Yoga retreat Morocco: How stressed city girl found yogic calm in the Marrakech medina (and some leather slippers)

Chakras and shopping: How a stressed-out city girl found yogic calm amid the madness of the Marrakech medina (and a nice pair of leather slippers too…)

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UPDATED:

08:23 GMT, 5 October 2012

The medina of Marrakech is not the first place that comes to mind for a quest for inner peace. With its bustling warren of streets, the explosion of smells, sights and sounds and the relentless swarms of scooters, bikes and donkeys jostling for position on the narrow alleyways, it seems to the virgin visitor to be the very antithesis of calm.

But as the oasis offers refuge in the heat of a desert, peace is often found in the most unlikely of places. And, as I can enthusiastically attest, there's plenty of it to be had in Marrakech's medina – also known as the walled old town.

We were in Marrakech to practise yoga of course, but the location in the centre of Marrakech's atmospheric old town meant we could open the heavy wooden doors of our riad and be in the thick of the action

Old habits die hard: We were in Marrakech to practise yoga,
but the location in the centre of Marrakech's atmospheric old town meant
we could open the heavy wooden doors of our riad and be amid the action

My personal Moroccan peace-finding mission played out in the form of a sublime yoga retreat, hosted by Nell Lindsell in a tiled riad – a characterful boutique hotel with traditional inner-courtyard that lay within the medina's ochre walls.

Theisive-day retreat saw 12 women of varying ages (from a boundlessly energetic 21-year-old student to a feisty 68-year-old retired businesswoman, with a few super-fit high-flying forty-something mothers in the mix) unified on a journey towards yogic calm – or at the very least, some bending and stretching, some sun… and a good deal of shopping.

Yoga teacher Nell is a twinkly-eyed superwoman who is also a doula, the founder of Yoga Bugs and braver of the Dragons' Den (see her website for the scoop). Add to that the fact she is mother to four children and you've got a pretty inspiring role model. How she manages to fit it all in and maintain a sense of humour will remain a mystery.

Nell, who also holds retreats twice a year in the Spanish countryside, says her reason for holding her first Marrakech retreat is simply because she had 'always wanted to visit'.

'It has this mystique, as well as its
ties with Eastern philosophy,' she says. 'I worried it might be chaos,
with the bustle, the heat and the hassle – but it's incredibly restful.

'The riad is cool and calm. I'm delighted it's so serene.'

A river runs through it: Nell's rather unconventional approach to yoga keeps things fresh

A river runs through it: Nell's rather unconventional approach to yoga trips keeps things fresh

Indeed, the peaceful inner courtyard of the riad, a beautifully restored merchants' house on a cool alleyway in the centre of the Medina, was where we would practise our two 90-minute yoga classes each day, one at 8am and one at 6pm, and where we would hear Nell's daily readings of inspirational words and join in with meditation and chanting sessions.

For our practice, the retractable roof of the riad was pulled back to reveal a deep blue sky where swallows would swoop and dive above us as we followed Nell's classes, a five-day programme that started at the feet, progressing up the body, taking in legs, stomach and heart en route to the head.

On day one, as I lay on my mat
looking up at the cloudless sky and the swallows, I felt the pressures
of my London life creep a pace or two further away.

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Inspiration: Nell Lindsell has a contagious joie de vivre that makes her the perfect yoga instructor and host

... and did I mention her good sense of humour and fondess for camels

… and did I mention her good sense of humour and fondess for camels

Nell was adamant that this should be a
break: no one would be forced from the lounger to their yoga mat if
they preferred to read in the sun.

But really, we were all impossibly keen.- and the effort certainly paid off. My hands,
which on the first day I'd thrust pathetically towards my toes, now
slipped under my feet with ease, my recalcitrant hamstrings finally
realising resistance was futile. The stressed-out shallow breathing that ruled my life back in England segued imperceptibly into smooth, satisfying breaths.

Outside of practice, if it was calm we came for it was available in spades.

A
beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the skyline of Marrakech, with plunge pool, sun loungers and white canvas gazebo, offered a sunny
sanctuary between the morning and evening yoga sessions.

