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How a Stressed-Out City Girl Found Yoga Calm Amid the Madness of the Marrakech Medina
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The medina of Marrakech is not the first place that comes to mind for a quest for inner peace. With its bustling warren of streets, the explosion of smells, sights and sounds and the relentless swarms of scooters, bikes and donkeys jostling for position on the narrow alleyways, it seems to the virgin visitor to be the very antithesis of calm.
But as the oasis offers refuge in the heat of a desert, peace is often found in the most unlikely of places. And, as I can enthusiastically attest after spending five days on a sublime yoga retreat in the middle of that mayhem, there's plenty of it to be had in the Marrakech medina.
My London life is lived at 100mph - like so many women I attempt to juggle a full-time job and a tiny two-year-old tearaway while attempting to stay fit and have a social life too. I never sit down - if I did, I would fall asleep.
I was on a much-needed personal peace-finding mission when I signed up for the retreat, hosted by yoga teacher of 20 years Nell Lindsell in a tiled riad - a characterful boutique hotel with traditional inner-courtyard that lay within the medina's ochre walls.
The five-day retreat saw 12 women of varying ages (from a boundlessly energetic 21-year-old student to a feisty 68-year-old retired businesswoman, with a few super-fit high-flying forty-something mothers in the mix) unified on a journey towards yogic calm - or at the very least, some bending and stretching, some sun... and a good deal of shopping.
Nell is a twinkly-eyed superwoman who is also a doula, the founder of Yoga Bugs and braver of the Dragons' Den (see her website for the scoop). Add to that the fact she is mother to four children and you've got a pretty inspiring role model. How she manages to fit it all in and maintain a sense of humour will remain a mystery.
Nell, who also holds retreats twice a year in the Spanish countryside and is planning another next spring to Essouira, says her reason for holding her first retreat in Marrakech was simply because she had 'always wanted to visit' - and that she had been pleasantly surprised at just how good a fit it turned out to be.
'It has this mystique, as well as its ties with Eastern philosophy,' she says. 'I worried it might be chaos, with the bustle, the heat and the hassle - but it's incredibly restful.
'The riad is cool and calm. I'm delighted it's so serene.'
Indeed, the peaceful inner courtyard of the riad, a beautifully restored merchants' house on a cool alleyway in the centre of the Medina, was where we would practise our two 90-minute yoga classes each day, one at 8am and one at 6pm, and where we would hear Nell's daily readings of inspirational words and join in with meditation and chanting sessions.
For our practice, the retractable roof of the riad was pulled back to reveal a deep blue sky where swallows would swoop and dive above us as we followed Nell's classes, which were organised across a five-day programme that started at the feet, and progressed up the body, taking in legs, stomach and heart en route to the head.
On day one, as I lay on my mat looking up at the cloudless sky and the swallows, I felt the pressures of my London life creep a pace or two further away.
By day five, I was all but lobotomised.
In between our three hours of daily yoga Nell held her own practice - a high tempo yoga-to-the-beat class that anyone could join - though only the truly masochistic did: the punchy 45 minutes of fast-paced sequences to techno (yes, techno!) left all but Nell puffing like a steam train and glowing the colour of an overripe tomato.
Yoga to the beat aside, Nell was adamant that this should be a break: no one would be forced from the lounger to their yoga mat if they preferred to read in the sun.
But really, we were all impossibly keen.- and the effort certainly paid off. My hands, which on the first day I'd thrust pathetically towards my toes, now slipped under my feet with ease, my recalcitrant hamstrings finally realising resistance was futile. The stressed-out shallow breathing that ruled my life back in England segued imperceptibly into smooth, satisfying breaths.
Outside of practice, if it was calm we came for it was available in spades.
A beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the skyline of Marrakech, with plunge pool, sun loungers and white canvas gazebo, offered a sunny sanctuary between the morning and evening yoga sessions.
This was no ascetic retreat run by puritans either. Nell organised residential chefs who conjured up incredible tagines of lamb and dates; filo pies filled with lemon-scented chicken; sticky spiced sauces made sweet with slow-cooked figs.
We had local wine, Moroccan beer - and even a night out fuelled by a lethal mix of mojitos and newly acquired yogic energy that saw the group racing around the Medina buying armfuls of leather slippers (Shelley), belly-dancing in bars (me) and befriending mules (Nell; Beth... don't ask).
A nearby spa (ask at your riad for a recommendation) provided treatments on tap - and was worth a visit for the relaxation area alone, lit by the dancing shapes from the intricate fretwork of dozens of traditional Moroccan lanterns.
And when all the serenity, sunshine and spa treatments got too much, we simply opened the heavy wooden door to our riad and stepped out into the souk, a colourful, throbbing marketplace replete with local craftsmanship.
Oddly enough, the souk, which in so many places can be the source of wearisome haggling and harassment, was itself a place of calm.
Shady streets, each plying their own trade, were lined with dozens of shops festooned with their wares in a way that the pages of Elle Décor could never replicate.
Thousands of lanterns cast pretty shadows from floor to ceiling along one street. Along another, a sea of colourful leather slippers lined the walls; bags in fuchsia or orange leather swung gently from hooks. Tiled whatnots; silver jewellery; harem pants; henna tattoos, tea glasses... We wanted it all (so much for the enlightened renouncement of all worldly goods).
The ever-present scent of jasmine filled in the air, while every trip into the souk was an adventure filled with mint tea, drums, fresh orange juice, crumbling walls, creeping vines and donkeys laden with wares.
The city was a feast for our jaded eyes, our ears - and our stomachs.
With a new experience at every turn, it was hard to imagine ever tiring of this place.
In fact, the constant cacophony was energising. Even the hypnotic, persistent call to prayer that punctuated the peace at 4.45am and four more times a day became familiar, and comforting.
By the end of the weekend, despite that early morning wake-up call, we all wore a gentle glow, whether from the yoga, the sun, or the food and chatter over lamp-lit suppers on the terrace at dusk.
And if all the chanting and chatter had yet to bond us, then the boundary-crushing experience we shared at a very traditional Moroccan baths certainly did the trick.
Stripped to our knickers and thrust together in a steamy underground room, we were thrown one by one over a bare-breasted woman's lap and scrubbed with what felt like a Brillo pad until we glowed.
Twelve (sometimes) mature women were reduced to giggling schoolgirls - and memories were formed that will remain with us all for life (fortunately there is no photographic evidence of this part of the trip).
The reluctant return home to London was surreal; like stepping into someone else's life.
But amid all the usual chaos of my real life that inevitably met me at the door like a tsunami, I was able to hold on to a fragment of my Moroccan oasis - and that five-day stay has been enough to effect huge change.
A month has since gone by and I have practised yoga virtually every day.
Nell's daily readings - words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama or a thought-provoking poem - have stayed with me, and some of the words continue to flash into my mind.
If pushed, I do have one gripe about this phenomenal, life-changing trip as it happens: it was way too short. Five days? Five weeks would be more appropriate… No, wait. Make that five months.