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The International Writers Magazine: Travel

Atsitsa on Skyros
• Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger
I have to confess that I was mildly skeptical.  A health spa on a Greek island run by an American therapist based in London?  An adventure in fitness, no doubt, run on the lines of a New Age Club. And where does the Greek idea of a balance of mind, body and spirit fit in? 

All this contradictory evidence was difficult to conceptualize.  What was obviously clear from the attractive glossy brochure, however, is that Atsitsa is situated on the island of Skyros, one of the loveliest and most unspoiled sites in Greece.  It was here that Achilles spent his childhood in hiding at the court of King Lycomides.  Dressed as a girl, he defied the gods and decreed that he would never return from the Trojan War alive.  And here the mystical Don Juan, Theseus, met a rather sticky end, being pushed off the cliff on top of the castle walls.  As a student I had loved Greece passionately returning summer after summer to absorb yet a further bit of antiquity from these then almost deserted shores.  I kept copious journals, filled numerous sketch-books, pressed colourful flowers between the pages and wrote tender love poems to no one in particular.  But that was long ago.

 The spell was still strong. Unable to resist seeing Greece again, I hesitatingly made arrangements to travel to Athens there to join the group making its way to Skyros.  Together we were to journey to this mystical island, and session 10 at Atsitsa.  I recall only hours on a bus and a ferry.  The reward came, however, with my first view of the spectacular blue sea, gently rolling surrounding hills and the awesome rock formations which must make Atsitsa Bay one of the most glorious sites in Greece.  Despite its supreme location, doubts remained.  Our group was ushered into simple straw huts and told that ablutions are performed up the rather steep uneven steps in a series of cubicles open to the starry sky.

Skyros The next morning confirmed my worst fears.  Here was a group of frightened misfits, obviously unable to holiday alone, clinging together in an unhealthy dependence.  How could I possibly survive two weeks of sharing my room, my basin and my soul, with no space to call my own? Immediately I checked out the bus schedule to Skyros town and vowed to spend as little time as possible here. 

Then, almost without a warning, I fell into the rhythm of life at Atsitsa.  There were, of course, a wide selection of courses for mornings and afternoons.  On offer were the usual - yoga, massage, windsurfing, aerobics and art (all with catchy titles such as soft-belly lympathic massage, drawing with freedom, flowing vinyasa yoga and releasing the artist within you).  Or there were more unusual items such as movement into African dance, voice wakeup, the healing touch and two music courses, music theatre and music and stillness. 

Director and co-founder Dina Gloubermana, who worked at Brandeis University under Herbert Marcuse, is a London-based New York-born psychotherapist.  Each summer for the past forty-five years she has assembled a powerful team .  During my stay Dina offered a course entitled « Imagine your Life ».  What might that be all about?  Hesitatingly, with twenty-eight others, I appeared at the first session.

'Close your eyes and pull up an image,' were our first instructions. 'Don't discard anything, no matter how disagreeable.  You should work with the first image you get '.  We all tried to bring up   
pictures of something.  I managed to pull up a two-dimensional bear of sorts, with skeletal details showing a real aboriginal X-ray piece.   What should I do with that, I wondered?  Before I knew what had happened, I found myself on the floor in front of the class, stretching my limbs in peculiar forty-five degree angles to demonstrate the posture of the image. With Dina's help, 'I went into it' from top to bottom, from side to side, and from bottom to top.

What ensued was a crashing headache and a desire to get away as fast as possible to have a swim.  Only much later did a powerful sadness overwhelm me.  'The pain was always there and having it emerge and having to work through it is necessary,' said Dina. 'It's the first step in healing.' 

In class the next day I saw a young woman obviously in her own pain, asking for the help of other participants.  Suddenly, twenty-nine pairs of hands were making a cradle for her, and twenty-nine voices were singing a lullaby.  I saw another young woman, almost hypnotized, attempt to break through a wall (two husky male participants) to face the horror she expected on the other side.  It took a good half hour of Dina's professional talent to calm her fears and to restore her to health.

Imaging appears to be a form of communication small children do naturally.  They use it to reach deeply within themselves.  This inate talent is lost, however, when we are taught rationally and realistically to communicate with others using words and numbers. 'My interest,' continued Dina, 'is in teaching people a variety of ways to use images to make contact with their innerselves. When an image emerges, regardless of whether it's an animal, vegetable or object, it will represent something about ourselves we need to know at this particular moment.  And so we work with it, move around it, step into it, and find out its history.  We actually work with ourselves and with the problems in our lives that need solving.  Eventually we sense what the next step ought to be.'

Imaging is one way of breaking through our outer defenses, I learned.  Music might work equally well and for some, like me, it appeared easier to link into sound, tones, rhythms and movement.  We were a group of eleven, of uneven talent and different musical training, yet we improvised and played music together on a number of primitive yet amazingly effective percussion instruments.  We were bonded and yet, each of us improvised in his own space.  The rhythm surged through me and erupted unconsciously and spontaneously like a mantra.  I heard it in every dripping faucet and was awake at night tapping the off-beat pulse.  For days after that initiation I all but stumbled about writing poetry at every turn, experiencing a creative surge such as I hadn't known in over forty years. Then, just as suddenly, the pain which had accompanied these explosions was gone and the action shifted to a major key.  Perhaps I had reached the bottom of my pain, had survived, and was now taking the next step forward. Is that what it means to open up, become vulnerable, take risks and consequently flower?

What pulled me to Atsitsa originally was the splendid setting.  I have never been able to resist the magnetic pull of that sunsplashed cluster of Greek islands.  But there under the starry sky, surrounded by the incredible blue Aegean sea, something else was happening inside me.  I felt alive and well, wrote poetry for the first time in many years, played and sang with great enthusiasm, and did some mime and acting.  I swam long hours in the glorious bay and hiked in the moonlight along the sea-shore to a tiny chapel jutting out into the water.  No light inside, just a tiny candle, but oh, what mystery! The delightful island of Skyros was, of course, partially responsible for my euphoria, but equally important was the very real joy of rediscovering parts of myself long forgotten.

Atsitsa can be reached by email :, or telephone : 49(0)1983 86 55 66;

© Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger August 2013

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