At the top of a mountainous Tallebudgera hillside overlooking the Gold Coast, the ocean, and its rolling hinterland is a 500 acre expanse of land where paddocks, bush, and rainforest meet. With expansive views to the East and South, and the ability to bathe in both the amber dawn and dusk light, its a place where the natural environment is embodied in the philosophies of Gwinganna itself. There is a silence that comes with wisdom of years, a fresh clean air, and an electric energy that touches you as soon as you arrive.
LOVE a heated infinity – perfect for a sunrise swim!
In October I was very honoured to be offered a place as a Work Experience Volunteer at one of Australia’s premier organic health & lifestyle retreats, Gwinganna. I flew to Queensland a few days after my birthday to spend 2 weeks working in all areas of the retreat; from office, kitchen, and dining, to spa, garden, and fitness activities.
WHAT IS A LIFESTYLE RETREAT?
Nothing inspires a gym session like the promise of a swim!
Most people are familiar with health retreats and their roles in such thing as helping one quit smoking or lose weight. Others, like Gwinganna, take you on a journey that (depending on which retreat program you choose, and the different activities you do each day) could assist with anything from facing psychological demons, to weight loss, to total detoxification, to sleep pattern restoration, simple rest and recharge, or a weekend with the girls, a relaxing couples-retreat, or just handing over all the decision-making for the week and not being responsible for once! A variety of programs exist such as Womens Discovery ~ with a focus on womens physical & psychological health, Optimal Wellbeing, Believe & Be Well ~ with a focus on the mind, and the very popular 7 night Gwinganna detox. All the food is organic & for the most part locally sourced, and about 30% of food is grown on the property itself. An elaborate team of nurses, naturopaths, nutritionists, beauty therapists, personal trainers, psychologists, as well as people trained in Alexander Technique, Pilates, Equine Therapy, Zumba, Musical Therapy, yoga, qi gong, and meditation, are all on hand to fill every day with learning.
WHY WORK EXPERIENCE?
The Labrynth – an outdoor meditative space
The program offered at Gwinganna was not part of my studies, however a friend who had done it previously suggested that the experience would be right up my alley. How right she was Ive been fairly isolated in my pursuit of my Nutrition qualification down here in Victoria, and lacked the connectivity that university students sharing a campus might get. I was super keen to connect with people who had similar opinions and philosophies of health – holistic, organic, natural, positive, and preventative. I wanted to have long conversations about food and alternative therapies and alternative medicine, and potentially learn about new techniques or ideas. The Volunteers are a diverse array of people, from all age groups and backgrounds, however they all share a similar philosophy of wellbeing.
The volunteer program itself runs as a work experience period between 2 and 5 weeks – you basically stay for as long as the time you can get off work! Those who stay for the full 5 weeks get to experience a 6th week participating as a full Gwinganna guest – the “other side” if you will. Volunteers are entitled to all the same features as the guests, the same gourmet organic food, dining with the guests, the ability to attend yoga, hikes, qi gong, seminars, or fitness classes (if youre on shift at that time) and you get two full days off every week.
I was ready to learn, and be inspired!
A TYPICAL DAY
The Fig – the largest & oldest tree on the property, like stepping onto the set of Avatar!
The most typical day was Activities Day. Working in pairs, you were responsible for waking up every guest at the retreat with a polite knock sometime between 5.20 and 5.40am! This meant I personally had to be up around 4.45am… UNHEARD of for my “professional student” and model lifestyle!
While the guests did their morning Qi Gong by the light of the sunrise on their faces, we kept busy “behind the scenes” setting up stretch & yoga mats, and the rooms for whatever activities were scheduled, be it pilates, spin class, boxing, aqua-aerobics, zumba, tribal dance, and meditation or other activity. Then after the guests completed Qi Gong, we guided them on one of two hikes (a gentle 2 or 3k, or a challenging 6-10k) after which is breakfast. After breakfast we split up and join groups of guests on the activities they choose to go on, until roughly 11am when an educational seminar (different every day) runs, on an aspect of natural health. This is followed by lunch. Then after lunch the guests head off to whatever therapy, wellness, or beauty treatment they’ve had lined up, or alternatively there plans for pooltime and a good book! This period is called Dreamtime, the “siesta” section of the day. During this time, the volunteers move on to other tasks like spa centre prep, or kitchen food prep, or (everyones favourite) a shift in the garden with the lovey Shelley, our organic gardener and ex-Gwinganna chef. Because of the early start, we’d be finished around 3pm, leaving plenty of time for sunbaking by the pool, a gym session, a bushwalk, or reading a book by the open fire if the weather is miserable. Or after 6pm, we could use the guest steam room, which almost became ritual to us!
