Surfing the Soul in Southern India

This story was originally published in the Australian Yoga Journal.

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Incredible India: chaotic, colourful, dirty, beautiful, inspiring and sometimes even heartbreaking. Travelling here can be an emotional rollercoaster, and after 6 weeks of it I'm starting to feel just a little overwhelmed. I decide to take some time out and book myself into the Soul and Surf retreat in the southern state of Kerala. I arrive at Thiruvananthapuram airport (possibly a 'longest name' contender for the Guinness Book of Records) in the middle of the night. An hour later I'm being dropped off at the retreat and quickly get the feeling this place isn't like anywhere else I've been. For a start, it has two things that are very hard to find in India: privacy and quiet.

The next morning, my initial instinct is proved right; I wake to the smell of the ocean instead of sewerage, the sound of sea birds instead of brawling dogs and the sight of palm trees moving in the breeze instead of cows eating garbage in the middle of a traffic filled road. This is not the India I've become accustomed to.


The retreat centre:

Soul and Surf is the labour of love of British couple Sophie and Ed. Sophie left a job in fashion and Ed a successful graphic design business to pursue their dream of leading a simpler life running a guesthouse in India. What started as a four bedroom homestay has evolved into a retreat centre catering for up to 24 guests.

Perched on a cliff side overlooking the Arabian Sea, the retreat is in a spectacular location. The silky grass is like an infinity pool, and gives the appearance of pouring straight into the ocean. A hidden set of stairs lead down to a mostly deserted white sand beach. The retreat's grounds are covered with palms and frangipani trees and the sea breeze provides a soothing sound track accompanied by the waves rolling in below. Sunlounges are spread along the cliff edge for guests who want to work on their tans, while for those who need to escape the sun, there's a cute chill out area filled with comfy couches.


The nearest town is at Varkala which is about 10 minutes drive and has most things guests might need; a post office, an ATM and a chemist, as well as heaps of shops selling local goods. There's also a string of restaurants and shops hugging the coastline only a few minutes' walk from the retreat, including a cafe which serves half decent coffee, which is very difficult to find in India. But for those who can't be bothered leaving the grounds, there's also a little cafe on site which does snacks, drinks and really good apple pie.

The main guesthouse has 12 rooms. They're simple but lovely and have a beach vibe, with coral coloured feature walls, sea green decorations and pictures of surfing on the walls. Each room has a decent sized balcony which overlooks the gardens, and those on the upper floors have ocean views. The rooms are light and airy and some feature bay windows where guests can relax on a pile of cushions while reading or surfing the net. Best of all the rooms are absolutely spotless, which in India, is very hard to find.

The retreat has a very laid back vibe; this place ain't five star and it doesn't want to be. What it is, in my view, is something better; it's a community. Guests spend the morning surfing or relaxing, then everyone sits down at a big dining table, chatting over a healthy breakfast. During the day, people hang out together in the gardens and if there isn't a BBQ or movie night being put on by the retreat, guests take it upon themselves to organise group dinners at one of the nearby restaurants.

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Before I come to Soul and Surf my surfing experience basically consists of watching the movie Point Break (mostly checking out Keanu Reeves, so I don't think that counts). In the hope of expanding my knowledge beyond the movie, I sign up for a surfing lesson and the next morning I find myself face down on a surf board. Within minutes, I'm paddling then jumping to my feet like a pro. That is, until I actually have to take the board off the sand and out into the water! This is when I realise that despite living near the ocean for half my life, I've never actually paid close attention to it. One of the first lessons in surfing is to look at the formation of the waves; judging where and when they're likely to break. I discover that I'm not exactly a natural at it and keep thinking they're going to break right behind me, only to find I'm still furiously paddling 5 minutes later. I also keep waiting for the perfect wave, meaning I spend a lot of time staring at the ocean, watching the perfect waves slide right past me.

"Relax, breathe, look straight ahead", I keep telling myself. And suddenly the parallels between surfing and yoga appear. After ungracefully face planting a few times, I finally take my own advice, slow things down and use the breath. By doing this, I'm able to push myself into a standing position on the board. Of course, I don't stay there very long, but still I'm up...I think that could actually count as surfing! Over the six lessons, I graduate from a soft board to a hard board and spend more and more time actually standing up, although my wipeouts become more spectacular too.

Even when I'm not catching waves (which is pretty often) it's nice to just be in the ocean, looking back at the palm tree dotted shoreline, the red cliffs looming up out of the sand. Apart from the natural beauty, one of the best things about surfing in Varkala is that until Sophie and Ed started doing it, practically no one had ever thought about it. This means that the guests from Soul and Surf are usually the only ones on the waves. For beginners, this makes learning fun because you don't have to worry about crashing into other surfers, while for those who actually know what they're doing it means they have the waves out the back to themselves. The only slight down side is that the locals are very curious about what on earth you're doing and line up along the beach to watch, which can be more than a little embarrassing.


The yoga:

The morning and evening yoga sessions are held on the roof top of the guesthouse, with spectacular views over the tops of the palm trees to the ocean. There's something magical about doing salutes to the sun while watching the real thing turning a brilliant red before sinking down into the horizon. During my first session, we watch as an evening storm rolls in over the ocean, turning the sky dark grey and whipping the wind through the palm trees. The torrential rain holds out through the practice, but breaks just as we're about to go into svasana, sending us running for cover.

The yoga teacher leads a modified ashtanga primary series in the morning and a hatha flow class in the evenings. The latter classes are fairly gentle, which after spending a morning getting beaten up by the surf, is very welcome. There's a nice flow to the classes and I still find them a challenge, especially given the humidity. Most of the participants are guests, but some people from outside the retreat also join in. This means the classes cater to all levels and even though I've been doing yoga for over 10 years, I still learn from every class I take.

I soon discover that yoga and surfing compliment each other beautifully. Yoga gives me the strength in my arms and back to push up on the surf board, and the balance to stay there (sometimes). The evening classes are a great way to stretch out muscles sore from a morning's surf, particularly my arms which get a good workout from all the paddling. I find that surfing helps my yoga practice too; a morning surf leaves my mind feeling clear and I'm relaxed in my practice. I'm also slightly exhausted, which results in a very peaceful svasana.

With all that is on offer, Soul and Surf is a very hard place to leave and while I'm here, just about every guest extends their stay, including me. But, after 3 weeks of almost daily surfing, yoga, good food and chill out time, I feel like I'm ready to take on India, and the world, again.

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Nearest airport: Thiruvananthapuram. Fly through Delhi, Chennai or Mumbai.

Soul and Surf season: October to May.

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