Triple S programme at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat.
A trip to Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat is about self-discovery, a journey that begins as soon as you set foot on its mystical earth, nestled deep within the lush foliage of Queensland’s Gold Coast hinterland. Even filling out the arrival questionnaire was a revelation, and I surprise myself with the results. The ‘Triple S’ programme is designed to facilitate a better understanding of the relationship between sleep, sugar and stress, and how just one thrown off kilter can hinder our response to situations effectively.
With almost double the amount of boxes ticked in the ‘stress’ column it becomes clear which element of the well-being equation needs attention. My aim for the days ahead will be restoring balance in my routine, including a digital detox to just ‘be’ instead of ‘do’ which has become such an all-consuming part of the modern lifestyle.
If you are looking for five-star luxury, this is not it. Rustic, homey and charming are better ways to describe the accommodation. What is five stars is the knowledge, wisdom and enthusiasm of the staff. The group setting makes it feel a bit like camp for grown-ups, and at the end of the four days, it’s almost impossible not to leave with new friends.
As one of the only international guests on the programme, I arrive earlier than most Aussie guests, and am whisked to the spa immediately for Mala Mayi, the ideal antidote to hours spent sardine-like on a plane. Australian LI’TYA products are used for body rituals. Designed to rejuvenate, it begins with an exfoliation using Australian desert salt and aromatic oils, presented on a tray so you can select the one that appeals most.
A mineral-rich body mud wrap follows, and while the idea of being enveloped in thick towels and layer upon layer of product may seem a little claustrophobic, the zing of the menthol counterbalances the snugness of the cocoon, while a scalp treatment comprising indigenous ingredients soothes. After showering the delicious concoction of native plants, flowers and fruits off, I am slathered with nourishing moisturiser, diminishing any plane-induced dryness from the journey.
I sit next to the delightful Sharon Kolkka, general manager and wellness director, at dinner, spellbound by her story of being an impatient and results-driven, and her steps she has made towards becoming a peaceful, accepting one, now capable of quietening a chatty mind. The person she used to be reminds me a lot of myself.
It’s made more evident as I find myself hiding at the one spot on property with Wi- Fi, while everyone else retires to their rooms for the night as I relish a last (for tonight anyway) dip into virtual reality. Liquid-only diet? Fine. Three hours of exercise? No problem. But take away my only connection to the outside world and I apparently fall apart at the seams…
Despite the verdancy, blue skies and crisp air, I have a feeling this is going to be a challenge. Every element of the programme has been designed to encourage living in the moment – no schedule for tomorrow, no alarm clock, no Internet – a planner’s worst nightmare, leaving everything to chance. Returning to a room with no television to offer comforting white noise, and absence of YouTube as a back-up option, makes the silence deafening.
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Afternoons are a time for guests to bring the focus inwards in what Gwinganna likes to call ‘Dreamtime’, an opportunity to slow down.
It’s still dark when I hear the knock at my door. It’s about the personal touch here, no wake-up calls, and volunteers are tasked with personally waking each of the 60 guests on the programme (unless you request not to be). Each days starts with qigong on the front lawn with Donna, a moving meditation to awaken the vital organs through methodical tapping to clear the mind. She reminds us to be kinder to ourselves and let thoughts of self-doubt fall to the wayside. It’s a spectacular way to take in the views, which aren’t just stunning, but have a calming effect on our nervous system and serve as a natural antidepressant.
Staying on-site for an underwater running class is offered, or two options for walks – one through the garden or the more challenging hike into the valley (my choice), ensuring there’s something for everyone. Breakfast follows – brown rice porridge with a fruit compote and a delicious, perfectly executed poached egg.
A variety of yin and yang activities follow the group stretch session, as guests are encouraged to assess how they feel in the moment, and listen to the kind of activities their bodies naturally crave. The bosu ball class with Ali is fun and she offers modifications depending on fitness ability to ensure everyone is challenged.
Afterwards, bubbly Shannon gives the first of our daily two-hour talks on the importance of deep sleep and the vital role it plays in mental clarity, emotional intelligence, cell renewal, balancing hormones and burning fat. We learn how alcohol, caffeine, nutritional deficiencies and dehydration can be potential roadblocks for quality sleep, and are given ‘sleep hacks’, such as mindfulness, journaling and conscious breathing to ponder next time we are tossing and turning.
Afternoons are a time for guests to bring the focus inwards, in what Gwinganna likes to call ‘Dreamtime’, an opportunity to slow down for more yin-skewed pastimes. The spa menu is extensive with page upon page of indulgence, including out-of-thebox ones like reiki and tarot card reading. I try Rockupuncture, which fuses gentler Japanese-style acupuncture with heated basalt stones, used to calm the nervous system. As soon as the needles go in, I feel a delightful wave of serenity wash over me and the soothing oil massage to follow is a hazy, blissful blur.
The day’s early rise coupled with spa time and many starting to feel the first effects of caffeine and sugar withdrawal make exhaustion clearly visible on many a face. The group meditation session before dinner, complete with bolsters, blankets and eye masks proves too much for some and snoring becomes the background lull. After a little chuckle, I open my eyes to see people packing their props away and leaving the pavilion, realising while still prone that I drifted off as well. It doesn’t take long to give into this new world.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: The spa deck offers a sense of peace any time of day; equine therapies are a unique highlight; wildlife is abundant on Gwinganna grounds; look forward
to specialities like orange fennel fish.
Guests can be a tough crowd but all meals are punctuated with oohing and ahhing over the simple but delicious healthy offerings.
There is something beautiful about the camaraderie of everyone waking up at 5.30am for qigong as the sun comes up. Everyone wants to be here which is extremely bonding. We are given three options for afterwards, and I choose the challenging walk again, this time with two killer hills, and am rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the Gold Coast and Coolangatta. Starting the day in nature is much more than just exercise – it feeds the soul.
