation

To start with, simply watch the natural breath come and go in or around the nostrils.

Or you can silently say ‘so’ on the (uncontrolled) in-breath and ‘hum’ on the out-breath.

In the longer-term, these mindful meditation practices will work on the deeper stuff.

This means you can change how you react to events. You might not even notice you’re doing it at first.

For me, these shifts in how I now react mean –

Being more patient – not wanting everything to happen now or getting frustrated when transport is delayed or someone has just cut me up on my bicycle. Now I sternly shake my head and say ‘unbelievable’ (they quake!) instead of ‘for eeffs sake…’ Ha!

Being present – not ruminating about past events or fearing future ‘failures’. This is a massive success for me because I used to think way too much. The more you train the mind to be in the present, the less it slips into its habit of beating itself up.

Being cool – I don’t mean cool trendy. Teaching yoga to teenagers, I would never even pretend. I mean accepting things as they are right now, even if they’re actually a bit crap. I just had one of those days. I’m tired and so that’s what I’ve put my mood down to (self awareness comes with this practice too).

So, remember, the best yoga practice you do is often when it’s a bit imperfect. A bit like DIY.

Find out more about the meditation I teach as a Traditional Yoga teacher.

Or find a course in your area.

Finding some inspiration (rather than irritation) in your inbox

Back to work blues? Greeted by a mass of emails and retreating to the kitchen/toilet/cafe at every opportunity?

Emails can be a poke in the face at work – yet another thing to do, someone complaining or a ‘who stole my yoghurt?!’ call-out.

But there is a way to keep some cheer in your inbox.

Quite a few years ago, I started keeping a ‘thanks’ folder.

I put all emails with any compliments (about work, not my hair – but whatever works for you!) into a folder in my inbox.

Then whenever I was having a stressful time, I’d take a look in there and get an instant uplift.

Ok, you’re still going to have to deal with those troubling emails but it keeps things in perspective.

I was telling a friend about this recently and she suggested taking screengrabs of positive feedback on social media – great idea! (Thanks Sarah Blinco of Travel Live Learn!)

Oh, and these emails will come in useful come appraisal time.

Now I ‘appraise’ myself as a freelancer (ha!) but I still have a thanks folder.

This gem dropped in this week from someone who featured in an article about health conditions in medics: ‘Thanks very much, this is excellent. So many of my colleagues have said good things about your piece. They really liked your article!’

A great start to the first week of the year – and an addition to the thanks folder, of course!

With the best intentions, let’s start this year

‘You don’t want to reflect on the past year or make new year resolutions. Just keep going – or you’ll drive yourself crazy!’

This is what a wise and hilariously frank friend said to me on New Year’s Eve.

She’s not wrong. Well, not entirely … 🙂 I don’t do new year resolutions but I do intentions.

‘What’s the difference?’ My friend asked.

I see intentions as positive long-term plans, or a journey towards something.

I see resolutions as negative short-term, punitive plans – banning something and then chastising yourself for ‘failing’.

To be honest, on New Year’s Eve I was feeling a bit down for various (crazy – yes!) reasons.

So, I decided to write down all the good things that happened to me in 2016 – and I got to 18!

It really was a great year overall as I went travelling, left my job and started working as a freelance writer and yoga teacher.

But still you can dwell on the negatives and the unknowns, those nagging uncertainties.

I like to plan so, with the help of a New Year’s Day yoga workshop, I’m writing a few intentions (or Sankalpas as they’re known in yoga/Sanskrit).

These are plans for the year, such as making contacts for work and building new connections, friendships or relationships.

Here’s what I do:

1) Write down the good things that happened to you in the past year – it can be a good holiday, a small success at work, a new friend made, a great new coffee haunt. Two of mine included listing my top times with friends and family.

2) Set some small intentions – little things that are achievable, perhaps not winning the lottery or taking on the US presidency (though anything is up for grabs these days!). Some of mine are around networking for new work opportunities and working on social media promotion.

3) Do a regular condition check – see how things are going in a month or two, and then in 6 months. Refine plans if needed. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed but perhaps a new approach is needed. I found this with some yoga work last year and so joined organisations to gain support, which led to new work.

