Finding peace on the island of Vis, Croatia

Posted in Travel
Finding peace on the island of Vis, Croatia

After almost two years in Amsterdam, the time was nearing to make the move back to the States. It seemed only yesterday I was unpacking my life from four suitcases, settling in to our one-floor flat, perfectly positioned in the center of the Canal belt with its tiny fridge, convection stove incessantly beeping at me, toilet so high my toes skimmed the floor (those Dutch are TALL), and lovely back patio clouded by rain much of the year, making it that much sweeter to enjoy on a perfect sunny day.

Time went too fast. Between acclimating to a new country and a new role at work, I hadn’t been prioritizing my yoga practice—the one thing I knew could help me find balance and a bit of peace in a sometimes chaotic environment.

So when plans to travel to Dubrovnik with friends fell through and an ad for a week-long yoga retreat on the island of Vis, Croatia popped up on my Facebook feed, I was intrigued. After reading their Facebook reviews, several nods from the likes of Wanderlust and Nomad Junkies, and a few polite email replies from their founder, I nervously transferred the full payment. Doubts popped up: What if I didn’t fit in with the other guests? Could I keep up with twice a day yoga when I hadn’t maintained a consistent practice for months? Would I get to see/do enough for it to feel like a holiday? I had never traveled with people I didn’t know before, and I was partly terrified and wholly excited.

The Arrival

I spent a couple days with my favorite Dutchman in Charmonix, then took a short flight from Geneva to Split, Croatia. While waiting at the airport, the man sitting next to me stood and asked, “Mind watching my bag while I go to the shop?” and before I had a chance to respond he was off. The voice of that airport security announcer warning, “Do not leave your bags unattended…report any suspicious activity,” played in my mind on repeat. Five minutes later I was pretty happy to see my neighbor return, plastic shopping bag in hand. When he offered me one of his two drinks I felt a fool, worrying that he may have left me with a suspicious package. I had always assumed people were good, and evil was the exception. But here in this situation I had to check myself: something about the coverage of terrorist attacks and constant security warnings had made me doubt that core belief. As we got to talking about our plans, it was good to be reminded that most people ARE good.

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Following an easy flight and even easier bus ride from the airport to the city of Split, I dropped my bags, walked through the outdoor market, and enjoyed a lunch of fresh tuna at one of the many waterfront restaurants. I planned an extra night and day in Split after the retreat, so I saved the fortress and historic sites. Since I wasn’t sure what the scoop on wine would be at the retreat, I enjoyed a couple of glasses and people watched before catching the 6pm ferry to Vis.

Pro tip: Split has safe, affordable lockers in the train station, located on the same side of the street as the bus station and across from where the ferry docks. Personally, I felt my bags would be safer there than with one of the manned storage booths elsewhere on the street. If you don’t have change, you can ask for it at the ticket window.

I later learned the ferries in Croatia run on a schedule tuned to the locals: early ferries from the islands to Split and later return ferries allowed for a day of shopping or work in the city. The ferry ride was quite relaxing, with a bar and snack area, free wifi, and plenty of peaceful views.

I kept thinking I’d recognize my fellow retreaters on the ferry, but it wasn’t until I walked off the boat and discovered the small group of three ladies huddled around a local on crutches that I met my housemates for the week. Our tour guide had sprained his ankle at football and would be a bit limited in his physical activities this week. But what he lacked in mobility he made up for with knowledge of his home country, which he shared graciously throughout our stay.

We made small talk, getting to know each other during the taxi ride from the ferry to our villa, and enjoyed the first of many healthy, delicious vegetarian meals as we settled in to our stay.

The Yoga

We started each day at 8:30am with an hour and a half Hatha/Flow class and followed it in early evening with a restorative Yin practice. With seven days ahead, our instructor, Leah, cleverly arranged each practice around the seven chakras. To be honest, I couldn’t have told you what all seven chakras were before this retreat. Most of the yoga classes I attended were power/flow yoga in my gym, a 2-year stint in Bikram long suppressed from memory (did that guy really just flick his sweat on me!?!), or the occasional Hatha studio class. I had little patience in the past for focusing on breathing or meditation.

What I realized in these seven days was I had written something off before trying it, and I was missing out. I could write several posts on the way Leah invited us to bring balance to our root (base of spine), sacral (below naval), solar plexis (core), heart (mid-chest), throat, third eye (between eyebrows), and crown (top of head); but for brevity I will share a few highlights. If you’re more interested in the island sites, skip on down.

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Day 1: Root – The Man and the Red strawberry

Leah shared a fable:

A man was meditating in a forest when he was interrupted by hungry wolves. Running to escape the pack, he reaches a cliff. As he looks down, he faces crocodiles in the water below. As the wolves circle, he has no choice but to jump, catching a branch halfway down the cliff. As he hangs there, he contemplates his non-existent options: death by wolves or crocodiles. Looking about, he spots a vine with a plump, juicy, ripe strawberry on it. He reaches and plucks it from the vine and proclaims it is the sweetest he ever tasted.

And that’s it. We were invited to contemplate this fable. What did it mean? To me, it represented the tendency we have to be caught looking behind or ahead, worrying about what was or what will be. Instead, if we can focus on the present, we might just experience the sweetest moments in our lives. Leah finished the practice with an invitation:

May you always enjoy the sweetest spot in life!

