M O N D A Y
10:30 AM I land alone in Italy after a four hour flight from Cairo. As a rule, I don’t travel on my own. I am a self-described anti-social misanthrope who cringes when strangers try to make friends. It’s partly because I’m shy and introverted and partly because I just tend to find humans tedious. I have just the right number of friends and I probably won’t like you. So travelling by myself without a companion who already knows and loves/tolerates me despite my interminable cynicism, does not bode well for my trip to Mandali Retreats, a meditation/yoga/personal growth retreat center in the mountains of northern Italy.
10:31 AM I mean, neither does the fact that I’m going to a retreat to begin with.
10:55 AM I buy 2 bottles of wine from the airport. If this whole thing goes south at least I have some booze to fall back on. I’m worried about being companionless for five days. I realise the point of a retreat like this is to broaden your horizons and go outside your comfort zone and find yourself. Going outside your comfort zone is the type of thing that is said by the type of people I don’t like. What’s wrong with comfort? Why would I voluntarily choose to be uncomfortable?
Going outside your comfort zone is the type of thing that is said by the type of people I don’t like.
11:15 AM I nap briefly in the car. I haven’t slept yet because of my flight.
2:00 PM We arrive at the retreat. It’s about two hours away from the Milan airport and perched atop a mountain overlooking Lake Orta. We drive in twists and twirls up the mountain to get there. It is insanely beautiful. No, like, absurdly beautiful.
3:00 PM We take a tour of the grounds and have a little welcome meeting with our group, who are here for the 5 day ‘Mandali Experience’. I’m the only Arab. I’m also the only smoker. There’s a smoking corner I’m relegated to when I want to indulge in my gross, non-holistic, non-quinoa-worshipping habit.
3:30 PM A woman named Ajija – who I later find out is her spirit name apparently – tells us about what to expect over the next few days. The center is a place whose raison d’etre falls at the intersection of yoga, meditation, and general well-being – it’s a holistic approach. It is not a hardcore yoga retreat; it is not purely a spa; it is not only a center for meditation the way we imagine it; it’s more a place to unplug and disconnect from the frenzied rush of our daily existences, as they describe it. It sounds like the perfect reprieve from my life in a crowded, hectic city that hasn’t seen fresh air since 1982. The setting alone is crazy idyllic; we haven’t even started and I feel relaxed already.
The center is a place whose raison d’etre falls at the intersection of yoga, meditation, and general well-being – it’s a holistic approach.
3:35 PM They also encourage a digital detox. LOL.
3:45 PM Ajija talks dreamily of Mandali. It is place to be spiritual, to meditate, and to experience personal growth. In general, the word spiritual grates me and I don’t believe in meditation. Breeeeathe. Try to let go of thoughts. Focus on your breath. We drink and party and self-medicate within an inch of our lives to hammer the gnawing voices in our heads into submission; how do people think that lying still and thinking about my lungs is going to shut them up?
We drink and party and self-medicate within an inch of our lives to hammer the gnawing voices in our heads into submission; how do people think that lying still and thinking about my lungs is going to shut them up?
3:46 PM But wouldn’t it be great if it could?
5:00 PM I go to my room, which has a veranda that opens up onto the lawn that’s literally perched on the edge of the mountain, with a view so incredible it makes me giddy. The word majestic comes to mind.
8:30 PM Meditation. We all sit in a circle in a giant airy room that they refer to as the Temple. Ajija leads the meditation. She says she’ll ‘guide’ us for the first 20 minutes and then will ring some kind of gong and we’ll just hang out in silence. I’m dreading this already.
8:40 PM “Let go of your thoughts. Be present,” she chants in her sing-song voice. What do you mean be present? I’m present, I’m accounted for. I’m here. Where the fuck else would I be?
8:45 PM Her voice is soothing and my mind starts drifting off slowly. Is this what it feels like to let go of your thoughts?
I’m like about 104% sure I’m the only asshole who’s brought their phone into the holy temple but I pretend like it isn’t mine anyway.
8:55 PM My phone buzzes in the bag behind me. I’m like about 104% sure I’m the only asshole who’s brought their phone into the holy temple but I pretend like it isn’t mine anyway. I swear I put it on silent. I keep my eyes closed as if I’m super deep in meditation and didn’t even notice this phone – WHICH IN NO WAY BELONGS TO ME – buzzing, but I’m just secretly praying the instructor doesn’t point it out.
9:00 PM My mind drifts back off. It’s like that strange headspace between waking and sleeping. I can’t tell if this is meditation or sleep deprivation. Either way, I don’t notice the 20 minutes of silence go by. I feel rested when we finish.
