Ashtanga Yoga Retreat on the White Mountains (Crete): Goodbye Excess Baggage!
PhotoMan and I joined Nektarios’ Ashtanga Yoga Retreat on the White Mountains on the 18th to 21st of October, 2019. Took me exactly one year to blog it!
Sitar Player + Crete = White Mountains
Joining Nektarios Mitritsakis at his Ashtanga Yoga Retreat on the White Mountains was like fulfilling a prophecy. When my husband, PhotoMan, and I first decided to make Crete our home, I did a search for yoga teachers. I was astonished to find that Nektarios was not only a yoga teacher and Vedic astrologer, but a dedicated Sitar Player as well.
Years before PhotoMan and I had the notion of moving to Greece, we went to a café bar in East London that featured various musical acts every Sunday. The two acts that totally mesmerized us were of a Cretan traditional band and a Sitar Player. The Cretan sound was so exhilarating that I could picture a whole herd of horses running wild on a plateau. The sitar segment that followed was the opposite: the sound was mellow yet rich like liquid gold. Within a minute, the lively audience became silent. I closed my eyes and pictured myself being alone on a boundless plain that felt oddly like home.
So you see how excited I was to find a dedicated Sitar Player in Crete!
Unfortunately for me, Nektarios is based in Chania which is 2 hours away from Heraklion where I live. I revisited his websites several times since then and after having a Super Good Feeling Dream in which I was on the mountains, I asked PhotoMan to sign up for Nektarios’ White Mountains Yoga Retreat with me.
It was easy to persuade PhotoMan to go. He loves the mountains, enjoys hiking, camping and all those outdoor adventures. He said ‘yes’ after seeing all the beautiful mountain tops at Nektarios’s introductory video. It was me who needed much persuading. Nektarios’s yoga retreat started with a hike up to the Kallergi Mountain Refuge with all our luggage. I don’t like hiking, especially not with a full backpack. In the end I thought it would be alright because like I said in the Richtis Gorge article, PhotoMan could carry me if need be.
Some people find satisfaction from hiking and feel that all that walking makes the destination more special. I’m not one of those people! I keep signing up hiking trips, and even have organized one or two myself, because there are so many places to see. This is the reason I started practicing yoga more frequently: to strengthen my body. I wish that I could still walk to wherever I feel like when I’m 100 years old.
Goodbye, Excess Baggage!
This time before we started walking up the mountain, I willed myself to whinge a little bit less. PhotoMan said he didn’t notice me whinging on the previous hikes: because I did most of that IN MY HEAD! I would love to be one of those people who enjoy hiking. Soon after we started our journey, I said to myself, ‘I enjoy hiking more and more starting now!’ I kept repeating this whenever a whinge started forming in my head so at least I didn’t get annoyed by my own whinges.
I was determined to walk as closely to the front of the group as possible. Even when my breathing started getting erratic, I continued, disregarding my body’s request to rest. The path was more difficult than I anticipated – we started off on what I considered to be a goat track, a path that was narrow, full of loose rocks and going up and up. My full backpack swayed my balance. I overestimated my ability – in order for PhotoMan to bring all his photographic equipment including a tripod, I crammed my backpack with both our belongings. I thought I could carry both our yoga mats that I rolled into one huge log too so PhotoMan’s hands were free to take photos whenever he wanted. Before getting on the goat track, I already gave the mat-log up to PhotoMan. That really taught me how NOT to take on responsibility that I don’t need to.
The weather was cool during our hike up and I thought we were being looked after when it started raining. A trip like this is like a quest, and what could have been better than being cleansed by the rain right at the beginning?
Some of the retreat participants stopped to don their raincoats. I thought it was a good chance for me to get closer to the front but PhotoMan asked me to assist him while he covered his camera bag with the built-in rain cover. Eons passed when we were finally ready to walk again and my heart became heavy when I noticed everyone else was way ahead of us.
‘I’m not going to try to catch up with them.’ I told PhotoMan in case he had any silly idea.
‘There’s no need to. Just walk on our own pace.’
‘I’m behind only because I was waiting for you.’ I wanted to make sure that he knew.
‘I know that.’
PhotoMan didn’t hurry me at all. He turned back and waited for me from time to time and offered to carry my backpack. I declined his kind offer because the path didn’t seem so bad anymore when I could walk on my pace. I felt safe having PhotoMan, the dearest person in my life, there to support me.
