Yoga and detoxing at Kamalaya, Thailand

Lucia Cockcroft, YA's editor, finds yoga, relaxation and a superlative natural environment  at the idyllic haven of Kamalaya, in Koh Samui, Thailand.



I am standing on a yoga mat in Tree Pose, gazing at sweeping views of the Koh Samui's idyllic southern coastline far below. 


A verdant fringe of coconut palms and sprakling seas unfold as far as the eye can see. It certainly beats the urban vista of cars and houses from my spare room at home - my usual venue for yoga practice.


I am lucky enough to be staying at Kamalaya Holistic Spa in Thailand's popular southern island, Koh Samui.


The seven-day one-to-one yoga programme involves a daily 90-minute yoga class peppered with a full schedule of massage treatments, and plenty of time to laze on the beach and enjoy three (fabulous) meals a day.


One of my two yoga teachers for the week is Ann, who has been teaching in Bangkok until a month ago and hails from an Ashtanga background; her training was at nearby Yoga Thailand.


The other is Lieve, a highly experienced teacher who has studied with a roll-call of big names, including BKS Iyengar, Vanda Scaravelli and TKV Desikachar.


The yoga programme is just one of nine wellness programmes at Kamalaya, designed to work on all levels - body, mind, spirit and emotions.


Guests may also choose from the following programmes: Detox, Stress and Burn Out, Healthy Lifestyle, Emotional Balance, Wellness a la carte, Longevity, Asian Alchemy and Awakening & Meditation.


Every programme includes accommodation, food and drink, airport transfers, full use of the Wellness Sanctuary facilities, and optional attendance at classes.


While I was there, guests could drop into yoga classes (yin, dynamic flow, ashtanga, principles of alignment), meditation classes, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Fit ball, Stretching, Pilates and the rather scarily named Beach Boot Camp.


The inclusive nature of the programmes means that you are free to forget about carrying around money for the length of your stay - a freeing release, and just one more potential stress to leave behind.


Letting go of stresses and demands is precisely what Kamalaya is all about. Although it would be entirely possible to rush around, trying out this yoga class, or that Tai Chi event (and many people do, at first - so accustomed are they to running around on full steam during their normal lives), a stay about Kamalaya is very much about slowing down.


A more conducive environment to relaxing would be impossible to find. kamalaya thailandCentred around an ancient cave that once served Buddhist monks as a place of meditation and spiritual retreat, Kamalaya's essence is reflected in its name.


'Lotus (kamal) Realm (alaya)', is an ancient symbol for the growth and unfolding of the human spirit.


Standing at the centre of Kamalaya, the cave is continually open for Kamalaya's guests.


A small Buddha statue is encircled by a small table bearing candles and incense, and there are a few places for people to sit in meditation or contemplation. The most recent monk to inhabit the cave, Arjan Mahasumerong, made a series of renovations that included a still-existing skylight.

Extraordinary setting
The cave aside, Kamalaya's setting is stunning: from the centre's own pristine white beach, the grounds climb steeply up a series of hills strewn with lush palm trees and tropical vegetation. As Robert Powell, Kamalaya's Architect, describes the scene well.


He writes: "It is situated on a truly extraordinary coastal landscape, climbing from a pristine reef-protected beach to a 55 metre high hilltop. A palm-filled valley leads to a steep hill scattered with gigantic granit boulders, their surfaces rounded by millions of years' exposure and patterned with lichen, moss and ferns.


"The hillside is also forested with tropical trees and rises in a series of natural terraces to the hilltop plateau with spectacular 360 degree views of the sea, beach, outlying islands, and jungle hills."


Large guest villas are sprinkled privately across the grounds - our light and spacious villa felt more like a luxury studio flat, with huge sofas, beautiful outside bathroom and large verandah with day bed, a table and chairs for stargazing.


Standard rooms are also well designed and comfortable, though much smaller.


Despite recent pockets of over-development elsewhere, the island of Koh Samui itself has long been favoured by Buddhist monks as a sanctuary for spiritual retreat. 


The island, they say, has a special energy that enriches and enlightens their spiritual path and helps them connect more profoundly with universal energies.


Kamalaya's entire facilities and accommodations have been constructed around the cave - lending the surrounding hills a special spiritual energy that adds powerfully to the existing physical beauty.


For John Stewart, Kamalaya's co-founder, the discovery of the cave and land that now constitutes Kamalaya, was instantly captivating.


Previously, Stewart spent 16 years in India as a Buddhist monk - firstly, living in a cave, followed by life in an ashram. His wife, co-owner Karina Stewart, began meditating and exploring Asian philosophies at the tender age of 14. She went onto gain a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and her training extends to Naturopathy, yoga and Taoist philosophy.


John and Karina are very much in evidence at Kamalaya - and their warmth and steadfast belief in its vision underpins everything about this special place.


Chatting to me at breakfast time one morning, John tells me that he sees Kamalaya as a cross between an ashram and a natural health sanctuary, all wrapped up in a peerlessly beautiful natural setting.


There is certainly a strong feeling of retreating from the outside world here - and though the spa is an integral part of the offering, and has won a string of awards since opening four years ago, a stay here is about so much more than the lure of the spa. 'We wanted to create an environment where people could realise that anything is possible', John says.


The offering seems to work. A third of guests (who are mainly, but not exclusively, British and German) are repeat visitors, and half of these come back two or three times a year.


