Staying at a wellness retreat is an uphill struggle for Stephanie Holmes, but she finds a multitude of benefits — and a new party trick — at its summit.
It started with a headache. It ended with a feeling of vitality, the likes of which I hadn't felt for years. It was Aro Ha, a high-end wellness retreat sitting pretty on a mountainside in idyllic Glenorchy, and, unexpectedly, it changed my life.
I was perhaps not the likeliest of candidates for a six day/five night "wellness journey" at this multi-award winning retreat. My usual daily routine involves snoozing through my alarm so many times I have no time for the gym, several coffees, hours spent in front of a computer, and a penchant for red wine and rich food. Exercise has never come easily to me and the last time I got into a proper groove, I injured my back and have been struggling to get back into proper shape since.
But the point of Aro Ha, co-founder Damian Chaparro tells our group at the start of the retreat, is to help "push the reset button on life"; to take time out of a busy schedule and spend time reconnecting — with nature, with food, with our minds and with our selves.
Aro Ha celebrated its third birthday this month and in the time it's been open, has hosted everyone from millionaires and celebrities, to regular folk like me. The retreat has won countless awards, including many much-coveted ones from Conde Nast Traveler — including in their 2016 Readers Choice Awards, which named Aro Ha the No. 2 resort experience in Australia and the South Pacific; No. 31 in the world. But this is no "resort" in the usual sense of the word.
Yes, a chef will lovingly prepare all meals for you, but each meal is vegan, dairy, gluten and refined sugar free, eaten at the shared dinner table, and there's no caffeine or alcohol on site.
You'll get a daily massage, but only after a yoga class, a 13km strenuous hike, and a high-intensity interval training session.
Yes, there is an infinity hot pool with an outstanding view, but most of the time you'll be using it to soothe your aching, overworked muscles rather than for relaxation.
You will get a room with a luxurious bed and a breathtaking outlook on to the mountain and lake vista; but you are likely to be sharing a bathroom with a stranger.
And yes, there is free Wi-Fi, but you're encouraged not to use it, and there are certainly no phones or digital devices allowed in the public areas.
Days fall into a regular schedule: sunrise yoga, breakfast, hike, lunch, exercise class, some kind of workshop (like cooking or gardening), restorative yoga, dinner, sleep. Most activities are done as a group, so if you're expecting to just relax with your partner, or solo with a book and a bottle of Central Otago pinot, you're possibly better off looking elsewhere.
The idea is to detox the body and the mind, and to create a sense of community among the group of retreatees who usually have never met before but will spend an inordinate amount of time together over the course of the week.
Our group of seven men and nine women are an interesting bunch — mostly Aussies, with a couple of Americans, a Scot, and a few Kiwis thrown in. There are the parents of five children looking to learn more about mindfulness and nutrition; the New York newlyweds on an extended NZ honeymoon; a woman about to turn 50 who wants to challenge herself ahead of her birthday; the young software developer hotshot who wants to put the brakes on his fast living ... the common thread is that we're all hoping to learn how to relook at our lives to make sustainable changes.
It's certainly not easy.
Not long after we arrive at the beautifully designed, Scandinavian-style complex perched amid prime Glenorchy farmland, we're putting on our active wear and heading out for a 6km hike, summiting two nearby peaks.
First, however, we're given the option for a weigh and measure where Aro Ha's team of yoga teachers/hiking guides/mindfulness instructors, Ben and Simon, will check our blood pressure, weight and measure key areas of the body. At the end of the retreat the process will be repeated to see how our bodies have changed. Results can often be overwhelmingly good — previous clients have lost multiple kilos and dropped dress sizes in less than a week.
It's unsurprising — every day is a whirl of rigorous activity. But it's the kind of activity that makes you feel good to be alive. Our hikes take in some of the Queenstown Lakes District's best walking trails, including a stunning portion of the world-class Routeburn Track.
The toughest is on the second day, a 12k trek up the imposing Mt Judah to the historic Bonnie Jean Hut. We walk uphill for six of those 12km, ascending 600m, and it's enough to nearly break some of us. While the fittest of the group run to the hut with ease, others — myself included — lag behind, with every step a struggle of laboured breath. But the sense of community in the group has been quick to build so there's no judgment, only support and high-fives for a job well done when all of us make it to the top.
Sprinkled throughout the days are sessions in mindfulness — where Damian, Ben and Simon instruct us in the basic principles of living a life more aware of our surroundings, our thoughts and what we're putting in our bodies.
