I sneakily opened one eye to see what my husband was doing. He was flailing his arms to loud trance music as a yoga teacher in harem pants shouted: “Look through your third eye! See your dream! Now build your dream! Build it!”
It was at this point that my husband (the only man in the room) morphed into Bob the Builder, and mimed building a wall, brick by brick (apparently his third eye hadn’t worked, so he had to improvise). I closed my eyes, swayed and breathed... and thought to myself, we have come a long way.
And we had – to this beautiful Greek wellness retreat in the Peloponnese, above the historic town of Mystras – via fatigue, stress and a few sleepless nights. We know how to relax – with friends and a drink – but what if you need a reset? A mental detox? A body recharge? When your husband won’t entertain the idea of a mountain monastery retreat (too pious) or an Austrian health clinic (too austere)?
The answer, we discovered, was to head for Euphoria. Yes, it sounds a bit like a dodgy Ibizan foam party, but don’t be put off by that. This is a five-star spa retreat the size of a small medieval village. Built on a hill on the edge of a forest in a Unesco World Heritage Site, it is a place where you can do everything from yoga to water massage and fat busting.
I sold it to my husband on the promise that you can also laze around a pool, use a top-grade gym and eat and drink (alcohol permitted!) but what most appealed to me, apart from the glorious location, was the promise of making us both (mainly him) calmer, less stressed individuals. In short, we were going to learn to ease our troubled minds the ancient Greek way.
My husband is, it is fair to say, a reluctant meditator at the best of times. Ahead of this trip, his mind was troubled by everything from what to wear at a “sound meditation” (your gym kit) to whether we would be eating bone broth at the communal tables mentioned on the website (the food was delicious: modern Greek with plenty of carbs, served at separate tables on a wide terrace overlooking a valley with Sparta in the distance). And most of all, would it be – you know – woo-woo central? The Reluctant Meditator (RM) was particularly anxious about having to hold hands with strangers and chant around a fire. This was not helped when, on arrival, we found the programme for our four-day stay waiting in our room – beginning with the ominous “Fire Element Qi-Gong (Group Activity)”.
When you book, Euphoria asks you to fill in a questionnaire to establish what you are looking for. Do you want to achieve “Inner and Outer Glow”? Do you want to “Relax and Destress”? Maybe you are looking for a detox; an immunity reset programme; or “Signature Nutrigenomics or Advanced Weight Management (complete with blood tests)”? How scientifically state-of-the-art or mystical you go is up to you. RM definitely wanted to work on the shallow man-breathing which, as any meditator knows, is a stumbling block on the road to tranquillity, and I agreed to go along with whatever else they thought would help us.
Turns out there was no fire at the Fire Element Qi-Gong. There was a giant gong in a beautiful, airy yoga studio, but it played no part in the gentle session of stretching and breathing based on fire, the third of the five elements. Here’s the woo-woo bit: in ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, they believe that what is outside us (the elements) has an intimate bearing on what is inside us. So the first element, water, is linked to winter and dreaming, then wood (growth and spring), fire (a time of blooming and summer), earth (harvesting and late summer) and metal (letting go and autumn). More simply, it is about connecting with your body through your breath, listening and noticing your surroundings. You don’t have to “get it” exactly, you just have to relax and keep an open mind.
I was told by the lovely Athina, one of the therapists, that people sometimes cry in classes here: city dwellers with busy lives have a lot of pent-up emotions. As she lightly passed her hands over me (not so much a massage as a barely-touching therapy for balancing energy), her left hand started trembling at my temple – triggered, she explained, by my busy mind whirring so violently. Oddly, instead of rolling my eyes and checking my iPhone, I accepted this without question and resolved to let go and breathe deeper.
This was the way of it. You approach each session (four to five a day) like a normal exercise class until, gradually, all resistance falls away and you surrender yourself to the healing hands and soothing voices of the staff. It’s a trust thing (they radiate kindness and care), but also the things they do work. You can feel it. And the more you feel it, the more you are up for the next class.
Case in point: “I’ll pass on releasing my inner child, thanks,” was what my husband would certainly have said 48 hours before he was doing precisely that at Free Your Voice – a class in great demand after a pandemic that robbed many people of the ability to project their voices. The RM was asked, along with the rest of us, to screech like a child and let the sound out through the top of his head. I worried that it might be too much for him, but the look of satisfaction on his face when his yowling made the giant gong bombilate was there for all to see.
Then, as at so many of our sessions, we learnt the power of the breath. “As children we are taught to pull our stomachs in, keep our backs straight and our chests out and smile… WRONG!”, said Chryanthi. To breathe properly, you need to relax your stomach and let it all hang out. The trick, she explained, is to breathe as if through your belly. Check yourself and think about where your breath is. If it’s stuck in your throat, you will be stressed. Breathe silently through your nose. Put a hand on your belly and push out the muscles if that helps, and soon you will be breathing thoughtlessly and naturally like a baby.
Forty-five minutes of hissing, shrieking and huffing later, Chryanthi told RM that his face looked completely different now that the proper supply of oxygen was being allowed to do its thing. I took a look myself and was stunned to see that he did indeed look calmer and happier – serene, even.
Serenity can be found on all four floors of the beautiful byzantine-inspired spa. There are yoga studios, meditation rooms, a hammam and saunas, rooms with water tanks where you can have weightless massage (a big one for crying, apparently) and heavenly chill-out areas. The pretty outdoor swimming pool, surrounded by wild flowers and forest, leads into an indoor pool area dominated by a large dome of stone in the middle. Here you are encouraged to swim in, dive down through a shaft of light cascading from a skylight, and listen to the sound of whale song (no kidding) or just bob about absorbing the cave-like ambience. Around the dome is a circular swim route with jacuzzi-style lay-bys in which you can lie, sit or crouch and activate powerful or gentle jets of water to pummel your back, legs and feet at the touch of a button.
While the RM blissfully floated from one water-jet massage to another, I went for the real thing in one of the spa’s cool and calming treatment rooms. I had some of the best full-body massages I have ever had: one that was borderline painful, one that made my body feel like liquid afterwards, and one that involved stretching my limbs this way and that across my body – so releasing that I felt like I had been oiled and reassembled.
Euphoria is about de-stressing in the most holistic sense. At a private meditation class in one of the lovely triangular meditation rooms (something to do with energy flow), the mystically impressive Maria honed our breathing technique further, as she led us on an internal tour of the body – along the way flooding our organs with variously coloured rivers of light (you had to be there, really). She even insisted we record the session, so concerned was she that we derive lasting benefit. That is very Euphoria, too: there is a genuine concern for your wellbeing. No wonder so many people come back.
What is so remarkable about this place is that it is as much a holiday as a health destination. You won’t get any disapproving looks from the staff or fellow guests if you indulge yourself. RM pointed out with some satisfaction that a tall and slender Scandi couple were drinking red wine with the dinner portion of their five-meal-a-day specially calibrated diet (the main meals supplemented by mysterious snacks left in cartons in the spa’s relaxation area).
But there was still one further test of the RM’s new open-mindedness: the “Euphoria Forest Bathing Experience (Group Activity)”. Bathing? In a group? In a forest? What should we wear (if anything at all)? Again, it turned out to be less challenging than the title suggested. A gentle walk around the forest behind the spa with pit stops for light stretching and, yes, breathing. And did we feel silly standing in a glade opening our arms and bathing in the morning sun? Not remotely. Euphoria had worked its magic.
Healing Holidays (020 3372 6945; healingholidays.com) can arrange a four-night Retreat at Euphoria from £1,669 per person sharing, including flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and inclusion in the three-day Discovery programme