Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

While Varkala is not India’s ground zero for yoga,  a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at this poster, until I saw a beautiful woman do a similar pose on the beach, with legs in lotus position, propped on one hand. This otherworldly creature then gracefully disengaged her limbs and strode into the ocean – the far north end of the beach where no-one swims and where red flags warn of dangerous currents.  Does advanced yoga promise immortality?

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Another poster seems to suggest cult membership, or at the very least the chance to have a scary boyfriend for a while.

And no, dear yogi friends, I’m not mocking. My body would be very grateful if I bought a yoga mat and actually used it. After a week here, I feel inspired.

Varkala is a seaside town in the south of India – with beaches that are not, in my humble opinion, nearly as lovely as those in Goa, but still… a holiday within a holiday. We needed a week to get off the road, stop travelling, stop sightseeing and just enjoy doing nothing. It has achieved all of that and more.

We booked into the Keretheerum – a nine-room guesthouse down a lane and a half-block to the beach. Clean, quiet, A/C, balcony and on-site laundry – perfect.

We could have stayed here, but we figured it might not measure up to the original.

We could have stayed here, at Clafouti Hotel – very pretty beach resort, but just a shade over our budget.

We did eat a lot of our meals at their restaurant –  affordable, great views, warm, professional staff and clean, delicious food. Here is a view from our favourite table. We sat directly behind this table to stay in the shade and avoid the stream of vendors going by.


A big chunk of the beach area is on top of a cliff, with stores and restaurants and hotels on one side and the cliff on the other. There are a few staircases that lead down to the beach.  The path runs for a few kilometres and in parts, it is like this – scenic and clean and fenced for safety.


In other parts, it is like this – scruffy and filled with garbage.

The garbage in town and on the beach and in the water is extremely distressing. The Sea of Arabia is a priceless asset and no-one seems to care. There is a sign in our room asking  us to avoid plastic as the municipality does not collect garbage and it is either being burned or thrown over the cliff.

We have seen small signs to improve the situation – workers on the beach picking up garbage, and small trucks coming by to take away huge nylon bags filled with trash, but it is a drop in the bucket. I watched a man finish his lunch and casually toss the wrapper over the  cliff – that action was as natural and unconscious to him as breathing.

At first,  swimming at Varkala felt wonderful. The water is warm and there are good waves to play in.

But we aren’t in the water for long when a piece of plastic wraps around our ankles, or we step on something that feels distinctly icky. We try not to swallow any water. By contrast, our swimming in Goa was blissfully clean.

We have been greatly amused by Varkala’s lifeguards. Neatly dressed in blue, they spend their time either checking their cellphones, or gossiping with their partners. Periodically they leap to their feet and emit several short blasts on their whistle all the while motioning with their red flag to either come in, or move down the beach. Of course, no-one pays any attention and this scenario is repeated all afternoon.

We wondered what they would do in the case of a drowning, since they are not equipped with lifesaving apparatus – not as much as a ring or a board. Also, the first dilemma would be to safely stash their cellphones and remove their nice shirts.

We stopped to talk to them and they told us that their job involves saving several Indians every year, since “Indians don’t know how to swim. ”  We had gathered that – many  Indians simply play at the shore’s edge, often hanging on to one another for support.

Since lifesaving is obviously not a big moneymaker, our new friend also volunteered that we might want him to take us out on a dolphin-watching tour. We could swim with the dolphins, but not touch – we might end up in jail for that offence. Anyway, it could be dangerous to get too close – since we are Canadians and come from a cold country, we are “fresh meat.” After a great laugh at his own joke, he jumped up for a photo.

The surfers were out in full force on one end of the beach. There seemed to be a collegial community of about 15 or so surfers, both Indians and foreigners.

The south end of the beach also serves as a bathing and religious area for Hindus. A couple of days ago, we stumbled upon a ceremony. Several small huts were set up, with holy men administering blessings and small food offerings for departed loved ones. We aren’t sure of the significance of this ritual, but watched as people would receive the food and blessing, then walk toward the water.

