Revitalise at Gaia Retreat and Spa
Time alone — it’s what we all crave, even if sometimes we don’t hear the call for respite from our deepest core. To sit and read a book, think on an issue or notice the seasons turning and clouds shifting across the skyscape — these in their simplicity are important, rebalancing pleasures in life. Yet our world is so switched on 24/7, so brimming with noise, stimulation and company that to be still has become a luxury (and often an impossibility). When I lock in my dates for a six-day retreat at Gaia Health Retreat and Spa I have spent six weeks working back until 1am and 2am — and this is not unusual.
My back-story? I am a 43-year-old freelance health journalist and I live in the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mountains of NSW with my gorgeous family: husband, twin girls aged seven and son aged nine. My children have multiple food sensitivities, including peanut allergy, which demand much food preparation and lower their immunity so they get sick a great deal.
Last year, we faced additional stresses. My twins contracted a sometimes painful skin virus, which may go on for several years and requires up to one-and-a-half hours of attention every day. My grandmother died and, weeks later, my mother underwent surgery for ovarian cancer, which thankfully turned out to be benign — but it put us through some nail-biting times. In short, I am beyond burnt-out and in dire need of healing and rest. When I rise at 5.30am to make a train so I can catch a plane from Sydney to Ballina, I’ve had three hours’ sleep and feel like my feet (and eyelids) are made of lead.
Snapshots of Self-Nurture
Hours later, the beautiful beaches of Lennox Head provide a stunning backdrop as the transfer car drives me from Ballina airport to Brooklet in the hinterland of Byron Bay, NSW. Right on midday, I walk through the entrance to Gaia and feel a strong sense of occasion — the sound of flowing water emanates from enormous Tibetan hand-carved circular vessels on either side of the ornate Burmese entranceway, which arches overhead. I’m ushered into Kukura house (Sanskrit for people) — the main meeting place for guests — and I sink into a soft lounge.
I’m grateful for the refreshing ginger tea and small fruit platter that is served to me while I sit and check in. Nibbling on purple grapes, slices of kiwi fruit and ripe strawberries, I’m struck by how intensely flavoursome and fresh they taste. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time in days I’ve eaten any food away from my computer. Maybe it’s the soothing ambience of the Samoan-style longhouse with its cathedral ceilings, exposed timber beams, candle light and decorative lanterns. Whatever the reason, I already feel that my dulled senses are regaining clarity.
En route to my restful layana room, a small spider with a rotund white body and black legs make its way busily across my path and disappears into the colourburst of surrounding sub-tropical garden. I squat down to watch its progress. Already I am living in the moment — my journey back to myself has begun. After a fresh and filling lunch I flick through information about the retreat. I’m grateful Gaia is flexible: you can arrive and leave on any day and adopt a weight loss, detox and get-fit package or just enjoy their regular holistic regime, which I am following.
Each day I will be assigned two activities, but I can opt in or out as much as I want. Classes on offer include body balance and fitness, sound meditation, qi gong, Pilates, clay sculpture and wellness talks. In addition, I have access to daily yoga, the swimming pool, the tennis courts, bikes and fitness centre/gym. I’m clearly in the right place for revitalisation and self-discovery. Though I want to experience as much as possible, I also feel a strong urge to hide away.
I settle into a hammock to read my novel, Cold Mountain, which I’ve been trying to finish for the past nine months, but the azure sky with its cottonwool clouds keeps stealing my attention. What a luxury it is just to swing back and forth, with nowhere to rush to! Later in the day, I attend a fitness class and our gently motivating instructor, Roberta, gives us one-on-one attention during step-ups, lunges, crunches and tricep dips. I enjoy a soothing hour-and-a-half massage and dine with three other women, one who is giving up smoking, one on a detox and one simply kicking back. At 10pm, I’m in bed and fall into a blissful sleep, resting more soundly than I have in months.
Days 2 & 3
A gentle gong signals the morning yoga class and just before 7.30am each day I ascend the small winding pavana trail to the Zama yoga room. We begin with shavasana — relaxation and meditation followed by pranayama (breathing). Extending my body within the stretches, I realise that my gym-based/bushwalking/jogging exercise routine at home is neglecting my flexibility. After the stillness of the asanas I face the day feeling replenished.
At breakfast, I mindfully savour each mouthful of quinoa, soy milk and mixed berries. I have no need to talk or think about anyone but myself and it’s pure heaven. The setting is made even more beautiful by the ringing song of a shrike thrush from a nearby tree. I had expected to snooze constantly while away, yet the physical activity, relaxed pace and organic food are already melting my chronic tiredness and my energy is quickly returning. Some bad habits take longer to lose, such as tensing my fists, shoulders and belly — to break the pattern I often do quick body scans then relax my muscles.
