hearing myself through silence

Following a bit of a lull in my posting, I’m back to write about the Silent Retreat I recently attended. 

Welcome to Noosfera! Our keys and welcome notes


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.

Give me a window unto nature so I may witness myself

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. 

Yoga teacher Tina Myntz Zymaraki

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.

My favourite spot at Noosfera

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.

Colouring INwards

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.

As Bjork once said, “It’s Oh So Quiet!” Shhhhh

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.

The author settling into Warrior II with a view

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.

 

TINA’s UPCOMING SILENT RETREAT (21 & 22 April)

Mountain Refuge Silent Yoga
A little before summer seduces us to her shores, join Tina for two days combining a few of her favourite things: yoga, cooking, silence and nature. Experience the joy and stillness which emerge effortlessly when we spend time on the mountain and its stunning vistas… (click for more info)

gateway to consciousness

There are a multitude of ways to seek – and find – consciousness. From its very beginning, humankind has sought to enhance and explore consciousness, which can be described as a state in which one achieves a heightened awareness of the world within and around oneself. When businessman and radio professional Robert Monroe began his experimentation with consciousness in earnest during the 1950s, experiencing out-of-body experiences and heightened, multifaceted states of waking consciousness, he began sharing them via books with the wider public, and trying out various forms of audio technology for those purposes.  He eventually developed the Hemi-Sync© audio technology that is used worldwide today, while also setting up The Monroe Institute. Hemi-Sync© has been tested on tens of thousands of people and been shown to offer a multitude of health benefits, chiefly because it synchronises the left and right brain hemispheres and creating new neuronal pathways, basically re-wiring the brain. From much improved concentration and memory retention to emotional and psychological healing (from anxiety, depression, phobias, trauma), heightened intuition, improvement of overall physical health or of specific ailments, alleviating ADD and PTSD, and even helping people to realign with their true life purpose by connecting with their inner truth, its well-researched effects have been nothing but positive. On a more metaphysical level, Hemi-Sync© has also proven as a powerful tool for having Out of Body Experiences (OBE) and delving into other realms beyond the physical.


Greece is the only country in Europe where there is a centre with rooms using advanced audio technology modeled on that of the Monroe Institute (TMI) for the purpose of Hemi-Sync© workshops. Noosfera Wellness & Retreat Centre, located near Xylokastro in the Peloponnese, is run by a psychologist Maria Xifara and a former journalist, Ioulia Pitsouli. It hosts a broad variety of alternative wellness-related retreats throughout the year, and annually hosts The Gateway Voyage, a six-day intensive experience of TMI’s Hemi-Sync© binaural beat meditations (see my Skype interview with Linda Leblanc, who facilitates the course at the bottom, of the page).


I am planning to visit Noosfera Centre in just a few weeks for a Silence Retreat that includes yoga, walks in nature and art, so I will be reporting on my first-hand experience of the place – watch this space!

 

INTERVIEW WITH IOULIA PITSOULI, co-owner
of Noosfera Wellness & Retreat Center

 

Ioulia Pitsouli
Maria Xifara

Alexia Amvrazi: Can you please tell me about yourself, and what has brought you to the healing and wellness field?
Ioulia Pitsouli: I met Maria Xifara as we were on the same path, one that both of us walked along on for decades. We both had a bright inner flame burning in us both as we sought answers on life’s purpose and consciousness expansion. We traveled around many countries, attending workshops by various spiritual teachers. We ended up – Maria as a psychologist and me as a journalist (and later author) – developing an integrative approach that encapsulates the spiritual psychology of A Course in Miracles with Greek philosophy and mythology. In this integration we found a powerful healing tool that we have shared in spiritual psychology groups and workshops over the last 20 years.

AA: How did you create Noosfera? How would you describe it?
IP: Noosfera Center reflects our personal need for a seminar space that, unlike impersonal hotels or makeshift, uncomfortable ascetic cells, stands out because of our personal touch. It has the “air” of a boutique hotel but actually is a purposely built complex of wooden cottages especially created for self-awareness, yoga and recreational events focused on spiritual development. The idea is to offer body, mind, spirit wellness-centred weekends, or weeklong anti-stress and self-expansion retreats.

