By Regina Winkle-Bryan
I was the only American at the Yogatone Retreat, set deep in the mountains above Málaga in sunny Andalusia, Spain. This fact stands out in my mind, in that I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation before, that is: the only American surrounded by British folks entirely for four solid days in the middle of nowhere. It is only important in that this somewhat strange situation taught me so much about the UK, its culture, its people, but all the time we were in Spain.
Les Benney runs monthly Yoga retreats in Andalusia at his totally charming renovated farmhouse. I took Vueling Airlines from Barcelona to Málaga, and then drove winding roads for an hour north. Parked, I walked along the goat-path passing the frog pond and orange orchards to get to his slice of Spanish heaven. And it is heaven, if your idea of bliss involves Ashtanga yoga twice daily and long breakfasts involving buttery toast, soft boiled eggs with ‘soldiers’ (that was a new one for me), fresh baked rolls, lemon drizzle cake, bacon, yogurt, local fruit, and all the tea you can drink. Les is a generous host and guests will not go hungry at his retreats. (Can I just say that that stereotype about English people drinking loads of tea was confirmed on this retreat. I’ve never seen so much black tea consumed, with milk and sugar too, of course.)
Most who partake in a healthy yoga retreat do it to lose weight or get in shape or whatever. Les’ retreats are about yoga practice, a hard-core practice at that, but are not about going without. As a yogi he is open to everything (smoking, caffeine, alcohol) and puts on quite a spread. Meals are not vegetarian unless you ask (another guest and I did, and it was yummy) and though he does not serve wine or alcohol he doesn’t mind if you bring a bottle of red to the table. We had wine at all three of our communal dinners and ate hearty, healthy, delicious meals cooked by a local Irishwoman, Ester, who has lived in the region for over 20 years.
Over these long meals, which were served at 7:00 pm not on the later Spanish schedule, I tried to keep up with the conversation and managed to learn some new British vocabulary words. Even speaking the same language it’s amazing how many little cultural things went right over my head. At one point I was offered (forced?) marmite and felt obliged to eat a bit. It’s not bad. After meals guests sat around chatting, watch yoga videos such as “Enlighten Up! A Skeptic’s Journey into the World of Yoga” (Churchhill), or read from Les’ library which includes gems like Power Yoga for Dummies, Shift Happens!, God on a Harley, and the classic, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
When we were not chilling at the retreat, eating, or doing Tree Pose in Les’ ‘magical cave’ studio, we were off on excursions to nearby villages such as Nerja and Comares. How much you do is up to you, and guests can skip these field trips of they want. Partaking in Les’ retreat gets you way out into the middle of the mountains to a part of Andalusia that I certainly would not have visited otherwise. It’s a special place and deeply peaceful.
I should say something about cost and rooms and all that. The retreat has space for eight guests in three twin rooms and one double, though further accommodation can be arranged nearby for larger groups. This small group size keeps the retreat intimate and fun. It also means that if you come alone you’ll be sharing a room with someone (unless you opt to pay more). One of the twin rooms is located in a cottage next to the house which has its own washbasin and toilet. The remaining rooms share showers and WCs (there are two). The retreat rate is £385 per person, which includes everything but airfare. Les will pick you up at the airport if you plan it right, or rent your own car.
Les runs retreats every month so see upcoming retreat dates here. I would go back to Les’ retreats and many of the other guests said that this was going to be a yearly trip for them. It’s the place, the vibe, the type of yoga, but mostly it’s Les and his incredibly upbeat attitude. ‘Keep smiling’, he’d remind us as we tried to contort into some unnatural position. On the last day he even gave us tiny smiley stickers to put on our fingernails and toes, the idea being that when we looked down to grab our toes to stretch, or up to our hands for a sun salutation, we’d see those smilies and grin, too. I know I did.
More on Les’ retreats and Yogatone plus how to get there: