Shortly after moving to New Zealand I received an offer from the girlfriends of my boyfriend’s brother and best friend to go on a weekend retreat with them. I remember the moment exactly, curled up on their sofa with my partner nudging me to say yes. Little did he know a million and one things were going through my head: what exactly constitutes a retreat, can I go veggie for a whole weekend (course requirement), am I supposed to be religious or at least spiritual, will I cope on my own for that long with people I barely know? The last one was a recurring trend for me – I had kept the same friends throughout school, and at university relied heavily upon the people I already knew to make new acquaintances for me. In short, I was awkward around strangers and always assumed I would not be accepted by what I thought to be ‘normal people’. In hindsight I think I am probably no more odd than the next person, but ingrained in my memory was the stares I got from ‘normal’ girls at university when I tried to make a joke which they either did not get or find funny. That cringey feeling of being judged and found wanting was a constant thorn in my side, whether actual or in my imaginings or misinterpretation.
So back to the current offer. I would surely give offence if I said no as I clearly had no excuse, but equally I would be left alone with girls who I perceived to be very different from myself thus in my mind meant they would doubtless find me weird and the whole weekend would be an awkward mess. Inner monologues are a terrible thing yet strangely overridden quickly by a sharp jab in the ribs followed by a big breath and ‘yes, thank you, I would like to join you.’
When I got home and called my mum, she was treated to the full tirade of my inner nonsense. We googled the retreat centre and were greeted with a pleasant website keen on spiritual ideas and the nourishment of the soul. My mum thought I was joining a cult. At the time I was a decidedly non-spiritual person with little belief in a soul let alone convinced by the idea of nourishing it with yoga and mantras (thank god they at least offered massage therapy). This was a whole new world to me, and new meant scary. My new girlfriends however, seemed fully into it which only reinforced my concerns that I would not fit in.
We had signed up for a relaxation weekend which meant no set itinerary, but there were optional classes in the morning and evening. With the words ‘yoga’ and ‘meditation’ rolling like tumbleweed through my mind, our yogi friend suggested we join her for a class at her local studio. We would be attending a Kundalini yoga class, which was apparently different from their general open class, but frankly this was like telling me I was going to one side of Mars instead of the other – it meant nothing .
Eager to get to know my new-found friends better and at least appear open-minded (very hard for a total cynic) I arrived and was set up on a mat. It was bad as soon as I got through the door – yoga is practiced barefoot and I have a thing about feet (encased in a sock is fine, naked is just wrong). Our teacher looked like a tiny elfin hippy so already I was in a judgy mood (I think I left my open-mindedness with my socks at the door). She was very smiley and tranquil and the music was nice but it was too late, there was no way I was going to be able to relax. Then the chanting started. I had no idea what we were saying or in what language, but at least I was drowned out by everyone else. Then came strange breathing techniques and postures my body was certainly not familiar with, and the whole time the teacher was using words I did not know existed in sentences that could have come straight from a Dr Seuss book, if he had been inclined to yoga. In reality she was alluding to the spiritual side of the practice, using the traditional Sanskrit instructions to guide us through, and referring to our inner energy and mind-body connection, but at the time I think I thought she was mad.
So far OK, I wasn’t buying into it but I was getting through it. Then came the free dance. The teacher told us to clear our mats, had us all stand then played some music that would definitely not be found in the charts, and told us to move however our bodies told us to move. Huh? Within seconds everyone around me was down with the beat all trance-like, some with their eyes closed, bodies surrendering to the rhythm. Problem was, this was no modern dance class with recognizable steps, instead it was more earthy, heavy, with swinging arms and loose bodies. Despite my friends also getting into it, I stood rooted to the spot, only able to step side-to-side with my eyes clamped firmly shut praying for it to be over. The attempts of the teacher to gently coax me to ‘feel the music’ and actually move only served to complete my mortification. I was too scared to move because I would look ridiculous, but instead I was drawing attention to myself by not joining in. If this was the only thing I had to go on for what the actual retreat would be like, I was screwed.
On assurance that ‘normal yoga’ was not like that, I dragged myself out of my pit of despair, packed and met the others for a healthy lunch before the drive to get us in the mood for the detox weekend ahead. Banned from trying to smuggle in sausages, I contented myself that there would at least be smoothies at a lunch where I could get to know the last girl of our party whom I had never met. Alas, we walked into to a buffet of organic produce, most of it curried and involving chickpeas and quinoa (I refuse to eat food I can’t pronounce) or the dreaded pumpkin and kumara. Smoothie it was then – I could stock up on snacks in the car. As the other girls tucked in, discussing which vegetarian dishes they hoped would be on the menu that weekend, I started to wonder whether a person could survive three days on chocolate and crisps.
