BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sun, Sand and Yoga

My latest piece for Starweek: Sun, Sand and Yoga

There’s sand on your toes and there’s the view of perfect sunsets, the afternoon sea breeze blows on your face and the soothing sound of crashing waves wafts in the air as you lie on your mat.

Yoga by the sea could well be every yogini’s dream but for one whole weekend, it became my reality.

The journey began at the end of a rough and at times bending road, in a secluded beach house with white draperies dancing in the wind, rattan hammocks and tall coconut trees that line the white sand beach.

This is the journey offered by the Sea Chi Yoga Retreat, a three-day exclusive yoga retreat, organized by Momo Beach House, a boutique resort in Panglao Island in Bohol owned by hotel management group One-Of Collection.

The experience started with a refreshing welcome drink of pandan juice and a feet-cleansing ritual to soothe one’s tired legs. A fifteen-minute head and back massage came next, giving participants a glimpse of things to come.

The driver who picked me up at the airport was right. The end of the rough and tumbling road is worth the ride.

Around 1 p.m., after a choice of healthy lunch cooked by resident executive chef Paeng Ongchiong, Yohanna Chanel, a Bohol-based French yoga instructor who is a certified Siva-nanda teacher started the opening circle, an introduction to what’s in store for the participants of the three-day retreat.

Chanel banged her small gong and taught us to chant Om, said to be the sound of the universe. It is a mantra chanted at the beginning and at the end of yoga sessions.

“Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves—the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing,” according to the

The Sanskrit word Yoga, said Chanel in her charming French accent, comes from the word yug or union. Originally, yug meant “to hitch up” as in attaching horses to a vehicle, according to the Roots of Yoga published by the

“It’s the union of everything inside. The perfect yogi sees God in everything,” she said.

Yoga, she said, is more than physical exercise. It is about proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking.

“It’s a life of self-discipline. It is knowing and living and treating our body as a temple,” she says.

The yoga practice we would be taught for the retreat is the common one, which is Hatha Yoga. This refers to a set of physical exercises known as asanas or postures, and sequences of asanas, designed to align one’s skin, muscles, and bones, according to

“The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely,” it said.

Furthermore, it said that Hatha is also translated as ha meaning "sun" and tha meaning "moon." This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.

The first session started at around 4 p.m. There we were on the beach house’s open- air lobby where Chanel taught us different postures that are doable for both beginners and advanced yoginis and yogis. She taught different techniques that enabled our bodies to give more than what we could normally do.

For up-and-forwards, for instance, she said: “navel to thigh and plant your forehead on your bent knees by pulling your ankles.”

“Put intention to the tension, breathe into it,” she said.

I sat, stood, twisted, sweated it out, curled my back and moved my arms to unimaginable ways but I survived the one-and-a half hour class. And as in every session, my body and soul loved every minute, aches and all.

By the time we finished, the sun was already setting, a perfect ending to a rewarding first session.

In between the opening circle and the first session, retreat participants had the whole afternoon to swim in the pool, dip in the clear blue waters of Momo Beach, have a siesta on the rattan hammock under the coconut trees or avail of the free massage at the resort’s Sea Tree spa.

And for those interested to know their destiny or a semblance of it, there’s also angel card reading sessions given by the spa’s manager, Atho dela Cruz.

Dinner was a buffet of healthy and vegetarian dishes – kare-kare, vegetarian style, chicken tinola, steamed okra and fruits for dessert.

After dinner, we huddled by the beach for tea to warm our hearts and soul. Under the moon and the stars, Chanel taught us how to meditate, to be aware and to really listen well to the sound of the universe.

Meditation, she said, allows us to be aware of the present moment and to let go of all the negative energy seeping through our veins. There’s no denying the miracles of meditation, she said.

“I have become a calmer person,” Chanel said.

Research has shown that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits, according to an article on mediation published by

“We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to 
worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as unimpeachably good for you,” it also said.

I opted to have my free massage just before going to bed, which made for a perfect ending to a wonderful first day.

I felt recharged as the wake-up call arrived at 6:30 the next morning. We were given lemon water for detox and to prep us up for the 7 a.m. session.

We had the morning session by the beach, the morning sun on our faces, keeping our mind, heart and soul fully awake and alive.

There was free time after. One can choose to watch the resident chef cook healthy meals or to avail of the second day’s free massage. I opted to visit the famed Chocolate Hills and the tarsier conservation area. While the trip was not part of the retreat package, it was well worth the two-hour ride.

The other participants opted to visit a sandbar 25 minutes away while some tried a hearty lunch at the luxurious Amorita Resort, an affiliate of Momo Beach House, just fifteen minutes away.

We were all back in time for the next session at four in the afternoon, the most intense and grueling session we would have.

Here, I managed to do a headstand even for just a few seconds, the first time in my two-year on-and off yoga life. I nearly perfected my sun salutations, child’s pose, triangle pose and my favorite, the Savasana pose.

We had the culminating buffet dinner of grilled fish and chicken soup, some kilawin and fresh fruits for dessert, all these under the stars on the white sand and the smashing waves with a roaring bonfire in the middle of it all.

Yohanna capped the night with lessons of belly dancing, teaching us to let go and to sway to Bollywood music. We danced around the fire with the music of the universe pulsating in the moonlit evening.

The three-day retreat was well worth the time whether you’re a beginner or an advanced yoga enthusiast.

The P12,000-retreat rate, which includes a three-day two night stay, healthy meals and snacks, four yoga sessions and free massage, is a steal especially if you look at it as an investment for your health and nourishment for your heart, mind and soul. The schedules are light and easy and are even in sync with the flights from Manila to Bohol. I took the Cebu Pacific flight, which left Manila at a comfortable time of 8: 25 a.m. and arrived at the Tagbilaran airport at 9:40 a.m.

Momo Beach owner and One-Of Collection chief executive officer Lucas Niccolo Cauton III, a yogi himself who joined the sessions, said that they plan to hold the Sea Chi yoga retreats regularly.

“We plan to do this every month if we can. It’s really about having a healthy lifestyle,” he tells Starweek in a chance interview on the sidelines of the retreat.

The retreat was held for the first time last May 2 to 4, with upcoming sessions slated on January 8 to 10, 2015 and May 1 to 3, 2015.

My yoga by the sea experience was a much-needed respite -- although momentarily -- from the chaos and traffic of Manila, a perfect way to recharge and prepare oneself again to go back to the daily grind.

I left Bohol with Chanel’s parting words to me: Be in peace and harmony. She didn’t need to say it really. I felt it in my bones. It’s inevitable after being in paradise for three days; the memories still linger, there is a smile in every pose, flow in every breath; grace in every moment; ah what a dharma of sorts.