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Corporate flyer switches reality to calm

AAP logoAAP 2/11/2016 Georgie Moore

Paul von Bergen helped sell cigarettes and alcohol so he could afford a 22-metre yacht. He never got the boat but did end up with a mindfulness retreat.

"I had a picture of a Princess 22-metre yacht on my desk. That was what was going to make me happy. I knew. I was determined,"" the British native told AAP from Billabong Retreat, his bushland haven near Sydney.

There's barely any phone reception here, nor room service - and you line up for meals. Leisure activities consist mainly of yoga and meditation.

It's von Bergen's fourth or fifth business venture and it began with financial ruin.

His marketing consulting gig wasn't making enough money and, in the early 2000s, he ditched it for an online retail business in Sydney.

"I completely ballsed it up and lost all my money in nine months," von Bergen said. "I started too big and my ego got out of control. I was burning all this money."

So he ran away to a beach house in Thailand.

It was next door to a health retreat and the beginning of the end for his party-hard lifestyle. "I used recreational drugs every weekend for 10, 12 years and I would get pretty smashed," he said.

Meditation let von Bergen "notice everything".

"I was uber sensitive. I could notice everything. I could feel everything. The colours were different," he said. "I could really see how you can transform your reality and how you experience things."

A year later, he returned to Australia and the corporate world, but trained as a yoga teacher on the side.

He met his wife and they fantasised about building a yoga retreat - "but it just all seemed a bit hard". And then there was that northern beaches home von Bergen wanted to buy.

"But the day my mum died I just said 'no, I don't want to buy the house anymore'. I cancelled everything," he said.

"I was trying to help her. I'd had all this knowledge and experience of coming out of it [drink and drugs] and I couldn't help her."

von Bergen moved his wife and children from a tiny Bondi apartment to 4.4 hectares in Maraylya, in Sydney's far northwest outskirts.

"I just wanted to create a place that could have helped my mum, that she could have come to and could have loved ... where should could have found meaning and a way to stop smoking and drinking," he said.

Billabong Retreat opened in 2010. It sits somewhere between "pompous spa" and religious experience.

"You can't mention the spiritual word, they'd run a mile. People would think we're some kind of weird cult," von Bergen joked. "It's a delicate dance. We're trying to appeal to a really mainstream audience who probably have a few fears about yoga and meditation.

"Is it going to be religious? Is it going to be a cult? Will they make me wear strange clothes?"

The retreat keeps it simple. Guests stay in cabins and can follow their own schedule or sign up to group classes. There are also one-on-one sessions and massages. The food is strictly vegetarian and organic.

"Hopefully, [it's] a down-to-earth place that inspires people to live happier, healthier lives," von Bergen said.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Billabong Retreat is about an hour northwest of Sydney by car.

STAYING THERE: Prices vary significantly depending on the type of accommodation you choose. Dorm room accommodation ranges from $250pp (one night ) to $750 (three nights). Private rooms (with shared bathroom) range from $300pp (one night) to $900pp (three nights). With a private bathroom, this bumps up to between $800 and $1200. Deluxe cabins start from $500pp (one night) and go up to $1500 (three nights). Meals and the retreat program are included.

See billabongretreat.com.au/prices/ for three, four, five and seven-night deals.

PLAYING THERE: Programs include Mindfulness Essentials, Mindfulness for Stress, Meditation Essentials, Yoga Essentials, Advanced Yoga, Lucky dip (daily suprise workshops), Wellness Essentials and Mindful Intelligence. For more info, visit www.billabongretreat.com.au.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Billabong Retreat.

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