Exterior at Noosfera Wellness Center & Retreat

We believe that the person who seeks peace, joy and truth about himself will also be inspired by the beauty of the mountains and the sea in the horizon that surround our land, and by the rugged charm of the area itself. We wish for our visitors, in parallel to the expansion of their consciousness, to feel pampered and draw joy from details such as the lavender under the sleeping pillows, the freshly fragrant rooms or the “structured” fine water and the organic vegetables coming from our own garden.

AA: Noosfera is the only place in Europe that is decked out with the appropriate audio equipment for the Gateway Voyage and other audio-healing-related workshops. What did it involve to set that up?
IP: We were inspired by The Monroe Institute in the USA. Being facilitators of  The Μonroe Institute in Greece we decided to include in the construction of Noosfera’s buildings the proper technological set-up. With the help of highly skilled sound technicians we managed to wire all the rooms with special audio equipment. Thus we can offer our guests the privilege of listening through headphones for meditation or lucid dreaming exercises while they are comfortably lying in the privacy of their room.

Noosfera has developed a community vibe, with visitors returning regularly and some even setting up homes nearby

AA: Linda Leblanc mentioned that at Noosfera there is a “spiritual community”. Could you please elaborate on this?
IP: We strongly believe that we are much more than our physical bodies so we gladly support workshops, given by us or others, facilitating people to have personal experiences of their spiritual self and their inner splendour. Forgiveness, is also among our core interests. During the 5 years that Noosfera Center has existed, like- minded people have been drawn here and, wanting to share and participate in our vision, are building cottages near Noosfera Center, gradually creating a spiritual community of sorts.

AA: Do you live there & run courses and workshops year round? What kind of events take place there?
IP: The first half of the week we are in Athens running psychology groups, and from Thursday to Sunday we are at Noosfera running our own workshops or supporting groups who come for their programs as Noosfera Center is also open to groups that would like to host their activities. Yoga workshops, Silent retreats, Tai Chi and Holotropic Breathing workshops, A Course in Miracles and The Monroe Institute’s programs are among the activities taking place every week, year round. Alternative summer vacations and Christmas / New Year holistic retreats are also among the highly enjoyed programs offering warmth, self realization and new friendships to the participants. Noosfera thus offers meaningful “escapes” from the city and limited ideas of self and life!

 

Interview with Gateway Voyage Facilitator Linda Leblanc

ikaria’s new age appeal

What was a resilient but relatively unknown corner of Greece has over the past few years flourished into a holistic wellness destination. Yoga retreats, wellness workshops, energy-healing therapies, organic food and natural cosmetics have now become increasingly accessible island-wide.

Various spaces, such as the Agriolykos Pension in Therma, are also planning more such retreats and workshops to be held next year, and say that there is definitely a growing interest from outside the island. Meanwhile, Ikaria has also caught the eye of a few celebrities – such as Jamie Oliver and Marcus Pearce – who have been filming their shows on the island. Watch this space for Ikaria’s New Age!

THE EGG CAME FIRST

Once a crumbling nightclub, The Egg, Ikaria’s first and only multi-space for dance and wellness classes, was completely renovated in 2013 by German art director Katrin Gerner. Open from May to September to local and international teachers and therapists, it is a creatively decorated, airy and tranquil space, facing the sea. “Something very strong drew me here” Gerner says, “and I’ve realized that apart from the many gifts of the island itself and its people, individuals come here with the same target – to connect with their inner peace”.

VEDANTA ASPIOTI: ANCIENT MEETS THE NEW

Vedanta Aspioti, who is considered “an institution” in Ikaria’s healing community, is a trained therapist, medium, and self-help author who for 30 years has been leading the Power of Light retreats at Artemis Studios.

The location, right above Nas beach (a stunning, nudist-friendly beach with bright blue waters), by a beautiful lake and near the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, is not coincidental. “In recent years we are witnessing the harmonious marriage of the local’s archaic traditional way of life with New-Age inspired practices,” she says.

ROBYN WHATLEY KAHN: HEAR YOUR BODY
She once performed on stage alongside Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, in the Gold Digger group. Now, Robyn Whatley Kahn, who settled on Ikaria a decade ago, teaches classes using the Body Talk System, Reiki and Deep Tissue Massage.

“Locals know I do therapia, and it has helped many here, so they send people to me,” she says. The American, known as Ourania (her middle name is Skye, and Greek for sky is ouranos), recently paid tribute to the island in her photography book, ‘Eyes on Ikaria’ – available on Amazon.