By 11.30am, I’m at a fitness class at the Viha (Sanskrit for “sky”) fitness centre, with its spectacular views over an area of rainforest regeneration. Though I usually do classes like pump and step at my gym back home, I never tackle the machines, which seem somehow daunting. Here, I get to road-test everything from treadmills to machines for leg presses, extensions and squats. With only eight people in the class, we each enjoy specialised attention to our technique from our vivacious trainer, Steph.
After lunch each day, I recline against a triangular pillow on my favourite daybed. Above me is a slanting thatched roof, to my right is an enveloping canopy of green leaves from a stately mulberry tree and to my left is a circle of standing stones offering respect to the Bundjalung people, the traditional custodians of this land. I eagerly open my book, but keep re-reading the same paragraphs — again, I feel restless. I had presumed that relaxation would magically wash over me once I had time to myself, but being still is such a foreign state that at first it feels almost painfully uncomfortable.
I am so glad I’m not staying in a little cottage somewhere on my own. I feel somehow “held” by the presence of the caring staff and other people sharing this beautiful 25-acre property — even though right now I don’t want any company. This is the work I have come to do: to listen to my inner voice and remember the art of serenity and stillness. Thankfully, the view is spectacular, so for the next few hours I recline and soak it all in, my book unopened. Verdant rolling hills and pastures stretch out as far as my eye can see. I feel connected to and part of the earth, as though I’ve travelled back in time to a simpler, more pastoral, more authentic world.
I miss my family, so back in my room I quickly call to say hi, feeling guilty that my mum and husband are holding the fort. This, too, is part of my work here — to embrace “me time” as something I deserve and need so I can nurture those around me. At dinner, I’m surprised to realise I’m ravenous. Back home I’m so rushed that I struggle to find any appetite and skip meals because I can’t spare time to prepare myself healthy gluten- and dairy-free food. Here, all my dietary needs are taken care of and the food is delicious and varied. With each fresh offering, I feel I’m having a mineral and vitamin boost. As the day fades, I watch the sun drench the sky in a splash of gold, orange and red. Then I enjoy the absolute indulgence of being in bed by 10pm — I haven’t had a night this early in years.
Learning: Listen to your body and mind
Days 4 & 5
During yoga, I feel tummy muscles I didn’t know existed, but it’s a healthy pain of growth and improving strength. The pranayama involves an exhalation from the chakra point at the crown of the head and it’s powerful and releasing. My downward dog is stronger and more centred and my sun salute more fluid. New posses iron out the kinks in my computer back — my posture is definitely improving. After one yoga session, I share breakfast with our teacher Danielle, a study in glowing health who looks 30 but is 52. To my surprise, she explains that she only took up yoga at the age of 40 and it has led to a whole new holistic pathway in her life. I leave our chat feeling uplifted. It’s never too late to initiate change. I resolve that when I return home I will say no with my work a little more and swap some of my exercise sessions for regular yoga classes.
Both days, I take a long walk circling the beautiful Gaia property several times. The Bundjalung people believe there are ley lines through this land and that energy is entering my feet and grounding my entire body. I feel my consciousness and spirit expanding as though I am blossoming petal by petal from my solar plexus. My pace of breathing and thinking has slowed. I notice the finer details of tiny ant-hills, a large black-and-white butterfly on a pink flower and the fertile redness of the earth. With each step, it’s as though I am coming back into my body, present and whole, after a very long absence.
At the end of each walk, I head for the saltwater swimming pool, enjoying each day’s new delicate flower offerings in the many large water-filled clay urns and pots dotted on my path. I plunge into the cool water and slowly lap back and forth, feeling cleansed of the strains of this past year and free of stress and care. Wrapped in my towel, I sit for a while and meditate on the beautiful patterns of the Eastern-style tessellated tiles surrounding the pool.
My body enjoys more pampering with a divine one-hour body polish, then I sink back in a large enclosed cane papasan chair and open my book. At last, the words on the page come alive and I devour them. Every few hours, I take a tea break, sipping on a range of beautiful, local loose-leaf teas with health-boosting ingredients such as ginger, Siberian ginseng, rosehips and fennel. When I look in the mirror, the whites of my eyes are much clearer and my complexion is glowing.
In the afternoons, I head for Samira lookout with its sweeping 360-degree views of ocean, undulating hills and the Nightcap Ranges. I use the beautiful large stone statue of Buddha as my visual focus for meditation, letting my thoughts come and go. The wind caresses my face and I feel at peace. In this same setting, I also join a small group of guests for tai chi at dusk, feeling on top of the world as our smiling instructor, Ophir, leads us in balletic moves such as “wave hands like clouds”.
At dinner, I feel now that I can hold my newfound inner stillness and return to dining with other guests, meeting many people escaping busy jobs. I sip on organic wine, chat and laugh and still get to bed early enough to read. Tucked under the sheets on my last night, I finish my book — a major achievement.