4) Keep the faith, release the fear – this is probably the most important one for me. Whatever obstacles come along, keep believing in yourself and going, small step by small step.

5) Have fun – this goes back to the resolution issue. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re probably not going to keep it up. Make sure whatever you’re doing, you believe in it (the process and the result).

And remember your best support is from those who you already know. Those funny friends who keep you laughing and support you to the hilt.

They have the best intentions at heart – and sometimes some good advice!

Loving the ‘loneliness’ of the long-distance writer

park-pic

Once upon a time I won a prize from my local running club.

A winner’s medal for a time-trial? An award for a personal best in a half-marathon? No – a copy of Little Miss Chatterbox for, erm, conversing.

I like to chat, and don’t people know it.

So, pursuing a career as a freelance health journalist (and yoga teacher) – with no workmates – has presented a number of challenges.

Here are my tips for staying sane while going it solo (and loving it, especially random kitchen dancing!) –

1) Get out of here – Always, always go out during the day. However, busy you are, even a short jaunt to Sainsbury’s will brighten your day (the medical tips I get from checkout staff are always cheering!). Fortunately, teaching enforces going out but it can be easy to stay in all day beforehand.

2) Social media is no substitute for real fleshy friends – These days we’re so connected online, yet often so disconnected. As supportive as 6music is, arrange at least one mid-week meet-up with a friend in the flesh. It’s not really the done thing to moan to your meditation group, when you’re teaching it.

3) Talk, don’t type – It’s so easy to do almost everything on email these days. Pick up the phone instead. Like face-to-face, it does forge better connections. I’m fortunate that interviews tend to be done over the phone (sometimes even in person). I also call clients when I could have typed.

4) Wear proper clothes – I’m proud to say I’ve yet to work in my pyjamas and I always sit at a proper desk. It just puts you in the right frame of mind: ‘Now, I’m working, not watching Netflix’. Similarly, make sure you’ve got plenty of healthy food in. Lunch is often grabbed (last night’s leftovers), especially when juggling commitments, rather than living the freelance coffee shop dream. But I do pride myself on knowing the best baristas in north-east London (for sunny days and take-outs, of course).

5) Connect/network with other homeworkers/start-ups – There are loads of groups on Facebook aimed at supporting people running their own business or working freelance. They tend to encourage meet-ups IRL (in real life) too, and not just for the extroverts. Also, network at every opportunity as it brings in more work but also eases isolation. There is also the possibility of cake, prosecco or even a celeb endorser – and sometimes all three, for free!

foot-in-park

So, as tempting as it is to stay indoors as winter arrives, get out as much as possible.

You might just meet someone running around the park and strike up a conversation.

No prizes for guessing it has happened to Little Miss Chatterbox.

Top tips for a perfect time in Pondicherry

Pondicherry prom

When I was looking at visiting Pondicherry I couldn’t find a bad word about the place.

Seriously, I tried (I like to be prepared).

But Google and fellow travellers – eastern and western – would only deliver kind words about the former French colony, affectionately known as Pondy.

Now I know why. And better still, I have memories to cherish forever.

But I did struggle with some small practical details that would have helped to make life easier and allay the fears of a lone traveller.

So, here is my guide to make your trip to Pondicherry just perfect.

Matrimandir and me

Travelling to Pondicherry

Most people travel to Pondicherry from Chennai, which is about 170km away and also in the state of Tamil Nadu. I booked a bus, through Rathimeena Travels, to Pondy for about 450 rupees (£4ish). I found it difficult to work out where the nearest stop was as many are simply under a tree on a roadside. I opted for Koyambedu bus station (about 30 minutes cab or rickshaw ride from where I was staying near Anna Salai).

Top tip – Don’t listen to the bus website about printing your ticket and id, you only need the booking reference number.

Check your bus has aircon when booking as quite a few don’t have it. Also factor in delays (especially if you want to arrive before sunset which is safer) – my bus was supposed to take 3.5 hours but actually took 4.5 hours. The aircon bus is very comfortable – the only downer is the loud films they play from the screen at the front of the bus.

