Ulpotha village, in the mountainous heartland of Sri Lanka, is the place to go to discover extreme yoga and enjoy a barefoot, sarong-clad break
A bone-jolting ride along a dirt road brought us to Ulpotha, a unique jungle community in the mountain heartland of Sri Lanka. Residents here have exchanged the trappings of modern life for a self-sustaining village of simple mud huts lit by oil lamps, organic vegan food cooked in clay pots over the fire, and traditional medicine. And simple is beautiful – Ulpotha’s fresh flower decorations and boldly-coloured walls have been creating a big noise in the world of interiors.
Thousands of years ago, Indian pilgrims came here in search of the son of Shiva. Later, it was the playground of Prince Saliya, the only heir to reject royal life. Now Ulpotha is a private sanctuary rather than a resort, and I was one of the 60 or so lucky people who visit on yoga weeks each year. Everything is here: beauty, simplicity, space and calm – it’s a magical place. Things happen in their own time and there aren’t any clocks. Ulpotha’s only concession to modernity is ‘telephone rock’, where a splash of white paint marks the only spot to get reception. But why use the telephone when you can watch butterflies land on red hibiscus, or lie in a hammock in the banyan tree where monkeys play?
The villagers say if you walk too fast, you leave your soul behind, but it's amazing what being transported to another world can do for the soul. We all float about in a sarong and bare feet. ‘It’s so relaxing not to have to care what you look like,’ said Sarah, as we sat together at lunch. A high-powered manager, she came with her boyfriend to do ashtanga, the type of yoga on offer this week by one of the UK’s top teachers.
If it’s good enough for Madonna... I think, as I twist and sweat into ashtanga postures in the three-hour sessions every morning. I can’t help thinking she must be a lot fitter than me. I dreamt of coconut cakes and the sweet banana breakfast to follow, the boiled herb steam bath in a sarcophagus made of palm fronds or a traditional massage. However, this athletic style of yoga is perhaps the most addictive and I found myself returning each day, grateful at the end of it for the easing of my muscles by the volunteer therapists, practising massages from ayurvedic to Thai. I tried the sesame-oil-dropped-on-the-forehead, said to relax the mind, on the first day – my hair still stinks now.
Although you can walk, cycle or swim at Ulpotha, the pace of village life is most conducive to doing as little as possible. After a lunch of garlic or green papaya curry with nutritious red rice, I spend afternoons talking or relaxing with a coriander tea in the ambalama or ‘travellers rest’ – an open air pavilion scattered with brightly-coloured cushions. A short walk through chilli bushes and jackfruit trees leads to a lily-edged ancient lake for the occasional swim, and beyond, a forest filled with butterflies ends at a Buddhist monastery.
Philippa came here to celebrate her 30th birthday, a far cry from the glamorous world of film and music advertising she belongs to. ‘I had expected it to be beautiful, but not this beautiful,’ she confessed as we lounged in hammocks by the lake. Gazing at kingfishers diving into it, framed by a backdrop of stunning obelisk mountains that haven’t changed for centuries, puts life into perspective. So does sleeping in an open-sided straw hut and trekking to the loo in the dark, only to be greeted by a bright green frog on the seat.
‘Guests’ don’t interfere with village life. One evening the local spirit guide or shaman arrived to perform a ceremony to protect the village. Dressed in the frilly red skirt of the goddess Kali, he gyrated and swung his long hair to frenzied drumming and wailing, in front of an offering of seven curries. Working only twice a week in this role, the rest of the time he is a farmer and husband.
Once you’ve had enough of calm and beauty, Ulpotha is surrounded by some of Sri Lanka’s most important sites. Dambulla Rock Temple, with caves housing impressive gold Buddhas of all shapes and sizes sits high on a hill nearby. Sigiriya, a 5th-century palace rock fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site, displays original frescoes of some of the 500 international women of the king’s harem.
Sri Lanka is also the land of beautiful beaches. I ended up at the laidback Club Villa in Bentota. In the mood for a bit of action, after trying my hand at waterskiing, I chased after crocodiles on a river of cinnamon islands, and was rewarded with a sighting of a foot-long baby clinging to a branch in the mangrove. A visit to cartoonist Beavis Bawa’s elegant garden ‘Brief’ put me back into calm mode and I am dedicating the rest of my time in Sri Lanka to gazing at palm trees swaying in the wind and to swimming in the warm sea.