From the balcony we have an expansive view of calm Ionian waters and the large island of Zakynthos on the horizon. Our villa is the closest one to the sea, perched on top of cliffs high above the water. It is one of a number of similar apartments forming Vigla Village, one-and-a-half kilometres from the hilltop hamlet of Spartia.
We arrived here by taxi several days ago after leaving Camping Argostoli, for a week of yoga and relaxation. Our original booking for the retreat was made back in January and was really the thing that set our travel plans in motion. It is one of a number of yoga retreats offered by Yoga on a Shoestring; you spend a week somewhere warm and inspiring, enjoying a holiday, but also engaging in regular yoga practice.
Clare had already been on this particular yoga retreat to Vigla Village on a previous occasion, four years ago. To her great surprise and delight, the price was still the same, and so was the general feel and experience of the surroundings.
There are two yoga sessions each day. The morning session consists of a traditional yoga session that is generally more vigorous and runs from 8:00 to 9:45. It always includes breathing exercises, sun salutations and various other poses designed to enliven the body and prepare it for the day ahead. The afternoon session tends to be more relaxing and incorporates a variety of different techniques and activities like restorative yoga and yoga nidra. It begins at 17:00 and finishes around 18:30.
Before this trip I’d had very little previous experience with yoga. I had attended some classes for a few months back in my 20’s but hadn’t been to anything since. Not long after meeting Clare, I tried yoga at home from time to time, but never really maintained any kind of regular practice.
There is no doubt in my mind that yoga has profound benefits for the body. All I have to do is imagine the comparative health and mobility of two people in their 70’s; one who has been a regular practitioner of yoga and the other who has never tried it or who has tried it but has given it up. Even though I am aware of the benefits, I have still not engaged with yoga regularly myself. I have tried to do it for a while, but something always gets in the way and interrupts the routine. Often, I will attribute my lack of commitment to issues with time or space.
Anyway, all that lack of practice had made me somewhat sceptical about how much I would be able to engage with the sessions. I had a reasonable level of fitness and flexibility but there were certain areas of my body much less flexible than others. I had imagined that the people signing up for these kinds of holidays were already experienced practitioners, able to contort their bodies effortlessly into all kinds of advanced yogic poses.
Although it was true I was one of the least experienced of the group, I still felt ok doing the daily sessions, mainly because the group was quite varied and most participants were in a similar age bracket. In total, there were twenty of us in the group, not including the teacher, and all of us from the UK. There were only five men, including myself. The oldest person was 72 and I would say the youngest person was in her 20’s, however the average age was probably closer to 40.
The first session began the morning after we arrived and Clare and I grabbed our mats, bolsters and blocks and headed down to the large purpose-built yoga platform situated under eucalyptus trees, right outside our apartment. Apparently the platform is a recent addition. It didn’t exist four years ago when Clare was last here. Consisting of a large flat wooden deck, covered overhead with a tarpaulin roof, it could accommodate all of us easily. The sides are uncovered so there is plenty of good airflow and ample views of the sea.
The teacher, Belle, who we’d met the day before, is a tall blonde woman from the UK with the fresh face and sunny disposition of someone who spends a good deal of their time immersed in restorative and energising therapies. Over the previous two weeks, she had been holidaying on Kefalonia with her partner, so was well acclimatised to island life. The rest of us, on the other hand, had arrived only the previous day, more or less straight from the UK.
Belle has been practising yoga for over 25 years in a wide range of traditions. Each day she would start us off gradually and ease into moves of varying difficulty throughout the session. Her choice of yogic poses was well thought-out and each one flowed nicely into the next. I thought I would have extreme difficulty completing 105 minutes of non-stop yoga practice, but the time actually drifted by without me being overly aware of it. Some of the positions, particularly towards the middle of the session, made me sweat hard and curse my inflexibility and lack of balance, but it also felt like it was doing me good.
One thing about yoga that continually fascinates me is how the seemingly simple act of positioning different parts of the body in a particular way can bring about a noticeable sense of symmetry, calm and balance. During those moments, the mind and the body seem to connect in a conscious way that is obvious, natural and therapeutic. There seem to be an almost infinite number of ways in which this can be achieved, and at the same time an equal number of ways in which the movement or position could be done incorrectly and lead to pain or discomfort.
Belle informed us on the first day that she was also a practising Buddhist in the Japanese tradition, Soka Gakkai. Before the actual yoga began at 8:00, there was an optional Buddhist chanting session from 7:15 to 7:30 and then a silent meditation session from 7:30 to 7:50. I chose not to partake in these earlier sessions, and for the first two days, didn’t participate in the afternoon sessions either.
One of the things that I liked about this particular retreat was that there was no pressure to attend any of the sessions. Clare on the other hand, who has been doing yoga and meditation regularly for many years, attended virtually everything.