A tuk tuk from Pondicherry bus stand (there’s only one but you can ask to be dropped off earlier, for example in Auroville) to the French colonial area is around 400 rupees (£4ish).

Travelling back to Chennai? Taxis this way are often less expensive than traveling to Pondicherry, about 3,000 rupees (around £30). If you’re going to the airport this the best option. Try Pondicherry Car.

Palais de Mahe

Where to stay

I stayed at Palais de Mahe in the French quarter, also known as White Town.

The beds are incredibly comfy (they are worth commenting on!). The bathroom also has a range of gorgeous smelling and great for the skin/hair Ayurvedic products. The staff are very helpful and knowledgable and the food, particularly dinner, is delicious. My favourite is cinnamon prawns, lentil encrusted catch of the day and a bee’s knees cocktail (gin, lemon and honey – hey, it’s practically medicinal!).

Oh, and the hotel has an amazing pool.

This isn’t the cheapest option but is worth it and TripAdvisor and Booking.com have good deals on this hotel.

Poor point – the wifi dips in and out.

Getting around Pondicherry

Go by two wheels! Many hotels, including the Palais de Mahe, offer free bike hire. Ok, the bikes have no gears and so can be hard work but you still get a breeze which in a very hot April (temperatures in late 30c) is to be welcomed.

One of my best memories is cycling along the Promenade before sunset with the sea breeze gently blowing through my hair – and ok sweat running down me – and smiling away.

The bikes have an easy self-bolt so no need to chain it to something.

Sights and experiences

Auroville

Auroville

Ok, this township isn’t technically in Pondicherry. It is about a 30-minute rickshaw ride away (costing around 600 rupees – £6 – for a round-trip in which the driver waits for you).

Auroville is awesome and inspirational and is a must-see.

Its aim is to be a ‘universal town’ where people of all sexes, races and nationalities live in harmony. It was set up by a French spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa, known as ‘the Mother’, in 1958.

Auroville has a strong ecological ethos with a number of sustainability projects including the reforestation of its land. It also supports gender empowerment through schemes finding work for women in textiles, and less traditional feminine employment.

The glistening jewel at the heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir. Behind its space age-style gold exterior are 12 meditation chambers in the ‘petals’ which each correspondent to a flower representing qualities such as gratitude. Within the inner meditation is a crystal ball through which a line of sunlight beams – what a focal point for meditation!

Auroville gratitude

Top tip – Choose the day and time you visit carefully. It is free to enter Auroville. Just show up at the visitor centre and get a pass and visit the Matrimandir viewing point. But gaining entry inside the Matrimandir is a bit more complicated. You must ask for a pass in person for the Matrimandir between 10-11am or 2-3pm. Your pass will be for a day or two after visiting Auroville. It is closed on Sunday afternoons and passes can’t be issued on Tuesdays.

I missed out on meditating inside the Matrimandir due to these timings, which I was gutted about.

Aurobindo ashram

Sri Aurobindo Ashram

The ashram was founded by Indian Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in 1926 and doesn’t teach a particular type of yoga or meditation rather allows students to find their own way. It isn’t a quiet place as it’s located in a busy part of Pondicherry and is open to visitors. But it is worth visiting to attend the evening self-practice meditation session in the courtyard and the bookshop where hundreds of the ashram’s publications are available to buy in many different languages for very cheap prices. There are also guided tours available.

Top tip – arrive by 4pm to take part in the evening meditation and bring a towel or cushion to sit on as the ground is concrete. Also be aware that you’ll need to use your meditative powers to zone out the scampering squirrels in the courtyard!

Pondy prom nighttime

The promenade

It may seem strange to suggest a stretch of pavement as an attraction but a stroll along here after 6pm (when it’s traffic free) is great. It is also busy though. You will see hundreds of people – way more than you ever see there in the day. It is also the most hassle-free time and very relaxing.

Eating out

Cafe des artes

Cafe des arts

This is a cool vintage-styled cafe in the French quarter serving nice sandwiches, crepes, salads, juices and coffee. They also have strong wifi and a nice garden and a vintage clothes shop.

