A Gold Coast retreat

I had no idea what to expect ahead of a five-night wellness programme at the Gold Coast’s Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. You are intentionally provided with limited information on what lies ahead. My friend, who had been before and was joining me the ‘Optimum Wellbeing’ retreat, had mentioned we would be woken daily at 5.30am to reset our bodies back to a ‘dawn-to-dusk’ way of life, and we had been told to bring two options for gym clothing. Other than having a massage scheduled for the day of arrival (what better way to start the week!), that was it. All I knew is that for the first time since having children (three under 10), I had the opportunity to be completely selfish. The sole purpose for this trip was me. Gwinganna was a chance for me to totally detox and that included all forms of outside communication, too – goodbye cellphone. 

Prior to leaving I subconsciously enjoyed all the items I would be without for the week – as if I was never going to be fed again. An extra wine, a biscuit, a couple of extra helpings… and more coffee than I’d usually have. I admit I am fussy and was rather worried about what I would be given to eat. I’m not a huge fan of beans and tofu and the like. So, I prepped for starvation! I also planned a night in Brisbane prior to check-in, a little retox before detox!

Despite being only a 30 minutes’ drive from the Gold Coast Airport, the retreat is remote. High on a plateau that offers views from Moreton Bay to Coolangatta, Gwinganna – which translates to ‘lookout’ – spreads over 200 hectares. Tucked away in Tallebudgera Valley, access is via an incredibly steep driveway (think Baldwin Street in Dunedin) and imposing gates. The nearest small town, I noted, had a pub and coffee shop, but one look at the retreat’s entranceway and it was obvious I would not be escaping easily!

On the first afternoon all guests spend time with a personal wellness consultant. This is your chance to go through what you hope to get out of the week and tailor the afternoons to your wants and needs. An enlightening and fascinating welcome by General Manager Sharon Kolkka, outlining the philosophy behind Gwinganna and some of the basic principles we would be living by, preceded our first meal – by which I was pleasantly impressed. Dinner looked so pretty it could have been in a cook book!

At 8pm, it was time for bed. Given I’m not one to relax and unwind easily, instead of taking the sleep-time herbs I went on to potter and unpack. I regretted this at 5.30am when it was knock-knock-knock, “Good morning, Charlotte!” Gah! Sharon had briefed us about the body’s circadian rhythm and how we live best with the dawn-to-dusk principle, and the importance of using blue light for daytime and red light for the night. The red light produces melatonin, which is crucial for sleep, and hails from the times when we would sit around a fire before sleep.

By 6am we were engaged in the ancient practice of chi gong. Similar to tai chi, this focuses on posture, breathing and meditation. My first attempt saw me silently giggling to myself and constantly watch-checking to see how much longer I had to open my arms and embrace life. I was off to a wobbly start. By the end of the week, however, I could happily participate, though you won’t see me doing slow-motion martial arts moves anytime soon.

An hour later we were faced with the choice of a ‘yin’ or ‘yang’ activity. ‘Yang’ is a more high-intensity workout and could range from a moderate to hard bush walk, boxing, weight training, water running, spinning, tribal dance and the ultimate driveway-to-summit lookout walk (which cars could only tackle in first gear as the vertical incline is brutal). I am proud to say I received a cap for this walk, straight up for two hours, and including that imposing driveway, which Gwinganna’s part-owner Hugh Jackman is said to have used to train for Wolverine.

‘Yin’ is a more gentle option; a walk through the organic gardens learning about the medicinal purpose of the plants and how to grow them, yoga classes, and peaceful bush walks. All forms of exercise are based on interval training and primal pattern movements that are essential for functional movement in everyday life – squatting, lunging, bending, twisting, pushing and the gait cycle (walking, running, jogging). I had been subtly told that a yang person subconsciously needs yin in their life. We must participate in what we most resist as this is likely what our body needs. I had difficulty adopting this philosophy and, whenever there was an option, I swung yang.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks was a plentiful daily menu full of goodness… and actually delicious. The philosophy of Gwinganna is S.L.O.W: seasonal, local, organic, wholefoods. With no processed foods, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten and most definitely no alcohol. You are also not meant to drink water for 20 minutes before and after a meal, and must chew until there are no more lumps left in your mouthful.

Every day featured a fascinating seminar. Unfortunately I slept through the first two, but, rest assured, I wasn’t the only one and there was a good reason. Our bodies were adapting to a balanced diet. Blood sugars are super important for our well-being and the menu is specifically designed by the Gwinganna nutritionist to ensure a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats so the body receives ideal nourishment. Eating well will fuel us for the day with no peaks and lows. It is common sense, but so often forgotten with fad diets.

I learnt so much from the seminars I did attend. A key learning was to look after your gut – it produces 90 per cent of your serotonin, the brain chemical integral to regulating the sleep/wake cycle. A stressed gut will fail to produce your required level of serotonin to live well. Most commonly known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, serotonin also produces melatonin, the ‘sleep’ hormone. So, you can see how quickly a domino effect can occur if one gets out of kilter.

Dream-time was the time to stop, rest and relax. We did whatever we needed most, whether that was lying in the sun, reading a book, having a nap, going for a walk, or choosing any one of the 70 diverse treatments and consultations available. There were spa treatments, wellness consultations, movement programmes, stress management sessions, and unique Gwinganna experiences. I personally love massages and my favourite was the MyBodyWorks – a mixture of myotherapy and physiotherapy techniques. Equine experiences were very popular as was the ‘Journey’ – designed to uncover the root cause of whatever was preventing you from living a joyful life.

The toughest day was definitely day two. I’d had a niggling headache since Monday afternoon and by lunchtime on Tuesday it was horrendous. No amounts of natural remedies or Panadol (or the Nurofen I snuck from my room) could cure it. Then the nausea started. Thankfully by day three I was feeling a million dollars. Detox is a powerful thing and Gwinganna has all the natural pills and potions to help, as well as a nurse on staff. Every day was an adventure and gave me a chance to unwind, contemplate and learn better ways to live. Apparently, we left the mountain with a glow and whiter eyes, looking and feeling well rested and vibrant.

Since acclimatising to the real world I have been told I am more relaxed, more conscious of my eating, most definitely watch my caffeine intake and believe I am more balanced. I am trying to live the Gwinganna way – I dim the lights at night and aim for that penultimate 8 ¼ hours. I have coping mechanisms for dealing with stress to keep my body in the rest and digest zone, and am trying to treat my gut like a queen. Would I go again? Hell yes, I’ve already booked for next year!

Flight/flight or rest and digest theory

Man has evolved but the key ways we live have not. Nowadays, we are not fighting to survive, it is simply stress/caffeine producing the cortisol that pushes us into fight/flight mode. This state is so detrimental to our well-being and body.

Instead, we should live adopt the rest and digest way of life, which enables us the time to heal. We are not primates so why live like one? Use your pre-frontal lobe to trust and control your mind.

We need to switch off our monkey brain! Turn blame into accountability; attack into understanding; and defensiveness into taking responsibility. Be the master of your attention.

The most important thing for health

Neither exercise and diet are number one for maintaining great health, it is sleep. You need a full 8 ¼ hours.

Sadly we are living longer but our bodies are aging faster. Our ways of living have evolved but we are still built like the past. Unless we change patterns I recommend some good health insurance or investing in hospitals. So keep moving!

Getting there

Gwinganna is an hour’s drive from Brisbane, or there is a complimentary group bus that transfers guests directly from the Gold Coast Airport. There are also limousine or helicopter options, too, if you want to get there in style.

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