puglia yoga retreat

A yoga break in Puglia, Italy, with wonderful food and wine, will leave you blissed out and back on track

Yoga may be all about balance, but yoga holidays tend to fall into two extremes: hippy or chic; communal bathrooms and mountains of millet, or Heidi Klein kaftans and a sprinkling of specially harvested lavender oil so expensive it makes your third eye water. Until now. Set up by a former banker who wanted a healthy holiday without the hair-shirt or the hassle, Destination Yoga aims to combine top-class instruction with beautiful locations and accommodation.

And where better than southern Italy, where self-denial and penance are sins outside the confession box? On a hillside in Puglia’s Itria Valley, surrounded by flower-filled meadows, ancient oaks and olive trees, Santa Maria del Sole (St Mary of the Sun), originally a monastery, then a farmhouse, is now a sanctuary dedicated to yoga and meditation. With its cluster of trulli (the fondant-icing domes that give the region its distinctive fairytale appearance), tiny white chapel, generous pool and indoor and outdoor yoga studios, it is, in short, a scrap of heaven fallen into Italy’s notoriously un-angelic heel.

The family who own it are suitably otherworldly: Giulia, a modern-day healer with a halo of blonde hair; her partner, Salvatore; and her two sons, PJ and Marco, as wholesome as muesli (apparently) and as handsome as models in an Armani ad. Not to forget the two kittens, who sleep in the chapel, and the once-wild dog who couldn’t bear to leave – and who can blame her? This place isn’t for mere mortals, but it is miraculous what a week can do.

Staying in a trullo, with its smooth, white, vaulted ceiling, is rather like sleeping in an egg – or so I imagine. And just as nurturing.

Decorated with monastic simplicity, the trulli add to the contemplative atmosphere and the sense of being somewhere special.

With only the insect-screen pulled across the little arched doorway, I would fall asleep to the night-time sounds of the Puglian meadow and wake to the Mediterranean sunshine streaming through the high window – making the prospect of a wake-up yoga session appealing in a way that the combined efforts of John Humphrys and the Heathrow flight path fail to do at home.

Classes started at a civilised 7.45am (I’ve been on yoga trips where you were saluting the sun hours before it was up to notice) and were held in an airy converted barn with views over the fields. Our days were structured (for which read lounging by the pool or in a hammock) around a rigorous two-hour morning session and another more restorative two-hour class at 5pm. With 15 hectares of fields and forests to explore, it was always possible to find a patch of sunny solitude, or to retreat to your trullo for a siesta.

If place is important in a yoga holiday, the teaching is crucial: you don’t want to feel you’ve been stuck at a week-long ante-natal class, but it isn’t supposed to be a boot camp either. Our tuition was from Sophie Lewis, a teacher at the Life Centre in Notting Hill; she is also a triathlon instructor and a muralist, restoring frescoes in old buildings. Life choices, anyone? Her down-to-earth approach (imagine if BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders taught yoga) is both unintimidating and challenging: there’s no whiff of patchouli or hint of Gwynnie P about her classes.

We were nine students in total, of varying abilities – from complete beginners to old-timers – and ages. And everyone was stretched, in all senses of the word. The combination of a hedge-fund manager, a solicitor, an international charity worker and a psychologist meant that the conversation at mealtimes and around the pool was much more likely to be about politics or the credit crunch than postures or chakras.

The waftiest that things got – for those, like me, who are incense-and-nonsense intolerant – was a half-hour introduction to ayurverdic medicine, which was fun in the way questionnaires about yourself always are. I learnt that the reason I couldn’t work the shower (I had assumed the water was cold for character-building purposes) is because I am predominantly a vata type – an airhead, in other words.

On most yoga holidays the food is as bland and self-righteous as the ubiquitous Paulo Coelho novels. Not here. If the River Café had a yoga studio, this is what it might be like – but cheaper and sunnier. The food was strictly organic (as much as possible grown in the gardens), vegetarian and wheat-free, which, happily, didn’t mean no pizza or pasta. And there were jugs of wine with supper!

The cook, the luminous Puglian-born Ilaria, believes that food cooked in a bad temper and without love will make people sick (go figure, Gordon Ramsay). Before each meal, in front of a table laden with fat tomatoes, bowls of pale creamy risotto and gleaming zucchini, the lovely Ilaria would explain the provenance and ingredients of each dish.

Just as the food was deliciously Italian, the rest of the holiday offered chances to get under the skin of this part of Italy, with Marco and PJ as enthusiastic guides (did I mention that they are quite good-looking?).

Even our transport had good vibrations: our excursions were made in a beaten-up mini-van once owned by influential guru Sai Baba. One day – after morning yoga, of course – we visited the historic city of Ostuni on our way to the Adriatic coast. Another morning was spent exploring the market and shops in the nearby town of Martina Franca, the group buzzing after an illicit shot of coffee granita, a local speciality.

On our last evening we all went to a local restaurant, and although this was our first meal not prepared by Ilaria, the chef must have been in a very good mood. Every face glowed in a way that can’t simply be accounted for by candlelight, healthy food or a week in the sun.

No grievance goes unshared in a group holiday, especially after a glass of wine or two, so it’s a good sign that several of the guests were on their second or third trip with Destination Yoga, and that many were already planning to return with Sophie to Santa Maria in the autumn.

There is nothing like an intense (and yup, any sporty people who’ve bothered to read this far, it is intense) week of yoga, whatever level you are at, to make you feel you’ve been taken apart, dusted, oiled and put back together again tighter, straighter and saner than before.

Forget spa breaks: a yoga holiday leaves you with that blissed-out, smoothed-out feeling that no amount of whale music, massage and carrot juice is ever going to deliver. And you don’t have to be a celebrity to do it in style. Namaste to that.

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