One of my best friends Emma, who I studied social work with at university, switched careers
and is now a yoga teacher. As well as weekly group and 1:1 lessons in Northampton she also
organises yoga retreats in Marrakesh, Morocco and Goa, India. As a good friend and lover of yoga I
obviously had to go and was lucky enough to get to her retreat in Marrakesh in 2017. Covid19
robbed me of my plans to attend her retreat in Goa and travel around India in 2020 though! I’m still
waiting for my flight refund!
There were 12 of us on the retreat. We stayed at the beautiful Riad Mur Akush, in the Old City. This was my first experience of solo travel, I didn’t know anyone except Emma, and she was busy most of the time with the retreat. We had the option to have our own individual room, but I opted to share and had the best roomie. She was an older lady full of life, who made me laugh constantly and protected me from spiders! The group connected over the week with our shared love of yoga and travel and we had such a fun time together. It’s funny how you can become so close to people so quickly when sharing experiences. It’s one of the best things about travelling for me, meeting new people and making memories for life!
We had yoga twice a day led by Emma, once in the morning and once in the evening. We were left with the day to do planned activities or our own exploring of the city or simply to chill and sunbathe on the rooftop terrace. You could do as much or as little as you wanted, me being me however and having FOMO (fear of missing out), opted into all the planned activities! Every morning we did Kundalini yoga on the rooftop as the sun rose. Kundalini yoga is an ancient art and science dealing with the transformation and expansion of consciousness… the raising of the Kundalini energy through the chakras (energy points in the body) by using various breathing exercises, postures, flows, mudras and mantras. This was the first time I had tried kundalini yoga and I found the breathing exercises so powerful. ‘The Breath of Fire’ was a pretty intense experience and I could feel the rush of oxygen through my body which made me feel all tingly, like I was turning into Spider Woman! In the evenings we did a restorative yoga practice or Yin session, followed by yoga Nidra or yogic sleep. I loved the Yin yoga; holding poses for longer and really feeling the body release and start to relax in the evening was just what was needed after a busy day. Yoga Nidra came at the end of the session and is induced by a guided meditation. You’re not supposed to actually go to sleep, like several of us did throughout the week. The aim is to reach an in “between” state where your body feels completely relaxed and at ease, but you remain conscious and focus your mind. It is truly the most wonderful feeling and sets you up perfectly for a good night’s sleep.
Marrakesh is a beautiful city full of culture that hits all the senses with its vibrant colours, smells, tastes and sounds. You soon get used to the calls to prayer over loudspeakers around the city. Morocco is an Islamic country and so dressing appropriately, covering shoulders and knees, especially when entering places of worship is important and the respectful thing to do. It’s useful as a woman to carry a scarf to be able to cover up if needed and to dress conservatively when out in public. A useful phrase when travelling around Morocco is “As-Salaam-Alaikum” to greet people with which means Peace Be Upon You in Arabic. The main square in Marrakesh, Jemaa el-Fna is the bustling centre of the city where locals and tourists mingle at all hours. The square leads onto the walled Medina where you enter a maze of alleys full of souks; where vendors sell everything from spices and pottery, to clothing and carpets. Here they respect a good haggle so come with your best bartering skills! Some vendors can be quite pushy and I’ve read a lot of instances where people have said they felt harassed. I didn’t experience any problems myself and found that if I wasn’t interested and said no, thank you or “La choukran” and just walked away, this was respected.
The Koutoubia is the large mosque visible from the Jemaa el-Fna. It is a 12th century, 75m high tower and was the prototype for the Giralda in Seville, Spain. Koutoubia means booksellers and it is named as such due to the booksellers that would congregate around the tower in the 19th century. Other local places worthy for a visit include the Majorelle Gardens, a botanical garden created in the 1920s and 30s by French painter Jacques Majorelle and subsequently owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, whose ashes were scattered in the gardens when he died. Also, the Berber museum which teaches you all about the history, culture and the crafts of the Imazighen people. You have to buy tickets to enter these locations which can be done onsite or online. All the main attractions in Marrakesh are walking distance from the city centre or the Old City.
One of my favourite experiences of the week was a visit to a local cookery school and charity called Amal. Amal takes on women from disadvantaged backgrounds such as those living in poverty or facing rejection due to social stigma such as being divorced, a single mother or having a disability. Amal offers them 6 months of intense training and funds their accommodation and expenses whilst on the course. The training is focused on all aspects of the restaurant industry from cooking to cleaning, to waiting on. Once the course has been successfully completed there is a graduation ceremony where the women get an accredited certificate and a job placement to go onto. It helps transform women’s lives as well as build their confidence and empowering them. It is such a worthy cause and going to the school not only teaches you skills on making a traditional tagine but also helps these local women. Win-win!! At the cookery school we learnt how to make chicken, lamb and vegetable tagines, cooked it traditionally over a fire outside for several hours and then ate it in the sunshine. I loved the experience so much it inspired me to write my first and only ever Trip Advisor review. If you go to Marrakesh, definitely check out Amal.
One of the parts of the trip that I really struggled with was the women and children sleeping and begging in the streets and the way some of the animals are treated. Men with baby monkeys with metal collars and on a chain, snake charmers that have removed the snake’s teeth and had them repeating the same exercise over and over again. The worst thing about it was the number of tourists paying to have photos with or watch the poor creatures. Seeing these things broke my heart but there was little I could do. I simply chose not to engage with them. There were however lots of other great options for entertainment such as amazing belly dancers and super-skilled fire eaters which I enjoyed.
Amongst all the lovely activities we did, was a spa day at the Heritage Spa Massage where we had a choice of treatments. I had to have a Hammam! If you haven’t had one before you are missing out. Be prepared if you’re uncomfortable with showing your body, the expectation for women was to go topless, in just our bikini bottoms. I went for the Hammam with my roomie, who hadn’t had one before. To start with, we lay in a small personal steam room relaxing. After some time, a lady came wearing a kessa glove and vigorously scrubbed our full bodies to within an inch of our lives. It was amazing! You could see all the dead skin coming off in gross black chunks and the skin underneath was left red and fresh. It didn’t hurt but it was a very thorough and aggressive scrub. Having experienced a hammam before, I was ready for this however my roomie was quite shocked at the experience of being manhandled in such a way. Once the dead skin had been washed off us, we went into a separate room where we had a full body massage with essential oils that left the skin glowing and soft for days afterwards. It was so relaxing I fell asleep and woke up dribbling, as you do. I am now addicted to kessa gloves which I regularly use in the shower. Once I’d had the experience of completely renewed soft, silky skin, I just couldn’t get enough! You can buy them online if you enjoy a good scrub or fancy the experience of a Hammam in the safety of your own home.
Some other day trips we had included a pool day at the Jnane Tamsna hotel which is a luxury 5* boutique hotel, where we tanned, swam and practised poolside yoga. We feasted on local food at lunchtime and took lots of photos with the beautiful flowers in the botanical garden.
We also had a trip to the Atlas Mountains which are not far from the city along a very windy route through the mountains. We trekked to Imlil village at 1800m, walking over streams and past waterfalls, enjoying the incredible views. Imlil is a good starting point for a 2 day hike to the highest peak Toubkal, whose summit reaches 4167m.
Overall, my experience of Marrakesh was incredible. Every day was unique and offered something new to learn or experience. I left Marrakesh feeling renewed in mind and body and having made some unforgettable memories.
If you’re interested in Emma’s yoga and retreats give her a follow on Instagram @yogawithemma or check out her website http://www.yogawithemmakelly.com