Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sun, sand & stretching: Yoga & pilates in Morocco

Yoga and pilates retreat.

You're probably imagining crusty hippies wearing ill-fitting tie-dyed hemp, saluting the sun and enduring meagre meals in silence. (Or is that just me?)

Well, as it turns out, it doesn't have to be like that at all. A recent trip with My Escape turned out to be a hemp-free week of sunbathing, stretching and dining on delicious vegetarian food.

Knowing I've flirted with a bit of sun saluting myself in the past, a friend suggested we sign up for My Escape's yoga and pilates holiday to Morocco. Despite my reservations about holidaying with strangers, I was won over by the relaxed itinerary (one or two classes a day, plus optional day trips and activities including surfing and horse riding), the sound of the (seemingly abundant!) food  and the price. At just £600 for a week's accommodation in a beachfront Moroccan villa plus meals and classes, it sounded like a bargain. Especially because I was clearly going to return to Madrid looking like a toned goddess.

Holly & Ellie of My Escape

Run by Brighton-based Ellie Priest and Holly Cooper, My Escape offers yoga and pilates holidays at destinations around the globe, including Morocco and South Africa. Although yoga retreats are common, yoga and pilates holidays aren't: My Escape are one of the few companies that offer both complementary disciplines. The Moroccan retreat at Villa Mandala in surfers' paradise Taghazout, near Agadir, was their first foray into holidays, and has now been running for several years.

Villa Mandala

Arriving at Villa Mandala stressed and tired from an intense few months at work, I was ready to switch off and relax. But exactly how chilled would spending a week in close quarters with a group of unknowns turn out to be? We'd be sharing classes, meals and sunbathing time – surely someone used to their own space would feel crowded? Fortunately, Villa Mandala turned out to be a spacious place, with well-decorated bedrooms, cosy corners to curl up in with a book, a swimming pool and two terraces. As I was travelling with a friend, we shared a spacious ensuite bedroom with views of the Atlas Mountains. There were 17 guests in total; with those travelling solo paired up to share. I needn't have worried: not only were our instructors and fellow guests warm and friendly, Villa Mandala is large enough that you never feel crowded by others. And with a choice of beaches nearby and optional activities on offer every day, it was rare that we all found ourselves there together outside of class, breakfast and dinner (we had a packed lunch, which we often ate on the beach). We found that you could get involved as much or as little as you wanted, with no pressure.

Chilling out before class starts

Days began in the rooftop shala with optional meditation at 7.30 or 8am. Now I'm aware that's an hour most wouldn't see on holiday, nor a common beach break activity. And while I was down with the early start after a great night's sleep, I can't say I'll be attempting to meditate again now that I'm back in 'the real world'. Most mornings, twenty minutes of trying to clear your head (aka trying not to be distracted by the sea view) was followed by a pilates class led by Ellie. My previous experience of pilates was a bizarre class at my Madrid gym which involved a male instructor thrusting his pelvis about and a bit of work with fit balls. Ellie's instruction thankfully looked nothing like Rocky Horror Show moves: she started the week by taking pilates back to basics and teaching us how to engage our abdominals and maintain good posture. As a total beginner to pilates, and someone who'd been yoga-shy for about a year, I'd been nervous about keeping up with the rest of the class. However, as roughly half the group had done pilates before, and the other half had practised yoga, the beginning was the ideal place to start in both disciplines, before progressively increasing the challenge during the week. Both Ellie and Holly were excellent teachers; patient and understanding of the different levels within the class and aware of individual needs, tailoring exercises as necessary.

Yoga classes lasted an hour and a half, and were held either later in the morning, at sunset, or on one memorable occasion, before bed. Lying in Shavasana (relaxation) pose in a candlelit room, listening to the mingled sounds of the waves lapping at the shore and the imam's call to prayer resounding from the mosque to the mountains, was an experience I won't forget in a hurry. Again, we started the week with the basic principles of yoga, and progressed to try both Hatha and Vinyasa. By the end of the week, I felt strong enough to attempt my first (very aided) headstand.