Top tip – opt for the banana and lemon crepe – yum!

Villa Shanti

Villa Shanti

This is a boutique hotel with a restaurant downstairs. The food and service are excellent. It’s a mixture of ‘contemporary cuisine’ – fish dishes and vegetarian – and classic Indian food.

Top tip – try the aubergine confit for dessert. It sounds strange but is delicious! The fish dishes are very tasty but the fish is a bit overcooked.

Shopping

La Maison Rose

La Maison Rose

Like Cafe des arts, this is another two in one cafe – an eatery and a shop. The food is good as are the clothes but they are expensive by Indian (and even western standards) – about 6,000 rupees (£60) for a pair of silk trousers. They also sell beautiful cotton and jewellery.

Hidesign

This an international Pondicherry-based leather goods retailer. They sell good quality bags, purses and shoes at reasonable prices. Bags start from around 3900 rupees (£39), for a mixed material bag, and about 5000 rupees (£50) for a leather handbag.

These products are made using eco-friendly vegetable tanning processes. Hidesign also support sustainability projects in India.

Top tip – tourists get 10% discount in store. There is also a Hidesign factory shop up the road.

Hidesign bag

Kalki

This is a great shop for gifts unfortunately I found some of the staff quite snooty on my visit to their Pondicherry store (and the way they follow you everywhere at close range is very annoying).

But Kalki does sell some great Ayurveda massages oils, perfumes and cosmetics. They also have a huge incense stick range and stock some nice cotton clothes.

Mira boutique at Auroville

This boutique near the Auroville visitor centre sells a great range of women’s cotton and silk clothing, and also candles and much homeware. You will struggle not to find a gift for most women you know as there is so much choice from the patterned to the plain. I bought about five items of clothing (not all for me!) and had change from £50.

Again, this is an ethical store with, for example, the blouse prints are produced by local women’s projects.

Check out more information on Pondicherry via Pondy Tourism or visit the official tourist information office on the Promenade.

Ayurveda diary: schoolgirl giggles, horrors and healing

Ayurveda

‘You will be lubricated, scrubbed and sweated,’ says the grinning Ayurvedic doctor.

Sounds scary? Yep, I was a little apprehensive, especially when he causally mentioned the possibility of far more daunting cleanses. Block your ears (no, that’s not a treatment), I told myself.

But I was intrigued. A fascination to find out more about this centuries-old practice is what brought me to this retreat in the village of Pangode, Kerala – the devoted land of Ayurveda.

Pool

What’s Ayurveda?

Ayurveda or ‘life science/knowledge’ is a thousands years old healing system. It sees the body and mind as being based on three energies or doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – each associated with a particular element such as fire, air or earth. Most people are a combination of two and, as the doshas move in and out of balance, they can affect your health, mood and overall energy.

What’s my dosha?

After a brief medical history, weigh-in, blood pressure and pulse check, I was declared vata pitta. Briefly, vata means you’re lively and energetic person with a lean body but, if out of balance, you can be anxious and suffer insomnia and digestive problems. Pittas are athletic and have a strong appetite for food and life but can overdo things.

Amrutham

What’s the treatment?

Step 1 – the oiling

Lots of herbal (cocoa smelling) oils are poured over me as my body is given a deep tissue massage. There was so much oil that when I got off the table to be led to shower, I looked at my dewy honey-coloured skin and thought ‘wow, my tan is coming on’. Erm, no.

The massage pressure is strong in places. My therapist got into my tight calf, quad and shoulder muscles – you are kind of on a knife edge at times, unsure if it’s pleasurable or painful. I was also given massages on my side with strokes to stimulate the circulation system.

Next up, a tasty face mask treatment made of cucumber, papaya and banana (mixed with Ayurvedic medicines) to make your skin soft. Softening that dry vata skin is what this stage is about.

Amrutham outside

Step 2 – the scrubbing

On entering the massage hut today, I have a paper mask placed on my face. I thought this was part of the treatment but it turns out it’s simply to protect the throat from the powder being scrubbed into me. It’s also good to disguise my schoolgirl giggles as two women therapists energetically sand down a buttock each. This is the urdvartana (udwarthanam) treatment, which is good for reducing fat and softening skin.