...it’s a place to unplug and disconnect from the frenzied rush of our daily existences, as they describe it. It sounds like the perfect reprieve from my life in a crowded, hectic city that hasn’t seen fresh air since 1982.
9:10 PM I walk back to my leper smoking corner that only ever seems to be occupied by me and have a cigarette on the grass. The sky is smeared in in pastel purple because the sun sets so late. It’s so pretty. I don’t actually mind that I came alone. I feel, for lack of a less cheesy New Age phrase, at peace. I can’t remember what I almost thought about during meditation; they’re like snippets of an almost dream; wisps that evaporate, unlike actual dreams, which remain ingrained in my memory and in my gut for days.
T U E S D A Y
8:30 AM Breakfast is to be had in silence. I found that weird when they mentioned it yesterday. Like what do you mean, you want me to just be mute? But I quickly realise it is actually the best rule ever invented and should immediately be applied as law everywhere because what kind of monster wants to chit chat at 8AM anyway?
8:40 AM Breakfast is homemade yogurt with fresh blueberries, granola, strawberries, and coconut flakes. I eat it on the terrace with my book, which I haven’t picked up in 5 months. It’s The Old Man and the Sea which doesn’t even hit 200 pages so it’s pretty damn embarrassing that I haven’t finished it yet. I munch on my super Instagrammable breakfast bowl and read my book. I feel quaint.
9:00 AM Strangers come and sit at my table, quietly with shy smiles, clutching their ginger lemon teas. I don’t mind it at all. The fact that you have to be silent takes the pressure off that feeling you get when someone is with you to make conversation. I’ve actually always liked eating alone; I love meals by myself at home. There’s something ritualistic and calming about it, and I savour my food more when I’m alone somehow. It’s like taking a bubble bath but so much better because it’s food. We eat contentedly in silence.
There are butterflies chasing each other. THERE ARE BUTTERFLIES CHASING EACH OTHER WHAT IS THIS PLACE.
11 AM Yoga with Julia. I have a wrist injury, and when I climb a flight of stairs I clutch my side like a geriatric because that’s how out of shape I am, so I’m worried the yoga will be too intense. But it’s not. “I am a guide, not a dictator,” she says. “Listen to your body and do whatever feels right. If you don’t feel like doing a pose, don’t do it.” I like that. I don’t feel like I have to justify not doing something.
1 PM Lunch. I can’t stop taking pictures of the views but my camera is definitely not capturing what my eyes are drinking in. Yeah I’m still using my phone, so sue me.
3:00 PM One of the people at Mandali tells me about the founding of the place. It was actually conceived a little less than two years ago by two Dutch festival organisers who spent years in the party industry before they decided they wanted to open a center where wellness took center stage. They sold shares in their event organizing company and self-funded Mandali, which is now a non-profit. After spending years searching for a suitable plot of land, they found one in northern Italy, in the district of Verbania, high atop a mountain that overlooks Lake Orta. The property used to have an abandoned hotel on it, which they tore down to create what is now Mandali. What a cool story, I think.
5 PM Yoga with Julia. I wear my new Alo yoga pants. I do this thing where I like to buy expensive yoga pants that I never use. Having them in my closet is reassuring. Like, one day, should you decide to do yoga – usually a decision made once every six months – you have the pants.
5:15 PM This yoga is far slower than the one in the morning, and you hold each pose, which is essentially a stretch, for about 5 minutes. They’re really deep stretches, which ache a little but also feel amazing. I think I’m the best stretcher. It’s not a competition and there are at least 10 people in the class who are over 40, but whatever I’m still the best stretcher.
I’m sleeping early, I’m not drinking, and I’m not binge-watching things on Netflix or binge eating Todo brownies at midnight, so it doesn’t feel like raising the dead when I wake up. It feels fresh.
7 PM I meet a girl from LA who’s here as part of their working guest programme. So essentially at Mandali you can exchange services – be it working in the garden or in the kitchen, or handling marketing – depending on what the center needs at the time, and your skill set – for a stay there and access to their classes and facilities. She’s friendly and chatty. She shares stuff about her personal life. I usually feel distinctly uncomfortable when people I don’t know all that well tell me things about their personal life, let alone a total stranger, but for some reason I don’t mind – I’m actually kind of touched that she feels she can tell me all this. It must be all the zen vibes.
8:30 PM Meditation again. I’m more fidgety today. Yesterday I was exhausted, today my mind is back to its regular pace. I’m bored.
8:45 PM I shouldn’t have come to meditation. Yesterday was a strange and wonderful fluke; I should have quit while I was ahead.
8:47 PM I knew I shouldn’t have come.