The rain cleared my mind somewhat and I realized that I wanted to keep up with everyone so badly because I had unrealistic expectations for myself. I was in various basketball teams for 11 years and was always the ‘athletic one’ amongst my peers. That was years and years ago but a part of me still wanted to keep up with this label. Since then, no matter what kind of physical activity I signed up for, I pushed myself so much that either I constantly injured myself or I quit because the stress outweighed the enjoyment. I was also so used to being in competitions that even though it was not a competition, I felt I failed when I was last in the group.
‘Time to let that go.’ I thought to myself.
There is this guided meditation about leaving the past behind by Helen Belôt, founder of Sekhem Healing, that I use from time to time. It is about pausing on a mountain path and look back to see how far we’ve come, and to leave behind baggage such as past hurts, beliefs and thought patterns that no longer serve us, before continuing the journey. I was literally on a mountain path at this point ready to leave behind much baggage. So I paused and looked how far we had walked. The landscape became so much more beautiful now that the unnecessary stress was gone.
As I turned back towards where I was going, something made me look down at my feet and this stone was resting in front of my left foot.
The stone is shaped exactly like an eye! ‘What is it for?’ I asked my Higher Self.
‘To see beauty of the world.’
I took the stone with me to remind me that the reason for hiking, and for living too, is not to meet expectations or to win, but to see beauty of the world.
And the first beauty of the world that I saw? PhotoMan, my own Super Hero, patiently waiting for me to enter the area of the mountain refuge together. When I caught up with him, he said, ‘Well done! You’ve made it!’
Yes! Well done me!
We literally left all the excess baggage behind on the way back! Nektarios’ friend came by car and he drove all our bags down for us so we could enjoy ourselves more. See how happy and light we looked!
Kallergi Mountain Refuge
We stayed at Kallergi Mountain Refuge for Nektarios’ Ashtanga Yoga Retreat at the White Mountains. The refuge is a rustic building that is full of character. It is a large stone house that contains a spacious dinning room and staff-only kitchen, several 4-people rooms with bunk beds, one dormitory with door (the female participants of our group took this room) and another larger dormitory that has no door. When we arrived, I thought I stepped into a mountaineering documentary! All those hiker boots at the entry way, dormitories in the loft with mattresses on the floor and wet clothes hanging here and there. The atmosphere was warm and cozy even when the wood fire wasn’t on.
For the yoga retreat, we walked there from Omalos Plateau (1041m) and it took about 1.5 to 2 hours. It is possible to drive all the way up to Kallergi Mountain Refuge which is at an altitude of 1680 meters. It’s better to use a 4-wheel drive since the road is unpaved but I saw some people arriving in normal cars as well.
During our stay, we saw small groups of people making the refuge their base for several days of hiking. There was a group of people who arrived in a car with tents and a cute little dog and they camped outside the refuge. There were also people who joined Safari tour that included Kallergi Mountain Refuge as one of their stops. Some only stopped by for a meal before getting on their journey. Everyone we met was in super good mood: the mountains and the fresh air really have a way of uplifting people.
The refuge has its own generator for electricity which was switched off at 10:30pm during our stay. The area became very dark and was ideal for star gazing. Before switching off the electricity, the refuge host walked around and reminded everyone to have their torches with them.
Due to the scarcity of water supply, there is an extra charge for shower which, during our stay, was 3 euro per person per use. Shower is available only when the refuge has enough water in its storage. Hot water is available when the generator is on. There are only 1 shower cubicle, 1 male and 1 female toilet cubicle, and 3 wash basins. Oddly it was plenty and I never saw a queue.
Bedsheets and pillow cases are available for rent as well although PhotoMan and I brought our own. There are plenty of thick blankets for everyone to use for free. The mattresses are on the firm side and very comfortable. Pillows are provided too.
Delicious meals are available and beverages that were on offer include mountain tea, coffee (instant), beers, wine, raki, soft drinks and bottled water. Tap water at the refuge is not potable.
There were only two people working at the refuge: Christofouros and Vasilis. One must contact the refuge and book in advance even if one only wants to stop by for a meal. The refuge might not be opened.
Christofouros is also a mountaineer and a cave expert. I love caves!!! I was mighty excited at the idea of entering a vertical cave and asked Christofouros too many questions about his guided cave exploration tour. He said it was fine to not have experiences in climbing, as long as one is reasonably fit and strong. I asked for a quote and he said 300 euro for 4 people and it would take about 6 hours.
Nektarios, the retreat organizer, has always loved being on the White Mountains and he practises yoga around these areas as much as he can. Few years ago, an idea came to him to share this special place with other people and this was how Ashtanga Yoga Retreat at the White Mountains began.
