Beware karma-killers - News & Advice - Travel - The Independent

Beware karma-killers

A holiday offering yoga classes in an inspiring setting might sound tempting. But Rhiannon Batten's disappointing trip left her feeling far from spiritual

I'm suffering from a new illness. It isn't life-threatening, and it doesn't stop me from pounding the aisles at Tesco. But, for the past few months, whenever I've heard the y-word I've started to shake wildly as waves of nausea pass through my body. Yoga is making me stressed.

I'm suffering from a new illness. It isn't life-threatening, and it doesn't stop me from pounding the aisles at Tesco. But, for the past few months, whenever I've heard the y-word I've started to shake wildly as waves of nausea pass through my body. Yoga is making me stressed.

The ancient Eastern art is increasingly popular in the UK. Membership of the British Wheel of Yoga, an organisation which acts as a focus for yoga organisations, has risen by 9 per cent over the last four years, to 7,000. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thought to be half a million people currently practising yoga, and many of them may be attracted by the prospect of a holiday combining a deeper understanding of yoga with some sunshine. Which was where my problems began.

It all started in July when I went to stay at Ibiza Yoga, a company whose name broadly says what it does. Well, it actually started two days before my trip, when Daniel, one of the owners, called to tell me I wasn't to let my fellow holidaymakers know that I was a journalist. He warned me that he'd be there the following Monday "to check up on me". I should have backed out then, but I had already booked my flights and paid for the car hire.

At Ibiza's small airport, I offered a lift to two of the other guests (the yoga mats by the luggage carousel were a give-away). We arrived at Villa Roca, at Benirras on the north coast of the island, at about 10pm. There was no introduction to the course, just a quick allocation of rooms. Before the staff left for what turned out to be the first of regular trips to Ibiza's clubs, there was just time for them to tell us that there wasn't much in the way of food that night, but that there were "some restaurants on the beach" if we were hungry.

Benirras beach was recently voted the fourth best in Europe and, although I can think of better ones, not many are in as stunning a situation for yoga. As I would find out the next morning, it's much easier to focus on your breathing when you're up on the roof of a building looking out over scrubby hills, jagged rocks and sparkling water than when you're locked in a room surrounded by 50 upturned bottoms.

But that night I was more concerned with my room. Described as a gazebo, it was actually a wooden box with enormous glass windows and up a flight of concrete steps from the main building. If I wanted to go to the loo in the night and didn't want to risk breaking my legs on the steps I was advised to go in the bushes. And, when I asked for some curtains to maintain some privacy, I was given a few pieces of torn muslin. They didn't cover the windows, so I began the daily shuffle of trying to get dressed on the ant-ridden floor. It wasn't a pleasant experience but at least it's given me a better insight into David Blaine's mission.

I wasn't the only one who was feeling disappointed. When a fellow guest asked whether, in the summer's extraordinarily hot weather, she could have a fan in her room, the answer was a very un-karmic "no". And, halfway through the week when a list of rules appeared mysteriously on our beds, another guest remarked dryly that the "10pm quiet" and "no smoking or drinking" rules were being followed by everyone apart from the staff, who rather awkwardly shared the main building, and its two bathrooms, with guests. When you counted in the number of friends the staff invited into the building and, more often than not, to bed down on the floor of the lounge, there seemed to be around 15 people sharing two bathrooms.

And the yoga? Well, that was great. The teacher, Richelle, voluntarily spent extra time with us beginners after class, making sure we'd got the basics right and even offered to send us self-practice sheets when we got back home. But the yoga took up only three hours of the day.

By this stage I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there. On the company's website, one of the teachers offers an answer. "Yoga is an approach to spirituality using ancient means of accessing vitality," it waffles. "It allows the practitioners to become their own authority for their personal evolution and for understanding the sacred nature of existence."

Presumably only the teacher knows what that means, but it did make it clear that the philosophy behind a yoga holiday is often so tangled up that its metaphorical legs are hooked securely behind its head. The truth, no doubt to the horror of those who believe they're having an "alternative" experience, is that yoga holidays are like any other kind of holiday. They are products. A yoga holiday may offer a few spiritual extras but essentially, it's as commercial an activity as a two-week self-catering package to San Antonio.

