As I warily eye the bolts and ropes hanging in front of me, my teacher appears to read my mind. “Don’t worry, we’ve tested it with a full room of students,” smiles Frank Jesse. I’m about to move into a variation of Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). Simple, right? Sure. Except for the fact that by the time I’m done, my whole body will be lying vertically up the wall.
Wrapping a blanket around my waist, tightening it in place with a yoga strap and preparing to support my body with a series of ropes bolted to the wall, I realise I need to take Jesse’s word for it. After all, in Iyengar Yoga this type of pose is hardly unusual—the practice is so filled with chairs, blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters and ropes that you sometimes feel the furniture is taking over.
Minutes later, suspended with my head hovering about three inches off the ground, I’m seeing things differently. My spine starts to lengthen, my neck frees up and I’m blissfully, deliciously long. This is one of the benefits of the Iyengar practice: the focus on props and alignment may feel a bit fiddly for newcomers, but inevitably your body rejoices.
Upright once more at the end of the three-hour practice (yes, three hours!), I’m able to focus on my surroundings instead of my asana. I’m on a two-day Iyengar Yoga retreat at Griffins Hill, in Victoria’s Southern Grampians. It’s one of the few places in Australia where the teacher doesn’t have to fly in for the weekend, because he actually lives here.
It’s a decision Jesse and his partner Jane Gibb made a few years back after trading in their successful Iyengar studio in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill for a quieter life on the outskirts of Dunkeld, population 450. The pair is delighted with the move, although they admit it’s not as quiet as they’d imagined. Jesse is now busy teaching the local artists, shearers and massage therapists, who travel up to an hour to attend his seven weekly classes. And they keep in touch with city life through “retreaters” like myself, who lob in to the house and studio for longer stays.
While there are plenty of places to go for a weekend away with a dash of yoga, Griffins Hill is the perfect place if you want a getaway that will really enhance your practice. Sure, the views are gorgeous; class sizes are small (expect less than 10 participants); and Gibb’s organic meals are a highlight off the mat. But on this retreat the yoga is king. Expect four or five hours on Saturday (broken into two classes, including a restorative session), and a three-hour marathon stint on the Sunday. You don’t need to be an Iyengar practitioner to attend (or even an experienced student—beginners can attend the two-day retreats), and for those normally practising a different style, this is a good way to brush up on your alignment, assuming you come with an open mind. The founder of Iyengar Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, has some fairly firm ideas about how the practice should be delivered; and the discipline of an Iyengar practice can take a bit of adjustment if you’ve been used to something more hands-off.
Yoga aside, there’s plenty to keep you content off the mat. In this mountainous region of Victoria, 168,000 hectares of rugged mountain ranges and spectacular scenic views await. The retreat centre is situated on six acres, and although you may (like me) find yourself happy to simply doze in the sun-filled lounge room during the afternoon break, there are plenty of options if you’re feeling more active. Griffins Hill is overlooked by not one, but two spectacular mountains: Mount Abrupt and Mount Sturgeon. It’s a three-hour hike to the top of Mount Sturgeon, and while other students make it up there on day one, I’m content with the view of the peak from the large deck outside my comfortable, twin room.
Most visitors to Victoria’s Grampians head to the tourist town of Halls Gap, however Gibb reckons they’re missing out by not stopping off in her sleepy local village, Dunkeld. “There’s a very famous restaurant, the Royal Mail Hotel, a good rare bookstore and a couple of galleries,” she says.
Now that this horticulturalist has finally convinced her partner to move to the country, she’s replaced retail therapy with food therapy: the majority of the food during the retreat comes from Gibb’s well-tended vegetable patch. It’s an unintentional success—the organic vegetarian meals are a highlight for guests, but for this committed couple they’d prefer the food to play second fiddle to yoga.
There is some evidence of this approach: meals are organised around practice times, leaving fast metabolisms like my own struggling through the long gap between brunch and dinner. But when the meals do come, they’re worth the wait. Night one features a beetroot quinoa salad followed by baked apple with walnuts, while homemade chapattis and dips are the perfect accompaniment to Gibb’s curry and dal dishes on night two. I address my metabolism’s dilemma by sneaking pre-bought snacks in my room, before eventually realising that if I ask Jane for some extra food she’ll happily sort me out.
Gibb isn’t the only one who can cook. It’s hard to stop myself from gorging on Jesse’s homemade sourdough bread, although happily, his teaching is similarly impressive. Like all Iyengar Yoga teachers, Jesse is thorough, but his affable manner and gentle sense of humour mean that while the practice is taken seriously, there’s a good dose of compassion for my tight shoulders. This doesn’t mean they escape: props are used to make every pose accessible, and the longer morning classes allow plenty of time to explore shoulder openings, twists, inversions and various other aspects of the practice in depth.
Jesse makes time to include some helpful work with partners. “There are two reasons to do this gently,” says Jesse on day two, showing us how to assist our partner into a deeper Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) using a strap, a block and our feet. “One, you don’t want to hurt them, and two, you’re next.” Watching, I laugh out loud. Iyengar practice may be tough at times, but when it’s delivered like this, with compassion and a smile, I’ve got no hesitation in being next.
Fly, drive or take the bus to Griffins Hill. Fly from Melbourne to Hamilton on Sharp Airlines ($300 if booked via the retreat); drive 250km (about 3.5 hours) from Melbourne; or catch a train to Ballarat and a connecting local bus to Griffins Hill.
Griffins Hill runs regular two- and five-day retreats as well as monthly Sunday events. Two-day retreats (no yoga experience necessary) cost $550 twin-share (shared bathroom) or $850 private room with ensuite. For five-day retreats, you’ll need a year of yoga experience up your sleeve. www.griffinshill.com.au
An onsite massage with Valerie Cooper is highly recommended. Book with Jane on arrival; $55 for 45 minutes.
Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel was named Restaurant of the Year by The Age’s Good Food Guide 2011. Chef Dan Hunter is known for his focus on local food, but plan in advance: there’s a wait of up to three months for a weekend booking.