'The fact is this body is nothing, is impermanent and will die. And then there is the magic of this life, the now, of what we have to celebrate and the beauty of that.' We are sitting, glass of wine in hand, looking out onto the rolling green Umbrian countryside around a private 'borgo', or hamlet, the sacred city of Assisi an hour's drive away. Gayle, the founder of Exotic Yoga Retreats is thinking hard about the nature of her 'yoga holidays for the healthy hedonist'.
'It’s the yin and the yang, right?' she says. 'To me following the senses is a spiritual path', she explains, going on to say that she very much follows tantric philosophy. Based in San Francisco, Gayle travels the world scouting for new locations that meet her clear criteria. During her 18 global retreats yoga is an integral part of experiencing destinations around the world, whether wine tasting in Umbria, sailing in Croatia, or Bhutan's unique culture.
Gayle's background in Iyengar yoga, with its precision, informs the nature of the retreats with their well thought out schedules and defined guidelines. As I take another sip of wine, she offers to email me the 'Tips for Mindful Enjoyment' she has printed out and left in every room. During dinner one night she manages to remind us all to drink two glasses of water for every glass of the free-flowing wine.
This is someone who is very hands-on in every sense of the word. Not only is she, as the owner, unusually present on many of the retreats, she also teaches on them, making very powerful corrections. Days begin with meditation at 7.30am, followed by a fitness walk up the hill (half in silence, half with talking) and are pretty full all day until bedtime, but it is made very clear that everything is optional.
Most afternoons feature an excursion – to a nearby medieval hill-town or a wine tasting in a castle. Otherwise guests can lie by the infinity pool, in the outdoor hot-tub or have a massage. There is a sense of being held by the peaceful, pretty landscape and our hosts. Sylvia is an award-winning yoga teacher from Ireland who typically takes the morning classes. 'I want you to turn down the volume and to be grateful for being here in this beautiful ancient chapel of this luxury hotel and to Gayle for organising this retreat', she tells us during a mindfulness session.
Gayle takes the afternoon workshops. These hour and a half workshops give people a chance to learn a little about yogic philosophy. Gayle enjoys including a poem – usually by herself or Rumi – and a theme, whether shoulder opening or core work. She also loves to give hands on assists. During one she talks about the darkness and the torture of life as well as the light and the joy, telling us: 'It is from the pulling apart of these opposites that we find wholeness, integrity and well, the meaning of things.'
'This is my favourite of all my retreats and it is the best food you will have in Italy,’ Gayle promises of Borgo di Carpiano where we are staying. She tells me this about this retreat, somewhat reluctantly, as if being forced to choose a favourite child. It must be difficult to choose. Other retreats take place in the Sacred Valley in Peru, with visits to shamans and Chakra Gardens, trips to Bhutan taking in Buddhist temples and monasteries and yoga holidays to Marrakech including Moroccan mountains and camel rides.
‘I love you, I love you,’ Ricardo, the owner, grabs hold of both my shoulders, pulling me towards him, smiling broadly. I have told him that some food writers say that the people, not the food should not be the focus of a perfect meal. As with everything he does, he agrees with feeling. Gayle is right about the food, which is certainly Michelin star quality, but Ricardo is not interested in the stars or the fuss that comes with it.
‘We restored each stone, by hand, with our hearts', Ricardo tells me of their hamlet hotel, a boutique luxury set up with no roads or people for miles around. A short walk down the hill leads to their infinity pool disappearing into the green hills and the hot tub. In the other direction is a sloping south facing vegetable garden, providing their organic local produce, Ricardo's and his wife Marilisa's pride and joy.
Wine flows freely with every meal except breakfast, which is as delightful and indulgent as a children’s birthday party. Every day guests squeal with pleasure at the discovery of new treats such as home made chocolate pistachio in a jar, delicate almond scones with orange and jam and pesto-filled omelettes with salty strips of stripy pancetta.
During the drive to the airport at the end of the retreat, Gayle tells me she believes in the idea of Big Love – in love towards everyone, even people we find difficult. There is so much more than just the love for our friends and family, she says, and I get a sense that Exotic Yoga Retreats are a way of her sharing this love.