Finding never-never land

July 23, 2014 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ In the News

It’s 8am and guest yoga teacher Mithila Ubayasekara is encouraging me to “drop into feminine and come into masculine, drop down to reach up and do a dog split”. In the week that follows, some of the other more bizarre instructions I’ll receive will include: “Wag your tail”, “waddle”, “downward duck”,” be in alien abduction” and “slosh”. It’s all part of the Yogamonks approach to aligning the spine and bringing balance into the body.

I’m at Ulpotha – a traditional working village in the jungle heartland of Sri Lanka that, for six months of the year, welcomes guests to experience a rare kind of yoga retreat. Cradled between paddy fields and a lotus-ringed lake at the base of the Galgiriyawa Mountains, Ulpotha (meaning “water spring”) is steeped in sacred mystique and natural splendour. According to local legend, pilgrims travelling from India in search of Shiva’s son, Lord Kataragama, believed Ulpotha was a sacred site associated with the deity. The land is also believed to be the playground of Prince Saliya – the son of Sri Lanka’s most legendary king, Dutugemunu, who united the country during his reign from 161-137 BC. According to myth, the Prince escaped the ancient city of Anuradhapura with his outcast gypsy wife Asokamala, who was described in ancient texts as a rare beauty in the “realm of the divine”. Through a secret tunnel, they came to live in a cave above the lake at Ulpotha.

travel4Serendipity and synchronicity
Myths and legends aside, there’s no disputing the magical beauty of Ulpotha and the profound impact it has on the human psyche. I’m fortunate enough to be at Ulpotha during one of the owner’s frequent visits to the retreat. A former investment banker turned “accidental businessman”, Viren Perera exudes the relaxed charisma of someone who knows they have a blessed life. Despite the fact he says it’s the land that makes Ulpotha special, it’s obvious that a big part of the retreat’s success has to do with his own magic.

In hearing Perera talk about how Ulpotha evolved, I come to understand that it’s the product of an unusual recipe of serendipity, synchronicity, trust and fun. “Ulpotha came about playfully,” Perera tells me. “It was never meant to be anything in particular but it seems just about perfect for whatever anyone might take it to be.”

“Ulpotha was never meant to be anything in particular but it seems just about perfect for whatever anyone might take it to be.”
He chanced upon Ulpotha in the early 1990s during a road trip with two friends – Mudiyanse Tennekoon and Manik Sandrasagra. When they came across an old man who was selling his land, Perera brought the property sight unseen because he was enchanted by the old man’s smile and energy.

As the new guardians of the land, Perera and Tennekoon set about restoring the main house (“Walauwa”) and starting a village. Tilled by human hand and threshed by buffalo, thousands of trees were planted and diverse crops were cultivated using organic indigenous farming practices that follow the lunar cycle. Eventually, the village grew in population to 40 and it was clear funding was needed to keep the project going. But wanting to make it an experiment where money didn’t matter, Perera was reluctant to involve anyone from the business world. Tennekoon’s philosophy of “leisure, pleasure and rest” took on the order of the day while Viren’s hands-off managerial style and insistence that there would be no dogma led to Ulpotha being run by a committee of villagers.

One serendipitous moment led to another and Perera and Tennekoon met Englishman Giles Scott. According to Viren it was Scott’s idea for “a more practical turn” in direction to come to Ulpotha. Giles introduced yoga as a bridge to the West, which now subsidises the village and attracts paying guests for six months of the year. The rest of the year it is for what Perera says it was always meant to be – nothing.

Sadly Tennekoon died after a long illness, but Perera and Giles have remained custodians of the land, upholding Tennekoon’s vision for Ulpotha. Ironically, Perera and Giles are not yogis, vegetarian or – by Perera’s account – even environmentally conscious. But Tennekoon’s spirit lives on. He could not entertain even having a fridge as anything more than a means “for keeping unfresh food”, so aside from a small solar panel to charge handheld devices there is no electricity or need for plastic and the other trappings of modern living.

travel2In the company of kindred spirits
“All the ingredients are here for us to live in peace, happiness and harmony with nature,” says Perera. What he likes most about Ulpotha is that to this day there’s still no fences, doors or locks. Even though the villagers scratched their heads at why Perera and Tennekoon would want to build mud huts, a commitment to only using natural materials and traditional building practices was core to their vision.

Accommodating a maximum of 23 guests at a time, Ulpotha’s lodgings consist of simple wattle and daub huts. Sparsely decorated and largely open to the outside world, the elegant simplicity is areminder of how little we really need to live comfortably. Outside my hut, buffalo work the fields, squirrels scurry along tree branches, an eagle soars, lizards laze in the sun and monkeys swing in the branches just out of reach – to the disapproval of the resident dogs Scooby Doo and Didi.

Without electricity and the distraction of mod cons, life at Ulpotha is dictated by the rhythm of the day. We rise with the sun and spend our days in the pursuit of simple pleasures like walking in the mountains, swimming in the lake and hanging out in hammocks that dot the grounds. Our daily program consists of morning and afternoon yoga, pranayama and meditation, complemented by Ayrurvedic treatments and massage with Ulpotha’s visiting therapists, including Australian Reiki practitioner Erin Kostanski.

After dark we gather in the communal area (“Ambalama”) to tell our stories. It soon becomes obvious that the very things that might frighten off some people – no electricity, yoga and meditation, cold showers, vegetarian meals and being “at one with nature” – are the very things that attract those who come here.

