It’s the eleventh day of a thirteen-day yoga retreat on the island of Lesvos in Greece at Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten’s yoga studio. I wake up wondering how we could already be at day eleven, the days and evenings running faster than sun-warmed honey. This is a trip of a lifetime for me, made possible by my closest friend’s generosity, her present for my finishing Survivors, and an intense year. I brought promotional postcards for the book in case people might be interested but mostly I hoped the book would be in the background, that I could let my worries and excitement about it go, to be inside of my body here.
Yes, people are right. Angela and Victor’s yoga studio may be the most beautiful in the world, at the top of a winding dirt road looking out over the Aegean Sea. And yes, it is good to get here now, as Angela and Victor are both in their mid- seventies, have been teaching yoga intensely all of their adult lives, and have both had health concerns this year. And yes, there may be no place more idyllic in this world than the Island of Lesvos. The sea is soft, the breeze is soft, the air is soft, people’s eyes are soft, the colors are soft, and the food is soft. They have the freshest tomatoes, watercress, rocket leaves (arugula), and feta cheese I have ever tasted. (The long-term vegan ate feta for lunch every day and yogurt and honey for dessert one night. Shocking!) The word savor cannot fully describe.
The hot springs that are a stone’s throw from Angela and Victor’s studio are the cleanest, gentlest springs I have even felt—a white temple cave with rectangular little windows opening to the sky, with rose petals floating in the water, incense adorning the walls, and then the sea water to cool you down, easy waves to carry you, chants from the hot spring following you. It is gorgeous here, the kind of pretty that coaxes my shoulders down my back, loosens the computer lines that had formed on my forehead.
What has most struck me here is that the land is in alignment with the yoga teachings, the kindness of the sea and land is same message that Angela and Victor are trying to teach—soften the face, the pelvis, the kidneys, and the knees. Bring space into the neck, the sacrum, the perineum. In ten days we have done very few postures (down dog, up dog, headless headstand, and tadasana). Mostly we have been in sukasana and savasana, alternating, as Angela and Victor have guided us through visualizations—of how to get breath into our back bodies, how to make ourselves spacious from the inside.
This is a real challenge for the wiggle gym rat I have been for most of my life. At this retreat I have slept in savasana every day (I guess you could call it a yoga trance and maybe the lessons come through osmosis as I sleep but still…I guess I was tired). Learning to visualize myself from the inside doesn’t come easy to me. A few days ago Angela lightly touched the place where my spine takes a decided right turn at the center of my back, and said, “This turn is on the inside of your spine, find it there.” And I did, not even knowing to look on the inside until she asked, as my spine pulled up, feeling straight for the first time I can ever remember.
And then there was finding the chakras from the back body. In all the times I have been taught about chakras, I never knew they came from the back and the front at the same time. We started with the root chakra in the perineum, visualizing a double flower, one toward the earth, the other rising up through us, sits bones rooted in the ground. Then we all lay in savasana, placing a wound up strap on the sacrum, middle back, by the heart, behind the throat, and on the back of the head parallel to the third eye. Each placement stimulated another chakra, which as we moved up the body, allowed the chakras to talk with each other. We then traced the energy coming through the crown of our heads to the sky. In this process I really felt the energy, a sexual, whole, warm, zooming, contained, and expansive energy inside of my body, deep and round.
Angela and Victor are profound teachers, regenerative artists with their own unique flair, helping us unlearn yoga that is based in militarism and cookie-cutter asana. Their teachings come from finding their own way after ten years of studying with Iyengar in India and realizing they needed to heal themselves. Angela had two devastating surgeries as a child and lived through a car accident from a drunk driver as an adult. Victor was temporarily paralyzed in adulthood and recently had surgery for cancer. Many of the people who came have lived through intense challenges—rock climbing accidents, a brutal death in a past life, cancer. Before and after class and during dinners overlooking the water, trauma stories have come out from the multilingual, intergenerational gathering of practitioners. But trauma has not been at the forefront. Finding ways to get free has taken that spot…the idea being that every constriction in your body is a place you are not free and that we all have the capacity, the internal possibility to unbind these constrictions. Angela and Victor are living proof of that, sitting on the soft wood platform at the front of the studio, these elders with stories and visualizations and instructions and kindness that can help uncoil the world.