It appeared solemn, but not sad – I believe this is a regular occurrence to honour the dead. The food offerings, wrapped in banana leaves, were left behind.

Although we are not religious, it is always an interesting part of our travels to observe how people practice their faith. We met an Indian woman from Delhi who has great disdain for “all those little Hindu rituals” but I found that dismissive. We have witnessed Indians receive comfort and affirmation with those actions.

India’s religions have played out powerfully in their history and continue to play out today. Not for me to comment in any way, but it is impossible to be in India for longer than a day and not witness the impact of religious conflict and the seemingly impenetrable divisions that have shaped life here. The Modi government appears to want to eradicate Christian and Muslim religions; violence has broken out in many parts of the country.

Ironically, India continues to attract droves of spiritual seekers. They are perhaps drawn to the irresistible notion of nirvana that so few Indians seem able to attain.

That is what makes India so endlessly fascinating – the questions with no answers, the dilemmas with no easy solutions, and the stereotypes that might deserve a second look.

We’ve all heard about the male stare in India, and it is no exaggeration. This young man has a pushback; either he is trying to change that negative impression, or he just wants to be a little cheeky.


Along with the many stores that line the clifftop, Varkala has a number of Tibetan shops. I remember when singing bowls became popular years ago in North America, which also brought back memories of purchasing Indian bedspreads and incense.

These are quite beautiful – I watched as the shopowner demonstrated for a couple of tourists.

To walk the clifftop is to run the gauntlet of shopkeepers, keen to stop you long enough to lure you inside. Mainly, the shops offer identical merchandise – beachwear, gauzy dresses, sandals and jewellery.

Some of the stuff looked quite nice, but since no amount of pleading will convince the merchants to allow you to browse without being hassled to death, I didn’t dare stop.

There are quite a few tailors in Varkala as well, offering ready-to-wear and custom designs.  I couldn’t resist this sign as I realized I no longer own a “dearest piece of clothing”  There are times when living out of a suitcase and wearing the same easy-wash, low-wrinkle clothing gets very, very boring.


Our first night in Varkala, we ate at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sun set behind this palm tree. It was so tropical, so romantic…and then we saw a rat run up the trunk. I think my aversion therapy to rats is coming along nicely – I keep seeing them and my reactions are becoming less hysterical.


Ir you look closely at this photo, you will see a few lights – the night fishermen were just setting up. In the morning, they might bring in a prize like this – yellowfin tuna. And yes, those are Stephen’s feet in the background.

We’ve had a perfectly relaxing week in Varkala and now we’re ready to go exploring again. Off to Pondicherry tomorrow – India’s French colonial city – we’ve been promised real croissants. We’re there for a few days of civilized, leafy ambience.

19 thoughts on “Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

  1. Lovely Ginny and Stephen. You sat next to us in a restaurant in munnar , we bumped into you in a restaurant in Varkala, then we both were walk-in off the beach at the same time and now we find out we’re staying in the same little guest house! Uncanny but I’m very glad Darren and I have met you both as we have had some great chats and are now armed with knowledge from you of other places to visit and have adventures in. I love your blog and will be following! Xxx


    1. Dear Julia – I was really surprised that we left Varkala and did not run into you again!
      I’m really glad we met as well – it is people like you and Darren that make travelling such an adventure.

      Thanks for following – keep in touch and let us know where you plan to go next.


  2. Your blogs always make us laugh. You definitely have a good attitude dealing with India. Not sure what your future plans are but please leave enough time for Rajasthan. You must get out to Jaisalmer. When we are back on Gabriola we always think of the life going on in Jaisalmer!
    Hugs Sheila and Jim


    1. Oh we are most definitely going to Rajasthan – we’ll be in Jaipur for Holi – March 2. We’re in Pondicherry now, then Varanasi, and then a few weeks in Rajasthan before heading north for our last couple of weeks. Everyone we’ve met loves Jaisalmer – so curious to see it.

