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Waiting to exhale: A 'life-changing' women's wellness retreat in Otago

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A women's wellness weekend digs deep and what's shared on retreat, stays on retreat, writes Stephanie Holmes

I find myself on a dancefloor on a Saturday night, whirling like a dervish without a care in the world. No alcohol has been consumed, no illicit substances, and yet I'm cutting loose like I haven't in years – dancing like no one is watching, throwing shapes, flinging limbs, smiling, sweating, gasping for breath, and having the time of my life.

I'm not the only one – a group of 17 other women are all doing the same around me, lost in their own personal groove in a darkened room on a late summer night. Outside, the previously still weather is being disturbed by an increasingly wild breeze, as if the wind is reflecting our frenzied energy on the dancefloor. The mountains, as they have done for millennia, remain unmoved.

Our Saturday night exertions cap off an emotional day as part of a four-day women's wellness escape at Camp Glenorchy, an eco-retreat in the heart of the alpine town that sits pretty an hour down the road from Queenstown.

As well as yoga, Pilates, and breathing workshops, Nurture Me Women's Wellness Retreats give the chance to get out into Glenorchy's beautiful natural surrounds. Photo / Supplied
As well as yoga, Pilates, and breathing workshops, Nurture Me Women's Wellness Retreats give the chance to get out into Glenorchy's beautiful natural surrounds. Photo / Supplied

Nurture Me retreats are the brainchild of two Kiwis, Emma Ferris and Sarsha Hope, who have come together to offer women the chance to pause and reset their everyday lives.

"Women give so much and we offer so much outwardly, all the time, putting other people's needs, wants, desires, before our own," says Sarsha, a New Plymouth-based yoga and dance teacher. "It's so important for women to take the time to nurture themselves. I know when I had young children, I would go away on meditation retreats twice a year, knowing that if I filled my own cup, I could be there for my children, for my partner, for my family."

It seems simple, but a break from the pressures of "real life" is not always easy.

"[Women] find that difficult to do without feeling guilty," Sarsha says. "So that's a big reason why we decided to offer these retreats, because we know that women need it."

Twelve months on from the start of a global pandemic, it's clear many women need this more than ever. The retreat, the first since 2019, is sold-out, with women coming from all around New Zealand to gather and learn from Sarsha and her dear friend Emma, who is a physiotherapist and breathing, stress and trauma coach.

Camp Glenorchy is set up like a rustic alpine holiday resort with a main central building comprising reception, dining room, shared kitchen and lounge, a communal outdoor area with picnic tables and open fireplace, and separate cabins dotted around the pretty landscaped grounds. The vibe is rugged backcountry farmstead - lots of timber and stonework, reclaimed materials, high vaulted ceilings, shuttered windows and kitsch Kiwiana touches. As well as being homely, it's also one of the most environmentally friendly places you'll ever stay, with sustainable design, including composting toilets and enough solar panels to generate more energy each year than they use.

Camp Glenorchy is one of the most environmentally friendly places you will ever stay, thanks to some clever sustainable design features. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Camp Glenorchy is one of the most environmentally friendly places you will ever stay, thanks to some clever sustainable design features. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

To begin the retreat, we come together as a group for the first time, sitting tentatively in a circle on yoga mats with bolsters and blankets, while Emma and Sarsha explain more about their intentions for the long weekend. They want to give us a space to reset, reconnect and live wholeheartedly, surrounded by the positive energy of other women. We will practise yoga, journalling and breathing techniques, as well as learning tools to help us with sleep, stress, trauma response, and more.

They emphasise that whatever is shared in the room, stays in the room – there's a big focus on confidentiality and trust, so guests can be confident what they say will not be judged or repeated elsewhere. So, while I'd love to tell you what each woman shares as her intention for being on the retreat, I absolutely can't.

There were common themes – stress, busy lives, always doing everything for others, never focusing on their own needs, and work pressures meaning everything is done in a hurry ... including breathing. The group is a range of ages and backgrounds, from 20s to 70s, from all around the country.

Emma shares a little of her own story - and I'm not telling tales because she's made a podcast about it – a couple of years ago she found out the man she had been in a relationship with for six months was actually a convicted conman trying to defraud her of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In a Zoom chat after the retreat, she tells me the heartbreaking and stressful experience has made her "more persistent on [retreat guests] being vulnerable and brave and courageous, because I know that's where the growth happens".

