Full Moon Magic: A Starry Retreat in Sri Lanka

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I landed in Sri Lanka in the dead of night — 3am, to be exact, though, approaching my third continent after twenty hours of travel, I was a timezone entirely unto myself.  The crescent moon barely illuminated the city lights of Colombo as we descended upon the nation’s capital. Though, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the phases of the moon, had I cared to look up at the sky that night. Or even rationalize the purpose of my trip — a Souljourn Yoga retreat in the seaside town of Hikkaduwa — had you asked me years prior. 

Though I’d attended my share of classes and knew how to work my way through a Vinyasa flow, I would never define myself as a yogi. In America, that word conjures up images of overpriced green juice, ‘mindfulness smoothies’, and Nama-Slay crop tops. Wellness, as a concept, feels marketed to an entirely different segment of humanity — and they’re not travel writers with a penchant for over-indulgence and martinis. 

The sun over Sri Lanka's lush jungle

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

Which is why, had you told me a few years ago that I’d be setting out for my second international yoga retreat this winter, I wouldn’t have believed you. The international part, certainly. And the destination, Sri Lanka, had been on my bucket list for nearly a decade, sparked by photos I’d seen from fellow writers who’d returned from idyllic train rides through the lush green mountains and embarked on morning safaris through the dry monsoon forests. 

No, it’s the yoga element that would have given me pause. Why travel halfway across the world to do the same stretches I can attempt on my mat at home?

My entire perspective changed, however, one balmy evening in southwest Morocco, halfway through my inaugural getaway with Souljourn Yoga. The retreat’s emphasis on using yoga as a means of not only connecting with ourselves and our own bodies, but with the world beyond — through community service with local NGOs and cultural pilgrimages to sacred sites — appealed to the seeker and adventurer within me. I’d always found the wellness industry’s obsessive focus on the self to be limiting and counterintuitive to experiencing genuine contentment, or connection to the sublime. 

But Souljourn’s mission was the antithesis of all that. If I were to plan my own visit to Morocco, I realized, I’d have planned it exactly the same — or, as near to that magical journey as humanly possible. (And, I may not know much, but after visiting 86 countries over the course of my career, I do know a spectacular itinerary when I spot one. Or, in this case, sign up for one.) 

And, crucially, all my professional globetrotting experience notwithstanding, I’d not have been able to recreate that enchanting excursion on my own. Souljourn’s mission as an NGO is to empower women’s economic development and girls’ education on every retreat. Which is how I ended up volunteering with Berber girls at a secondary school in the Atlas Mountains earlier that day, and sipping mint tea at Kasbah du Toubkal (one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World) later that afternoon. It may have been my first Souljourn retreat, but I already knew it wouldn’t be my last. 

A buddhist monk in front of a beautiful white temple

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

Which brings me, of course, to my stay in Sri Lanka — a retreat whose mission mirrored the first. “We use yoga as a portal into other communities and other cultures,” says Souljourn Yoga founder, Jordan Ashley. “We go inwards to go outward, so we’re more open and more receptive to the world.” And, in Sri Lanka, it was easy to connect our morning stretches and breathwork to catching waves with Salty Lanka surf school along the white-sand coastline of Galle (the nation is a major international surf capital). The physical act of yoga and surfing is quite similar — dropping into your body, staying mindful and present as you navigate the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean atop a longboard, careful to maintain your balance, intentional with your gaze (where you look is where you’ll surf), and grateful for every wave, or riptide, you’re lucky enough to catch. 

This sense of earthly wonder was present again on a morning safari in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s first National Park, which is home to the highest density of leopards and Asian elephants on the planet. Watching the male peacocks quarrel with their competitors in the verdant grasslands of South Asia, donning their finest plumage in the desperate hopes of attracting a mate, reminded me of similar rituals in dive bars on the Upper East Side. (If only our human suitors were as finely dressed).

The author volunteers with the Rosie May Foundation

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

But I wasn’t just moved by our connection to the natural world, but by the hope and promise of a strengthened connection to one another. We spent an afternoon volunteering with the Rosie May Foundation, whose Think Pink Tuk-Tuk program empowers single mothers to start their own businesses within an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Tuk-tuks are the main form of transport in Sri Lanka, and male drivers are the rule — unless, of course, the exterior is pink. Every magenta rickshaw motoring down the street is a symbol of female liberation: 

“We have disrupted the male tradition of tuk-tuk driving; before, women drove only for personal reasons,” says project manager Ramani de L.W. Samarasinha. “We started out focusing on the Galle district, but now we’re looking to expand to all of Sri Lanka. The women we’ve trained love to drive. They love to be the pioneers and break tradition.”

Views of a temple in Sri Lanka

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

So, it was on that final evening that I arrived at the Raja Maha Vihara temple with a renewed sense of optimism — inspired by the women I’d met that afternoon, and those I’d bonded with during the retreat. They, too, had been drawn to Sri Lanka in search of transcendence — isn’t that why we all travel? — and on that final night, we encountered the divine, for we had been lucky enough to visit during a full moon. In Sri Lanka, the occasion of a full moon is a national holiday — schools are out, businesses are closed, and at sunset, everyone gathers at the nearest Buddhist temple (of which there are many) to pay their respects. 

And so it was that we donned our finest white attire — the customary uniform, no shoulders or knees exposed, of course — to attend a Full Moon Ceremony. Presenting my offering at the altar, I reflected on how life is as beautiful and fleeting as a lotus flower. Transient, and yet with moments of magic, devastatingly gorgeous in full bloom. And the eternal majesty of the moon, with its regular rhythms in the sky — waxing, waning, and, for one starry evening, shining bright in its otherworldly glory before retreating back into darkness. 

The full moon that evening illuminated everything I’d internalized over the past week — how we’re all interconnected, we’re all just visitors to this earth. I recalled the words of Sugunalankara Thero, a Buddhist monk I’d met earlier that week in Hikkaduwa: “Life is like a waterfall, we don't know how long it will last until it ends.” And, in that moment, I relished in the freedom and possibility such weightlessness provides.

“Nobody is perfect,” said Thero. “We make mistakes, we say the wrong things, we do wrong things. We fall, we get up, and we move on. That is what life is.”

All we can do is stay present, and try to find the beauty in the pain of being alive. It reminded me of my yoga class that morning — you breathe in, you breathe out, you let it go. 

I’d traveled halfway across the world to reconnect with my inner self, to rediscover my childlike sense of wonder, of possibility. How often do we look up at the sky at night and reflect upon the stars? It’s a practice I’ll maintain for eternity (or my own lack thereof), even through the light-polluted haze of Manhattan. Or, at least until I feel the need to seek out the sublime once again. Preferably on my next Souljourn Yoga retreat — perhaps I’ll head down to Cape Town this time. There’s a whole world to explore. See you there.

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