On Top of the World

Spending time in the luxury surrounds of Byron Bay’s famous retreat gives you more than just a fresh mind and body; it can renew

On Top of the World

Spending time in the luxury surrounds of Byron Bay’s famous retreat gives you more than just a fresh mind and body; it can renew your love of yoga.

It feels like the gods are conspiring against me. Every scenario that passengers dread about flying is unravelling in front of me–almost missing my flight, random security searches, delays on the tarmac and seat mix-ups, followed by crying babies, shuddering turbulence and short-tempered attendants.

By the time I arrive at the wooden gates of Gaia Retreat and Spa and stumble down the meandering path towards the reception and main communal dining area, I’m ready to pass out with exhaustion. But as soon as I walk through the doors, my stress, frustrations and anxiety instantly dissipates. The staff flutter around me like angels—I’m handed peppermint tea and a platter of fresh figs, kiwi, rockmelon and strawberries, all organic, of course. General manager, Gregg Cave, takes one look at my haggard appearance and exclaims, “Honey, you’ve just got to surrender.” And so I do just that, for three glorious days.

High Society

Gaia sits in the rarefied air high in the hinterland between Bangalow and Byron Bay in northern NSW. Since opening in 2005, it has garnered an impressive reputation worldwide as the ultimate luxury retreat (with a price tag to match) and is now planning to expand internationally and build boutique spa hotels in metropolitan areas across Australia.

There are 20 guest rooms at Gaia with varying facilities. The top of the range is the Acala Suite, which has a private spa on the balcony, kitchenette, separate living area and television. But in every room there are personal touches of luxury, such as travel and cooking books, a lemon myrtle oil burner, and even “bedtime shopping” (where you can quickly call reception to purchase the deodorant you forgot!). However, the CD selection was not to my taste—if you’re a music lover, make sure you bring your own.

While I do enjoy the odd massage and pampering facial, it’s the yoga, boxing and tai chi that have brought me here. The daily schedule of activities for guests (which are all complimentary and optional) starts with yoga at 7.30am, then offers a choice of activities, such as boxing and circuit weights in the gym, tai chi in the yoga room or art classes for the creative. Weekends have a more limited range of activities, but yoga is still available. Afternoons at Gaia are considered “pamper-time” for guests, to be spent indulging in a treatment at Amala Spa, by the poolside with a good book or enjoying a long, outdoor spa. Bliss.

Yoga is clearly a respected practice at Gaia. Not only because of the yoga sessions on offer, but also because of the yoga studio itself. It’s beautiful, with timber floors and sweeping views of the ocean and Byron hinterland. Teachers Danielle Davis and Claire Priestley are both trained in a variety of styles, including hatha, Iyengar and ISHTA. My first morning class is taken by Priestley, a petite woman with long brown hair laced into a high bun. Priestley explains that most guests haven’t ever done yoga before but they find it very rewarding. Taking a deep breath, Priestley’s deep Scottish voice resonates around the studio, “Nowhere to be, absolutely nothing to do.” She repeats this phrase throughout the class and every time I hear it, I melt deeper into my mat.

We move through a series of gentle cat poses, abdominal exercises and Back Bends before progressing into flowing Sun Salutations. The 90-minute class also includes pranayama and meditation. Celia, a fellow student, who’s never done yoga before her stay at Gaia says she was quite nervous about the first class. “But, I loved it—I used muscles I didn’t even know existed!” After five days at Gaia, she’s decided that she’ll continue when she returns home to Brisbane.

After our morning session, we head down to the communal dining area for a buffet breakfast. I opt for a fresh vegetable juice (with apple, celery and fennel), cinnamon and honey quinoa topped with a dollop of organic yoghurt, berry compote  and poached rhubarb. I sneak back for a couple of pieces of fruit and macadamia toast with sugar-free blueberry jam because it just looks too delicious to leave, and as usual my eyes are bigger than my stomach. Add to that a cup of herbal tea and I am not even thinking about the fact that I haven’t had my morning shot of caffeine (while plunger coffee is available on request, it is not encouraged).