8:48 PM Time isn’t moving.
8:48 PM No, my watch literally isn’t moving, it must be broken.
8:50 PM I can’t understand why people don’t just nap.
10 PM I get a text from my boyfriend, who is obviously getting a play by play of my time at Mandali because he thought it was great that I was going alone because of my fear of travelling solo, and that it would be a perfect opportunity for self-growth, or at least a revelation or two. ‘When do you figure out the retreat is actually a center for a cult who believe in cannibalism and once every cycle the best meditator gets turned into vegan yoghurt that is consumed at the Breakfast of Silence?’ Lol.
W E D N E S D A Y
7:45 AM I attend a morning Qi Gong class, which is, according to Wikipedia, “a holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing, and meditation used in the belief that it promotes health, spirituality, and martial arts training.” It is at the ungodly hour of 7:45 am. But I’m sleeping early, I’m not drinking, and I’m not binge-watching things on Netflix or binge eating Todo brownies at midnight, so it doesn’t feel like raising the dead when I wake up. It feels fresh.
7:50 AM The instructor, Mario, is a tall, lithe Italian man with floppy dark hair, who is equal parts eccentric and charming. He moves smoothly, guiding us into creating flowing movements, and says things like “Your muscles don’t open your arms, your heart does.” I don’t really know what that means but it sounds lovely.
8:00 AM The mist rolls up over the mountains, a phrase I think I’ve only ever read in countless books. I rarely witness it; I live in a flat, dry desert. But the mist here is literally unfurling in waves above our heads. It starts to rain lightly. Mario asks us if we want to take the class inside but no one seems bothered by the drizzle. We continue with our movements, droplets splattering on my arms. We’re a group of people in a circle swaying in movement in the rain. This is fucking poetic, I think.
We’re a group of people in a circle swaying in movement in the rain. This is fucking poetic, I think.
8:30 AM Breakfast. The fog still hasn’t cleared and it’s a chilly morning, so most people sit inside. The weather right now is gloomy at best, and that usually affects my mood. I’m a creature of the sun; I crave warmth and sunshine, and rain and clouds genuinely leave me depressed and dejected. But I don’t mind so much here. I mean, I kind of mind, but not as much as I usually do. I pick up my book.
2 PM The sun has started to peek out from the clouds so I lay out in the grass in front of my room. Every time it touches my skin I get this feeling like my 8th grade crush is smiling at me. SUNSHINE FOREVER.
2:30 PM I try to meditate on my own. I genuinely believe meditation isn’t for everyone, or maybe everyone needs to meditate in their own way. I think I’m just not the type of person who can do it sitting in a room full of people but maybe I can take something away from that room and apply it to what works for me.
2:35 PM I try to still my thoughts and stop my mind racing. I remember what Ajija kept saying in the meditation class. “If you find yourself running after your thoughts, focus on your breathing.” I focus on my breathing.
I manage to make my brain not make endless mental lists of the written lists I have to remember for about half an hour.
3:00 PM I manage to make my brain not make endless mental lists of the written lists I have to remember for about half an hour. BRAVO ME.
5 PM Yoga again. I try it with the other instructor this time, Marco. It’s in a dome. The room is beautiful. I keep getting distracted by it, noticing how symmetrical it is. Four arched glass doors, four plain wooden doors; white cement beams on the ceiling sprouting outwards from the center, which contains the only non-minimalist thing in the room – a giant insanely elaborate pastel hued chandelier I imagine Marie Antoinette might have had if she was a millennial.
5:30 PM I never Ohm in yoga classes. I just can’t. I can’t bring myself to make the sound with everyone else. It’s just weird. But this class is all about sounds and vibrations and so it’s not like I can just skip that part without looking like an asshole. I go for it. I make all the sounds. The aaahs and the oooohs and the ohhhs and the mmmms. All of them.
6:30 AM All the sounds we made individually throughout the class amalgamate to create a complete Ohm, which we do at the end of the class. We all ohm for ages, in waves, over and over. He rings the bell and everyone goes quiet but the room is still buzzing with the ghosts of our chants. It’s trippy. I’m down for it.
I think about how glad I am I came alone. That was my biggest fear about the trip.
6:35 PM Yoga class finishes and I head back to my room. I think about how glad I am I came alone. That was my biggest fear about the trip. But I’ve met people, and even in the time alone I don’t feel lonely, I feel like it’s me time. Not that I wouldn’t have had a blast with a friend – but it wouldn’t have been the experience it’s intended to be. I wouldn’t have been open to doing strange moves in Qi Gong and Ohm-ing in class, and I think my fear of meeting new people on my own sans alcohol has definitely been reduced. That’s probably why I love wine so much; to me it partially functions as a social lubricant. It makes me less anxious and also more capable of handling people I find tedious or boring. I catch sight of the two bottles I brought with me in my suitcase. I haven’t even tried to open them. Ok that’s a lie, I tried on the first night but I didn’t have an opener with me and I haven’t thought about them since.
