I have always dreamed of taking a yoga retreat, but I had silently and unknowingly decided that the idea was frivolous, and I was undeserving, and so it stayed tucked away in the back of my mind. That all changed when I met Erin Lewis, a local NYC yoga teacher. One day I asked what else she was up to in her life. As fate would have it, she runs an incredible yoga retreat company, Eat. Pray. Move. Retreats. When she told me she was planning a retreat near the Amalfi Coast in Italy, I stopped in my tracks. That destination was at the top of my life list. I decided then and there that I would do whatever it took to be on the next one.
To say that it was one of the best weeks of my life would be an understatement, and I’m glad I chose Italy for my first retreat. There are quite a few things that make it ideal and aligned with the ideals of yoga.
1. The Locale
My retreat was on Ischia, known as the green island. Due to its thermal waters and rich soil, it has been renowned for its healing spas since Roman times. We stayed at a rustic villa that was perched on a cliff, high above the sapphire waters. To get to the ocean view yoga studio, there were switchback trails cutting into the rock. As we walked down a rock path, overlooking the water, we would pass aloe plants, flowering bushes of rosemary, olive and lemon trees, and cascading vines of capers. In addition to daily yoga classes, there was a hike to the summit of the island, Mount Epomeo, a boat trip allowing swimming and cave exploration around the island, a sunset walk down the face of the villa's cliff, a day of relaxation at a mineral spa, and numerous trips to the personality filled towns of the island, where we would walk the passegiata, sample the local goods and people watch.
While it was perfect, there are endless locations in Italy that would be equally beautiful. Surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrhennian Seas, Italy is full of opportunities for stunning ocean views, beach lounging, swimming and boating. The Italian landscape has a lot of variety, so chances are, if you love any kind of physical activity, you will be able to find it here. I can say from experience that the combination of sun, movement, and healing Mediterranean waters did wonders for my body and spirit.
2. The People
The Italian way of life is very much in opposition to American culture. Worry and stress are beyond them, and, for better or worse, schedules are very loose—bus time tables seemed to be just a suggestion. Shops close from roughly 1pm to 5pm for everyone to have a long, leisurely lunch at home with family. I was even told that the government gives low income families vouchers to rent lounge chairs at the beach in summer! Relaxation is considered a necessity, not a reward.
I was pleasantly surprised by the kindness, humor and welcoming energy of the Italian people. This being my first trip abroad, I had no idea what to expect. I was tentative in the weeks leading up to my trip, as I speak NO Italian and am a pretty solitary city girl. The men know just the thing to say to flatter a young American woman, to make her feel special and beautiful. The women are strong and confident, unafraid to bare their bodies at any age or size. Most of my conversations were relaxed and easy—many actually often apologized for the ‘coarseness’ of their English—and I left each encounter laughing or smiling. I was most taken by their pride—of the lives they have built, of their culture, of their country.
3. The Food
Most yoga retreats don’t serve gelato and pesto gnocchi.
Understandably, the focus on a retreat is often cleansing and detoxing the body from toxins and excess. But I found that eating Italian food on a yoga retreat was a breath of fresh air. We spend so much time in our culture focusing on food restrictions and diets, punishing ourselves for the amount or the kind of food we eat. This concept is beyond Italians. In yoga, we are taught to be present, to be kind to ourselves, to savor life, to take our time. And these ideas are all present in Italian food. As a health coach, I spend so much time teaching people about nutrients, portions, calories, etc. that it was really refreshing to spend a week in a place that only asks one question of the person behind the plate: Is it good? It is no mystery to me that I actually ate and thought about food less in Italy than I do at home, and it’s because nothing was considered outrageous or off limits.
When we think of Italian food, the mind goes to pizza and pasta, but the truth is that the landscape of Italy allows for a wide variety of fresh food—abundant fruits, vegetables and herbs, fresh caught fish, flavorful oils, and local wines. The best thing about eating abroad is that they don’t have the same level of food processing than we do here, so foods that might normally stress the body have a different effect. Often, people with gluten sensitivities or dairy allergies even find they can ingest these products without issue. Overall, my experience is that Italians value quality and tradition, and that is infused into every bite you eat.
4. The Isolation
The thing that surprised me the most was the amount of silence and isolation I experienced on retreat. This could be true of going abroad to any country, but I felt it acutely here. Going to Italy is like stepping back in time, and not just in the architecture. Roads are often stone or dirt, laundry is hung out to dry, and people still give verbal directions. People often don’t use phones, let alone cell phones, so the idea of checking wifi is not in the forefront of their minds.
The villa that hosted our retreat was free of tvs, and the only wi-fi was in the common dining room. In addition, I had to turn off my phone, so I was mostly cut off from the technology that usually distracts me in life. The language is another barrier. Even though the people are so accommodating, it’s hard when one layer of communication is removed. My host, Erin, said that it takes away a bit of your personality, and I found that to be true. And when you factor in the distance and the time difference of being abroad, I felt very far away from my home and my life.
In the beginning, this was anxiety producing for me. Any change in routine can be a shock to the system, but when you consider not having the normal connection to your partner or friends, it can be a real challenge. The beauty of being forced into this isolation was that it allowed a lot of stillness and space to come in. It allowed me to connect to the people around me, to truly take in the beauty of my surroundings, to hear the ocean waves and feel the warm salty air. It gave me enough distance to realize what really matters and what I create that adds drama to my life.
Most of all, it allowed me to hear my own voice clearly, without any negativity or doubt. And that is priceless.
To learn more about Erin Lewis or her retreats, visit her website.
Sarah Roseberry, CHHC AADP, is a Holistic Life and Health Coach. She works with modern women who are feeling stressed, out of control and in need of transformation. She teaches them to move beyond calories and use everything in their life as a tool for healing, nourishment and empowerment. After dealing with weight issues, mood imbalances and food allergies, she experienced first hand how a clean body and mind can change your world. She is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a lifetime member of Weight Watchers and a very happy member of the team at Lululemon Athletica SoHo. She lives and loves in Brooklyn, NY. Please join her at roseberrywellness.com or at her blog, Lavender and Roseberry. Keep breathing.
Images via: Awesome Pictures, Sarah Roseberry