“How do you feel?” asked Lily after her two-hour Kundalini class comes to an end. “Intoxicated,” I say. Without missing a beat, she replies, ”Russell Brand says ‘kundalini is the crack cocaine of yoga.’” This seems highly appropriate given that I have returned for the fifth time to Arambol, India, a beach town in Goa on the Indian ocean. A place, where, once, I met a holy man under a sacred banyan tree, who said to me “only junkies come to India.” And so, chasing the dragon, I find myself once again in a familiar place, treading a well-worn track. Living once again in a small blue casita by the sea.
Population dynamics are real here. India is a country of 1.4 billion souls. And though the character of Arambol is still essentially the same, there are way more people than there were the last time I was here in 2016. Way more huts. Way more shacks on the beach serving food. Way more fishermen plying the waters to supply these restaurants. Way more trash. Way more light pollution. What were once sleepy fishing villages, once made famous by a small but devoted psytrance scene, has become a mecca for international travelers fleeing winter’s icy grip.
There’s more of what I love about this place. More freaks and geeks, seekers, searchers, and overall shenanigans. More music, art, and dance. More delicious food. More yoga classes, ayurvedic treatment centers, and meditation retreats. More markets hawking hipster festival gear for a fraction of the price. And yes, more parties. An ironically apt way to begin two months of travel in India. Retox. Detox. Repeat.
There are innumerable yoga offerings in Arambol, in all styles – Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini, aerial, acro and on and on. There are meditation and mindfulness. Martial arts. Capoeira. Belly dance. Shamanic healing. I could spend months exploring all the options, and many do. Many people come for the entire season, which runs from about October – April, in between the summer monsoons. I’m on a bit of a tight schedule this season and have only two weeks to get my fix.
My exploration of the yoga scene begins the morning after I arrive. After a long night of imbibing with old friends, I decide to try out an 11:30 am hour-long aerial yoga class at Yoga Village. I’m the only student that day, and have some previous aerial experience, so I’m particularly excited to practice. The long journey and the exuberant reunion have left me achy and stiff, eager for the stretching and inversions, made easier by the aid of a hammock.
In a thatched open-air palapa, surrounded by small huts and a restaurant, Alona guides me through an hour-long session. The hammocks are different than what I’m accustomed to – made of cloth rather than silk, with two sets of handles on either side. Alona is Russian, like so many Arambolites, and her English is decent. She’s young and flexible, but not a particularly great teacher. The sequencing is disjointed, the transitions not fluid, and there’s little mindfulness, all of which poses a great risk of potential injury. She offers little by way of actual cues, perhaps because she trusts that I know what I’m doing. The cloth responds differently as well; it’s less fluid and sensual overall. Savasana is accomplished by placing our bodies into the hammock and our feet into the handles, and I miss the cocoon of a larger sling. Nonetheless, I enjoy the experience. It feels good to move, sweat, and to spend an hour undoing the cumulative effects of cramped airplane seats, a hard bed, and so many spliffs.
House No. 1, Madhalawada, Arambol, Goa (Google Map) www.yogavillage.in
500 Rs mat & hammock provided
After class, I make my way down to Sunjay’s, a beachside restaurant I’ve been frequenting for years. It’s the meetup point for my friends and me – a motley crew of mainly Norwegians, Brits, and Russians and a token American or two. We gravitate back year after year, and Sunjay, the proprietor, has been addressing our travelers’ needs with his wry humor and infectious smile. The restaurant is like most one finds along the beach – open air, with plenty of spaces to lounge about, a few beach chairs out front. It serves the standard traveler hodgepodge: an expansive menu of Indian, Israeli and Continental dishes, lots of fresh juices and shakes and alcohol.
Goa was once a Portuguese colony, and its legacy has left the region generally more liberal and tolerant than other parts of India. Additionally, it’s a haven for international visitors who come for extended vacations along its innumerable sandy beaches, vibrant party scene, and laid back lifestyle. I order a watermelon juice with no straw, in a feeble attempt to minimize the mountains of plastic-based trash that have been increasingly littering the once pristine coconut grove that separates the beach from town. And an aloo paratha – a type of flatbread filled with a savory mix of onion, potato, and spices, served with cilantro chutney and aachar, Indian pickle.
As the sun begins to set, the tribe gathers. Vendors hawking coconuts and pineapples, roasted corn, peanuts, and chai. Hula hoopers and fire spinners undulate to the sounds of drummers. Meditators sit in silence as the red orb plunges off the horizon and a sliver of the moon shines brightly, reflected upon gently crashing surf.
Days go by. Long, lazy days spent lounging about. Playing in the surf. Walking down vast expanses of white sand. Sunjay’s expanded this season and added a DJ booth and dance floor; an open swathe of sand with low tables and chairs, a seating platform with cushions. Days fade into night as DJs play an amazing mix of world beat dance tracks. Free to express ourselves, the gathered tribe undulates to the grooves as the Shiva moon rises over the sea.
The Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Institute is one of the better known, more established shalas in town. I did a five-day introductory course the last time I was here. I inquired into doing a level two course, but too much time had elapsed. Not wanting to repeat the same program, I decided to try out a drop-in Iyengar class taught by Alpesh, a senior graduate of the Institute. His rooftop studio is located just next door, in the part of town that’s become the hipster yoga ghetto.
It turned out I was there on the final day of a 200-hour teacher training course. It was a bit odd to be the sole outsider. Furthermore, the class was heavily focused on more advanced postures, made possible by hours of dedicated training over a course of weeks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the experience. Iyengar always resonates with me, with its singular focus on alignment using props and working with partners. Unlike most studios, Alpesh’s open-air shala lacked the requisite walls for the ropes Iyengar is most famous for. Instead, a heavy focus was placed on chairs, bolsters, and belts. His style was precise, and he offered individual adjustments. The highlight for me was the extended period of time spent perfecting Tadasana, mountain pose. A welcome and rare opportunity to stand upright in stillness.
Alpesh Yoga Center, Opposite Arcan Bar, Before Piya Guest House, Madhlo Waddo, Arambol Beach, North goa 403524 www.alpeshyoga.com
300 Rs, mats and props provided
Afterwards, I wandered across the street to Arcan, a favorite waterhole with longtime travelers and locals. I ran into Anthony, an Irish musician I’ve known for years, who told me that his band was playing later that night. After another lovely day with my feet in the sand, I returned after dark. The party was in full swing, every table full and the dance floor packed. To the uproarious sounds of The Tantric Monkeys – drums, guitar, base, mandolin, and saxophone – the crowd gyrated and jigged, hooted and hollered and had an old fashioned throwdown. Pure expressions of joy on everyone’s sweaty faces.
There’s so much going on in Arambol. Daytime dance parties, poolside at fancy resorts. Ecstatic dance under banyan trees. Tantra workshops in the sand. And music music music! Anthony reckons Arambol has the best, most diverse music scene in the world. I catch sanskriti funk group Baobaba one night at the Falaffel Corner. Classical Indian ragga at The Source, and the requisite trance party at Ash, an Arambol institution celebrating its tenth season this year. Night after night of good tunes and good times.
One night, an English friend and I stumbled unexpectedly upon a hidden treasure. Other-wise is tucked amongst the jungle foliage alongside the main Hindu temple in town. It’s exclusively vegan, heavily raw, and committed to ‘slow food’ using locally sourced, organic ingredients. The space is gorgeous – moulded clay banquets with woven throw pillows. Lights hanging from the trees. Small altars tucked into little niches through the property. Sacred geometry drawn on the ochre walls in white chalk. Everything in neutral tones, natural fibers. They also have a boutique that sells pillows and blankets, kaftans and shawls, incense and altar items, everything sustainably produced and fair trade. The food was delicious. I ate a bowl of spiralized zucchini noodles in hemp seed pesto. Raw and vegan, super savory, garlicky, and just the right texture. My friend ordered tofu curry and veggie fried rice, perfectly cooked and topped with cashews, one of Goa’s major exports. We finished our meal with vegan chocolate date cake, moist and delicious.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I really want to do is NOTHING. Just lounge about and while away the hours listening to the surf, birds chirping, dogs barking or the dynamic sounds of life on the sub-continent. My casita is so charming it’s hard to pull myself away from its covered portico, where I often share in my new favorite pairing of samosas and champagne.
But peel myself off the deck I do, and on a warm and sunny morning, I made my way to Magic Park, a vibrant restaurant featuring healthful vegan fare, now closed for the season. Tucked amongst the trees is an open-air yoga shala where Lily, a lovely Dutch woman, holds daily, 2-hour Kundalini classes. She begins class by singing devotional songs and playing on a ukulele. The theme of the class was ‘gratitude’ and she guided us through a warm-up, the kriya, and some meditation. The pacing was slow; we spent extended periods in each asana, quieting our minds and focusing on breath. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her capacity to power through excruciatingly difficult postures is inspiring. It’s exactly how I like my yoga – challenging but supportive, slow, and mindful. I leave class completely high and like a true addict, return on three other mornings.
Magic Park / Ana
House No 2, Moddlo Waddo
Arambol, Goa 402534
300 Rs, mat provided
On my final day in Goa, I decided to treat myself to a massage. I wandered down the beach to the next town south, Mandrem, about a 20-minute walk. To the Dunes Holiday Village (dunesgoa.com) which has on-site an Ayurvedic massage parlor in addition to its huts and restaurant. For 1200 Rs, I had an hour-long oily rub down, replete with face and head massage. I emerged feeling like a newborn babe. And powerfully hungry.
I met my English friend once again for a truly special meal at Cafe Nu. In their beautiful outdoor cafe we feasted. A scrumptious salad with candied walnuts and local figs. A flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with spinach, pesto and cheese served with marinara sauce and Portuguese-style bread from the local bakery. Vegetable tempura with spicy sweet chili sauce. Washed down by several glasses of Sauvignon Blanc by Sula, an Indian winery. A perfect finale to a fabulous beach vacay. One more luxurious meal before plunging headlong into the rest of my Indian pilgrimage…