Yoga On A Greek A Greek Island

Yoga in an idyllic setting led to new discoveries and liberations. . .

It’s six forty-five in the morning. Light is filtering through the wall of the bamboo hut I live in and the sound of goat bells reach across the stillness of dawn. The sun is not yet above the forested hills of Skyros to the East, but another day has begun for me on this Greek island.

The night was so warm I slept naked, despite having no doors or glass in the window of my hut. As I dress 1 can see the Aegean almost mirror smooth in the small bay of Atsitsa. I remember how on the previous morning I had taken a paddleboard out on the sea toward the nearby island. The water had been so clear I could watch the hundreds of fish thirty feet beneath me as if I were flying above them.

Now, as I walk to the washroom I pause to let the powerful stillness of the morning nourish me. The goat bells, the challenging cock-crows, and the occasional human voices from the few Greek houses in Atsitsa only emphasise the silent peace of hills and sea.

At seven thirty I’m ready to walk with the others to the finger of land where we practise our yoga and meditation. On three sides we are surrounded by ocean, and our mats are spread amidst fir trees. As we start with some movements to increase circulation and stretch joints, we are still in the shadow of the hills. But soon the sun tops the trees and the heat of the day begins, penetrating us, and easing away the pain in hips and shoulders a colder climate may have encouraged to develop.

This is the time when, in our stretching and meditation, we can learn to listen to our being. We can learn to hear the voice of our own living process. We hear it not only in our aches, but also in our pleasure; our lethargy, as well as our excitement. Listening to these voices, we can hear the wisdom of our being speak to us.

Nico has learnt from the chronic stiffness in his back that he has so busily cared for other people’s needs that the tension in his back has built up due to his own repressed need for rest and satisfaction.

As we practise our yoga, the cosmic ritual once more unfolds and the sun turns the sea blue again. After we finish the postures there is time for meditation. Keeping awareness centred on our physical sensations of body shape and the sun’s warmth on our skin, we guide consciousness out of a thinking relationship with the sound of the sea, and the smell of resin from the trees, and allow our inner silence to respond. We find our favourite place to sit in our meditation, and let the beauty of the spot speak to us.

Breakfast follows meditation. We help ourselves to the Greek yoghurt, made creamy by the removal of the acid whey. That, and the fresh grapes, peaches and figs of the island, marks the start of the day for those who didn’t join in the yoga, or the alternative class of aerobics.

The Atsitsa Club opened for the first time in July of 1984 Atsitsa has been a mining village. The tree covered surrounding hills show no scars, but the miners left behind the building which was their office, and then a school. Dina and her husband Yannis bought the tumble-down building several years ago and began the slow process of renovation, erecting solar heating, putting in a generator for electricity, and piping water from a distant well. Being so newly finished, the building still looks a little stark. But the many new trees and vines planted around it should soften and mature it in coming years.

Although Yannis is Greek and Dina American, their home is in London. Their involvement with Atsitsa began because they built the therapeutic community of the Skyros Centre in the main village of the island, and Yannis then had the idea of a summer holiday community, devoted to holistic health and an outdoor life. So the participants who book for a fortnight’s holiday can take part in not only yoga and aerobics, but also have the opportunity to learn windsurfing, snorkelling and swimming, or experience Greek dancing, dream workshops, learn to explore their unconscious creativity in Dina’s visualisation group: take part in a play, hear talks on naturopathy, or just join in an after dinner discussion or a sing-along.

During my own stay, the favourite activities were windsurfing, yoga, massage and visualisation. But an aspect many people enjoyed was that we not only played as a community but also shared the kitchen work and cleaning This led occasionally to people cooking their favourite recipes for the group about thirty. This was a challenge because there were only gas rings and an outdoor Greek oven, which is a cross between a bonfire and a pottery kiln. Nevertheless we did manage at least one successful cake and an excellent curry in between Debbie, the cook’s ongoing achievements. After a local Greek woman showed us the traditional style of bread-making, three of us tried our hand. Discounting the fact that the top of the loaves got burnt, and the middle loaf didn’t cook in the centre, they were great.

If you like your yoga on a plush carpet instead of pine needles, and your dinner in a hotel dining room instead of outdoors under a thatch of bamboo, eaten to the sound of crickets and the thump of the generator. Atsitsa is not for you. But it does have a charm which causes some participants to funk out of going home until weeks after they had planned. I noticed that these ‘old timers’ developed a crazy style of yoga all their own I remember seeing Kate sitting on a lonely rock at sunrise staring out to sea. Petra found that taking a fiat paddleboard out into the ocean allowed her to meditate in the midst of a sunset’s mystery. For myself, I discovered a previously hidden need to occasionally spend hours alone in the forest – or stand by the sea to look at the almost violent beauty of the stars on a moon-less night. For others, an evening’s highlight was a drink of retscina at the local taverna; or a visit to the disco at Skyros village to watch the Greek men compete with each, other in their dancing.

For many people, Atsitsa gave them the new experience not only of yoga on the seashore, or windsurfing, and of discovering their inner world in visualisation, but also of living two weeks in close community without television, radio, or easy exterior diversions. Maybe that is why Fiona’s meditation group before the evening meal was an important time for some to centre and be with each other quietly.

At the end, Dina asked each of us what our experience of Atsitsa was; whether we had one memory more important than the others, and what we would carry away.

Being something of a hermit in my everyday life at home, the important thing I learnt is that to live happily in close community it is necessary to have meaningful ways of contact with the others, My lonely star gazing had to be balanced by shared work, discussion, and swimming.

One of my strongest memories is of apparently flying off the edge of the world while snorkelling. From the experience of swimming amidst hundreds of coloured fish above the sea bed twelve feet away. I discovered at the end of Atsitsa Island that unexpectedly the sea floor dropped shear into unseeable depths of blue, Swimming above that precipice was breathtaking -going beyond was a journey into space and shafts of light.

What my inner self has taken from the whole experience is a sense of going beyond boundaries and realising that sport and community are also a path of yoga. This was particularly well illustrated in the wind-surfing. People like Diane arrived, unable at first even to stand upright for long on the board, let alone raise the sail. Gradually, by learning a relationship between her own being, the board, the sea and the wind, she managed to sail a few yards before plunging once more into the warm sea.

Although the bay was there, with the island in the middle of it and the open sea beyond, she couldn’t at first manage even to sail across the bay. There were no prison bars or walls holding her back from the great ocean except her own inability to relate to the forces of nature within her and outside in a creative way. But there came a day when she took the wind in her sail and skimmed with it out beyond the bay to the ocean, around the island and back, In a similar way I can see we are all imprisoned: not able to reach beyond the tips of our fingers, or beyond our mental concepts and emotions. We are trapped in the bay of ourselves until we learn the creative relationship with the life forces we are. Then we can sail with them into the wider awareness beyond our smallness. There is nothing holding us back but ourselves.

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