Following a bit of a lull in my posting, I’m back to write about the Silent Retreat I recently attended.
So here I was, on a Friday evening, beholding the dazzlingly white full moon, surrounded by the black silhouettes of vast mountains, caressed by an icy alpine breeze, with an orange cat called Paprika curled in my lap, hearing the sound of… howling wolves?! At first I thought it might be a tribe of inebriated youngsters possessed by the lunatic spirit at a nearby village, but later it was confirmed to me that jackals roam free on the mountaintops. I had just finished a gentle, grounding and refreshingly awakening evening yoga class, the first of several to take place during a weekend retreat organised by Athens-based yoga teacher Tina Myntz Zymaraki. Only minutes before I had embarked on my journey into a silence that was to last until Sunday afternoon. We had each selected an Osho card from a pack that was to act as a message to set our awareness on, and before delving into non-talking we went around the circle saying our name and one intent we had during the weekend. Mine was Kindness, but by the end, I got Gratitude instead.
Other participants walked by beaming “good evening!” smiles on their way to the dining hall in the super-elegant Noosfera main house, and feeling a rumble in my tummy I decided to follow suit. Decorated in a neo-traditional English country style that soothes both eye and spirit, the living room/dining room area was imbued by silence, and all I could hear was the sound of the flames dancing in the fireplace and cutlery delicately clanging on plates. A woman in her 50s who was clearly there with her bestie was cracking up so much she ran out of the room with her hands over her mouth to stifle her giggles as her friend cried (silently of course) with laughter into her soup. This would take some getting used to.
As we feasted on creamy pumpkin soup and crunchy croutons followed by a mountain of quinoa, lentil, orange and fresh herb salad and toasted wholewheat pitta bread with hummus, my fellow silence-vowers and I avoided eye contact with each other, as Tina had encouraged us to. The Silent Retreat aims to encourage actually immersing yourself deeper into your being by disengaging from the outside world, she told us, not simply zipping your mouth and throwing away the key. Being a slightly anxious mother I carried my phone with me but not for an instant was I tempted to enter the world of the internet – in fact, the mere idea of social medialising even as a voyeur revolted me.
On the scene as a yoga teacher for around 17 years, Tina is only one of two individuals in Greece who organizes silent retreats, and was inspired by her own experiences at the Ananda Ashram in New York, where she lived for a while: “The idea was very attractive to me, especially as I interact with others a lot,” she said, “so as of 2010 I started introducing small periods of silence in my weekend retreats. Over time, those periods were extended, and I started to organize semi-silent retreats. Students always told me how valuable the experience proved for them, so over the past three years I’ve been indulging them in silence more and more.” (See the end of this article to find out about Tina’s upcoming retreat).
Let me set the scene of where I was before telling you how my own journey into silence unfolded. Noosfera Centre, built especially for wellness and holistic retreat workshops of all varieties, is located in the Peloponnesian mountains, near Xylokastro. Arriving in the dark, I couldn’t yet see the magnificent views that delighted me the following morning – mountains carpeted in thick greenery, smoky valleys, patches of traditional villages here and there, a gleaming snowy peak and a relieving (for us sea aficionados) strip of blue in the distance.
Noosfera is a new generation holistic hideaway, lovingly created five years ago by journalist-turned-author (of six books, including the bestseller Mystic Odyssey) and therapist Ioulia Pitsouli and psychologist/psychotherapist Maria Xifara, who live here for half a week throughout the year, as holistic wellness and psychology seminars of all varieties take place. The main house and accommodations are all built in low wooden cottages decorated in a rustic yet modern style, with accessories like fluffy Guy Laroche towels and flocculent duvets. The choice of space for this particular retreat was a very carefully made one on Tina’s part, as she felt it was important for participants to enjoy creature comforts while making sense of silence – many silent retreats around the world are held in far more monastic, daunting circumstances in order to strip away distractions.
I’d longed to try a silent retreat for many years, so I jumped at the chance to do so when this workshop came up. The concept was to spend two days doing our best at staying schtum and combining that with soothing yet not undemanding yogic practice. On the morning of the second day, we participated in a more energetic class aimed at connecting us to our core. As I have been facing some challenging personal issues lately, halfway through the class I retreated into child’s pose when I started feeling it was getting too demanding for me. Something in me was pissed off and simply refused to carry on. As I curled up on my mat I felt a wave of sadness rise up from the depths of my heart, and pour out through my eyes in tears. I was about to do my usual stoical routine, to tell myself to put the ‘self-pity’ aside and get on with the practice, when I remembered that this was not that kind of class, nor was that kind of class that I need in my life. If I had been in a different state of mind I would have cherished the upbeat challenge, but at that moment I couldn’t find it in me to push myself any further when I’ve felt I’ve been squeezed enough in other areas of my existence. So I got up and walked out, feeling fully supported in doing so.
Later in the day, we got to enjoy a different kind of class based on restorative asanas and self-care, an aspect of yoga practice that Tina has dedicated many years to develop. As a former Ashtanga devotee, she has over the years realized the vital significance of listening to her own changing body and treating it with love and respect, rather than forcing it through a sequence that has caused her several injuries along the way, despite how much discipline and caution she applied to following the rules. “For the last 150 years, yoga practices have been centred on young male students, but in the west, the average class is made up of women, many of them in their early to late middle age,” she notes.
