You’ll fully understand what it means to relax with help of Greek mother and daughter on this island paradise
By Jean West.
PERCHING, a tangle of arms and legs in Eagle pose, the turquoise Aegean stretching endlessly before me, I breathe in the early morning light and begin to falter.
It is 7am, an hour when most holidaymakers are recharging their batteries, and I’m about to fall off my perch after a rather seismic wobble. But somehow, it feels OK.
They don’ t seem concerned as I retreat into child pose. Maybe it was meant to be?
After all, I’m on the Greek island of Ikaria, named after hapless Icarus, who proved no better at being a bird than me. His efforts at avionics, as he flamboyantly fled a Cretan jail, ended in a pile of feathers and a crash landing into the sea.
After years in exile, his father, Daedalus, had insisted: “Don’t fly too close to the sun my boy – or you’ll regret it!” But eager youth deafened him and as he powered to the light, his fragile wings and freedom-seeking dreams disintegrated with the wax gluing them together.
It’s a useful fable this one for framing Sophia’s brand of yogic wisdom imparted at yearly retreats on the Greek islands and in weekly classes in Thessaloniki. Her steadfast approach eschews the trappings of the west where yoga is becoming a big-business body-sculpting alternative to the gym.
This she feels is missing the point. Grounding and energising a motley bunch of European adventurers, who may themselves dally close to the edge at times, it becomes clear that of the 3000 Greek islands, she didn’t just pluck Ikaria from some random tombola.
The azure haven, where ancients followed the rhythm of the land and seasons and celebrated the wisdom of the earth and its offerings, is one of only five Blue Zones worldwide, whose natives are studied by scientists for their longevity, routinely reaching 100.
Here the natural elements are as much in your face as the billboards and traffic jams of London and New York that so ramp up adrenaline, leaving bodies screaming for repair.
But Sophia, who trained in seventies London and India with various gurus, including Iyengar himself, likes to follow the tide, quite literally. The ocean waves, the sun, moon and stars, shrubs, leaves and plants, textures and sounds of the earth, become part of her calming meditations.
Sophia, one of the first westerners to teach in Greece after studying the philosophy, sculpture and architecture of her homeland, explains: “Yoga is grounding and returns us to the fundamentals of our nature. It is a holistic practice that encourages conscious experience and has always spoken about the balance between energies.
“It is natural to be inspired by nature and its manifestations. We cannot neglect or disgrace what exists outside us if we wish to understand further our inner selves.
“That is why in our lessons are in the open air. They adapt to the microclimate and incorporate the natural elements of each island.”
She continues poetically: “We see ourselves as small energy fields absorbed into the tremendously big energetic field of the cosmos. Our blood’s “rivers should be connected with the rivers of the earth, the mountains, all the beings we co-exist with.”
Heady stuff. But the pair are also pretty shrewd. Sophia quickly identified how the fast yoga offered in the Ashtanga and Vinyasa traditions were becoming gimmicky. She also felt they could be damaging if used obsessively and cause the same wear, tear and burn-out as pounding on a running machine or straining to lift weights.
“Intense practices can produce too many stress hormones and too much lactic acid in the muscles,” she says. “If overly powerful exercise is taken daily without a counterbalancing practice, you gradually destroy your body from the inside.”
And so, she actively sought a more restorative practice that reconnected yoga to its healing roots. Diagnosed in her youth with arthritis she needed to calm down her own practice. This tailored approach became known as Greek Yoga of the Circle and Cross.
“Circle is a perfect geometric shape,” adds Sophia. “All the energies are moving in a spiral circle motion into a cross movement. The ancient Greeks believed this was the movement of the soul.
“I arrived at my own technique, after throwing myself into several other practices and styles that did not suit me and even harmed me. I developed further the slow, gently and detailed movement through which the joints’ and the muscles of the body open, unblocking all the tissues, revitalising the internal organs and helping the outside energy penetrate all of our body.”
Lying here, gently shifting shape, almost imperceptibly, it seems unlikely that her directions can affect dramatic well-being. I’m wrong! Whilst, hearing the cock crowing at 6am wasn’t the biggest thrill of the morning being a normally late riser, by nine as the sun’s warmth intensifies a slow, creeping bliss seeps through my muscles nourishing them for a day of exploring.
Breathwork follows and partner yoga, demonstrated by Isidora by hour three, brings in dynamic energy, whilst mutual massage that improbably involves having my feet trampled lightly by another’s, feels incredible.
Evening nature meditations are a crowning glory and time to reflect on the immense power behind the day’s gentle teachings. Having just escaped the post-Brexit insanity of my own island where a crop of rather rash politicians are continuing to pull their own Icarus stunt, Ikaria is soothing balm.
It’s not as if the political situation here in Greece has been any less disturbing; the impact of hardship and austerity abounds. But somehow, in this paradisical bolt-hole, off the tourist trail, nature offers up some answers; a self-assured sustainability that has endured for centuries.
Here a warren of footpaths scratched and scarred into the landscape over centuries leading to covert hide-outs from pirates and other marauders and challenging, windy arterial roads, dissuade a certain traveller to the benefit of a delighted few.
Isidora and Sophia understand the thrill of experiencing new culture and have built in an exciting programme of day trips that penetrate the local community and customs for retreatants to opt in or out of.
Says Isidora: “Our yoga lessons would be incomplete without an alternative context of life. And that alternative to our alienated and busy lives, can be found only in places with a sense of community.”
If you are seeking a predictable, visitor-trail, beach-mat, gift-shop experience, go elsewhere: to maybe Santorini or Kos. Here on Ikaria you can more easily become immersed in activities that thrill the natives, drinking in a rare but seemingly real ‘harry-not’ vibe.
This includes the panigiri; the traditional all-nighter and homage to local saints, dating back centuries. In July these emblematic events stamped with the spirit of village communities rotate from hamlet to hamlet.
Local produce and a distinctive wine that has a liqueur quality flows freely from dawn to dusk fuelling the hypnotic circle dance, a moving meditation, changing tempo from fast to slow, delivering its own sobering, natural high.
Here the islanders who during the day farm, keep bees, make wine, liqueur and jam, run restaurants and shops, fish or drive cabs, and surprisingly their youth, who set their sights on further shores, throwaway their cares and move to the music.
My personal adventures on this trip include scrambling with friends through undergrowth in the late evening to discover near hidden music festivals with cult performers; basking in the rock-thermals of serene Therma, an ancient spa town; hitching a lift by moped to an island wedding by the harbour in Evdilos that catered for 3000, local and tourist alike, and floating in the sea on the salty coast on near empty moonlit beaches.
Says Isidora: “The destinations we choose for our yoga retreats are about true relaxation and revitalisation. These are places of unspoiled ecosystem and a particular culture.
“We prefer to show to Greek and non-Greek students lesser-known aspects of Greece. What is the point of a yoga retreat in a highly touristic place that keeps people running the same lifestyle they had at home and work?”
She continues: “Our technological civilization has brought many positive changes. But, it has also brought numerous distractions and, sometimes, an illusion of constant connection with the world that leads to a disconnection from the world outside our computer screens, or from the world inside us.”
The week drifts swiftly by on this sage philosophy. At its close, as the ferry glides gracefully from the shoreline, I tell my friend: “We have to go back next year – next time for a month!”
This is after all Ikaria where time seems to stand still. No rush, no fuss, little blood pressure and heart disease, a place where deadlines seem to extend into a magical eternity.
The dates for the 2018 retreats are:
Nisyros island Retreat: July 1-8
Ikaria island Retreat: July 11-18
Teacher training: July 11-16