Seduced by the sea with Yoga on a Shoestring on Kefalonia

Sasha Bates reviews this uplifting yoga holiday on Kefalonia with yoga teacher Dory Walker and is seduced by the beauty of the sea and contact with the locals

As a big fan of the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin it was hard to resist the prospect of a week of yoga on the island on which it was set. One of the Ionian islands off Greece’s west coast, Kefalonia is hilly, largely undeveloped, and surrounded by clear calm waters lapping rocky bays. For nine weeks a year Yoga on a Shoestring set up home here at a small family-run venue, Vigla Village, overlooking Spartia beach in the South West. I join long-time Yoga on a Shoestring teacher, Dory Walker, on a week of her own blend of Sivananda, Krishanamacharya, and Iyengar based practice.

Dory offers two classes a day, morning and evening, and in between my time is my own. Before coming I had great plans for walks and cycles, but I find that now I am here I can do little but gaze at the view. The clarity of the sea here is breathtaking and within five minutes walk from my room I have the choice of three very different beaches from which to plunge into it. I’m really enjoying that decision being the hardest thing I have to do this week. Oh, and whether to snorkel, swim or float, once in there.  And when I’m not in it, I’m watching it – the gently hypnotic wash of translucent, gentle waves over sand from my beach towel, or the awe inspiring, panoramic, deep blues and turquoises from high above on my cliff top balcony. For me, this often aimless gazing is one of the most therapeutic parts of this retreat and I am spending quite a long time indulging in it.

When not mesmerized by the sea I find further inner peace practicing yoga, safe within the containing presence and tutelage of Dory Walker, who inspires a lot of love among our group. I feel myself becoming beautifully stretched, stronger, calmer and more energized with the yoga, rather than losing myself in the more flowing vinyasa style I am used to. Dory’s close focus on alignment and anatomy is very useful; the time taken to move in and out of postures has slowed things down and provoked precision and thoughtfulness; and her adjustments are helpful. I’ve also relished the large variety of poses and the inclusion of some restorative ones.

So without finding the meditative state I sometimes achieve in a long flow practice, and with meditation itself not making up a significant part of this retreat, I find I am enjoying finding my own ways to slow down and look inwards – hence the watery obsession.

I am also enjoying feeling a bit closer to the local community than I would normally expect, for other than breakfast, food isn’t included here. It’s quite unusual for a retreat not to be fully catered, but I like it. While there is something rather wonderful about having your every need catered to on the grander retreats, and rather bonding to be in contact only with fellow retreaters, there is also something very grounding about walking out the gate, watching the residents gather to chat on the quay side, buying bread from the supermarket, or chatting to waiters in the local restaurant – especially as it does not feel remotely touristy, at least not now, in early June. Most people are locals and the beaches are practically empty.

‘When not mesmerized by the sea I find further peace practicing yoga, safe within the containing presence and tutelage of Dory Walker, who inspires a lot of love among our group’

If anything there’s an even greater lesson to be had here, I think. It’s very easy to get all zen-like and feel you are on the road to enlightenment when you are cloistered in a space dedicated to helping you do that – it’s much harder to take it out into the real world and to hang on to it once back in real life. Or as Jack Kornfield so elegantly put it: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”. Coming here and finding an inner peace that can also carry me outside the gate is, I believe, a step closer to marrying up the ideal with the reality.

I’ve been swooning over the amazing cooking at the delightful restaurant opposite our apartments – Isalos (meaning water line), which offers traditional Greek fare with skill and flair. The prawn saganaki and homemade stuffed vine leaves of last night were especially delicious, and they helpfully packed up my leftovers, which I ate again at lunch very happily.

We are being very much left to our own devices. I’m a contented loner so all this suits me fine, but I think a few people who are daunted about approaching others or eating alone might have appreciated a bit more ‘hosting’ help finding companions. That said, as the week progresses people are relaxing in each other’s company and meals out are being negotiated more easily. Something that helped this was the need to hire a car to go exploring on the day off.

Many of us had forgotten our driver’s licenses, so we had to throw ourselves on the mercy of those who hadn’t, and ask if we could catch a ride with them, which also meant forsaking any real control over the agenda for the day. Normally this could irritate me, but in my newfound spirit of moving the meditation off the mat, I found that handing over choices as to where to go and what to see on the island turned out to be liberating. And my companions not only drove me to stunning places – including incredible caves of stalactites, underground lakes, monasteries and wonderful swimming spots  – but also proved to be a funny, caring, clever and interesting group of women who, when we couldn’t get the radio to work, could even sing together in tune and in harmony despite only having met each other four days previously – a fitting symbolic testament to how the yogic spirit of togetherness seems to have infected them too.