“For several years I have focused on studying and practising bio-mechanics and human anatomy, aiming to help my students work from the inside out to enhance strength and suppleness by listening to their own unique needs,” Tina explained. “I take on a more innovative approach that is not strictly bound to classic prototypes but instead can be adapted by students so that they reap all the benefits of yoga without straying from their sense of self. As my favourite teacher, Richard Freeman says, ‘yoga begins with listening” – listening to your own needs. It’s your body, your time, your choice, your yoga. Yogis have always been anarchists and revolutionaries so why should you go to a class and obey what you are told if it feels wrong to you or causes you pain?” she points out. The Self-Care class was my absolute favourite because that was exactly what I needed in combination with the inner and outer quiet. First, we were shown how to use a tennis ball to massage our feet, necks, shoulders and back in the most blissful tension-releasing tennis fun I could ever conceive of. Next, we lay down (but were asked to make every effort to stay awake) for a mesmerising Yoga Nidra session in which Tina guided our awareness across every inch of our body with her softly spoken words. When at some point she said “and now move your awareness to your fifth finger,” I anticipated she would next guide us to our sixth; that’s when I realized how incredibly relaxed I was.
The location and the practice of silence offered us all the golden opportunity to take time for ourselves while feeling warmly united in a rare experience. I relished the chance to stretch and breathe as well as read inspiring books (one day I read half a book lying by the fire – it might be a decade since the last time I did that!), go for nature walks overlooking spanning views of natural landscapes, play with an overenthusiastic spaniel who had an endless supply of cones to be chased, and to write, write, write (my child-like sense for writing was reignited and I wrote throughout my time there. On actual paper. Using a pen.). And then there was the deep sleep that highly oxygenated alpine air bequeaths.
On the first night, I experienced an amusing moment when I realized how useless it was to try communicating at all. After cuddling Paprika the cat I realized my jacket was pretty stinky; she’s adorable but I’d assumed that as she belongs to such a pristine place she’d be sweet-smelling, perhaps with a fragrance like the rooms we stayed in, named lavender, spearmint, pomegranate, or would have a natural Liberty’s fragrance. But no such luck, so I decided to air my jacket on the terrace in the room I was sharing with two girls, who were sitting there at the time. For some reason I bravely ventured to wordlessly re-enact why I was hanging it out to air- first I pretended to be Paprika, with the catwalk, swooshing tail (my arm), pointy ears and alert eyes, then re-enacted myself cuddling her, then smelling my malodorous jacket and looking shocked thus needing to air it. They looked at me and laughed, and I had no idea whether they thought they were rooming with a madwoman or had understood even a tad from my charades. It was at that moment that I resolutely decided that as amusing as it could be (especially for others!) it was probably best to do away with voiceless social banter.
The second and final night, there was another moment of hilarity when the waitress walked ceremoniously across the room holding a tray with a single collonaded glass of rose wine that one of the participants had ordered, with everyone turning to stare, many of us feeling a mixed emotion between empathy (silence brings stuff up, wine might help), confusion (wine is fun when you’re talking) and envy (why didn’t I think of that?), much to the embarrassment of the participant who had ordered it. After dinner many of us selected a mandala design to colour in and sat around the fire on the floor for hours bringing them to life – I hadn’t felt that way since I was seven, at school, hearing only the incessant sound of colouring pencils on paper.
Our silence was broken on Sunday afternoon, with a sharing circle during which we each related our experiences. There were tears. There was laughter. This was followed by a conversation-friendly lunch, after which we all posed for a few photographs together (below) and went our separate ways.
I felt reinvigorated, rested, and subtly yet profoundly changed as a result, like I had learned a secret that had been in me all along. More and more research is being done on the benefits of silence, and a recent Finnish study revealed that it actively enhances brain and emotional health: “The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.”
I was also relieved that the nightmare scenario I had self-deprecatingly envisioned before going there, that my cheeky monkey brain would take over and I’d be constantly trying to shut out my restless mental chatter, didn’t happen even for an instant. In fact, I found myself observing and feeling everything more intensely; I savoured food with greater pleasure (I did notice I was eating more than usual, perhaps to fill the ‘gap’ of not using my mouth to spout out conversational gems), became more aware of my body and movement – from ease and flexibility to tightness and restriction, rested in the enhanced clarity and calm of my head. “Silence offers us a different kind of quality in our thought processes and how we relate to others,” Tina said. “It offers us the opportunity to respond rather than react. So I see it as a natural extension of the yoga practice.” There were uncomfortable moments too, at some point I felt as though I was at an airport with a delayed flight hanging around and waiting. Not wanting my young son to feel I’d fallen off the face of the earth, I spoke to him on the phone for a few brief moments as I sat on the park bench facing the mountains and sea. “I love you, I love you, I love you!” he squeaked. And after I put my phone away I felt literally engulfed by the silence of the mountains in a way I’d never experienced before. I yearned for him, worried for him as if he lived in another world. Then I looked at the sea yearned to fly across the valleys to it like the birds swooping around. I wanted to lie in the grass. I was dreamy and tranquil yet felt vulnerable, detached and alone at once.
I returned to the endless fracas of Athens renewed, feeling as if I’d connected with a new awareness in myself, one that comes from even 24 full hours of silent observation. Being surrounded by others who also don’t talk was divine because I realised that every word you hear around you instantly registers as a thought or emotion in the mind, even if it has nothing to do with you. So I have vowed to stay away from other people’s conversations if I’m craving peace. Like most of the others, I felt I could have stayed a little longer, and was a little rough to have to return to reality. Yet fortunately, silence is free and can be found everywhere, especially within. All you need to do is commit to it, tune in, and hey presto, you’re there.