Learning: Embrace the stillness of the moment
I rise early to pack and take my final daily walk. En route, I pause under a corridor of trees to pick up a handful of red, ripe earth. It tattoos my skin a beautiful terracotta and my fingers feel powdery and smell of life. Ten minutes later, a sudden downpour drenches me from head to toe and the rain forms little rivulets of red down my hands. I turn around in the rain like a whirling dervish. I feel centred and ready to return home.
After a revitalising one-hour massage, I sip a final lemongrass tea and start a new book, Breath, by Tim Winton. The title seems strongly symbolic. My best friend lent me the book and inside I discover she has left me a beautiful note and a gorgeous bookmark with a picture reminiscent of the work of Gustav Klimt. I make a promise with myself to put it to regular use in the future. After goodbye kisses all round, I leave to catch a flight to Sydney, but I don’t really need an aeroplane. I am floating on a natural high all the way home.
Learning: Embrace change without fear
A good health retreat offers the right balance of guidance and pampering so you can return your body and mind to homeostasis. During my Gaia holiday, the staff weave the following nurturing treatments and consultations over my six-day stay:
Two sessions of massage
Options: Swedish, Kahuna, deep tissue, remedial, shiatsu, hot rock, Indian head massage and hot oil head wraps.
On my first day, I head to the serene Gaia day spa and surrender for an hour-and-a-half to the magic hands of Karen for a deep-tissue remedial massage. She applies just the right level of firm pressure and locates all those hidden sore spots that I never manage to direct my husband to find. I am reminded of the powerful nurture and comfort offered by touch. As the healing energy flows from Karen’s fingertips into my skin, I feel embraced and supported, both physically and spiritually. On my last day at Gaia, I enjoy an hour-long massage with Karen and we both can’t believe the difference. My body is better aligned, the knots of tension have dissolved and the flow of energy is vastly improved.
A naturopathic consultation
Options: Iridology, live blood analysis, detox, weight loss.
During a one-hour consultation with Jason, he examines a drop of my blood under a microscope. Despite my gluten- and dairy-free diet, my live blood analysis shows signs of food sensitivity — possibly because my stress levels have been sensitising me to other foods as well. On the slide, my blood also clots too quickly, a sign of inflammation, again the result of chronic stress. Jason feels that my current fluid retention problems are a direct result of my constantly upset digestion, which is causing inflammation to travel throughout my bloodstream, sensitising my system and leading to a release of adrenal hormones. Though I take daily vitamin and mineral supplements along with probiotics and fish oil, Jason prescribes further support in the form of prebiotic powder (including glutamine, slippery elm and aloe vera) and tablets to stimulate production of my digestive enzymes (including Silybum marianum and Gentiana lutea root). He also suggests I eat more wet foods, such as stews and soups.
A full-body polish
Options: Full-body wraps, masques, Cleopatra bath (with milk and rose petals), aromatherapy consultation and facials.
I consider having a polish of wattle seed and lemon myrtle or bambu and green tea, but settle on hot macadamia oil and bay sea salt. My practitioner, Nicolette, is trained in esoteric healing and I can actually feel the healing energy she is channelling from her being to mine. The treatment involves a gentle steam bath, then a lengthy all-over body exfoliation, a warm spray of water to wash skin clean and a final rinsing of my entire body with coconut milk. My skin looks supple and feels like silk.
A cooking class
Options: Todd Cameron has put together a beautifully presented cookbook called Grace, with appealing, tasty recipes based on organic ingredients.
It’s a privilege to attend a master class with head Gaia chef Todd, who talks us through the benefits of organic ingredients including the use of dark palm oil and Rapidura (from a healthfood store), which have a much higher health-boosting mineral content than sugar. Step-by-step, he demonstrates how to make mushrooms with ground nut, miso and sesame filling and reduced red wine sauce as well as poached pears in a light caramel sauce with vanilla bean yoghurt. Best of all, we enjoy a scrumptious taste test. Later, I stroll through the organic garden and find Todd picking basil and eschalots for dinner. He points out the thriving okra, vine-ripened tomatoes, bell peppers, red chillies, cos lettuce and marigolds (he sometimes uses their petals in salads).
Healing, healthful food
Going to a health retreat can help you undergo a much-needed detox, cut back on gluten and dairy, become vegetarian or simply treat your body to revitalising food. The exquisite gourmet meals at Gaia are fresh, creative and flavoursome and made from the best organic ingredients, many sourced from Gaia’s own garden and orchards. A typical daily menu is as follows:
Fresh fruit with organic yoghurt and gluten-free muesli or porridge Frittata with wild mushrooms, spinach, pumpkin and sheep’s fetta. Carrot, Celery, Beetroot and Ginger Juice.
Buckwheat noodle salad with broccolini, watercress and orange soy sesame dressing.
Entrée: Smoked paprika, tomato and garlic soup
Main: Chicken with North African spice crust on lemon polenta with tamarind and black onion jam
Dessert: Mango tart with date and macadamia nut base