"It seems strange but Covid for me was a walk in the park after what I'd been through with the conman, but it helped refine the things that are important for us as women," Emma tells me. "Taking time out, listening to my gut, and being brave enough to speak my truth – whether that's just to one person, whether it's to many or, in my case [with my podcast], to the globe."

If we'd had this chat before the retreat, I might have had more of an idea of what I'm in for over the long weekend. For while I thought I was going to be learning about breathing, doing some yoga, and taking some gentle nature walks, in reality it is actually a lot more intense than that.

Our days fall into a routine – up at dawn for an invigorating yoga session with Sarsha, followed by a healthy breakfast and herbal tea (coffees available at an extra charge for the caffeine dependent), a workshop session, then lunch, a nature walk, more workshops, dinner, relaxation, then bed.

The food is abundant and while it may be more virtuous than many of us are used to, it is absolutely delicious – prepared with care and talent by the team at Mrs Woolly's General Store across the road from Camp Glenorchy. The best bit, many women note, is not having to prepare it themselves, not having to cook a separate option for picky children, and not having to clear away or do the dishes after we've finished.

The food on a Nurture Me Wellness Retreat is healthy, delicious and - best of all - prepared by someone else. Photo / Supplied
The food on a Nurture Me Wellness Retreat is healthy, delicious and - best of all - prepared by someone else. Photo / Supplied

The workshops, lead by Emma and Sarsha, are aimed at uncovering and understanding what our bodies and minds need to be calmer and more at peace. We're encouraged to dig deep, and to really get to the root of the emotions and experiences that are holding us back from living authentic, joyful lives.

"We're often so busy 'doing' that we don't realise the impact that's having on our health until the wheels fall off, or we hit crisis mode," Emma says. She recognises there isn't always time to stop and take note of what stress, trauma, and busyness is doing to our health as a whole, but over the retreat, we learn more about how to notice these effects, how to stop or slow them down, and how to promote healthy changes.

It's not always easy. If your mental picture of a wellness retreat is a bunch of women sitting in a circle, talking about their feelings and crying, then you wouldn't be far wrong for much of the Nurture Me experience. But there are also moments of pure joy – roaring laughter, friendships forged, stories shared and a real sense of connection with these women from all ages and backgrounds.

Breathing coach Emma Ferris teaches a session as part of a Nurture Me Women's Wellness Retreat at Camp Glenorchy. Photo / Supplied
Breathing coach Emma Ferris teaches a session as part of a Nurture Me Women's Wellness Retreat at Camp Glenorchy. Photo / Supplied

Although I can't tell you what the other women talk about during our often highly emotional "sharing circles", as I must respect the privacy rules of the retreat, I can tell you what the experience was like for me. In a word: intense. In more than a word: an incredibly tough yet rewarding and potentially life-changing experience.

Throughout the course of the retreat, I find myself challenged, frustrated, resistant, and upset. There are many moments I struggle with – revealing my emotions has always been tough for me, even to friends and family, let alone a room full of strangers. I can be cynical and sceptical – a journalist's default setting perhaps? - but towards the end of day two, I begin to question myself. What exactly am I resisting and is it doing me any good?

On day three I vow to fully lean in to the whole experience and my real lightbulb moment comes during the Saturday night "Ecstatic Dance" session, when Sarsha turns the lights low, the volume high and leads us through the most satisfying freeform workout I've had in my life.

The next day, after a truly emotional closing ceremony, I head back to my real life feeling more confident, more open to new ideas and more connected to my true self.

I guess you could say I found myself, on a dancefloor on a Saturday night.

Camp Glenorchy is one of the most environmentally friendly places you will ever stay, thanks to some clever sustainable design features. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Camp Glenorchy is one of the most environmentally friendly places you will ever stay, thanks to some clever sustainable design features. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

CHECKLIST: GLENORCHY

DETAILS

Emma Ferris is a breathing, trauma and stress coach, physiotherapist, acupuncturist and pilates teacher, and runs online workshops at thebreatheffect.com. Find her podcast, Conning the Con at iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sarsha Hope is a yoga and Ecstatic Dance teacher and offers workshops and dance classes around New Zealand. sarshahope.com

The next Nurture Me retreats are scheduled for May 8-9, May 20-23, August 13-16 and November 4-7, with others in the works. Prices start from $620 per night. Camp Glenorchy also offers year-round cabin accommodation, a campground and motorhome sites. campglenorchy.co.nz

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newfinder.co.nz and newzealand.com