We spent a very relaxing 3 nights at the Kallergi Mountain Refuge. Nektarios kept the retreat very affordable, at 220 euro per person. The cost included the followings which was the structure of the 4-day retreat:
Hiking – Dinner – Rest
Tea – Meditation – Yoga – Lunch – Rest – Meditation – Yoga – Dinner – Rest
Tea – Meditation – Yoga – Lunch – Rest – Meditation – Yoga – Dinner – Rest
Tea – Meditation – Yoga – Lunch – Hiking
The morning yoga sessions were self-practice sessions which meant that each student chose what they did in accordance with their own rhythm, while Nektarios provided individuals with guidance whenever he was seeked or when he observed there was a need. Everyone in the group practised Ashtanga yoga and they followed a certain sequence. I had never practised Ashtanga yoga before and it wasn’t a problem. On the first practice session, I chose to do some simple relaxing poses because I was in moon time. Nektarios guided me whenever I wasn’t sure about my posture. On the second and third self-practice sessions, I was curious about the sequence that everyone was following and asked Nektarios to guide me through it and he did. It was TOUGH! I had fun though, learning something new. I also rather enjoyed the atmosphere which was a bit like in a library, silent and full of focus.
The afternoon yoga sessions were with instructions like normal and we did some breathworks too. There was no guidance for the meditation segments. We sat in a room together and everyone was free to choose how long we stayed in meditation for.
One might expect much peace and quiet during a yoga retreat but it is not possible at the mountain refuge. The hikers we met were joyous and the atmosphere especially in the evening was lively. Sound carries far in open space and farther at night. If you are a light sleeper like me, you would be woken up by people going to the bathroom. The girl who slept next to me had no problem sleeping because she had her earplugs on. There were plenty of quiet and peaceful moments during our stay but sometimes there were noises from people being happy and enjoying themselves. During our morning meditations, a commotion went on outside the meditation room because the hikers were getting ready. I thought all the distraction was good for training the mind to be silent amongst chaos.
What I appreciated most about Nektarios was that he welcomed everyone to his retreat and he let the participants choose whether to engage in the meditation and yoga sessions or not. There was a Qi Kong master in the group and he practised Qi Kong during the yoga segments. After joining the first few yoga sessions, PhotoMan decided to practise his own branch of yoga: exploring the surrounding with his camera. Initially, I had thought that the yoga retreat was about yoga. Now I think the retreat was really about connecting with and being inspired by the mountains.
There was actually a fair bit of free time. The mobile reception on the mountains was patchy and I gave up trying to get a signal after the first evening. It was a bit odd at the beginning to be without internet. My body was sore from the hiking and yoga and I didn’t want to go walking in the spare time. What to do? I found myself sleeping ALL THE TIME! In the dormitory, in the dining area next to the beautiful windows and even in the outside area. Others in the group were also in lounging mode. Some have books with them, some reading the books that were available at the dinning room. There were some causal conversations amongst the participants. It was all very relaxing and leisurely.
Making Wishes at the White Mountains
Before the retreat, I had this romantic idea that we would be closer to God when we were up in the mountains. I could not resist sending a wish to God while there!
Let me share with you briefly what I did. I made a sentence regarding my wish as if it had already happened. The sentence started with ‘I am so grateful that… ‘ I wrote this sentence 21 times for 11 days. In order to add on to the focus, I also used my non-dominant hand to write all the lines although it’s not required. I took all the pieces of paper with me and burnt them in the fireplace in the refuge.
Did my wish come true? YES, it did! I’m not going to tell you what I wished for but what I would say is that nothing happened but my perception changed and I realized that I was already living my wish without recognizing it. Perhaps the eye-shaped stone helped me see? Or the fresh air cleansed my mind and heart? I bet all those sleeps removed some of the fog from the everyday life stress for me to appreciate what I have more. Oh and definitely because of the yoga and meditations with the group!
I also made another wish without knowing. My husband and I live on the beach in Heraklion (capital of Crete) and while on the mountains, I missed the sea so much! One thing lead to another, PhotoMan said instead of heading east for our 2-hour drive home, we had to head west for a short drive to pick up something from a photographer friend who happened to be working at the coast there. Without planning to, we finished our White Mountains retreat at the beautiful Falassarna beach!
Want to find out more about Nektarios’ Ashtanga Yoga Retreat on the White Mountains? His contact details can be found here.
By the way, the White Mountains are only white in winters till early summers when all the mountain tops are covered by snow. Let’s enjoy a few more not-White Mountains photos for now!
*I do not receive any material rewards from writing this or any other articles on my blog. The only reward I get is the joy of recommending great people and their services.
**All images (except for the ones with the eye stone) by PhotoMan AKA Konstantinos Anastasakis.
More articles on places of interest in Greece can be found here.