Beijing is not a city known for its peace and quiet. So when I heard about Mountainyoga – which has a retreat centre just a few kilometres from the teeming city centre – I was intrigued. Would it be possible to find a sanctuary in one of the word’s busiest, noisiest, most traffic-jammed cities? There was only one way to find out. I booked myself in.
Oasis of calm
Fragrant Hills Fountain. Credit: Flickr
Mountainyoga, in the Fragrant Hills area west of Beijing, claims to be the first of its kind in China. The area has long been considered an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, with its swooping green landscape, which is a stark contrast to the flat, grey capital. Open since 2003, the yoga retreat was founded by Gyan Giri, a Beijinger who eschewed the corporate world to follow his passion for the ancient Indian spiritual practice.
Situated in a ramshackle courtyard-style house, the sprawling property can host up to 45 people. It has two bamboo-walled practice rooms, a small dining area, a library and outdoor camping facilities on the rooftop. A thrifty RMB500 (about S$105) pays for private accommodation with en suite facilities, plus yoga, vegetarian food and several edifying activities such as meditation, drumming, calligraphy, hiking and chanting.
My room comprised a bunk bed, shower room with squat toilet, and hairballs on the floor for added authenticity. I had to remind myself that you don’t need the ritzy trappings of a five-star hotel to get in touch with yourself; although a mini-bar wouldn’t go amiss.
During my stay, Mountainyoga’s residents appeared to be an eclectic mix of volunteers and guests. Volunteers included a young woman from central China who had recently graduated from college and wanted to train to be a yoga teacher. There was also a British art student who was volunteering for a few weeks in exchange for free accommodation while backpacking around China.
As for the guests, there were four Chinese women of varying ages, a Vietnamese student, and a young Spanish man dressed like a basketball player. Like me they were looking for an oasis of calm amid the chaos of Beijing.
Not just for yogis
The yoga practice here is not for the uninitiated and since it was a year since my last yoga practice, my tense and creaky limbs resisted many of the more advanced poses. The lessons are all in Chinese and I was grateful for the presence of a young Chinese American woman who took me under her wing and helpfully translated the teacher’s instructions into English.
For those looking to intersperse their yoga with other activities, Mountainyoga has much to offer. During the nightly Kirtan (chanting), everyone gathers in the main yoga studio overlooking the courtyard and sings together, losing their inhibitions in the music. There are also opportunities to learn drumming, Chinese painting and generally mingle with other guests.
According to one volunteer, the retreat was originally designed to be silent, but getting this idea to take off might be difficult given the overall chattiness of the residents.
On my final day, I decided to brave the grey, wet weather and hike up the hill to take in the view from the top. The peaks however, remained stubbornly shrouded by rain clouds and fellow hikers looked closed and intent on their own journey.
A taste of Beijing
My disappointment faded quickly when I got back to the retreat as it was a hive of activity. One of the volunteers showed the group how to make jiaozi – the savoury dumplings that are a staple in Beijing. People talked and laughed while moulding dough and vegetables into tasty little parcels.
The dumplings turned out to be so delicious that afternoon yoga practice was cancelled in favour of more dumplings. It made me realise that the best kind of yoga retreat doesn’t force you to do yoga, which is why this place is so relaxing.
Back home, I looked at Mountainyoga’s website. It says: “Our participants return home feeling rejuvenated and inspired to explore and reveal their full potential”. I hope they’re right.
Feature Image: Flickr