I’ve been a bit of a retreat and workshop explorer throughout my life, attending several yoga retreats, yoga classes, and healing-related workshops on everything from shamanic healing, transcendental meditation and rebirthing to reiki, Thai foot massage and shiatsu. So, given the opportunity to visit Zen Rocks Mani in my first escape from Athens after two seemingly endless years of pandemic-related restrictions, I couldn’t be more excited.
The workshop, called “Healing the Roots, Tending the Core,” combines yoga practice taught by Vivi Letsou, the co-owner of Zen Rocks, and Systemic Constellations therapy facilitated by psychologist/systemic family psychotherapist Mia Adamidou, who owns Innerflow Athens.
Mani-fold Natural Splendor
As we snake through curvy roads from Kalamata towards the retreat center, I repeatedly stick my nose out the window like a dog on a car trip to get a lungful of fresh country air, thick with herbal and floral fragrances. I can’t get enough of this area’s lush natural scenery, considered one of the most beautiful in Greece. Ancient olive trees with silvery leaves shining in the sun, carpets of flowers in eye-popping colors, and rugged mountain landscapes lying in their naked glory under the azure sky offer blissful confirmation that there’s so much more to life than mask-wearing, laptop screens, and supermarkets.
A Dream Built from the Ground Up
I had followed the creation of Zen Rocks Mani for years and was thrilled to be finally visiting it. I’ve known Vivi and her husband, Eraj Shakib since they arrived in Athens from San Francisco, and she set up NYSY Studios in Syntagma. NYSY was one of Athens’ first well-established yoga studios, where in my pre-parenting life, I took regular classes. Creating the retreat center was Vivi’s long-held dream, and she and Eraj explored Greece high and low to find the right place to build it. Mani appealed to them because it combined the sea, mountains, olive groves, and authentic villages. Vivi describes Zen Rocks as “a holistic wellness center where people can commune with nature, express themselves artistically, practice yoga, Zen meditation, Pilates, and more, and be part of a community.”
Named Zen Rocks because it was built from rock already on the land, the center comprises eight Maniot-style stone villas, a restaurant area, and a large outdoor swimming pool. Its large yoga deck boasts stunning sea views, while its sprawling gardens are abundant with organic veggies, fruits, flowers, olive trees, and aromatic herbs.
So here we are, a group of ten of us, mostly women, as always happens with yoga and healing retreats, who readily escaped our Covid-haunted existence to stretch and breathe ourselves back to health.
I am placed in a house with two other participants and pleased by the rustic yet modern simplicity of the décor in earthy, soothing tones, soft Cocomat mattresses, fluffy duck feather duvets, jars of home-grown herbs for tea in the kitchen, and a large, garden-level terrace. Upon arriving at my room, I first take a snooze outside, basking in the sunlight and embraced by silence.
Considering how shut away and shut down I’ve felt over the last two surreal years, I enthusiastically welcome Vivi’s gentle yet powerful Abaya yoga practice designed to “empower the core” and (re)open the heart, together with Mia’s therapy, designed to encourage participants to “truly see behind recurring issues and themes that act as barriers in your personal life and reach the position to overcome them.”
Throughout the three days of the retreat, the group’s mood regularly wavers between the jovial, playful, and chatty interactions of us enjoying a regenerating getaway in nature and the solemnity, silence, and self-inspection that comes from digging deeper into ourselves. The retreat’s very purpose is to bring up what is so quickly suppressed, ignored, or drowned out in daily “normal” life. The way we live makes this so easy to do: the city’s noise and constant rhythm, social media and news, work, family obligations, and habits like drinking alcohol and eating fast fuel all disconnect us from the inner silence from which the most essential answers emerge.
It is precisely for this reason that this retreat and others like it are so rewarding. You can return to your life and immediately return to being the same person, yet somewhere in you is planted a seed of new-found knowledge, awareness, and potential for you to blossom in the direction you need to go.
Practice & Exploration
Western Mani, where the retreat is located, is just one of many beautiful zones in this part of the Peloponnese. We relieve the intensity of the sessions from morning until evening with plenty of relaxing breaks. These include driving or walking to the nearby beaches of Kitries or Sadova, visits to coastal and picturesque Kardamili (half an hour’s drive away), leisurely walks in nature, or in my case, simply lying under an olive tree.
Another way we relish time off is by eating. Eraj has significant knowledge of vegan and vegetarian cuisine as he is also the owner of Athens’ oldest and still trendy Avocado restaurant, which serves delicious vegan and vegetarian, macrobiotic, gluten-free, raw, and organic cuisine. Most of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs skillfully prepared by the Zen Rocks kitchen are organically grown on their land, while Vivi and Eraj also produce their own olive oil.
Food for the Soul
Our hearty meals at the retreat include foods inspired by various culinary traditions from Greece and worldwide. Some of the foods we enjoyed were Japanese miso soup, Greek herb and cheese pies, Mediterranean vegetable dishes, colorful and multi-textured salads, homemade bread, and Indian lentil dahl. What they all have in common are their freshness and great flavor.
Sometimes guided to have part of our meal in complete silence, inspired by the principles of Zen, I can taste the foods even better and consciously savor every bite. Dinner is always the liveliest of meals, the part of the day when we chat and get to know each other better, laugh a great deal, and share thoughts and dreams, always getting to bed far earlier and readier to plunge into a deep sleep that I do in the city.
Studies on time and how our mind interprets it has revealed that even three sensorily-engaging, eventful and rewarding days can feel like a far longer time away and that their effect can be long-lasting, if not life-long. But while there, the time flies. So within what feels like the blink of an eye, we find ourselves taking a group photo and saying our goodbyes, knowing we have shared something special together and hoping there will be more opportunities to live so fully again.
Mia Adamidou and Vivi Letsou are planning another joint workshop at Zen Rocks in 2023. For more information, stay in tune with the center’s year-round program of retreats. Next up, on December 2, is the workshop “Mindfulness Sesshin — A Zen weekend of Silent Meditation & Healing Yoga.” Zen Rocks also offers Yoga Teacher Training retreats.