“Try really hard not to blink,” says our meditation guide Chris Connors, as a small group of us dressed in yoga attire stand on a platform overhanging the deep swoop of blue sea in Oia, Santorini, Greece. “The idea is to let as much light as possible into your body through your eyes and really wake up those cells.”
A meditation teacher, psychotherapist and the founder of meditation app OPO, Chris Connors and nutritional therapist, podcast host and author Eve Kalinik were tapped by Kalia Eliopoulos, co-owner of Kanava Hotels & Resorts, to create InStill, an immersive wellness program for the guests of Mystique, her flagship hotel. “Santorini’s nice to come to for a break, the sea, sunbathing, the Greek food, of course. But it’s really great to be able to come here and relax by taking care of yourself and your well-being in a way that is really bespoke,” explains Eliopoulos.
Entirely self-led by each guest, the InStill mind and body program is completely immersive with beautiful meditations on the OPO app, crafted with carefully calibrated sound and vibrations, and special menu options at the hotel restaurants co-created by Eve Kalinik and resident chef Olivier Campanha. The idea is that guests can follow meditations by tuning into the app whenever they like throughout their stay here and sample Eve’s culinary creations when they choose, going at their own pace.
“OPO came about because I wanted to create a way for people to implement positive changes in their daily routines on a long-term basis,” explains the app’s founder Chris Connors. “For a long time, I just knew that’s was what I was here to do; to help people feel still in themselves wherever they are, through sound and the voice.”
Irish-born, Chris lives in Ibiza by way of India, London and New York. A near-death experience at age seven when he was caught in a Belfast bomb blast, brought the importance of breath to light from early on, which is at the core of his practice today.
Chris first left Ireland for the bright lights of London where he worked in fashion. Surrounded by people driven by success, fame, fortune and other vices, who were left depleted by their daily lives instead of feeling nourished, he soon realized that he wanted to do more than creative design. “People in the field would often call me an urban shaman,” he chuckles. “But I just wanted to help people with the tools I had learned for myself during my time in India and various other places.”
He wanted to help those around him feel energized and calm in themselves by tapping into the energy flow when you work with circadian rhythm, our cells’ natural 24-hour clock. “Our cells need a certain sleep-awake structure, their natural rhythm which we tend to ignore when we’re immersed in our daily lives,” he says. “The idea I try to help people focus on is to go back to our natural rhythm as much as possible, and that begins with getting as much light as possible first thing in the morning to really wake up the cells.”
Back on the hotel yoga platform, we work on fire breathing, breathing in and out in short, sharp bursts, to get fresh air into the lungs, before doing more breath work and a few yoga poses as we salute the rising sun. But there is also something about the unique quality of Chris’ voice, a depth, certain vibration and rhythm, that draws me further into my body, my breath and at the same time, makes me feel more connected to my sense of self as well as the world, and the universe, than I had in as long as I can remember.
Mystique is the perfect setting with its big sea views that have the power to swallow up your thoughts, with the occasional cruise liner gliding through the bay, putting humans into perspective against the massive backdrop of open sky and deep blue Aegean waters set alight by a bright golden sun.
Thinking back to the night before, when we first flew over Greece, rain was lashing the islands, but I couldn’t help but feel excited when the Cyclades pulled into sight as we plundered through thick cloud, the veil of rain blurring the outlines of islands swooping up to the sky like mini volcanoes. Upon arrival, night was starting to fall as my taxi zipped through the black rocky island along ash black beaches to the north of the island in Oia. The second largest town after Fira, it’s known for the views of the caldera, a big hollow in the sea floor created when a magma chamber empties in a volcanic eruption, and its blue-domed church at the very top of the hill.
Arriving at the hotel felt like stepping inside a postcard of an image I had seen so many times that it reignited the spark of my first time in Santorini. White houses coated the hillsides like icing on a cake, linked by a labyrinth of smooth white pathways. I weaved my way through the maze of houses, peeping at people dining on their terraces, others enjoying a last dip in their pool before the sun disappeared completely behind the horizon.