JOEY BROWN: RELEASE WRITER’S BLOCK

Also based on Ikaria, Belgian motivational writing coach Joey Brown combines meditation with writing summer workshops at various venues across Ikaria, helping writers to ‘unblock’, and feel inspired. “Most of my clients are foreigners, living stressful lifestyles,” she tells me. “Ikariotes are already so connected to the land, the sea, the elements – maybe they don’t have such needs.”

VICKY LAZOU: CHILD’s PLAY with clay
Vicky Lazou, a ceramic artist and teacher based in Athens – where she runs ‘To Ergastiri tou Pilou’ for children – travels to Ikaria every summer with her son and her husband (who hails from Ikaria). She has developed a technique which combines meditation with clay-molding, and it’s designed to help one’s “inner child” come out to play. She teaches group and one-to-one sessions to locals and visitors a few times each summer, announcing classes on Facebook. “The response has been very positive and encouraging,” she says. “Ikariotes love to express their creativity”.

 

 

Article By Alexia Amvrazi, as first published in Greece Is (www.greece-is.com).

 

relax & re-green!

In a mere two-hour drive from Athens, we zip past the sprawling seaside town of Akrata and start the steep ascent up curvy mountain roads, past resilient villages that take just minutes to drive through. The landscape is breathtaking, with a massive, imposing wall of mountain on one side, cobalt-blue sea on the other, and lush vegetation abounding.

As we reach the 3,000-year-old village of Seliana we follow directions until we come to a picturesque old church with a giant plane tree swaying beside it and then spot Re-Green’s unassuming entrance – a stone-built, square archway (a reference to the Mycenaean finds excavated on the land).  The place is run by Flery Fotiadou and her partner Christos Alexiou, Athenians worn down by the hard-core urban professional grind and who gladly packed it all in for a simpler life in the country.

reg2
Guests come and go at Re-Green which is a kind of organic farm where people can stay while attending workshops on anything from yoga and botany to bush craft and eco-living but the pair sticks it out at the remote spot throughout the year, hit by extreme weather in winter, and never, ever slowing down on their land-tending mission and on keeping everything running smoothly. After finally finding the exact spot where they wanted to set up home, they studied permaculture to learn how to make the best of what they already had – a small variety of trees and plants – creating a beautiful stone guesthouse, a colorful food garden and several naturally built structures such as an outdoor Jacuzzi, kitchen and steam room.

reg9reg12reg8

Of course studying skills like permaculture, organic and biodynamic faming, gardening and cob building are crucial for clueless city folk venturing to live the nature-based lifestyle, which is why Re-Green offers such courses encouraging others to follow in their steps.

reg11             reg7

While briefly there I participated in a two hour singing class with French vocal artist and teacher Claire Bosse, whose group of French ladies of all ages warmly welcomed me to join in on vocal exercises and learning African polyphonic songs. I quickly got over my hot-faced awkwardness from making weird sounds and doing body-percussion on my (complete stranger) partner and plunged into the creative fun.

In their two weeks there the group was also studying Land Art with Aegina island-based teacher Yiannis Psalidakos and yoga with his French partner Laurieanne Felicite. The average day was made up of vegetarian (local, seasonal) communal meals, workshops and free time, the latter offering the chance to explore the rich landscape, visit numerous animals like Maya the fuzzy donkey, chickens, cats, ducks and dogs; spot medicinal herbs, edible flowers and juicy berries growing randomly; and walks down to the river or taking in stunning vistas of the sky changing colour while sitting on a park-bench at the edge of a cliff.

Relaxing in Re-Green’s accommodations is also easy, as the pair have done a great job with the interior decor, combining old traditional restored furnishings and decor items with natural ingredients creating an understated-luxury / country chic vibe, with large comfortable Queen size beds, fireplaces, modern bathrooms and comfy sofas added to the mix.
reg11
Weeks after visiting Re-Green I still felt ebullient from the experience, perhaps because it’s more like a home than anything else, and definitely because its owners make it look so effortless but clearly work so hard to tend to every detail, making the experience really regenerating. The friendly, familial ambiance combined with creative and well-being oriented activities also makes this the kind of place that makes you want to go back, and I have promised myself, some time, I will.