Santosha Yoga's retreat keeps its schedule flexible

I found this place 12 years ago. It's a totally different world. I've seen my kids grow here, learn freedom and responsibility, while dealing with the wild. They've learned a different morality here than in the city.
The idea for doing a yoga retreat here started 5 years ago.  I wanted people to discover this place in the same way I discovered it.

Nina Sotirova is sitting on a quiet beach in on the island of Lemnos, Greece. She runs Santosha Yoga, a yoga studio in Sofia, Bulgaria. And each summer, she hosts four, week-long retreats in Lemnos.

Retreat, vacation, trip - none of these are really the proper word for it.  Well, people call this a retreat.  I don't mind.  What we call it isn't important.

Nina shifts her attention out to sea, over the horizon, and then back after a few seconds.  She's arrived early to enjoy the beach with her younger son, who's fallen asleep beside her.

Santosha is a mission to me. Everyone in their life has a mission, based on what they can give and how they can develop.  For me, that's seeing a change in people.

Lemnos is a windy, rocky island, shaped like a goldfish cracker.  It's dotted with dozens of villages and hidden bays. Its maze of dirt roads hold little secrets like fig tree groves, little churches and isolated gazebos.  Lemnos takes only 45 minutes to drive from end to end, making its borders accessible even though the possibilities seem endless. On the eastern side, about as far as possible from the ferry port in the main town of Myrinos, is Keros Surf Club. It's a semi-permanent encampment on a long, shallow beach, a haven for windsurfing and kite surfing. That's our base, where Nina's chosen to host the retreat.

Lemnos is special to me.  It's a place where you feel you're in the right place for yourself.
Things are done with intention here. To give you an example, there are so many family-run restaurants. They grow their own vegetables in the back garden.  Even though they're successful, they don't open more restaurants. They stay with it. They know how to live.
There are usually two kinds of yoga retreats. Some have loads of yoga practice and can be run in any nice place. Sometimes they're even run in places where it's the yoga teacher's first time there. There are also retreats that are more about a touristy destination, with a little yoga practice added in.
I wanted to show why I love Lemnos so much. People here want to be in nature. They're on the same wave. I didn't do this as a business. I never wanted to bring loads of people here.

Nina's yoga sessions usually emphasize meditation and some form of self-awareness, connected to the physical practice of yoga.  Some of Sofia's teachers focus on physical precision and technique, describing how to maximize a stretch or performing "adjustments" and manually correcting their students' posture.

Nina takes an interest in people's psyches.

Her week-long program in Lemnos starts with some form of personal introductions to the group. Each morning starts with 90 minutes of yoga in a beach-side forest before breakfast, and a 1-hour surfing lesson some time during the day, depending on conditions.

I want to give people the chance to discover the island, not just the places, but the rhythm of life.
I've run 18 surf and yoga retreats in the last 5 years, and there are still firsts for me.  This week, we tried a new restaurant and two new beaches.

We're at one of Lemnos' more remote beaches at another surf camp, which is a drive up the eastern peninsula, past the dried-up, salt lake and over a steep hill with a helipad on it.  She's taken a group up for a helipad yoga session in the past, but this week is too windy for that to be safe.  Over the last few days, she noticed that people like remote "wild" beaches, so organized dinner here, letting everyone make their own way here over the afternoon.

Will

At the beginning of the week, she leads everyone in car convoys to dinner locations, but after a few days, people got used to navigating the criss-cross of dirt roads (especially at night) and started buzzing around more independently.  While everyone appreciates that dinners plans are decided for them, they start to take ownership of their own experience of the island. By the third day, small groups form to try a new village for lunch, or head off to another beach.

When people have doubts, they bounce from one thing to another. People develop will when they know the thing is right for them. Here, you see people who want to relax on vacation, but get up early to do yoga every day.  Many people who are afraid of water learn to surf.  Every summer, a few people here even decide to quit their jobs.
There is a schedule, but no one is obliged. We are surrounded by nice people in a safe environment. In a non-forced way, they push their own limits.

Diagnostics

Every time, people are different. And their combined energies are different.
I like to challenge people. Before they come, I develop some imagination of their personality. I always speak to everyone before because I co-ordinate organisation and transport.

Nina's doing more than travel co-ordination in these calls, she's explicitly probing and gauging people. She wants to get a sense of their personalities, and trusts her own ability to sense the underlying reasons they've chosen to come.