7 PM Dinner. I have four pieces of a chocolate banana brownie cake creation for dessert. It’s so good. I don’t even like bananas.
7:15 AM I have another piece. I hope no one saw me. Whatever, it’s not like I’m at fat camp.
T H U R S D A Y
8:00 AM Alarm. I can’t. I can’t even. After 3 days of 2 yoga classes a day, my entire body aches. I feel like The Old Man in my book. But it’s also great because it means my borderline atrophied muscles are working. I’m just being a spoiled drama queen. I drag myself out of bed, spurred on by the prospect of epic breakfast.
11:00 AM Yoga with Julia. We jump around for seven minutes to shake things out; it’s a form of active meditation, we are told. As a human with abysmal to really abysmal fitness levels, I don’t generally jump around for seven minutes. I don’t jump around for one minute. I get out of breath doing a jump.
11:07 AM I’m surprised I last all seven minutes without getting tired; I feel full of energy. It’s probably because my entire lifestyle has shifted over the past 5 days. I wake up early, I’m not drinking, I’m eating healthier. The food at Mandali is not lean or detox-y at all. It’s not some sugar-free, carb-free, joy-free crap. But it is vegetarian, and it is healthy. I feel like the best description would be wholesome, delicious home cooked meals; quinoa salads, risotto, mozzarella balls, homemade yogurt, blueberry cobbler, roasted carrots, and gnocchi, are just some of the highlights. And it’s a far cry from my usual intake which includes but is not limited to several 1000+ calorie Frappuccinos throughout the day which are probably the birthplace of saturated fats, a pizza and gummy bear lunch, and anywhere from 1 to 3 melted cheese sandwiches for dinner.
1:00 PM People smile at me as I walk to the dining area to grab a coffee. I’ve noticed how everyone just flashes small smiles and hellos as they walk past you, without feeling the need to make awkward small talk. Like you’re old friends. And everyone is so damn considerate.
3:00 PM I go for a swim in their indoor pool. I love indoor pools. Something about the smell of chlorine. One entire wall running alongside the pool is lined with French doors, a veritable obsession of mine. I mentally swoon. I get in the water.
3:05 PM A swim is really an overstatement. It’s more of a balbata by the stairs while other people swim laps.
3:30 PM A glass panel separates the pool from their Jacuzzi which is outdoors, on a ledge that juts out over the mountain. I chill here for ages. It’s fucking breathtaking.
5:00 PM Yoga with Julia. STRETCHING IS SO PAINFUL AND ALSO SO AMAZING BUT SO PAINFUL BUT IN SUCH A GOOD WAY. At the end of the class she closes it with an Ohm. I do the Ohm.
I feel grateful. Grateful for getting an experience that is so out of the norm for me, and grateful for enjoying it
7:00 PM I eat dessert first because that’s just the type of person I am. It’s some kind of cross between a pie and a tart, and then the creamy part tastes like a lemon cheesecake, and it’s topped with raspberries and strawberries. It tastes like what dreams are made of.
F R I D A Y
8:30 AM I can’t believe it’s my last day already. I feel so content here, I don’t want to leave. I thought I’d get bored after 5 days alone or just feel awkward and friendless. I am definitively none of those things. I am Very Happy.
8:45 AM: I have breakfast staring at the view. There are butterflies chasing each other. THERE ARE BUTTERFLIES CHASING EACH OTHER WHAT IS THIS PLACE.
11 AM I do my final yoga class before I leave. We do the rolling ohm at the end of the class. The room – sorry Temple – has such great acoustics. The sound reverberates perfectly. We don’t sound like a bunch of New Age hippies dipping our toes into yoga, we sound like a room that is soaked in spirituality and has the aural harmony of an orchestra except we’re all sweaty and in stretchy pants and we probably sound nothing like a harmonious orchestra but it doesn’t matter because to my mind, we do.
1 PM The taxi picks us up and we drive back down the hill, along a picturesque town and past the lake we’ve been gazing at for the past five days.
2 PM I stare out the window. I feel grateful. Grateful for getting an experience that is so out of the norm for me, and grateful for enjoying it. Like I said, going outside your comfort zone is the type of thing that is said by the type of people I don’t like. But maybe now I’m one of them.
You can check out Mandali Retreats' website here.