      We’re really enjoying your adventures as well – Valparaiso is right up my alley – I love street art, and this looks beyond.


  3. Sounds very interesting. Can relate to the beach garbage. Our Indian friend organized a clean up every second weekend and they would get 2 tons of garbage in a cleanup, neverending but hopeful. It is so strange that they discard their wrappers etc. It seemed that was getting worse just because fast food with packaging was on the rise. Sad to see the cows munching styrofoam cups and plastic bags etc. Remember the Litterbug Campaign in our own country in the 50’s/ 60’s? Seems they have just not clued in….just bend over and pick it up, there’s millions of you! One day perhaps……Enjoy Pondicherry.


    1. I do remember the Litterbug campaign well, and the poop and scoop campaign and the seatbelt campaign, and the drinking and (not) driving campaign. It doesn’t matter where we live, we all seem to have to be educated!

      The challenge with Varkala and probably many other parts of India, is that the municipality does not have a garbage pickup. there are not garbage cans anywhere, so it falls to the individual to make arrangements for their own garbage pickup.


  4. I am savouring every post with delight! Thank you for the sharing your experiences, thoughts, informative facts and tidbits and for the chuckles. I am learning so much and your photos are exquisite! This is my favourite blog!


    1. Aw thanks Elsa – that means a lot to me. The blog has become a focus for me, a type of discipline that I need to balance everything off.

      And it’s a connection to our friends and family – I don’t know what I’d do without that.


  5. I’m glad to hear the two of you got some R & R … travelling can get quite tiring at times, I’m sure. Couldn’t get over the two very different photos of the pathway leading down to the beach – talk about a contrast! Such a shame to look at your pictures of the water and the beach and realize they are not as pristine as they first appear due to all the garbage. It sounds as if some parts of India have a long way to go environmentally.


  6. The Indians’ experience with ‘throwaway” culture will likely be less lengthy than ours has been- as the trend seems to be to keep up with the times. An environmental movement is surely gathering steam there, as it us in other parts of Asia.


    1. I’m not sure if you would call it a “throwaway ” culture here, as it’s not really about middle-class consumerism and waste. From research and chats with locals, the issues of garbage has been a problem for decades. It is massive and widespread, and worse in the cities – some municipalities don’t even have pickup services as they have no place to dump. There’s no recycling, no composting, very little sorting of garbage. People burn their garbage, plastics included, so air quality in many areas is bad. They just had a fire in Delhi’s dumps that took forever to extinguish – an ongoing problem they’ve had there for years. Delhi has the worst air quality in the world. As well, most of the country’s sewage is untreated and goes into their water sources.

      That said, there are many environmental groups doing great things, but it is so hard to make a significant and lasting difference, except in some small areas. It’s not that Indians are dirty or careless, it is so much more complex than that – lack of governmental will and meaningful investment, corruption, lack of continuity between states, even municipalities. Few garbage cans around. No recycling containers around, except in the airports. Generational behaviour that has little motivation to change. Lack of educational campaigns…it goes on and on.

      I’ve met a number of Indians who are so frustrated by this huge problem – they’re educated and well aware of the perceptions of India that exist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Western nations went through this, in the three centuries of the Industrial Age. It is an ongoing struggle, everywhere, so I do not mean to single out India, or any other nation.


  7. Ah Ginny and Steve, it is always with such pleasure that I follow your travels, I love the pics, the humour, the commentary!
    Ginny I am very impressed with your rat phobia progress! When you come back home I will leave you the honour of naming the little one that lives in our compost! We haven’t found a way to get rid of this little guy that chews his way from every angle….



    On Sun, Feb 18, 2018 at 5:40 AM, Leaving Ourselves Behind wrote:

    > leavingourselvesbehind posted: “While Varkala is not India’s ground zero > for yoga, a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping > over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and > beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at t” >


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