A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Disclosure: The writer received a complimentary experience from Kaliyoga, including accommodations, classes and meals. All text and opinions are her own.

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Elizabeth Heath

Several mornings a week, I find myself flat on my back on my yoga mat, my right leg sticking straight up in the air. I point and flex my foot, spread my toes then make a fist with them, roll my ankle and draw circles with my lower leg. Before I switch to my left leg, my eyes are always drawn to my ankle bracelet, a thin multicolored string for which I paid 1 euro on a beach in Italy. The bracelet was cheap, but it has a lot of significance for me: it’s self-affirming, smile-inducing, and reminds me that I am strong and capable.

That’s a lot to get out of a 1 euro bracelet!

I bought the bracelet when I was on a weeklong yoga and raw foods retreat in Puglia, down in the heel of the boot of southeastern Italy. Besides being a geographically isolated corner of the country, it was an unlikely place for me to find myself. I’ve never done yoga with anything more than a passing interest. I’ve been curious about a raw foods diet but never enough to commit to trying it. And a week’s vacation, by myself? That was the most unlikely scenario of them all.

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Elizabeth Heath

Yet I had decided in June—I proclaimed it, really—that this was to be my Summer of Self-Improvement. Frustrated at my inability to lose weight, my irritability and suffering self-esteem, and concerned about carrying around extra weight into my 50s, I had an “it’s now or never”-type epiphany. It called for me to dedicate time to self-love and self-care, something that as a working mom I overlook all too often—I know for certain I’m not alone in this. I’d been getting fitter and stronger since returning to the gym for sessions with a personal trainer and I’d been using MyFitnessPal to track my daily calorie intake. I was starting to see results, and I wanted something to give me an extra push towards my health and fitness goals. A week of vegan raw foods and challenging yoga seemed like a viable combo. That the week would pass in a beautiful, slightly exotic setting didn’t exactly hurt, either.

Also read: My yoga journey in my fifties

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Elizabeth Heath

Kaliyoga runs weeklong yoga and healthy living retreats at their centers in Italy and Spain. In Italy, they’re based near Martina Franca, in the Valle d’Itria, a region known for its unique trulli dwellings, conically-shaped stone houses that dot the picturesque hillsides, popping up from rows of grapevines and groves of centuries-old olive trees. The center is on a huge farm estate, hemmed in by antique stone walls and dominated by a masseria, or manor-house, dating to 1587. Spreading out from the masseria, sort of like pointy mushrooms, are the trulli, these whimsical, conical structures that once served as housing for servants and farmhands. I was lucky enough to sleep in a trullo; it was quiet and enchanting, with cool stone floors and stucco walls. I was always happy to step from the bright summer sun into my little cocoon after yoga or a meal.

Yoga and eating. That’s pretty much all I did for the week, and it was glorious and surprising. Days started at 7:30 am, with half-hour meditation sessions in the tent-like shala, followed by two hours of yoga. Two hours! At first that seemed like a daunting period of time, and I was more than a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I was, truthfully, also concerned about the presence of what I dubbed “yoga assholes”—those more-enlightened-than-thou practitioners all too anxious to show off how flexible, balanced and spiritual they are, all the while mocking you with their effortless handstands and backbends. Fortunately, I didn’t find any of these.

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Kaliyoga

What I did find was a group of kind, open-hearted, supportive women. (Men are welcomed at Kaliyoga Retreats but there were none during my week.). We were led by Tashi Dawa, an authorized Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher who spends four months a year in Mysore, India developing her practice and much of the rest of the year leading yoga retreats across Europe. Instead of making me feel judged—or worse yet, pitied—for my lack of yoga skills, Tashi made me and every other participant feel valued, strong and loved.

Many of the poses were difficult for me. I lost my balance and keeled over more than once. I couldn’t hold crow pose—sort of a crouching handstand where all your body weight rests on the back of your upper arms—for more than a millisecond at a time. But to my infinite surprise, I really did okay. I liked having my physical limitations—real and imagined—tested, and I found that I was a lot stronger and more flexible than I thought I was. The two-hour morning sessions flew by, and were followed by a beautiful breakfast on the shady patio where we took all our meals.

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Elizabeth Heath

After breakfast came free time, which could be spent napping, reading, laying by the pool, taking a walk in the countryside or getting a massage or other holistic treatment. Then came a lunch of more gorgeous, colorful, healthy food, followed by more free time. Setting aside the yoga, the meditation and the incredibly satisfying health food, that downtime in itself felt soooo self-indulgent. How often can any of us can set aside hours of our day to just be? It felt magnificent. The stillness and tranquility of the estate encouraged us to speak softly, to move gently and to engage in comfortable silence—often the only sounds I would hear were birdsong, a distant dog barking or the crunching of gravel as someone walked outside my trullo.

Afternoon yoga began at 5 pm and ran for 90 minutes. These were often more playful sessions, where Tashi would challenge us with new poses or introduce chanting and breathing techniques. We also had evening gatherings where we would chant in unison with Tashi leading. When I write about it now, it sounds a little “airy-fairy”—an expression an artist friend of mine is fond of using. But in the moment, that chorus of voices vibrating in harmony was invigorating, joyful and not even the least bit weird or uncomfortable.

Tashi helped us each develop a self-practice, our own yoga routine we could take home with us. Now, several mornings a week (the days I don’t go to the gym), I rise before the rest of my family, before the barking dogs and the bouncing kid and the grinding coffee maker, sneak quietly downstairs, roll out my mat and start staring at my right ankle, at my cheap little bracelet that symbolizes a huge gift I gave to myself, accepting the invite from Kaliyoga to experience their retreat so I could write about it.

A yoga retreat in Italy creates an unlikely convert

Photo by Elizabeth Heath

I still have the same stressors, the same demands, the same noises and the same infuriating situations in my life. But after my week of self-love at Kaliyoga, I found I came back better equipped to handle all the day-to-day strife—a fussy kid, an unresponsive husband or a sluggish computer—that might have otherwise derailed me. And that makes life easier for everyone in my house, even for the dogs.

Now, if I skip more than a day of my yoga self-practice, I physically miss it. And I’m even managing to hold my crow pose for longer than a millisecond.

Kaliyoga runs weeklong yoga retreats in Italy and Spain, with themes ranging from raw food, like the one I attended, to mindfulness, biking and walking to an upcoming series of retreats for women transitioning through menopause. I received a complimentary experience from Kaliyoga, including accommodations, classes and meals. All text, photos and opinions are my own.

Elizabeth Heath

Elizabeth Heath is an American-born writer and editor based in Italy. She has served as editor-in-chief to several regional magazines, and contributed hundreds of articles on travel, business, fashion, celebrities, politics, lifestyle and more to local, regional and national print publications and websites. She is also the editor of dozens of editions of Frommer’s travel guides. Liz writes about the peculiarities of life in the Italian countryside in her blog, My Village in Umbria.