The Amala Spa is an important aspect of the retreat experience and the reason many people come to Gaia. Tamara, my therapist, slings a white fluffy bathrobe over my shoulders and leads me along a stone track to the sacred garden–a private open-air bamboo hut with a massage table, candles and incense. Overlooking a salt-water pool, complete with trickling sandstone statues and luscious rainforest surrounds, I enjoy a 90-minute deep tissue massage. Tamara focuses on my hip joints and lower back which are extremely sore after yoga. I squirm uncomfortably as she pushes through tight areas and muscles but, as I push into Upward Dog the next morning, I am relieved I let Tamara’s hands do her magic work.

Private Practice

A private yoga lesson may seem like an indulgent thing to do when you’ve done 90 minutes of practice that morning but I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it is.

The principal yoga teacher at Gaia Retreat and Spa is Davis, who has been here five years. I’m already nervous about the prospect of a private lesson, but when Danielle arrives I turn into a jittering mess. At 53 years old, she has a figure that would rival any 21-year-old, and the intimidating good looks that befit a former model.

I explain that I have tight hip flexors and hamstrings, so we spend the first half of the lesson focusing on poses that will help stretch my problem areas. We then move through a series of fast-paced Sun Salutations, which Danielle modifies to include a pose to stretch my hamstrings. Sweating profusely, Danielle laughs as she exclaims, “I don’t know why people do hot yoga, they’re obviously just not working hard enough.” Not wanting to waste my breath, I nod in silent agreement. We discuss poses that I have difficulty with and I explain that I have always wanted to be able to do a headstand and remain balanced throughout an entire Tree-Pose series. We work on both and soon enough I’m flinging my body into positions that I have battled with for years.

More than anything, my 90 minutes with Danielle is as emotional as it is physical. We discuss the philosophies of life and I walk out feeling a few inches taller and with a huge weight off my shoulders.

Good Company

As the afternoons are often spent in solitude, dinner mingles together gourmet food with conversation with fellow guests. Over an entrée of omelette roulade with marinated vegetables and a main course of baked salmon with a tomato and olive ragu, I discover that each guest has come for very different reasons, from needing a relaxing break to specific needs of weight loss, detoxing or, as one lady explains, to make up for the fact that she’s “not done one nice thing for herself in seven years” and her husband thought she deserved it. As the flourless orange and almond cake is placed in front of me for dessert, I feel like I’ve developed a bond with my fellow guests, as well as a deep respect for head chef Todd Cameron.

On my final morning, I begin with restorative yoga session. There are only three of us in the studio and we all chat and laugh throughout our practice. After a lazy buffet breakfast, I head to the spa for my final treatment—a body polish where I choose to be buffed from head-to-toe with macadamia oil and sugar. Fresh slices of cucumber are placed on my eyes and 15 minutes in the steam room leave my skin silky. After all this pampering, I drag my feet in denial at the prospect that I’m about to enjoy my last meal at Gaia. As usual, I’m not disappointed—I gorge on tofu and prawn sushi with a piping hot bowl of miso soup.

As I board the plane home, the gentleman next to me starts demanding a can of coke before we have even taken off. The hostess’s voice screeches over the speakers, but instead I hear Danielle’s words echo in my head, “when the world is crazy and frenetic, find inner calm through breathing and meditation”. I softly close my eyes and suddenly everything around me is silent and still.

Anna Lisle is a staff writer at Australian Yoga Journal and stayed courtesy of Gaia Retreat & Spa.

Fact File

Gaia Retreat and Spa runs three-, five- and seven-day packages all year round. Prices start at $1900 per person, including all meals, naturopathic assessment, massage and activities. Phone (02) 6687 1216, or visit www.gaiaretreat.com.au

Accommodation comes in three types of rooms: the modest Layana Rooms and Sura Terraces and then the more extravagant Acala Suites.

Food restrictions: Tea and coffee are available but you need to request it. Organic, biodynamic wine  is available at dinner only.

Getting there: Virgin Blue, Qantas and Jetstar fly to Ballina airport from all major cities in Australia. Airport transfers are available from Gaia. Guest parking is available.