I am then treated to a sirodhara in which warm herbal oil is poured over my forehead for around 30 minutes. This relaxes the nervous system and is good for insomnia and stress – and I slept through most of the treatment.

On the second and third days of scrubbing, I hear a crackling of oil heating in a pan behind me. Eek! But this is actually the start of the enjoyable elakizhi treatment. Herbal leaves are made into a ball in a cloth bag which is used to pummel the body. It is good for improving blood circulation, skin complexion and body stiffness. It’s pretty invigorating stuff.

Final step – the sweating

Another oily massage with emphasis on the spinal column, and area around the navel. Then hot towels were waved over me and patted on my body. The face mask as before – and I slept, again. This is a toxin releasing treatment.

Throughout the six-day treatment, Ayurvedic powdered medicines are rubbed into points on the body including the scalp.

This treatment, overall, isn’t for the bashful. You really do start to wonder what is the point of the ever-shifting paper pants. My therapist got to know me so well that we started discussing new mosquito bites at the top of my thigh.

Ayurveda lake

What else happens (besides the treatment)?

Yoga and meditation

Two hours of yoga and an hour of meditation each day. I was the only student so got extra special tuition – or rather I was pushed beyond my comfort zone. It’s ashtanga based with an emphasis on backbends and twists. I felt absolutely no strains from this intense practice (heat/sweat included), so something was clearly working.
My only lowlight was being coerced into singing a song solo – way harder than chanting, my teacher later admitted. There won’t be a repeat performance.

Ayurveda food

Food

It is an activity as much time is spent consuming it. Curry made out of everything: pineapple, sea gourd, eggs, chickpeas, and fish (it’s a vegetarian retreat but they cook fish for the pescetarians). There is even post-meditation snack of either homemade peanut bar, sesame seed ball or a gooey mixture of ghee, bananas and grapes (tastes way nicer than it sounds!). Clear coriander water is served with every meal. Apparently people lose weight here but I think they must be on a different diet plan.

Did it work?

Initially I felt so tired with heavy legs but I was told this was natural. My sleep was interrupted but I think this was due to the nearby temple festival (starting at 4am!).
But as the week went on, I felt more energised in my yoga practice and my digestive system was more ‘UK normal’. My skin feels very soft and smooth and the hard ‘saddle sore’ skin I’ve had for a few years has gone – yay!
And I didn’t enjoy a much anticipated beer (and chocolate mousse) later in Chennai. Am I reformed? No. Relaxed? Yes.

Lotus flower

My treatment was at Amrutham Gamaya Ayurvedic Village Resort

Find out more about Ayurveda in Kerala

5 things I’ve learned about South Indian food

Kerala thali

The food you eat and its effect on the body is a popular topic of conversation among westerners in India.

You’ll find you know more about the digestive systems of newly found friends than people you’ve known for years, with stocks of Imodium undergoing regular audits.

But toilet talk aside, food and drink does provide a great source of happiness, and also healing (post initiation stage).

Here are a few things I’ve learned and loved along the way, generally via two wheels:

Kerala: fruit

Appreciate your food source and say thanks Keralan style

I get a veg box at home yet I’ve far greater appreciation for food where you can actually see its source. Breakfast mangoes from a tree you’ve spotted, fresh fish from the sea before your eyes. A single cashew nut coming from one cashew apple – hey, this is why they are so expensive in the UK. Tip: in Kerala show your gratitude with the banana leaf you’ve eaten off. Once you’ve finished your beautiful platter of relishes, nuts, fruit and curries, fold that leaf downwards to show you like it.

India: fish

Variety is the spice of life

There are around 15 varieties of banana in Kerala ranging from the teeny finger-sized ones which decompose fast in your pocket to the pinky flat – and frankly huge – types, and the conjoined twins. There is no EU straight banana edict here.
Bread is also vast in its varieties. Parathas are my favourite – they are far softer and pull apart more easily than I’ve ever experienced elsewhere.

