Strip life back to find serenity

DISCONNECT TO RECONNECT: Byron Bay is the perfect place to simplify.
DISCONNECT TO RECONNECT: Byron Bay is the perfect place to simplify.

"I give myself permission to relax."

This note, handwritten in gold ink on black paper, is all I can see as I settle onto the massage table.

Placed on the ground under the hole where my face rests, it's a reminder to let go. Releasing a sigh, I close my eyes and try to concentrate on nothing but the sounds around me - birdsong, the distant rumble of gently rolling waves, a rising crescendo of cicadas - and the soothing sensation of my first full-body massage of the week.

In our busy lives, it's becoming near impossible to fully switch off. Smartphones have become extensions of our limbs so it's all too easy to be constantly connected, wherever you go.

But this week, I'm trying my best to disconnect. I'm at Escape Haven, a women-only luxury surf and yoga retreat in the blissed-out beachside town of Byron Bay.

As part of my week-long Revive programme, I'll be doing daily yoga, learning to surf, and eating healthy, home-cooked meals. I'm joining a group of five other women and, sitting in a circle after our first yoga session, we talk about why we're here and what we want to achieve during the week.

The five of us are from different backgrounds and work in different industries, but there is a common theme - we're all feeling stressed out, worn down and desperate for a break from the real world.

It's a common story, says Janine Hall, founder of Escape Haven. She went through a similar epiphany a few years ago.

A former high-flying marketing executive, she says: "I was in a really busy phase at work and I'd done what's really common with so many women, where they put that pedal right to the metal and they haven't stopped. I got to a point where I just thought, I'm not actually enjoying life."

Hall decided to take some time out and went to Bali where she learnt yoga and meditation, coming to understand how important it is to step off life's treadmill.

"You don't even realise you're on it at the time," she says.

"You're on that daily grind and it's really difficult to break a pattern, break a routine, think over and above the list of endless jobs that you feel you've got on, the multiple balls that you're juggling and your bid to be a modern day superwoman."

From this perspective, the idea for Escape Haven was born and she opened her first retreat in Bali in 2009. Byron Bay followed earlier this year, and more are set to open soon.

The week-long programmes consist of yoga, healthy food, surfing, massage and respite from the real world. It's an alluring combination.

Sitting around the table in the luxurious Balinese-style villa for our first shared meal of the week, our group already seems more relaxed. We feast on red emperor fish poached in coconut milk with kaffir lime and ginger, a Thai salad, followed by caramelised bananas with coconut milk, prepared by resident chef Mell.

Food is a key part of the Escape Haven experience.

"We believe food is medicine. We can do all the amazing activities we want, and restful activities and [provide] beautiful accommodation, but if the food is high in sugar and preservatives and additives, it's just going to be out of balance," Hall says.

"But having food that's really nurturing, based on wholefoods and very well-balanced, by the end of the week it has such an impact on the programme. It's sort of like the electrical source. You're really going to feel that your tank is full."

Feeling content after dinner and anticipating the next day's schedule of fresh air and exercise, we head to bed early. On my single bed in a shared room there's another handwritten note waiting for me, a gesture repeated each night and one I come to look forward to. Each note's words seem to be a prophecy for the day to come.

"Surfing calms the monkey mind. There is no problem a morning out surfing cannot bring perspective on."

After a night where the only sounds enveloping us are the waves at nearby Broken Head beach, we're up early for sunrise. Sitting in a semi-circle facing the ocean with the sun on our faces, yoga and meditation instructor Nicky tells us to close our eyes and try to clear our minds for 30 minutes.

I find it impossible to quieten the chatter of my internal monologue. My mind is whirring - a song's chorus stuck on a loop - thoughts of work, loved ones, and anger at myself for not being able to switch off. I'm twitchy and fidgety and rebelling against the idea of sitting still and doing nothing.

Nicky tells us this is normal and meditation is something that requires practice, but it's still hard not to berate myself.

"The stillness of the mind that comes from yoga and meditation can be incredibly confronting," Hall says.

"We talk a lot with women [about listening] to your inner voice. Is she a coach or is she a critic? Be very, very careful with what that dialogue is, because that's going to set your boundaries and your moods."

