Vikasa Yoga Retreat, Thailand

When I arrived at Vikasa, I said hello to the people I knew and introduced myself to the people I didn’t know. Carolina and Jeb, a married couple, were the hosts’ of this getaway trip. Originally, I had met them through my brother Alex, who did Cross-fit with them a while ago. They were the first people I came into contact with when I arrived and they greeted me with a very warm welcome. 

Our group was given the same itinerary for the upcoming weeks’ activities. Each day would consist of yoga, fitness, and more yoga, along with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The classes were not mandatory, only suggested. In other words, if you wanted to skip a yoga session one day and head down to the beach instead, then that is what you’d do. The retreat lasted for seven days. Two out of those seven days, we would go on a temple tour and go island hopping together. It was pure adrenaline that got me through the first day. 

I don’t consider myself to be an expert at yoga. I find it to be very challenging, both mentally and physically. I do it strictly for peace of mind and to strengthen my core. In the many yoga sessions that I have participated in when in Los Angeles, I have noticed that I have the tendency to glance over at my neighbors to compare what they’re doing to my own practice. Although I recognize that this isn’t a healthy habit, I still catch myself doing it every so often. Before Carolina started the first session, she told us, in a very serious tone, to focus on our breath. She strictly emphasized to us how important breath is in yoga. For example, when our arms become too tired to hold our body weight up any longer, coming back to our breath will distract us from our initial urge to fall. “Return to breath! Return to breath! Return to breath!” My muscles were tight during the first class due to sitting on an airplane for 24 hours. I felt like I hadn’t stretched in years. I was somewhat anxious because I knew that I hadn’t been practicing yoga on a daily basis prior to this trip. I wondered if my body would be able to handle deep stretching like this for an entire week. I wondered if my mind would be able to shut down for the week. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a competition, even if my mind wanted to believe otherwise. Each time I became distracted by how I thought others were doing “better” than I was, I would look down at my mat and tell myself “Return to your breath.” This helped me a lot. The fascinating thing about yoga is that it’s based more on mindfulness than a typical workout. Yes, it has its workout perks, like strengthening the core and increasing mobility, but more often than not, it is about returning to your breath. Some have told me that yoga “isn’t for them.” I disagree. I believe that yoga can be for everyone. It doesn’t matter how flexible you are. It doesn’t even matter if you’re fit or not. The practice itself is a testament to your own personal growth. For me, I see it as a mindfulness practice with gentle exercise involved. A lot of people insist that they have to look the part, like the people in the magazines. In truth, you don’t. I left Vikasa realizing this and now I feel more beautiful inside. As the week wore on, my body gradually became more flexible and my mind became still. I felt less of a need to push myself in order to “look” a certain way to others. It became very clear to me that I didn’t need to please anybody except myself. After this realization occurred, I sailed through the rest of the week.

Mini Mart/Moonstone: Directly across the street from the resort rests a mini-mart. The mini-mart sold cold beverages, medicine, snacks, and a few hats. Next to the mini-mart sits a bar called “Moonstone.” It looked to me as if Moonstone was built from houses that might have been damaged in extreme weather conditions. I could be very wrong, but that’s how it appeared to me. One night, I walked to the bar with some people from the group. Before ordering my beverage, I walked to the bathroom alone, only to be greeted by a chicken. Yes, you heard me correctly – a chicken. I scream and almost trip over it. “What in the dickens is this thing doing here?” I ask myself. Luckily, my scream scared away the chicken and I was able to go to the bathroom peacefully. On my return, one of the bartenders stops me and says, “Did you see the chicken? I chuckle and reply “yup!” That night, I drank a few beers and chatted with my mates. I went to bed a little earlier that night, as I was exhausted from the days’ activities. 

Temples: The temples were spectacular — a must-see if you’re ever in Koh Samui. The architecture was stunning and the temples were huge, standing approximately 100 feet above my head each time. I had to crane my neck upwards, at a 45-degree angle in order to see the top. The first temple we went to was called, “Wat Phra Yai,” locally referred to as “The Big Buddha.” Built in 1972, this structure sits majestically off Samui’s north shore. To honor the culture of Thailand, all shoes must be removed before climbing the hundreds of stairs to this masterpiece. As we entered the temples’ grounds, most of the group ran ahead to take pictures. “Not I,” said the cat. I wanted the moments I had on these grounds to last. I wanted to take my time and not rush. Just below the staircase is where most of the monks do their morning chants. One of the girls in our group decided to participate in this practice. We all took pictures of her as she wrote down her blessings on a small sheet of paper and tossed it into a seaweed bowl, which was truly astounding to watch. Below the temple, beyond where the monks live, is where all the shopping happens. They have a few outdoor shops and food vendors. I decided to splurge on a cute pair of elephant pants. The next temple we went to was called “Wat Plai Laem.” Nestled alongside a lake, this 18-armed piece delights many travelers and locals who come here to pray. Directly across the street from these temples sits a school. My friends and I heard some chanting and at first, we were unable to identify where the sounds were coming from. We followed the sound, and as the chanting grew louder, we noticed a group of approximately one-hundred students sitting on the floor with their arms wrapped around their bodies. The other half of the students had their arms in prayer position. We watched them for fifteen minutes, I estimate. I can only imagine what the children’s lives are like – a harsh, yet skilled teacher to say the least. Right before I walked away from the school’s grounds, a little boy approached the fence and waved to me from the other side. I smiled and waved back. I choked back a few tears as I walked away. “Wat Plai Laem” truly piqued my curiosity and so, I decided to scope out the area even further and headed to the back of the temple. There was a beautiful lake waiting to greet me, along with large turtles that swarmed the area. A stranger approached me and asked me if I wanted my picture taken. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my photo taken on this glorious day. The temples were certainly worth the 25-minute van ride.