Single visitors, as well as a few couples, and larger groups, are very much in evidence, and around a third of guests come alone. Women travelling alone report feeling very safe, says John.

Yoga for you
Kamalaya's yoga programmes are among the most popular. Wellness director Clive McNish says yoga is the most requested class on the busy activity schedule and, on average over a week, between 45 - 55% of guests in-house attend at least one class.


Those taking the yoga program are around 5-8% of total packages sold. Each private class is 90 minutes long, giving plenty of time for a long Savasana and to go deeply into any aspects of the practice the guests would like.


Beginners and more experienced practitioners may book onto a Personal Yoga Synergy, and the customised instruction can include pranayama and meditation.


The focus of the practice is up to the guest, whether it is developing a home practice or deepening and existing practice.


I learnt a great deal from my instructor Lieve, such is the value of a highly experienced teacher and practitioner.


Where possible, guests are matched to teachers, depending on which style they normally practice, or whether they have any injuries or specific needs. For example, those requiring a faster, flowing style with a fitness bias would be more suited to a teacher such as Ann, while Lieve's more technical approach would perhaps suit those wanting to go deeper into their practice, or fine-tune aspects of alignment.


I certinaly learnt a great deal from Lieve; not least, that I have a minor structural misalignment that results in a natural twist twist to the right - something that can be rectified over time.


Lieve also identified a weakness in my neck, which could result in strain in some poses, particularly headstand. I have been aware of this for a while on some level - looking up at my hand in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) has always been uncomfortable.


In the past, teachers have unhelpfully cranked my head round in the pose, which led me to feel I was doing the posture incorrectly on account of my stiff neck. Lieve, however, got to the nub of the problem with sensitivity, and suggested a series of exercises, performed lying down, to help strengthen the muscles around my neck.


Three dedicated yoga spaces provide the setting for lessons - the Yoga Pavilion, the Yoga Sala and the enclosed Yantra Hall, perching way above the spa.


It's a good climb to any of these venues, which all boast jaw-dropping views of the surrounding jungle and coast, so plenty of time should be left before the start of class.

There is huge value in one-to-one yoga sessions with an experienced teacher, not least for establishing areas of anatomical weakness that can then be addressed through certain postures or exercises.


Each guest booking onto a yoga programme for seven nights also receives a Vital Essential Oil massage, Royal Ayurvedic massage, Kati Vasti, Indian Head massage and two Wellness Consultations.


For those preferring the vibes of a group, however, yoga retreats take place throughout the year, with highly regarded visiting teachers.

Food and wellbeing
The massages are performed in discreet, beautifully situated treatment rooms, some with spectacular views of the sea and coast, scattered around the Spa. The therapists are of a consistently high standard.


Typically, my day would start with an early breakfast at 7am, followed a few hours later by yoga and then lunch. I would have a treatment in the afternoon, allowing for some time to lounge around on the beach or pool inbetween. kamalaya thailand


As luxurious as it is, I don't especially enjoy sitting on a beach all day, so a light programme of other activities, whether it is a massage or yoga, suited well.


For those wanting more down-time, there is always the option of booking on a room-only basis, with the cost of meals on top.


Food at Kamalaya is one of the highlights - guests can choose from an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu which is divided into detox or normal.


I chose to go on a detox for the length of my week-long stay - which meant no sugar, wheat, dairy, soy, fish, meat or alcohol. If that sounds like a hardship, it really didn't feel that way. All the food is consistently outstanding: delicately delicious flavours, beautifully presented.


One of my favourites was a zesty, delicate Banana Flower Salad: a traditional Thai salad with a twist, consisting of banana flowers, beetroot, green mango, wakame, coriander leaf, lime juice, sesame seed and chili powder.


A small selection of fish dishes included Poached Sea Bass with Soya and Thai Seafood Sauce, while Stir Fried Glass Noodles with vegetables was another favourite.


Healthy, tasty, nutritious food is at the core of Kamalaya's holistic philosophy, and each one is bursting with antioxidants from fresh herbs and vegetables. I developed an addiction to the freshly squeezed smoothies and juices (think Papaya Bee, Ginger Tamarind Cooler, or Detox Papaya Moo); the best I have had anywhere. My absolute favourite was Detox Berry Coco - coconut water and flesh, blueberries, and green apple juice.


Kamalaya is somewhere to go to be nourished, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Its powerful combination of yoga, Tai Chi and other mind-body classes; massages and treatments; fabulous food; and the pure beauty of the surroundings, kept the 'real' world firmly at bay. By the end of the week, I felt cared for, revitalised and inspired.


The challenge, of course, is to take elements of the Kamalaya philosophy and lifestyle weave them into everyday life. A week later, I am still weaned off caffeine and chocolate; two staples that, pre-Kamalaya, I was consuming greedily several times a day.


The process of making small, important changes in life - essentially, dropping negative habits - is always that little bit easier after staying somewhere special and inspirational. A challenge, certainly, but not an impossible one.



A three-night Personal Yoga Synergy package costs from £1,000 for three nights for a Hillside room with garden view, or £1,770 for a double. Prices for seven nights are £1,989 or £3,377 for two. Cost includes all yoga tuition, meals and soft drinks, airport transfers, and unlimited use of the wellness centre and classes. For more information, see



Asana of the Month

Yoga Travel

Writer and yoga teacher Sarah Dawson re-discovers contentment at Portugese retreat centre, Vale de Moses.


Mindfulneses author & coach Shamash Alidina explains the importance of switching from 'doing' to 'being'.