My fellow guests are mostly 30- and 40-somethings from all walks of life – the CEO of an agricultural business living in Norway, a Danish schoolteacher, an Iranian psychology student, the owner of a kids’ theatre group in Dubai, a former IT consultant studying yoga and Ayurveda in California and the manager of a Swedish housing organisation. They’re citizens of the world; many of them are here for their second, third or fourth visit to Ulpotha. Danish businessman Bjorn is in the third week of his second visit and says the communal area is one of the reasons he returned. “You get to know people really well, really quickly,” he says. It’s a place where friendships form easily and continue long after you leave.

travel1On the mat
Ulpotha’s rotation of yoga teachers come from around the world and an array of yogic traditions to host two-week programs when the retreat is open to guests. Mithila is here on her fifth visit and she relishes the opportunity to teach in an environment where it’s so easy to connect with nature and our own natural rhythms. Born in Sri Lanka, she now lives in Sweden and is one of only five certified teachers of the Yogamonks method in the world. With a passion for dance, she was attracted to the teachings of Jonathan Monk as “art in movement”.

“Fun, beauty and gracefulness are all part of the practice,” she says. Inspired by traditional Hatha yoga and Tai Chi, Yogamonks seeks to help the spine unwind and relax into alignment. It’s a back-to-basics approach that encourages working consciously with the opposing forces of the body through gentle but deliberate movement. The focus is on lifting and extending from the spine, pushing in one direction to lengthen into the other instead of exerting effort.

“Lead from the heart and let it lift you,” Mithila says, encouraging us to take ourselves less seriously. She’s playful and the perfect guide to help us untangle our bodies and minds from the stresses we arrived with.
“Decide where to place your mind,” she instructs as she leads us into our meditation practice. It comes easily here. The days are long and time moves slowly so the mind starts to goes with it.

travel3In the Wedagedara
The Wedagedara is Ulpotha’s version of the day spa. Since 2005, Ulpotha’s resident Ayurvedic doctor Srilal Mudunkothge has been overseeing the retreat’s holistic approach to health and healing. In keeping with the way everything else about Ulpotha has come to be, Dr Srilal arrived here after a chance meeting with Perera at the Colombo Swimming Club. An offhand comment by Dr Srilal about how hard it was to find medicinal herbs for his clinic led to Perera offering to grow the seeds at Ulpotha and an invitation for the doctor to give up his city practice to set up a traditional clinic to support the local village. A week or so after his visit, the doctor’s rent doubled and he decided to make the move. Serendipity had struck again.

Proceeds from the “tourist treatments” administered by Dr Srilal and his team go towards funding the free clinic established by Ulpotha for the local villagers. All guests receive a consultation with Dr Srilal as part of the package with the option to undergo personalised detox and rejuvenation programmes at an additional cost. I sign up for “preparatory and elimination therapies” that are steps along the path to Panchakarma (Ayurvedic detoxification). On my first visit, Dr Srilal takes my pulse and asks me a series of questions about my eating, sleeping and bodily functions to determine my “dosha”, or constitution.

“There is the constitution of the universe and the constitution of the body,” he says. According to ancient Ayurvedic philosophy, we can’t change our constitution but we can balance the body through the right combination of lifestyle, exercise and diet.

Dr Srilal prescribes daily treatments including full-body massages, facials, steams and herbal baths. I’m lathered with Indian gooseberry paste, turmeric, sesame oil, honey and milk until I have the tell tale euphoric glow and red-stained armpits and feet that come with visits to the Wedagedara.

A couple of days later, Dr Srilal reassures me that my pulse is better and the strange crawling sensation around my navel is just toxins gathering in my belly. It’s all part of the process. The other important ingredient is the food.

Based on Ayurvedic principles of balancing vatta (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water) our meals include the six tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. With fresh produce plucked from the kitchen garden and cooked in terracotta pots on open fires, there’s an earthy wholesomeness about the menu. Curries, rice, vegetables and fruit are the daily staple and, on “hopper night”, we party on Sri Lankan-style pancakes and the local brew, arak.

Frolicking on the lake with newfound friends one day, I recall Perera describing his relationship with Tennekoon and Giles. “Our connection was just about having fun and everything we did was just like playing,” he told me. His words evoke a sense of the carefree delight of childhood and it dawns on me that this place is like Never Never Land for grown-ups.

As we gather in the tea hut on my last morning at Ulpotha, I wonder if I’ve made it one step closer to the “moksha”, or enlightenment that Dr Srilal described as the ultimate goal of Ayurveda. Somewhat ironically, I catch a glimpse of a fellow guest’s tattoo and its reminder that “this too shall pass”. But for the moment I promise to hold on to the magic and memory of this little piece of sacred Sri Lanka.

Ulpotha welcomes guests for only 30 weeks of the year, from June to August and November to April. Bookings are from Sunday to Sunday and the all-inclusive package includes accommodation, meals, yoga
classes and one free massage starting at US$1300.

Additional Ayurvedic five- to 28-day programs are available at an additional cost. For dates and pricing details visit

Bookings: go to or via Ulpotha’s Australian agent Maria Chanmugam on or 0406 595 033.

Getting there: Ulpotha will organise a driver for the three-hour journey from Colombo Airport to the retreat for LKR9,000 (approximately AUD$80) each way.

Visas: a 30-day visitor visa can be obtained at

What to bring: you don’t need much, but in addition to the list Ulpotha sends you, it’s worth bringing a good headlamp or backlit e-reader for reading at night, a pedicure set and good quality shampoo and conditioner.

From: Australian Yoga Journal