Off the wall: Performing a yogic handstand

Off the wall: Performing a yogic handstand

In the riad: The tiled inner courtyard where the daily yoga classes were held had a retractable roof that rolled back to reveal deep blue skies and swooping swallows

In the riad: The tiled inner courtyard where the daily yoga classes were held had a retractable roof that rolled back to reveal deep blue skies and swooping swallows

This was no ascetic retreat
run by puritans either. Nell organised residential chefs who conjured up
incredible tagines of lamb and dates; filo pies filled with
lemon-scented chicken; sticky spiced sauces made sweet with slow-cooked
figs.

We had local wine, Moroccan beer
– and even a night out fuelled by a lethal mix of mojitos and newly
acquired yogic energy that saw the group racing around the Medina buying
armfuls of leather slippers (Shelley), belly-dancing in bars (me) and befriending
mules (Nell… don't ask).

A nearby spa (ask at your riad for a recommendation) provided
treatments on tap – and was worth a visit for the relaxation area alone,
lit by the dancing shapes from the intricate fretwork of
dozens of traditional Moroccan lanterns.

And when all the serenity, sunshine and spa treatments got too much, we simply opened the heavy wooden door to our riad and stepped out into the souk, a colourful, throbbing marketplace replete with local craftsmanship.

Oddly
enough, the souk, which in so many places can be the source of
wearisome haggling and harassment, was itself a place of calm.

Stop, Camel time: Team Morocco perform a very photogenic yoga move

Stop, Camel time: Team Morocco perform a very photogenic yoga move

Relaxing: Early morning yoga on the rooftop of the riad, an oasis of calm in the centre of Marrakech's bustling Medina

Relaxing: Early morning yoga on the rooftop of the riad, an oasis of calm in the centre of Marrakech's bustling Medina

Shady streets, each plying their own
trade, were lined with dozens of shops festooned with their wares in a way that the
pages of Elle Dcor could never replicate.

Thousands of lanterns cast pretty shadows from floor to ceiling along one street. Along
another, a sea of colourful leather slippers lined the walls; bags in
fuchsia or orange leather swung gently from hooks. Tiled whatnots;
silver jewellery; harem pants; henna tattoos, tea glasses… We wanted it all (so much for the enlightened renouncement of all worldly goods).

The ever-present scent of jasmine filled in
the air, while every trip into the souk was an adventure filled with mint tea, rums, fresh orange juice, crumbling
walls, creeping vines and donkeys laden with wares.

All aboard the yoga mat: Nell leads the group in a camel train

All aboard the yoga mat: Nell leads the group in a camel train

The ochre rooftops of Marrakesh made for a stunning backdrop for the yoga retreat

The ochre rooftops of Marrakesh made for a stunning backdrop for the yoga retreat

Local colour: The locations for Nell's retreats are always carefully considered to offer more than the daily yoga - beautiful scenery, fascinating sights

Local
colour: The locations for Nell's retreats are always carefully
considered to offer more than the daily yoga – beautiful scenery,
fascinating sights

The city was a feast for our jaded eyes, our ears – and our stomachs.

With a new experience at every turn, it was hard
to imagine ever tiring of this place.

In
fact, the constant cacophony was energising. Even the hypnotic, persistent call to prayer
that punctuated the peace at 4.45am and four more times a day became familiar, and comforting.

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Filmic: Scenes from the Medina

Colourful: Tools in the old tanners' market area of Morocco

Anyone need any slippers

Colourful: Tools in the old tanners' market area of Morocco. RIGHT: Anyone need any slippers

Feast for the eyes: Marrakesh was an absolute vision

Feast for the eyes: Marrakesh was an absolute vision – and a real adventure

Stripped to our knickers and thrust together in a steamy underground room, we were thrown one by one over a bare-breasted woman's lap and scrubbed with what felt like a Brillo pad until we glowed.

MUSIC FROM THE MAT

DOWNWARD DOG TIME:

Om Nama Shivaya by Wah; Clouds ensoul from Cosmic Chill Lounge, Marta’s song, Deep Forest, Journey to Eternity Frank Borell, /09/21/article-2162015-15159489000005DC-517_634x655.jpg” width=”634″ height=”655″ alt=”Going potty: Shopping for colourful crockery was a joy” class=”blkBorder” />

Going potty: Shopping for colourful crockery was a joy

We stayed at the Riad Cinnamon, 9 Derb el Hajra, El Baroudiyine District, Marrakech Medina, www.marrakech-riad.co.uk