I know most of the people who I bring to Lemnos from yoga classes in Sofia, but every time some people sign up from referrals.
This week, a lot of people weren't comfortable coming with their cars.  They didn't want to drive so far, or were afraid of the conditions on the island.  I have to decide when to encourage them, and when something would be too uncomfortable.
When we arrive at Lemnos port, and I lead the cars from the ferry to the surf camp, I like to see the island through their eyes.  It's like I always see it again for the first time, from their perspective.

This week, she's started by gathered everyone in a patch of forest just behind the beach. We're sat in a circle around a mandala on a bed of soft pine needles, with the evening sun streaming through the trees above.

Everyone is asked to turn to their neighbour, and take a few minutes to explain why they wanted to come here. Their neighbour will then introduce them to the group, choosing a single word they think describes them.

Other weeks are more elaborate and intensive. One exercise involves a silent introduction.  One at a time, everyone is asked to stand up, walk around the circle, and sit down, while everyone else writes what they think of their first impression. What assumptions do they have?  What do they think that person does for work?  At the end of the week, the exercise is repeated and then both first impressions and the impressions from a week of conversations are handed over.  People learn how they are perceived.

Connecting

By the end of the week, the novice surfers are tired, splayed out under beach umbrellas. But even on the beach, they're trading notes and teaching each other. They're explaining how they figured out how to turn around without falling over, and comparing blisters from constantly hoisting up the sail from the water.

Someone asks their instructor about a "beach start", meaning how to step onto a moving board with the sail up. It's one of the last things novice wind-surfers learn. Another experienced surfer overhears and jumps in with technique they learned from a free-styler last year. The two experts start trading notes on this basic technique, while everyone else listens and mimics their movements.

When you go to a place by yourself, that's one thing.  When you go with the right people, when the right people connect, they have a different experience.
Sharing tents, experiencing stuff they've never done before, practicing together, exploring the island on their own... people find each other doing activities.
Most groups stay connected on the Viber chat groups for years after.  So many people make good friends.

Planning to adapt

This is achieved by balancing advanced planning and diagnosing everyone's needs. To do this, Nina sets up options that she can choose from, once she sees everyone together on the first day.

I'll go wherever people want to go. Based on what I see people like, I always have some new ideas.

A year in advance, she only plans dates, and reserved tents at the surf camp.

By the week before each retreat, she's organised a rough restaurant schedule for each evening, leaving a few nights open and the other nights with "soft" bookings at restaurants - so she has flexibility.

Here in Greece, there's a way to talk to the restaurant owners, it's a different mindset than in Bulgaria.

She also needs to plan to be flexible because of unpredictable weather on the island.  Extreme wind one day means beginner surf lessons are canceled, so she has different workshops at the ready, which she runs around a big restaurant table back at base camp.

Most of the schedule solidifies after everyone's arrived and Nina can see the group dynamic.

Each day, she picks a theme which connects the morning's yoga practice and meditation to the day. For example, starting a day focusing on balance with one-legged yoga positions extends naturally into the afternoon; the group started practicing balance on the wooden training boards at the surf camp.  Blind-folded yoga practice gets everyone thinking about intuition, trust, self-trust and confidence. One week had a high proportion of families with children, and a theme emerged, "find the child in yourself."

Most novice organisers make the mistake of over-planning the schedule, investing heavily in a full schedule of activities.  This leaves no space for people to control their own time, take in what they've learned, and connect with others. Even an optional schedule makes a lot of people feel compelled to do everything they can so they don't miss out.

Most experienced retreat organisers make the opposite mistake, assuming that just inviting the right people to a nice place is sufficient, without planned activities.  In these cases, diagnostics of attendees' goals are left undone, both by the host and by other participants.  So the result tends to be underwhelming or feel like a missed opportunity. People leave with a sense they could have made more of the experience and connections available, rather than empowered and propelled by the experience.

The balance lies in planning a set of options at the ready, most of which won't be used, and planning to diagnose everyone in order to choose the right ones.  If the experience exposes learning needs to the host and to other participants, that enables everyone's agency.  Then, offering a well-curated schedule, usually of a few easy-to-prepare activities, allows participants make relevant connections and use their free time as it suits them best.

As the week progresses, Nina thinks of ideas for appropriate symbolic gifts for the group, which she prepares for the last day.  In our last morning yoga session, she gives us each a hand-made paper beach lily, symbolizing freedom.

I'm sharing something from me. Your personal intention is why you're running it, that's your mission. People come because of that, because of you.
For me, it's important to know the place, to feel it.  Just like I only want to teach what I've really lived, rather than things I've just read in a book.

The Santosha retreat helps everyone find a kind of root in Lemnos, something about themselves and something about Lemnos that exposes a starting point from which they can explore their own potential.