Did you know that you can direct the movement of your coccyx? And that when you do, it makes you feel taller? Walking around a retreat center in the little village of Seliana, in the northern Peloponnese, I felt as tall as the trees.
I had been awakened by the bells from one of those remote little churches one never sees but always hears. The air still carried a chill; only the tops of the mountains around me were painted gold by the rising sun, but the animals were awake. For the first time in my life, I saw a pig stretching its legs, and I was grateful there would be no bacon on my breakfast plate.
It was day three of a Biomatic Anatomy retreat held at Re-Green Ecoculture Center, on a weekend I had signed up for with zero knowledge of the subject and without any previous experience of anything remotely similar. We were detoxing, impulse dancing, doing yoga, humming songs together in the tiny sweat lodge, and learning about our bodies.
It was a program as varied as the group of people attending it, but somehow, it tied together. English was our language of choice, but non-verbal communication between participants was encouraged. “Oneness” was a term that kept coming up during the classes, where, surrounded by nature, we worked in pairs, aiming to better understand our skeletal structure and the mechanics of breathing.
The night before, after enjoying a dinner of vegetable curry, gluten-free bread and salad with ingredients just picked from the garden, we had made a fire. Gathered around it, people laughed and sang. We hadn’t talked about our bodies being one with nature, but it was the palpable lesson of the day.
Health retreats take place all around Greece, all year round. They’re visited by about as many foreigners as Greeks. In the summer, the islands provide the perfect setting for those who believe in the healing powers of the sea. You can do yoga in the water, on a paddleboard, on the beach or on the deck of a private sailing boat.
In the winter, most retreats are held in mountain villages. Apostolia Papadamaki, owner of The Happiness Retreat who was leading this group in Seliana, even arranges retreats in the center of Athens, where participants are encouraged to touch historic monuments. Most retreat activities, however, take place far from the city and place emphasis on natural surroundings. The reason to do them in Greece, most agree, is that there are very few places in the world where you can experience such variations in landscape concentrated in one area.
But nature isn’t the only reason that holistic health retreats have based themselves in Greece. In fact, the approach was born here. It dates back to the Pythagorians, who believed that wellbeing depended on a perfect balance of the body’s fluids, and that imbalance was caused by bad habits and the environment in which we live.
Hippocrates and his followers also believed that there has to be equilibrium between a person and their environment in order for them to have internal harmony. This, I learned, is the essence of the holistic approach.
Holistic living includes avoiding big cities, living in harmony with nature (especially in terms of diet), and exercising mind, spirit, and body. By looking at yourself as a whole, you can avoid illness rather than just treating parts of your body where symptoms of illness appear. Even just adopting the lifestyle for a few days or weeks at one of the holistic health retreats in Greece will make you feel healthier, stronger and, if you’re lucky, even taller (I feel I grew half an inch).
As I headed towards the main building for another homegrown, organic meal that morning in Seliana, I felt far more present than I usually feel when on vacation. I noticed the hurried movements of the chickens in the coop, I was aware of all my joints, I was belly-breathing and I could hear the sound of the nearby waterfall. All stress was gone. I was healthy; I was whole.
Greece is just the place to heal and strengthen your inner self. Below are just some of the retreats on offer.
Professional yoga instructor Panagiota Ntozi runs various holistic health retreats on the island of Zakynthos, where all classes are held outdoors. She bases one of her retreats, the Detoxifying Hippocratic Lifestyle Yoga Retreat, on what she learned about the ancient Greeks as a student. “There are texts from back then illustrating stretching and breathing exercises,” she says, and she combines those exercises with yoga and late-night cardio walks.
Other great options are the Aerial Yoga Retreat, where beginners and more advanced practitioners use silk hammocks to take part in anti-gravity yoga, and the Reiki Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga Retreat, which focuses on self-healing. No matter which one you choose, you can expect wonderful hospitality (Ntozi greets her participants with complimentary welcome packages filled with healthy local treats), and gorgeous views of the sea from the hills of Zakynthos.
By looking at yourself as a whole, you can avoid illness rather than just treating parts of your body where symptoms of illness appear.
SKYROS HOLISTIC HOLIDAYS
At the Skyros Center, maybe the oldest alternative vacation health center in Europe, you can design a retreat that suits you by picking from activities and classes such as psychotherapy, windsurfing, reflexology, abseiling, yoga, massage, music, dance, comedy and tai chi. It’s a mix that may seem random, but it’s all aimed at caring for the body as a whole.
About three-quarters of the participants are from the UK, but the retreats are loved by people from all over Europe. Owner Yiannis Andricopoulos had the ancient Greeks in mind when he founded the center. Inspired by how “the whole for the Greeks was more than the sum of its parts,” he created a center where participants get to nurture body, mind and spirit.
The island of Skyros in the Sporades offers beautiful surroundings for your tailored retreat. Choose between two locations on Skyros: the villa and huts at Atsitsa Bay or the facility on the outskirts of the island’s main village.
International yoga teacher and raw food chef Alexia Kulterer, who runs Yogalexia from Vienna, arranges “yogacruising” retreats on a large private yacht in the southern Dodecanese. She believes that exercise and meditation in the crystal-clear bays of the small islands are perfect for making participants forget about regular city life.
“Moving your body in nature is the best way to rejuvenate and heal. We are often looking for all kinds of remedies to cure some disease or illness, when actually, nature can heal it all,” she says. Participants agree: Angela Strauss from Vienna claims that the “breathtaking sunrises, the nurturing sounds of the ocean and the abundance of fresh, authentic and healthy Greek food,” in combination with the exercise, helped her find what she describes as her “natural self.”
Yogalexia offers a week-long holistic package of movement, breathing exercises, sunrise meditation, two yoga classes per day and healthy vegetarian food from the onboard chef (because, as Kulterer puts it, “when you meditate more, you find a better connection to your inner wisdom. Automatically, you want to eat healthier, too”). Hiking excursions and sightseeing on the islands take place, too, and all this comes with plenty of rest in splendid settings. Waking up to the sound of the waves and spending all day in close connection to beautiful nature will keep you relaxed all week long.