I later discover the best way for me to switch my mind off and improve my mood is getting out into the repetitive roll of the ocean. I tried surfing almost two years ago and loved it. This week is my chance to relearn the skills I haven't used since that lone lesson.

On hand to help is Jayme from the Byron Bay Surf School. Each morning he packs us into his sand-dusted 4WD and takes us to the school's base - the beachside backpackers' hostel where we peel on our wetsuits and carry our boards down to the beach. Our lessons take place at The Wreck, a break with a 90-year-old shipwreck peeping through the temperate water further out to sea.

Starting with the basics, each day Jayme gets us warmed up and practising on the sand before heading out into the water. On day one he teaches us a four-step process for getting to our feet, which he says is more effective for learners and involves kneeling, followed by a downward dog-type position, before bringing one foot forward followed by the other. After multiple attempts, and multiple wipeouts, I manage to stand up on my board... for at least five seconds. The sense of achievement is huge and Jayme, unfailingly kind and patient, is full of praise.

Under his expert tuition we all see marked improvements over the four lessons. I can stand up almost consistently and manage to stay on my feet for small amounts of time before crashing spectacularly into the water. It's fun, exhilarating, addictive and completely physically exhausting. But so worth it for the pure thrill of riding a wave into the beach, no matter how long it lasts. It's so freeing to be out in the fresh air with the saltwater and sun on our skin and I find this a much easier meditation for me.

"It's the sense of freedom that comes from getting out of your comfort zone," Hall agrees.

"It's just a bit of an awakening around your strength and your ability to actually challenge the perceived ideas of what you can and what you can't do."

"Life is a big canvas. Throw all the paint at it you can."

Each day has a schedule pre-planned for all guests but we're encouraged to do as much or as little as we feel like. Don't want to get up early for a yoga session? No problem, enjoy a sleep in and join the group for breakfast. Too tired to go out for dinner on Mell's night off? Help yourself to whatever's in the fridge and hang out in the luxurious living room.

But as someone who spends most of her day in an air-conditioned office, I'm revelling in spending as much time outside as possible. I jump at the chance for beach walks and runs and outdoor yoga classes and trying new activities.

Stand-up paddle boarding with Jayme at nearby Brunswick Heads is a highlight. I find the hardest part is carting the cumbersome boards across the bridge and down the sand bank to the river. Once we're in and up on the boards it's surprisingly easy to keep balance. I fall in only once and it's such a hot day, I'm glad of the refreshment.

We paddle slowly down the river with the sun on our backs, stopping for a while at its mouth. And just when I think the day couldn't get any better, a bottlenose dolphin appears up ahead, frolicking in the tepid water to the delight of its human audience.

Back at the retreat we end the day with "yoga nidra", a yoga meditation led by Mell. Lying on our backs, tucked up in blankets, she talks us through the relaxation exercise and, feeling completely at peace, we all end up in various states of consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. As soon as it's over we all float off to bed - happily exhausted from a wonderful day.

"In the end what matters most? How well did you live? How well did you love? How well did you learn to let go?"

The last night's note is particularly poignant. At the start of the week I wondered how I'd cope with being in a retreat environment, in close quarters with a group of strangers. No matter how much I was craving some peace and tranquillity, the idea of being away from the "real" world was also a little daunting. All that time on my hands to contemplate my innermost thoughts, challenging myself with new activities and pushing my body to points of newfound exhaustion.

But as the end of the week approaches all too soon, I realise I have well and truly relaxed. I've relished the physical challenges, as well as overcoming my inability to sit still and shut my brain off.

"What we always hear is: 'I feel like I've reconnected with myself and I never realised [I'd been disconnected]'," Hall tells me on the last day.

"[Women] don't realise that in the busyness of their lives, they have changed and it hasn't felt good. When they strip back all of the stuff, all of the crap, then they can get back to the true essence of what their purpose is."

I'm not sure I have any earth-shattering, life-changing revelations during my week away. But it has taught me the importance of switching off - taking time out from the day-to-day pressures to spend time in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, with nothing to do but just sit and be.

I gave myself permission to relax. And it felt really, really good.

The writer travelled courtesy of Escape Haven Byron Bay.

Sunday Star Times