A holistic retreat centre by the sea on the Gower Peninsula, Wales, provides the perfect setting to dekink and unwind. Elisabeth Mahoney signed up for a weekend course at Seren Retreat.

Some half a million people in Britain regularly take yoga classes. The setting is usually a busy gym or draughty church hall – where you are mat-to-mat and always next to someone far more supple – and is rarely conducive to serene contemplation.

As our lives feel ever more frenetic, the growing popularity of yoga and meditation in the West means that there are now yoga-based retreats in some of the world’s loveliest locations, and often by the sea. Yoga is quintessentially spiritual and elemental, and creates a meditative nook away from the nagging pace of daily life. Nothing aids that quite so much as a sea view and the soothing repetition of the waves.

You don’t have to jet off to a pricey long-haul destination for a yoga break, though. Tucked away on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, for example, is an Ayurvedic yoga retreat offering bespoke breaks, for complete novices through to hardcore yogis, near spectacular coastal scenery.

I’m nearer the novice end of things, but am drawn by the fact that the retreat looks serious (one-to-one yoga sessions and a gentle detox) but also cosseting (a hot tub under the stars). I dust the cobwebs off my yoga mat and head west.

9am A fiery type
The day begins by having an in-depth consultation with Ayurvedic practitioner Alaea Benyon, who runs the retreat with yoga teacher husband Rex. She asks me some questions, aimed at identifying which of the four Ayurvedic constitutional ‘types’ (doshas) I am (Earth, Fire, Water or Air). The focus is on energy levels, digestion, sleep patterns, emotional wellbeing and family or relationship issues, to help her build a holistic picture. Alaea tells me that I’m predominantly a Fire type, with some Earth, too, and that everything is pretty well balanced. Phew. Because of a punishing work schedule of late, though, my mind needs calming. She recommends a full-body massage with oils, and a sauna. This yogic healing business sounds a doddle.

11am Lulled to sleep
The massage is blissfully relaxing and individually tailored, Alaea explains, to suit my constitution. Her strokes are firm but by the time she’s massaging oil into my scalp, I’m ready to nod off. The sauna is infra-red and more comfortable to sit in than conventional ones. Embarrassingly for a fiery type, I soon fall asleep.

2pm Stretches on the sand
After a lunch of vegetable soup and home-grown salad topped with pomegranate seeds – all the food is vegetarian, in accordance with Ayurvedic principles, and seasonal – Alaea suggests I visit the beach at Rhossili, ten minutes’ drive away, for what she calls its ‘spiritual energy’. It is certainly wild, windy and empty: perfect for some rusty yoga stretches with no one looking on. As I walk along the shoreline, I’m pleased to see that, as at the retreat, I have no mobile phone reception at all.

6pm One-to-one yoga
It’s time for pre-dinner yoga with Rex. He’s been teaching it for 35 years and practises Kundalini yoga daily. This branch of yoga works with short, simple exercises rather than tricky contortions, and emphasises breathing to increase energy. He guides me through postures: some are easy; others reveal a distinct lack of suppleness on my part. I love the way it’s completely at your own pace and ability. Once we’re done, dinner is simple and delicious, and the only distraction as I dine alone is some soothing harp music. The time to myself feels luxurious.

8am An early start
Pre-breakfast yoga is recommended for Fire types, who tend to be morning people. This session is more demanding, but more rewarding,too, as I can already see progress in some postures. Kundalini yoga involves some chanting, but I can’t get beyond the embarrassment factor with this, especially when the doorbell goes and Rex doesn’t hear it because he’s in a chanting trance. I just hope the caller can’t see me.

11am Walking tall
It’s time for polarity therapy. This acupressure massage, a bit like shiatsu or all-over reflexology, is administered through clothes to release energy blocks and unlock tensions. Rex works on my knotty laptop-suffering shoulders and then finds an area on my lower back, which is so painful I yelp. The problem’s a revelation to me and goes back to a horse-riding accident a few years back. After what seems like aeons of prodding, the pain subsides. It is only when I stand up, though, that I realise the difference Rex has made: my spine feels elastic; I feel fantastic and, weirdly, taller.

2pm Off to Three Cliffs Bay
Free time, so I explore the retreat’s private grounds: 23 acres including an ancient oak forest and a river that, as Rex has shown me on the map, winds down to Three Cliffs Bay. There’s a swing over the river, on which I gleefully channel my inner child, a stone circle and lots of magical touches, such as a heart made of twigs hanging on a branch. You could practise yoga outdoors in isolation here, but I like the sound of the walk to the sea instead. It’s a glorious 90-minute amble, through the Gower village of Ilston with its medieval church, tracing the river until it brings me to cliffs overlooking Three Cliffs Bay and Pennard Castle. I secure my yoga mat with sticks and practise what Rex has taught me. I get funny looks from walkers, but am too chilled out to care.

7pm De-stressed and glowing
‘We ought to do before and after photographs,’ Alaea says at dinner, remarking how much healthier I look. They recommend a minimum of three nights here to see real results, but even this short visit has left me de-stressed and glowing. Later, under an inky-black sky, I slip into the hot tub and think about small improvements I can make to my life before heading off for the best night’s sleep in ages.

A three-night healing break at Seren Retreat costs £450 and includes a lifestyle consultation, all meals, daily yoga and bodywork sessions, and use of facilities. Further nights can be added at £150 (serenretreat.com).

  • How to get started
    The British Wheel of Yoga is the national organisation promoting yoga, and its website (bwy.org.uk) is an inspiring mine of information. To find a class, try localyogaclasses.co.uk, which allows you to search by types of yoga as well as location. Yoga retreats in other coastal locations include weekends at The Grange by the Sea in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight (details at skyros.com), and Jala Flow Yoga, which offers yoga retreats and holistic weekend breaks in the seaside town of Sidmouth (details at jalaflowyoga.org/home).
  • What it costs
    You don’t need fancy clothes or equipment for yoga. Any loose-fitting clothes are fine and all you really need is a mat, from £10 – it’s worth opting for one with a bag. Yoga classes vary in cost, but expect to pay from around £5 per hour outside of London, and from £7-£8 in the capital. Signing up for a series of classes can work out cheaper and, once you’ve mastered the basics, you can practise at home for free. If you do yearn for some stylish specialist yoga clothing, try yogastudiostore.com.
  • Where to stay
    Seren Retreat, Bryncoch Farm, Gower (01792 371421, serenretreat.com). Just a few miles west of Swansea, Seren Retreat offers four-star en-suite accommodation in a self-contained annexe as the base for retreats. Half-day mini-retreats are also available and are a great top-up following a residential stay. B&B is available year-round without a retreat package; rates from £90 for a double with shared bathroom. Treatments and yoga lessons can be booked separately.