Kerala: Maria cookery

Less is best

This definitely applies to eating rich curries but Maria of Maria’s Cookery in Kochi (Cochin) explains that this is also so in spicing a curry in the kitchen. When doubling a recipe meant for two, don’t double the quantity of spice – just add a touch extra to get the same flavour, she says. I’d highly recommend checking out Maria’s classes. She is incredibly knowledgable with an emphasis on what’s good for you (ginger, lime juice, honey and water is a refreshing drink, recommended by Maria). You also get to eat the yum food afterwards!

India: watermelon

Rehydrate as nature intended

Drinking fresh coconut juice (from the coconut, not an over-priced organic carton) is a great healer for the belly and generally to rehydrate. Similarly, a lime soda (fresh lime juice, soda water, salt and sugar) is perfect to rejuvenate yourself with after many hot hours on the bike. This is nature’s electrolyte drink and served widely across India. Also, just accept that watermelon tastes of onion. This is not some new variety of the fruit, rather everywhere seems to use the same knife to chop up both watermelon and onion. You get surprisingly used to it.

Indian tuck shop

Long live and love the tuck shop!

The range of snacks you can buy at small roadside cafes is mindblowing. From the sweet shop style jars of cookies (spicy, of course, and sweet) to cabinets of fried bananas and vegetable samosas, there is pretty much something for everyone (including expiring kit-kats if desperate for a western sweet fix). Go for masala tea and accept that coffee will generally be instant, though it will take time to serve as they do make an effort with frothing the condensed milk. Yum, erm?

Kerala: curry

With very special thanks to talented (often while two-wheeling) photographer Sarah Michaux for most of the images used here.

These experiences were gained on a two-week cycle trip we shared, organised by Exodus travels with local guides.

India trails: The killer elephant who came for a midnight feast

India: figure car park

Cycling along the Bangalore Nilgiri road through the centre of Mysore city is a hairy experience.

In the midst of the tooting and honking tuk-tuks, cars and motorbikes careering towards each other (and you), there are cattle grazing in the kerbside dust and suicidal dogs on a mission to nowhere.

‘This is worse than cycling down the Euston Road!’ jokes a fellow London cyclist in our group of travellers riding around 550 km (340 miles) from Mysore down to the southern coast of India.

India: Ganges of south

There is a method to the Mysore traffic madness – just keep on going with the grit and determination of a city commuter.

This city stops for no man, woman, child or indeed sacred animal.

Yet it is a really fun experience – even if roundabouts do make Paris’s Champs-Elysees circle look like a Sunday stroll.

‘Selfie, please!’

The cityscape soon gives way to calmer highways which then ease into quieter villages where you are treated to the kind of welcome worthy of a Tour de France champion on a victory lap. Grinning children shout ‘hi, hi!’ as they race to the roadside, and men and women working in the rice fields wave enthusiastically. We have now passed through dozens of villages and nothing but joy greets us – and the obligatory ‘selfie – please!’ photo request.

India: Mysore palace and Flavia

There are so many sights to behold on this journey from the 96,000 bulbs that light up Mysore Palace powered by hydroelectricity for just 30 minutes once a week (on a Sunday at 7pm), to the luscious hillside tea plantations and the elegant saris worn by women everywhere doing everything.

India: cycle view

‘There’s a tiger within metres’

There are also plenty of tales to tell here, and in the jungle environment they need no embellishment. A day after tigers had failed to come to tea – or early breakfast – in Bandipur ‘Tiger’ Reserve, we are walking through jungle land when our guide casually says ‘There’s a tiger within 300 metres of us’. The accompanying dogs had heard it roar. So what did we do? Run? No, we had a game of shot-put with a boulder and then retired to local man Kumar’s home for a nice cup of tea and cake (which incidentally was once visited by a leopard who snarled his dog on the doorstep, he tells me with his toothy grin). Our drama is their matter of fact.

India: elephant crossing

So, back to the safety of our safari lodge for the evening? Not exactly. After dinner a wild elephant with three-human kills to its name pops by for a midnight feast. Standing the other side of the electric fence to him, I asked a guide from another group what would happen if there is a power cut. He says the elephants know their boundaries adding ‘of course, there was the time, the elephant disabled the fence by throwing a boot over it. Do not underestimate their intelligence’. I didn’t sleep too well that night.