Islands: On Thursday morning, we hopped into another van that took us to one of the most popular docks on the island. The ride was bumpy and full of excitement. I distinctly remember looking outside and noticing how beautiful the palm trees were. They were perfectly aligned in an empty field of green grass, with stunning mountains in the background. I’m not used to seeing so much space and land, as I now live in Los Angeles. Anyway, I was delighted when we arrived at where the ferries departed. I couldn’t believe these were snorkeling tour boats, as they were so beautiful and vast, and different from similar trips I’ve taken back home. These boats are considered “speedboats” in Thailand. They don’t go nearly as fast as the speedboats in America, but the engine roared obnoxiously loud. There were six of us piled in my boat and initially, we left the dock area slowly. Then, it became a competition. 😉 As our boat increased in speed, the engines’ noise grew louder and within minutes, another boat sped by us, creating waves that almost tipped our boat over. One of the girls screamed and I giggled with delight. It was simply, exhilarating! When we arrived at the snorkeling spot, we all jumped into the water. The ocean was a beautiful turquoise blue that has me in awe. Most of the group snorkeled, but I decided to do things differently. I floated on my back, watching the beautiful clouds pass over me. Then, I flipped upright and watched the islands’ trees sway back and forth, listening to the sounds of nature as it appeared. When we are done with our snorkeling festivities, we hopped back onto the boat and head towards the island of “Koh Madsum,” just south of Koh Samui. Before getting off the boat, I noticed that there was a food stand from afar. Once we arrive, I jump off the boat and sprint to the stand to grab and drink and a snack. I nonchalantly roam around the island for a bit and notice pigs in the distance. I was somewhat surprised. Surprisingly, they didn’t smell bad. I stood there for a while and observed them. I knelt down next to them to get a closer look. Then, of course, they ran away. Who’s surprised?! 

Elephant Sanctuary: The elephant sanctuary was phenomenal. The van picked us up in the wee hours of the morning and took us over to where the elephants live. My roommate and I planned this just two days into the retreat. Both of us decided that this was something we really wanted to do, more than anything else. It was worth the money! A couple of others from the retreat joined us on that cloudy afternoon. Once we arrived, we were forced to wait for other groups to join us in order to start the process. Yes, it was a process and a tedious one at that. After waiting for over an hour for the others to arrive, we are forced to watch a short documentary on how to treat the elephants. I could clearly see the sadness painted on the faces of my companions and on the woman speaking harsh realities about the elephants and how they were mistreated in the past. Furthermore, the documentary told us how to approach the elephants and where to stand. For example, you don’t want to stand where the elephants can’t see you, as a few of the elephants are blind in one eye. They went on to tell us the do’s and don’t’s of feeding and approaching an elephant. Once a couple of hours passed by, it was finally time to meet these beautiful creatures. After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, I think it’s appropriate to say we all just wanted to jump right in. However, that wasn’t an option. We had to approach the elephants slowly because they startle easily. I grabbed some pineapple from the bucket and started feeding them one-by-one. I’m wasn’t scared, but rather hesitant. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I was told to do, properly. Prior to feeding them, one of the girls yells from afar, “Oh my god, Maddie, just go!” Well, jeez! Perhaps a little push is just what I needed. After I fed them a couple of times, I became more comfortable with them, just as they did with me. After 20 minutes pass by, our tour guide announces that it is time to “hop the fence.” He opens the gate and we meander our way through — the elephants follow. We venture further into the wilderness and as we approach a tree, we stop. The remainder of the sanctuary consists of our guide speaking more about the elephants and us getting to pet and feed them. It was sad leaving the sanctuary. I wanted to make sure that they were going to be well taken care of. It appeared to me that they were, but you never know in a foreign country. After our mini-group arrived back at Vikasa, we were bombarded with questions by those who didn’t participate in the outing. They all pretty much asked the same question, like, “Oh my god, how was it?” — Yeah, something along those lines. Ha.

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