Mystique is tucked among the houses. Once I arrive, Giorgos at reception shows me to my room, passing the cave-like rooms built into the rock face. Mine — number 23 — was isolated right on the edge of the cliff, with its own terrace and hot tub looking out onto the caldera. Inside, smooth white stone walls curved over two floors, and, as I would discover the next day, there were views of nothing but the bright blue sea through every window.
The hotel culminates around an oval shaped infinity-edge pool adjoining a restaurant and deck with loungers overhanging the sea. Through the smooth winding lanes above, Lure restaurant and bar tower high up above the sea and have more of those magical views – in fact, a wedding proposal or two have been known to take place on the table for two on the premonitory just below.
During our session, facing the caldera, eyes open and body alive, the clouds begin to part, revealing an island rumored to be where the lost city of Atlantis, a fictional island in Plato’s works, might have actually stood.
These are views you carry with you forever. After the session, I walk back to my room to lie on a sun lounger and take in the surroundings still slightly blurred by the morning mist, as my thoughts float like the handful of catamarans docked below in the cobalt blue bay.
My week at Mystique unfolds with meditation sessions led by Chris and OPO, which contains several of his meditations and beautiful sound baths to do throughout the day from guided morning breath and Chi Kung movements to sleep meditations. And of course, there were the meals and cooking lessons led by the affable Eve Kalinik, making up the other half of the InStill program.
Nutrition is a crucial part of living a more mindful life, further building the link between mind and body, or the gut, as Kalinik explains. “A healthy gut is primordial in supporting a healthy mind as the two communicate through our nerves,” she says. “The large intestine, or microbiome, actually weighs the same as the brain – which we often say is like our second brain. It’s here that key hormones are produced like dopamine and serotonin, which help you feel good and happy. But cortisol, your stress hormone is also secreted here – so the name of the game is to keep your cortisol levels down by eating the right foods for your body – and meditating!”
Central to Eve’s practice is also our cells’ circadian rhythm. “For instance, in the mornings, you need light to wake your cells up, to tell your body it’s time to wake up. That’s why watching a series on your computer before going to bed isn’t great – because that light confuses your circadian rhythm, telling your cells it’s daytime. It stresses your body and increases your cortisol levels.”
London-born and based Eve focuses on neurogastronomy, the study of flavor perception and the ways it affects cognition and memory, which she discusses at length in her podcast and books. For her, a key to happiness through the gut is learning to slow down, especially where food is concerned. “It’s so important to take time to look at the food you are eating, think about where it’s from, who made it, who grew it even, see how it feels, how it tastes… it’s what helps you feel full and your mind and body connected.”
Eve rustles up cauliflower and spinach “steak” doused in lashings of thick tahini, which we taste at Mystique’s poolside restaurant, as well as other dishes from her book adapted by the hotel chef Olivier Campanha. The expert is a gold mine for tips on what to eat while also enjoying food. You won’t find drastic dieting in her practice. She’ll tell you that butter and oil are great for forming a gut barrier, polyphenols – foods with strong pigments – are also key for boosting the immune system as well as natural probiotics like garlic, onion, leek and asparagus.
“Regularity is also really important – timing is everything to support your body’s circadian rhythm. If you crave snacks often, it’s that you aren’t taking in enough diversity in the food you eat or time over eating,” she explains. “It’s why mindful, intentional eating that involves all the senses is important to slow everything down, including your food intake.”
A few days later, these last words linger in my mind as I take a last dip in the hot tub on my room’s terrace before it’s time to head home, gazing out at the caldera, my freshly refocused sense of purpose and self slowly sinking in. I let myself be pulled into the vast view of sea and sky melting into one, with the lost city beckoning from a nearby island, and it reminds me how deep a part of nature we are, and how easy, lost in the throes of a busy urban life, it is to completely forget it.