I choose the yang option, a weight class involving classic squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups and planks, followed by a deep water running pool session. In both, Ali ensures our form is correct to develop a strong foundation before moving on to highintensity moves, which is hugely beneficial.
Today’s lecture with Shannon is on the detrimental effect of sugar on health by kick-starting inflammation in the body which leads to chronic diseases, and gives a presentation on how much sugar common sauces and drinks contain, compared with the recommended amount of six teaspoons a day by the World Health Organisation. She says setting yourself up for success means eating breakfast every day, including clean proteins, essential fats and complex carbs, and to avoid hunger and consequent dips in blood sugar.
Lunch and dinner at Gwinganna are served family style, and the fare is superb. Guests can be a tough crowd but all meals are punctuated with oohing and aahing over the simple but delicious healthy offerings. Lunch is juicy grilled prawns accompanied by miso soup, a tomato salad and plenty of greens, while dinners have consisted of white fish, potato koftas and quinoa lasagne, accompanied by trays brimming over with organic veggies. Eating well has never been easier.
One of the most unique Dreamtime options are those involving the property’s horses. I choose the Equine Assisted Journey, a spin on an emotional well-being approach designed to access stored emotions from the past. Horses are known for being intuitive creatures with the capacity to help identify issues that may be causing anxiety, their presence a way to reflect the challenges we face.
Megan notices changes in the horses’ behaviour and picks the one with whom I apparently share personality traits with. The session involves interacting with Jack, and observing his reactions when I am in a calm state as opposed to overthinking, with a focus on intent and confidence, as I lead him around the paddock, which turns out to be a bit of a power play, both of us headstrong and trying to figure each other out. Simply being in his presence is a treat.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: The dining deck is the gathering spot for every delicious meal; each day begins with the peaceful ritual of qigong; meditation suites offer a luxurious stay.
One of the most vigorous mornings yet, I opt for the challenging walk into the valley. Mention of having to climb the infamously steep Gwinganna driveway drastically shrinks the group. It’s easy to see why as we embark on the first (and worst) part, which at times feels like our nose is inches away from pavement. Intervals are the preferred method of training here and we power up the hill, with rests in between to offer our wildly beating hearts respite.
Rhiannon’s Drums on Fire class was by far the best class, as she had us performing a ‘concert’ using drum sticks and fit balls, jumping around with abandon, and it felt far too fun to be considered a workout though everyone was puffed by the end. She inspires us with her boundless energy, getting everyone on their feet for a Zumba class immediately afterwards, where even the older members of the group got down to Pitbull, a sight in itself.
Sharon tackles the last and arguably most important ‘s’ of the seminars, stress, a topic so vast it needs to be split into two talks. She explains the spectrum between fight or flight, and rest and digest, the latter what we are striving to most effectively lower stress levels so that we can be more productive in our lives. She explains that the brain is the middleman passing messages to the body, and how negative or self-critical thoughts can have a huge impact on health and well-being.
Today’s Dreamtime is Spirit of Sound, one of the retreat’s most raved-about experiences. Created by Petrina, drummer and therapist, which encompasses a medley of her favourite music with live percussion in the form of drums and rainsticks, it’s a blend of meditation and massage, and nothing you’re likely to have tried before. While on your front, it’s a masculine expression with loud, uplifting music and strokes that mimic the rhythm of the music. The vibration of the drumming is believed to act as a ‘wakeup’ call for the cells. Once turned over, the pace changes to softer, feminine notes with heated basalt stones to soothe, and oil delectably massaged into the hair and face, to conclude the powerful journey.
Everyone is lucky enough to experience Petrina’s musical talent in the drumming circle that follows where we are all given a drum and another percussion instrument. She begins with clapping, then percussion, and finally the drums where each person creates a beat to be copied by the group. She has us playing games, encouraging us to freestyle with our instruments, lying in the middle of the circle to take a ‘sound bath’ and generally throwing care to the wind.
To make our last night extra special, during dinner we write down on paper something we wish to let go of. Meditating together around the fire pit and focusing on the flickering flame, we take turns placing our paper into the fire, symbolising the end of a thing or thought that no longer serves us. It’s a lovely way to bring everyone together on the last night, and we go to bed lighter, certain burdens lifted.
It seems we’ve finally got the hang of qigong, repeating three cycles together, taking in the beauty of the sun rising behind the hills. While most opt for pilates and a garden walk, I’m intrigued to see if the final challenging walk is as heart-racing as the last. While longer, the hills aren’t nearly as steep and the views of the glittering Gold Coast skyline are just mind-blowing. A boxing class with Ali is a great way to continue the endorphin boost, knowing I’ll be on an eight-hour flight soon.
The conclusion of Sharon’s talk on stress focuses on the solutions. Practical tips include downloading apps that reduce blue light on electronic devices and avoiding sleep-disrupting social media before bed, though brain-training apps like Luminosity are encouraged. In terms of mindfulness, she reminds us that multitasking is counterproductive, that saying “no” is sometimes necessary and the importance of listening twice as much as you speak. When faced with a stressful situation, she recommends using diaphragmatic breathing, meditation and visualisation, as we are ultimately the product of our daily practices.
As we say reluctant goodbyes over lunch, to those who were complete strangers just days ago, it’s clear that the people are what make Gwinganna so special. Even if you are introverted as I am, it’s impossible not to engage with others when you spend most waking hours together, through challenging situations, sharing the bond of no caffeine, sugar, dairy, gluten or phones. Everyone comes with baggage, whether to heal after a break-up, health scare or to deal with emotional trauma. Human connection and a sense of community is irreplaceable, and there is something genuine and beautiful about accepting vulnerability in yourself and those around you. www.gwinganna.com