Back to basics at the beach
Most people heading for a beach holiday on the Greek islands take a towel and a paperback. Liza Foreman found others take along plans for self-improvement and personal growth.
Sharing a remote corner of the Greek island of Skyros with the odd house, the local taverna and its fishing boat tied to the rickety peer, the holistic holiday centre of Atsitsa is a natural oasis, rough and unspoilt.
It could be on Mars for want of any other signs of life.
There is a second centre in the main village, also run by Europe’s first holistic holiday company, which likewise offers two-week sessions revolving around a range of daily courses and the community lifestyle inherent in the Skyros philosophy.
But at Atsitsa it’s back-to-basics.
We were met from the ferry by a zealous welcome team, who had me wondering what I had let myself in for.
"We have been through what you are about to go through," one said, all bright eyed. "It will be a great experience."
At the site, we were shown by the team of bare-chested young men and bronzed women in sarongs to our bamboo huts.
A wise few had opted for rooms in the cool stone house containing a library and a music room, which played a big part in the session with music a popular pastime.
Things really got underway Sunday, when participants partook in the name game and facilitators pitched their courses.
"Polygamous Paul," a comedian and Tai Chi teacher, had us all doing Chi Gong.
"Joyous Judith" asked us to rub our thumbs in the name of Massage while "Captain Kel" introduced us to the joys of the "most fun you can have with your clothes on" — aka Windsurfing over at Bare Ass Beach, a ten-minute paddle away and home to the Atsitsa Windsurf Academy.
The first week, I took the Dreams and Visualization course in the morning, which proved to be a heavy trip with a few participants getting some deep stuff out of their systems — as expected at this type of centre.
The session included some group-therapy work, which proved effective.
One participant, who admitted to feeling unliked by the group,was sent to look in each person's eyes and see what she found there.
She was then encouraged to discuss it with us all. It helped her.
I felt like my dreams/problems of getting back on track after being made redundant and trying to work out if I still really wanted the big career were quite mundane in comparison to some issues.
The session was interwoven with a hypnotic tale about a knight pursuing his dream, told to the beat of a drum.
We were encouraged to sign an oath committing to pursuing our dreams before the session ended with people wandering around the site in search of an omen to help them on their way.
The afternoon’s belly dancing session provided some light relief.
I was forever in quiet giggling fits watching our group, which included one bloke, trying their best to look seductive with a bunch of veils.
The second week, I landed on my feet with Windsurfing in the morning, a Siesta Sailing course with the very thorough instructor Mark and the ultra-relaxing and therapeutic Reflexology session in the afternoon.
For early risers, the day kicked off at 7am with Meditation and Chi Gong and the day usually closed with some spontaneous entertainment including
Lebanese Line Dancing, night time sailing and a trip into town.
Thanks to the intense community ethos, the two-dozen smiling strangers quickly became familiar.
There were three communal meals a day in the open-air terrace, micro-group sessions, the main group meeting (Demos), one-to-one co-listening meets and work groups.
Co-listening was new to me altogether with the idea that one person listens then repeats everything their partner says.
Some previous participants said they had effectively taken the idea back home to use successfully with their real-life partners.
With barely a mobile phone signal and only a pay phone around the corner to make contact to the outside world, the focus was on group life and yourself.
Indeed Skyros has been known to effect deep change in many participants, which is part of the attraction.
One 40-something businesswoman was going through a deep process of releasing some old traumas.
Another former computer-programmer had returned to the centre to pay respect for the profound changes it had lead to in her life. "I think if you come here with the idea to change in some way, then it doesn’t matter what courses you do, it will happen," opined one of the facilitators.
"If you are not used to self development then I think this sort of thing can be a bit of a shock," said Katy, a thirty-something market researcher from London, when I admitted at times I felt like I was having my head stuck down some weird toilet.
"I have done quite a lot of that stuff myself so I’m here to relax and maybe meet some new friends. It has been good."
Made up of a diverse collection of mainly professionals, 30-plus, many were at a cross-roads in their lives, and looking for some inspiration.
Few were solely attracted by the various outdoor activities though we had a fun-loving collection of people as paid testament to in the last night cabaret.
"If you just wanted some fun, you’d have gone to Club Med," said Rachel, a fifty-something professional, adding that the trip had given her the will to start living again.
Judging by the guest book, many people have the best holiday of their lives.
Proving to be a bonding experience, even before I returned from my extended stay in Europe, one new friend was already arranging to meet up back home where there were several e-mails waiting and already talk of a reunion.
And when we did get together it felt like meeting an old friend.