Some might want to experience a more spartan lifestyle but for those of us who are just interested in yoga and want to go on holiday to do it, experiences like the one I had are a massive disappointment. Why should you put up with poor accommodation and a lack of service just because yoga is thrown in? I didn't want a four-poster or Frette sheets but I expected a decent bed and some curtains.

Of course not all yoga holidays are like mine. Yoga-devotee John Mortlock recently went on a holiday in Andalucia where the accommodation was luxurious, the setting was beautiful, the food was superb and the yoga teaching was good. "It was expensive, about £1,000 for the week, but it was a premium product and priced as such," he says. Other friends have recommended trips in Sri Lanka and Turkey. Even some of the people on my course had a better time than I did - those staying in the slightly pricier Villa Palmas across the hillside were helped by having proper bedrooms and bathrooms, access to a pool and a valley's distance between them and the staff.

For every good travel experience, there's usually a bad one to top it. When Liese Spencer, a student, went on a yoga retreat in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, she found it was "pretty hardcore". The sleeping in bunk beds without heating was bad enough. But an "inspiring" health talk that went on for two-and-a-half hours was the final straw. "An Ayurvedic doctor from India lectured that we are all different 'types' and described how we could determine what type we were from our temperament and hair colour. Everyone took it very seriously, asking things like 'But I'm a curly-haired person with smooth skin who is secretive but not moved to anger quickly - so what type does that make me?'" Desperately gullible, decided Liese, when the talk ended with the pronouncement that "water types are prone to giving birth to dwarves".

Annabel Stringer from London had a similarly off-putting introduction to yoga holidays when she went on a trip organised by her integrated medicine practitioner. "He'd sold it to me as a mind-blowing experience, doing yoga in the fresh air in the Himalayas, going for long walks and staying in a palace. But once we got there he became this total control freak who treated us all like children. The palace was really grotty and because it rained every day we ended up doing the yoga in the palace's storage area." To make things worse, she found she was sharing a bathroom with seven men. "It wasn't the spiritual, uplifting experience I'd anticipated," she sighs.

Although there are plenty of reputable companies offering yoga holidays, with no central regulation it is difficult to pinpoint them among the bandwagon of entrepreneurs eagerly saluting the money-spinning sun with videos, classes, equipment and holidays.

Like any holiday, if you want to maximise the chances that you get what you have paid for, the trick is to book with a recognised tour operator. So far, there's only one dedicated specifically to "mind body spirit" holidays that is a member of the Association of British Travel Agents. Chillout in the Sun joined Abta at about the same time I booked a flight to Ibiza. But mainstream operators are moving in on the territory; Bales Worldwide has a specialist department that sells tailor-made holidays focusing on healing and meditation.

The breaking point of my holiday came on the mid-course trip to a trendy Ibizan restaurant. Daniel, who had arrived as threatened on the Monday, insisted on introducing me to one of his adoring fans, Patsy, a posh old bird in inappropriately girlie clothes. "Oh, you're writing for The Independent," she scoffed. "Well you better say lovely, lovely things about yoga.com (sic) or..." she said, trailing off into the ether. "Ibiza's a wonderful place. It's a place for free spirits, entrepreneurs like Daniel," she continued, stroking his chest. "It's not for people who come for a week and then go home to work long hours and pay taxes," she added, glaring at me as she sucked on a straw.

By this stage I'd begun to agree with Patsy. As the strain of sharing bathrooms, not sleeping and not eating properly began to show, Villa Roca had turned into my very own Big Brother. I voted myself off.

While in Ibiza, Rhiannon Batten stayed as a guest of Ibiza Yoga (020 7419 0999, www.ibizayoga.com); Chillout in the Sun (01903 206306, www.chilloutinthesun.com); Bales Worldwide (01306 732750, www.balesworldwide.com)

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