Other days in our weeks involved more kitchen prep for the guest meals, dining room assistance, set-up in the (very famous) Spa Centre, office duties, house-keeping, baggage handling, gardening, feeding the chickens, washing the guests golf-buggies, or cleaning the volunteer residence. Despite the highly active days, nothing ever felt laborious – and because you worked in a close knit team, there were alot of laughs, and everyone pulled their weight.
MY OWN DETOX
So many reasons to smile!
My arrival happened to coincide with the beginning of a detox week – no dairy, no caffiene, no alcohol, no refined sugars, no processed food, no red meat (most meat was seafood) and very little gluten (although it was still present in some foods unless you were intolerant). I knew my body would be shocked. I was well aware that caffiene was considered contraband at the retreat (detox or no detox) so Id spent the week prior, weaning myself off on green tea. What I wasnt prepared for, was the sugar crash. Sugars (or other sweetening agents) exist in almost everything processed, and the only way to avoid them is to eat wholefoods as close to their natural state as possible, which is JUST how the food is at Gwinganna. 2 days in and I was walking in a fog – I was tired despite sleeping 9-10 hours each night and I craved every naughty thing you could think of, even as basic as a sweet cup of tea. And I had the obligatory detox headaches, although not as bad as some poor guests who had a visit from the nurse because the headaches were unbearable. Dont get me wrong there WERE sweet things, like the infamous rolled date & coconut balls, but nothing quite equates to chocolate, does it?
I was tired. And I was hungry! After the first night, and second day, I called Mr J to lament.
“Oh my god Im starrrving here!”… “I dont want to eat this little food! I dont want to waste away!”… “I have to take an apple out of the kitchen just to have after dinner!”
The views from a mountain hike
I was convinced that I was not getting NEARLY enough sustenance. However by my third day, and definitely by my fourth, the fog had begun to lift. My body had stopped yearning for sugar so much and instead switched to more efficiently digesting the food we had. By Thursday the food was MORE than enough, I was full and satiated and loved the array of presentation and flavours. This adjustment, I learned later, was very very common at Gwinganna, and a common result of detoxing from processed and refined foods. Another common detox symptom we all felt, was bloating. The girls gathered in quiet circles and discussed how absurd we thought it was to be eating so clean and yet feeling the effects of a “very high fibre diet” – I dont have to spell this out to you! But the resident nutritionist assured us that it was a very common result of switching to a majority raw diet, with whole grains and lots of plant fibre. Truth was, by the end of the stay, my tummy was starting to settle, and had I stayed longer, I may have seen those symptoms ease.
The view from Gwinganna to the Gold Coast, and where Qi Gong was performed at dawn every morning
As my second volunteer week commenced, I was a bouncy bunny of energy. I collapsed into bed each day around 9pm, slept fitfully, and awoke at 5.30 every day, even if I wasnt rostered on. I felt positive and motivated, my skin was clear, and I took myself on meditations in the Labrynth (a series of concentric stone circles), participated in Qi Gong, went hiking, and boy did I get my fair share of sun! Notably, being away from sugar, processed foods, and alcohol, saw me lose 5 kilos in two weeks! And almost every day I made some time to lie either by the pool in the sun or by the fireplace during the rain to listen to recorded lectures or read my study books. I came home with a colour of tan (& a renewed education of what constitutes “enough” Vitamin D) that Id not been since my childhood in Perth when I played outside for all three months of summer!
THE WRAP UP
Sunrise over “The House” – the volunteer residence
The short (and long) of it is that Gwinganna was an experience Im not likely to forget. Much of what I learnt about health & nutrition was rudimentary to someone like myself who studies it, but very obviously life changing to many of the guests. However some of the tips and tricks I learnt about cooking and food alternatives are now used almost always in my kitchen at home, and meditation, and morning stretches feature much more prominantly in my daily routine. MOST importantly, the people I met at Gwinganna, both the guests with enough guts to make positive change, and the staff and volunteers who walk-the-talk of natural & alternative preventative health made more of an impact on me than they can ever know. And most certainly, Im making noises for returning in 2013 and completing my work placement program (and a pamper-filled guest week!).
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Maya Angelou
This is not a sponsored post.