Day 2: Sacral – The Ultimate Orange Hip Opener

I’m a glutton for punishment: hip openers are my favorite, in the “it hurts so good” sense. It was interesting to me over the course of the week that each of us had a different fav—for the more athletic, the strenth of day 3’s sacral practice or for some the heart openers on day 4. Here on day 2, my legs burned from a morning of ALL the lunges. I learned the value of breathing techniques, like Lion’s breath to cool you down. In the evening, I appreciated slowing down and holding poses like double pigeon for 10-15 minutes, where it took me the first 12 just to let go. It was the first time I felt totally focused with no outside distractions in my practice, and I actually saw the color Orange as Leah led us through our restorative session.

Day 3: Solar Plexis – Personal Yellow Strength

So where hip-openers are my fav, upper arm strength is my weakness. I was dreading all the planks of day 3. It made me think of a time when I was just starting out in yoga and went with my yoga teacher friend to a studio class in Maine. On the way in I feared aloud, “I just hope there aren’t a lot of side-planks.” When the teacher introduced herself she proclaimed, “Today we will focus for the next 90 minutes on variations of plank.” I could barely do the two I knew, and I spent much of the class as the only one in child’s pose thinking I was an imposter for coming.

What I realized here on day 3 was, I could keep up! Not that it mattered, as I was with the warmest group of judgement-free women. But I’m stronger than I think, and when I stopped living in my head and just focused on the present, I enjoyed the challenge and felt like I was right where I was supposed to be.

Leah shared another proverb:

A small boy wanted to prove an old wise man in his village wrong. He’d bring the man a butterfly hidden in his clasped hands, and ask him if it was alive or dead. If he guessed dead, he would release it alive. If he guessed alive, he’d squash it and show it was dead. With this fool-proof plan, the boy approached the old man, and asked him to guess what he held in his hands. The old man correctly guessed it was a butterfly. The boy then challenged, “Yes but is it alive or dead?” to which the wise man responded, “My son, you have the power in YOUR hands.”

Leah’s wish for us:

May you have the strength to take your compassion off the mat and change the world.

Day 4: Green Heart Openers

This was quite a personal practice for me, focused on love and relationships. There was a moment near the end of the evening practice where in a reclined side twist my spine and hips literally popped out loud into place one by one, and the release felt other-worldly.

Day 5: Blue Throat and Indigo Third Eye

On this day I learned I was doing Chaturanga practice ALL WRONG! From plank, I was looking down and then bending my elbows, putting too much pressure on my shoulders. Instead, Leah invited us to look forward and shift our weight forward, ensuring our elbows bent at a 90 degree angle and we engaged our core. LIFE-CHANGING! For a refresher on your Chatarunga, check out Yoga with Adrienne’s fundamental video. (All her videos are amazing for your home practice!)

Day 6: Purple Crown and All the Handstands

Before this retreat, dedicating so much of a practice to something I can’t do would have frustrated and disappointed me. But when we reached the end of morning practice with lots of time to experiment in shoulder, head, and handstands, I had come to learn that yoga isn’t about comparing yourself to others, or achieving the perfect posture, but about listening to what I need, giving back to myself so I can give to others. I enjoyed playing around with variations of these stands, even though I may be years away from achieving them.

No recap of this week of yoga will do it justice, but all I can say is if you’re considering a retreat, whether to jumpstart your practice as one of our group members did (it was her FIRST yoga class), to reconnect with a lost practice (as in my case), or to deepen your self-practice (as with one member currently in teacher training), I say, go for it! If you’re interested in more from our amazing instructor, check out leahsugerman.com

The Island

This retreat was a perfect mix of yoga, downtime lounging pool-side, and discovering the island’s unspoiled sites.

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Vis Town

Our guide, Mario, talked us through the history of Vis, originally settled in the 4th century B.C. and much fought over through the centuries for its importance as shipping location. With its picturesque, well-protected harbor and quaint town, we spent a couple hours on our own exploring its streets.

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Komiža Town

My favorite of the towns we visited, Komiža, with a population of only about 1300 people, felt like a walk back in time. The narrow roads, the linens hanging to dry, and the lack of tourists in May all made for a pleasant stroll. Mario shared how many of the seaside homes were uninhabited and some in ruin because a law that was slowing sales and development. In years past, many left the island to pursue opportunities elsewhere. To sell a home, one must first get ALL of its owner’s descendants to sign away their rights, and some are difficult to find. It was interesting to see how nature was taking back over some of these ruins, with greenery filling empty interiors and plants sprouting from cracks in the walls.

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Stiniva Beach

Totally worth the short but steep hike down and back up, this southern beach and cove are protected by 4-meter high cliffs. We were lucky to have it all to ourselves.

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The Food

Milda nourished us with fresh, vegetarian meals the entire retreat. After each morning yoga session we helped ourselves to a wholesome breakfast of yoghurt, porridge, fresh bread, eggs, cheese, fruit, jams, local honey, coffee/tea and the occasional baked good like french toast, yum!

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In the afternoon we had packed lunch and snacks to enjoy by the pool.

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Post restorative yoga, we shared tasty dinners around the table each evening.

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I was never disappointed and didn’t miss meat a bit. We even went out for a local peka dinner and had the most TENDER octopus you could ever imagine.

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Saying Goodbye

The only regret I have from my first yoga retreat is leaving on the seventh day. I could have stayed a month and I’ve brought the lessons and gratitude into my now daily practice. My worries leading up to the trip were wasted energy, and I’m reminded to try new things.

I will return for another retreat with Summersalt somewhere down the road, and look forward to reconnecting with old friends.

Recommended Links

Summersalt Yoga Retreats
Leah Sugerman


Have a question or comment? Connect with me on Twitter @meganfields.