When we weren't stretching, my friend and I could generally be found eating or relaxing. Breakfast and dinner were eaten communally around tables groaning with food. For someone who enjoys her grub, emerging from an hour's pilates class to see a spread of cereals, yoghurts, fruit, fresh smoothies and pancakes or eggs made even meditation worthwhile. Our morning meal varied every day, giving us the chance to try amloo, a local version of peanut butter, plus honey-soaked Moroccan pancakes. Dietary requirements were catered for too, with many of the group omitting either dairy or gluten. After chatting over our lazy breakfast, we had free time to amuse ourselves sunbathing by the pool or on the beach, or taking a day trip if there was only one class that day. Villa Mandala may be lovely, but its location isn't exactly a chic beach escape, as the My Escape website emphasizes. Although Banana Beach does get some surfing tourism, the area isn't equipped with the same facilities as nearby Agadir, and the beach in front of the villa was more rubble than smooth sand. However, a fifteen-minute walk took us to Aourir Beach, a wide sweep of sand where a sun lounger and an umbrella cost the equivalent of £4 a day. Surfing is a way of life in this part of Morocco, and Aourir Beach is a prime spot for lessons, with groups of school children making their first forays into the waves.

Aourir Beach

As Villa Mandala is owned and run by local company Surf Maroc, surfing lessons were available for retreaters who wanted to practise their balance on water as well as land. Having about as much coordination as a new-born baby, I passed, opting for a sunset horse ride along the beach instead. Which is why, three days into the holiday, almost everything hurt. My body wasn't quite sure what had hit it: my arms, legs and stomach all ached. Luckily this passed soon enough and didn't interfere with my sunbathing plans. For those who wanted to see more of Morocco than the beach, trips were available to the souk in Agadir, the walled town of Tharoudant and coastal Essaouira. Surf Maroc also organized bookings at the local hammam, where a woman in a Tweetie Pie nightie vigorously scrubbed several years' worth of skin off your naked body. Despite the obvious appeal of this novel experience, I stuck to the sunbathing, only venturing out of Taghazout for an evening meal in Agadir on the chef's day off.

Learning to cook, Moroccan-style

Unusually for meat-loving Morocco, Villa Mandala's chef, Hassan, was a pro at making humble vegetables and pulses into myriad delicious meals, from the classic vegetable tagine to lentil shepherd's pie to aubergine and courgette lasagne, plus endless variations of salads. So when a cooking class was offered for a mere £10, I managed to pry myself off the sunlounger to join in. We started with a trip to the souk, a fruit and vegetable market that rolls into town once a week, and several hours later Hassan and his willing sous chefs had made a platter of dips, a tagine, cous cous topped with caramelized dates and walnuts, beetroot patties and a chocolate and avocado tart with a nut base. Although all the meals we ate were fresh and healthy, this was no weight-loss retreat: portions were abundant and dessert was always available.

Our group

So, seven days later, core strength and tan improved, I bid goodbye to Villa Mandala and my fellow retreaters. It was the most relaxing week I've had for years, where the toughest decision of my day was what type of tea to have (they had a big selection, OK?). Thanks to Holly and Ellie, I had rediscovered my love for yoga and found that with the right instructor, pilates could be enjoyable; I'd conquered my fear of group holidays, improved my tan and my cooking skills. But did I look like a goddess? Thanks to all that food, maybe not. But when I got back to the office, a colleague did say I was glowing. Goddesses glow, right?

To find out more about My Escape's retreats, see their website here. Their next retreat in South Africa from 14–22 November combines safari, yoga and pilates. Their next retreats at Villa Mandala are from 7–14 February and 4–11 July 2015.

A version of this post also appeared in the Bolton News and the Lancashire Telegraph.


  1. Beautifully written and illustrated post and wonderful idea for a holiday. I love the sound of the Moroccan cooking lessons.

    1. Thanks Alex! Glad you enjoyed it. I'd definitely recommend this type of holiday. I'd love to do another next year.


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