Although the regime had terrified me in the lead up to the retreat, I'm surprised how quickly I get into the swing of things. I arrive on day one with a splitting headache that I hadn't been able to shake since giving up coffee the week before, but on day two I'm feeling fresh and full of vitality. I don't seem to notice any of the side effects of detoxing; rather I feel like I'm thriving.
The exercise is exhilarating; a welcome change from my usual eight to 10 hours seated at my desk in front of a computer screen.
The food is exceptional — every day our plates are a rainbow of colours, with 35 per cent of the fruits and vegetables we eat coming from Aro Ha's gardens and greenhouses.
Although the portion sizes are much smaller than I'm used to, I never feel overly hungry — even on the day where we fast until dinner — and it makes me aware of my usual tendency to massively overeat.
Sure, there are times when I'm completely out of my comfort zone. Like when Ben leads us in a singing circle, asking us to sing loudly and joyfully — something I normally only do when drunk. Or when the group are all given blindfolds and encouraged to "dance like no one's watching".
I take Damian's advice and not only "show up" to every activity on offer, but also "lean in" to it fully and give it my best shot. Because really, what's the worst that's going to happen? Someone hears my less than tuneful singing voice, or sees me dancing like an idiot? I've been through worse.
As we dance, I can't resist taking a peek from under my blindfold, and am delighted to see the whole class having their own little blindfold dance party on their yoga mat. It appears I'm not the only one reaping the rewards of the retreat bubble.
After feeling so incredible for the week, my low point unexpectedly comes on the morning of the final day. Before our final yoga class, we have our weigh out, where we find out how many centimetres and kilos we've lost.
Back in the room where the whole experience started, Ben again takes my blood pressure, then measures my calf, my thigh, my torso, my bicep.
The results are varied and, to my mind, a little underwhelming. I've lost four centimetres from my butt and three from my stomach, but nowhere else has seen much change.
I brace myself for the scales, hoping that although my physique may not have changed, my weight will have dropped drastically.
The numbers tell a different story. Only one kilo lost. I'm horribly disappointed.
Ben consoles me by telling me that former guests would then go on to consistently lose weight after the retreat, and that healthy weight loss should only be a kilo a week anyway.
But as I walk away, I can't fight tears of frustration. After so much hard work, and such a drastic change to my diet and daily life, I can't help feeling cheated.
I try to draw on my newfound mindfulness skills to talk myself around — after all, mere moments before the weigh in I had been talking about how good I felt, how the retreat had been an overwhelmingly great experience, and that I hoped to continue the positive changes when I return home.
And yet, still tears threaten to fall as I take to my yoga mat for our final session. Ben must sense my disappointment — as we close our eyes and return to our mindful breathing he tells us to not fixate on the numbers we've just seen, but to instead focus on everything we've learnt over the course of the retreat.
I breathe deeply and slowly and concentrate on how far I've come. Five hikes, totalling 50km and, combined, an altitude of 2000m. That's almost the summit of the mountains I've been admiring daily from every available window and, really, nothing to be sniffed at.
My mood can't fail to brighten when Ben leads the next portion of the class: Acro-yoga.
Teaming up, we work together to hold each other aloft in various acrobatic balancing poses. There are varying degrees of success in the group — some soar, balancing on the feet of their buddy; others crumple and fall, but always with a laugh and a smile on their face.
After my earlier disappointment, I'm feeling vulnerable and irrationally worry I'm too heavy for anyone to lift in the air. But the sense of camaraderie, friendship and support in the room is palpable and, with heartfelt encouragement from the group, I let Ben balance me on his feet, in a pose not too dissimilar to something you might see in Dirty Dancing.
There are cheers and applause from my newfound friends and the grimace of concentration on my face soon turns to a grin.
The class becomes a metaphor for Aro Ha itself — a supportive, uplifting experience that has led me out of my comfort zone and helped me try new things. It has inspired a whole new approach to how I treat my body and given me a chance at a healthier, more balanced life.
I shake off my earlier disappointment and, mindfully, take a new breath and reset.
Post script: In the three months since her Aro Ha stay, the writer has lost six kilos, still isn't drinking caffeine, and is exercising daily. She has, however, resumed her appreciation of red wine.
Getting there: Jet Star flies direct from Auckland to Queenstown up to 14 times a week.
Aro Ha Wellness Retreat is situated in Glenorchy, approximately an hour's drive from Queenstown Airport. All of Aro Ha's programmes include complementary pickup from the airport.