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Even stress-heads find calm in retreat

AAP logoAAP 3/11/2016 Georgie Moore

I'm meant to be a tree.

A tree with my right foot resting on the opposite calf, arms at ear-height.

Wobbling, I grit my teeth and refocus on a spot on the wall. Then I blink, my hips tilt and my foot thwacks down on the yoga mat.

I'm mindful, but only of my lacklustre hand-eye co-ordination.

There are about 20 of us - mostly well-to-do professionals, virtually all women - seeking enforced relaxation at a yoga and mindfulness retreat near Sydney.

From the moment we arrive in the bushland camp, which is both luxe and rustic (there's a bathtub on my cabin verandah), our schedule is packed.

Mindfulness, yoga, organic vegetarian food. Repeat.

But Billabong Retreat isn't some "heebie-jeebie" hippy thing, founder Paul von Bergen, a former corporate-gone-yoga teacher, insists. Mindfulness is mainstream. Science has broken down exactly what it does to the brain.

"We want to create structural changes and electrical changes that actually are applicable to our whole life," he says. "We don't just want to be Zen when we're doing a meditation. "We want to be happy and calm and relaxed and resilient ... during the whole day."

Which brings me back to the tree.

Yoga is a form of "moving meditation" that's easier for busy minds to hack - as long as you're not stuck in skinny jeans, that is. Forgetting to bring soft, comfortable gear to a yoga retreat reinforces how little of a yogi I am.

After the first session, someone offers me a spare pair of leggings so I can do the "child's pose" without feeling like a muffin top that's about to explode.

The next day kicks off with a 7am yoga class, which gives me no time for coffee beforehand. But once the overwhelming urge to hop back into bed subsides, I realise I don't need one. Soothing music floats through the room, birds sing outside and my heart thuds slowly. I am calm.

Traditional meditation is more of a challenge.

Lying down or sitting cross-legged, we count breaths and assign them colours, acknowledging thoughts as they arise before returning to the task at hand.

My mind, used to being indulged, ramps up speed. "How many minutes have I been sitting here? What's for lunch? My foot's going numb. This is boring. Please tell me it's almost over. I wonder if anybody else is as bad at this as I am?"

But you cannot screw meditation up, we're told. Tangents are normal. Mental discipline takes time.

After a few sessions, I achieve about 10 seconds of inner peace and break it by congratulating myself.

Later we're introduced to mindful eating. It takes me 20 minutes to get through a few almonds but it's a refreshing change from inhaling them at my desk.

One night we're encouraged to sit through an "inspiring" documentary by Ace Ventura filmmaker Tom Shadyac so I forgo my planned verandah bath for the sake of group participation. But instantly regret it.

In my mind, I Am is a 76-minute glorification of an obscenely privileged man's philosophical ramblings about everything from Darwinism to loneliness, economics and war.

I'd much rather be starkers out the back of my cabin.

Thankfully, this is as close to "heebie-jeebie" hippie as the retreat gets.

During my spare time - and there's not much - I use the walking tracks to explore and head down to the water and across the billabong.

The property remains largely un-manicured. The bush is left as is.

I nearly skid down to the riverbank before grabbing onto a tree, feeling much further from civilisation than I am.

During a private yoga session, I'm told I have a "strong energy" and am given a daily program - two minutes of meditation followed by 20 "mindful" steps.

Who can't do that? I think from a hammock overlooking the river.

I leave the retreat feeling brighter, more measured, and don't even crack it when I get lost driving back to Sydney.

Back in the real world, I do no meditation.

But I'm OK with that.

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 surprise 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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