The best thing about spending 7 days at a health retreat in a sub-tropical rainforest with 25 strangers is that I learnt how to Salsa. I was rubbish, but I loved it.
The worst thing about living in a hermetically sealed wellness universe for a week with 25 strangers is that some of what this universe accepts as given truths are not always so universal.
Not all of us believe in guardian angels or alternative therapies lock, stock and barrel. Not all of us buy the Positive Psychology model as the superior path to happiness and self-fulfillment. Not all of us consider wearing a name tag day in day out normal.
But then what’s normal about chunking-up my mortgage to pay for a week’s holiday (first in 10 years) to some place where I wake up at sunrise for Tai Chi? What’s so great about sustaining a 2-day caffeine-withdrawal headache and enduring the daily torture of something called a spin class? Why chose to be on intimate terms with mosquitos that think they’re fighter-bombers?
Before I paid for this health retreat that promised to coach me into submission with a personalized ‘wellness vision’, have me living outside my comfort zone and without virgin olive oil, I figured out that my repayments were about the equivalent of 3 lattes and 2 sav blancs a week.
I can do that. Not a biggie when I put it like that. I deserve a break. My stress levels are off the radar. I’m self-medicating with booze and carbs like a wharfie on a busman’s holiday. My family and work commitments are overwhelming and my love life is … well…complicated.
On arrival at our health retreat we all stand about self-consciously, summing up the other in a glance. She’s looks like a pain. He’s a fitness freak bozo. Those two in charge are just too perky-positive to be real.
I am wondering if it’s too late to ask for my money back. This place looks like an upmarket school camp but without any of the sugar highs or sexual experimentation to look forward to.
As the day progresses my initial defensiveness dissolves into surrender, although I do maintain a pretty active bullshit-metre throughout the stay. Initially I leaven it with humor and self-deprecation and then gradually give up the performing for the more serious stuff like learning how to breathe. Apparently I haven’t been breathing properly for 50 years.
Sometimes the daily discussions and workshops about exercise, diet and the latest in neuroscience and mindfulness training really get to me.
First-world worries! I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t had a special price on offer. Everyone from the psychic flower reader to the life coach with a PhD in chutzpah thinks he’s a shrink. This is a kibbutz but with less concern for the community good and way better bathrooms. A massive share-house for rich people with nothing better to do than talk about gluten intolerance and strengthening their cores.
Other times, like when I’m striding and sweating up and down mountain-sides, the local fauna scuttling up the forest trees, the air clean, damp and smelling of frangipani, and all the while chatting intensely with a couple of my new best friends about everything from kids to kayaks, I feel the best I have in ages.
As we talk and walk, every day a barrier down, a revelation shared, I am blown away by these women. By day 2 we are laughing and crying like adolescent girls on a night out.
We are 20 women and 5 men; the usual gender ratio at this place apparently. There is a husband and wife team too and I just can’t imagine coming to such a place as a couple. I don’t know why exactly but it just seems to defeat the purpose or something. The men are blokey-jokey and we are most of us probably over 40 and at one of life’s crossroads.
I don’t avoid the blokes but the subtle peculiarity of group dynamics means that I end up spending most of my time with 4 women, in particular.
I am alone in my real life quite a bit but there’s always a distraction at hand. Here in this technology-free-capsule I am alone in my room by 7.30pm and it’s just me and my little fast-detoxing brain. I am not used to this kind of silence and it’s confronting. My leg muscles are burning. I can hear my heart beat.
Is it possible to make substantial changes to the way I am living my life after only a week here? They say it takes 21 days to change a habit. But there’s no denying the power of hanging out with a bunch of people who are all trying to be better, let alone absorbing the palpable goodwill and positive vibes.
By day 4, I have done 16 hours exercise, had 2 massages, 1 facial and participated in over 10 workshops about love and intimacy to navigating the hormone highway. The one about stress, cancer and heart disease scares the bejeezas out of me.
But it’s the dance classes where I really let myself go and forget to be embarrassed. I haven’t danced in years and it feels fantastic!
The chef is a fat-free, sugar-free genius and living without alcohol, coffee and chronic negativity is a welcome change to my usual routine back home.
A member of staff here is one of the funniest and inspiring people I have ever met. Another is more inappropriately flirtatious than my car mechanic.
Some people snuck food in. One burly fella had a secret stow of protein shakes. Another, the token husband, becomes the skinny, hungry guy I give my desert and mid-afternoon snack to. One woman confesses she’d panicked and secreted an empty tuna can in her room-safe after a late night binge.
I never thought I’d like yoga. I always reckoned meditation was for other people. I’d never really savored food without oil, tea without caffeine, and sharing 3 meals a day with people I had little in common with. I never thought I’d keep a straight face in a steam room full of naked people.
It was my sister’s birthday while I was away – it’s over 2 years now – and the retreat’s head gardener suggests we plant a frangipani for her on the day. He tells me he’ll look after it and send me a photo when it flowers after giving me a quick hug and leaving me with my plant. They’d be red flowers, he tells me.
I wonder what my sister would have made of this place.
“Jesus El! You would have been better off giving your money to asylum seekers or something! But if it makes you feel better and, you know, more able to cope with me being gone now and everything…. Oh, and by the way, I saw you doing The Salsa. Don’t give up ya day job, will ya?”
By day 6 most of us have become sufficiently institutionalized to be apprehensive about re-entering our former lives. I want to take home the funny and inspiring staff member to keep me on the right track and off the beaten one.
What’s not to like about a week of company, community and conversation? What’s not to feel grateful for after a week of pampering, positivity and papaya fruit?
Back home now and my real-world first-world problems are all still here. There’s been an initial exchange of mutually encouraging txts with my new best friends –
How you handling it? Have re-toxed already. You go girl!
But they have stopped now.
And it feels a bit weird and lonely all of a sudden. It’s like the end of an affair you both knew had no future but was gorgeous while it lasted.