India: safi

But seriously, we are safe in the expert hands of our wonderful guide Safi, supported by Vipin and Michael, who are all incredibly knowledgable, friendly, and, crucially, love a laugh – largely at our faces when they tell us of the next schedule of hills. The first two are professional cyclists but don’t let that put you off – they don’t make you go fast, but are road-safe.

India: pin bends

One of most challenging rides so far was up Ooty hill, which is around 13k with an average gradient of about 12 per cent [cycle geek talk for v steep] and a mere 36 hairpin bends. En route a Buddhist monk and motorcyclist stopped to give me words of motivation. Where else do you experience this? I smiled through the pain and at the passing traffic – and summited.

This two-week trip is organised by Exodus travels

India trails: the place where time is forgotten

India: Goa, shala view New

I am struggling to put pen to paper – or rather greasy sun-lotioned finger to smudgy iPad.

This is not because I am uninspired by Little Cove Yoga Retreat, Goa (first stop on my travels around southern India). Quite the opposite.

I am incapacitated by relaxation.

This is the place where time is forgotten, everything is done for you and nothing is asked of you.

 

Goa cottage

There is a ‘schedule’ but it is voluntary. Yet no one here needs a watch to partake. Awoken by a cacophony of nature (But in a good way! Think: waves crashing over rocks and buzzing birds). Then, the delivery of a fresh mint tea – or hot beverage of your choice – to your varandah with a gentle call of ‘good morning’. But no need to rush … there’s plenty of time before morning yoga.

India: Goa, brunch

Lazy sunny days

The day is then left to your (generally lazy) whim. Yet time is marked with a series of events – an amazing brunch in the yoga shala/hut looking out to sea, and arrivals of huge plates of fresh fruit salad, delivered to whichever end of the beach you have chosen to pitch up. Then a gong is sounded for pre-dinner meditation, which is often taken on the rocks of the cliff edge looking out to sea. Oh and the dinner, like all food here, is delicious – my favourite is the butter paneer curry. Yum!

For those who want quiet time, it is available. Despite the numbers (more than I have encountered before on a retreat), there is plenty of room in this secluded private cove in south Goa. For those who want to chat, everyone is very friendly – both staff and ‘retreaters’ (who are a mixture of single travelers, couples and twosomes of friends).

There are around 25 people from all over the world (with a predominance of English or German speakers) on this retreat, and most spend around 5-14 days here. Initially, it seemed like a lot of people when I arrived to see them finishing morning practice in the main shala but since then classes have been separated between beginner and advanced and the two open huts.

 

Goa cove scene

‘It’s just yoga’

I’d recommend both classes – there are always different asana (posture) options! Ravi, one of the wonderful teachers, opened the beginner class by pointing out that asana means to hold a posture in the way that’s comfortable for you. A philosophy that rings true here.

 

Goa shala

The advanced class is challenging but is suitable to all as Pardeshi, who runs this class and the retreat as a whole, offers variations according to ability. Both have a strong emphasis on pranayama (breathing practices) with up to six breathing practices at the start of class – all fully explained and demonstrated – and lots of interesting warm-ups. Great effort is made to explain everything including the health benefits of poses. Your energy levels really do increase after a few days here – and after the exhausted post-travel start.

By western standards, the yoga is a mixture of dynamic hatha and ashtanga styles but Pardeshi says ‘it’s just yoga, all yoga is yoga’, which is true. There are also plenty of opportunities to relax after a challenging sequence. One of my favourite moments here has been lying in savasana (corpse pose) after a round of energetic postures and listening to the sound of Pardeshi singing in Sanskrit, the beat of my heart and the waves rolling on the sea shore.

As I sign off, sat on the beach, I am thinking it will be a struggle not to return to Little Cove. Time will tell.

Little Cove Yoga Retreat offers stays for single travellers from 6,200 rupees per day (around £65), or 4,200 rupees (about £44) per person based on two people sharing. It is open from November to April inclusive.