To their credit, the girls did not look down upon my total fish-out-of-water self, but instead encouraged me to try their food, and on the long drive, opened up a very stimulating discussion on spiritualism and life after death. The diversity in religion and belief among us became evident quickly but instead of disagreeing with one another, became an open forum to bounce ideas and ways of thinking off each other and for the Hindus among us to share some of their traditions and teachings. By the time we wound our way up the coast and into the hills towards the centre, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with my companions – we were all here to have a good time, without judgment. Without knowing it, I was about to embark on a weekend that would shape my outlook on life, myself and others for years to come.
Overlooking an estuary, nestled in amongst rocky outcrops and lush forest sits the Octagon at Mana Retreat, Coromandel. Think large bare room with only a fireplace and blankets for company, huge windows open out onto that amazing view, inviting in smells from the kitchen and the chirping of birds and cicadas. A few people are usually draped around the room reading, napping or quietly chatting. This is my new favourite indoor space and where it all began.
The first night – after checking in to our rooms and booking a massage – offered up a dance event in the Octagon for guests and volunteers to let off steam. Now if you read Part I, you will recall my utter nightmare that was a freestyle dance at a yoga class. This looked suspiciously like the same thing. Sure enough, there were plenty of harem pants and braids in the room as the lights weredimmed and that earthy trance-like music thrummed into our bodies. However, the sight of seeing so many people just release the cares of their day, and the smiles from anyone who caught your eye encouraged me to (slowly) get into it myself. I couldn’t quite bring myself to the beautiful, almost primal, style of the couple in the centre with their eyes closed ‘feeling’ the rhythm – to be honest I think I was doing a mix of salsa and ballet – but I was moving and I was smiling. We danced for three hours, finally pouring out onto the deck to cool off under the stars with a mug of herbal tea in hand listening to the moreporks and kiwis having a busy evening of their own. It was truly a beautiful moment; I felt both elated and at peace. One of the girls confessed she’d always liked to try contemporary dance and asked if any of us would join her. Usually I’d nod and smile but hope someone else would pick up the offer in case I didn’t like it or because we barely knew each other. Not this time (we signed up for a course together and have been firm friends ever since). As my girlfriends noted that night, I really had learned to dance like no-one is watching!
The rest of the weekend flowed out in a vein of surprising myself by how much I enjoyed it. Yoga classes in the morning were (thankfully) in the common hatha style and you actually felt like you’re whole body had been worked on without having to hit the gym. Coupled with a massage, this was a divine way to start the day, facing the sunrise in the Octagon. Walking tracks around the centre led to waterfalls, bush trails, a labyrinth and even a crystal high atop a mountain, but by far our favourite was the walk up the hill to the Sanctuary in time to hear the bells toll out over the valley. A simple design encompassing many faiths, it did not feel like going to church, but the spirituality of the place instead came from a feeling of connecting with nature and each other. We spent many hours sitting at the window admiring the view, or holding hands in group mediation or song on the greenstone in the middle of the room. This was a place where both sound and silence were equally powerful – the acoustics meaning any voice projected from that greenstone held an exquisite resounding quality. A chanted mantra was so moving we just sat there grinning at each other as our voices carried on reverberating around the room and out into the dusk. Downtime back at the centre revolved around sunbathing in the Octagon, reading in the library and henna sessions chatting away in our room like high school girls on a sleepover – the perfect mix of bonding and learning to find peace in your own company.
Meal times were interesting as I was on high kumara-alert and spent most of the time picking through dishes til I recognised something, but even I could feel the benefit of home-grown organic vegan produce. Especially the desserts and breakfast which were amazing. And we all agreed being called to dinner by a gong was the best thing ever.
When the time came to leave, I found I had changed from not wanting to go in the first place to now wanting to stay there forever. After hugging all the staff and soaking in our last glimpse of the place, we all heaved a huge sigh in the car, now renewed and refreshed to take on the months ahead. While undoubtedly a detox for us all, that first trip to Mana Retreat meant something else, more profound to me – it was the start of a whole new way of approaching novel experiences with an open-mind and an open heart. My cynicism, while I thought protected me from failure or embarrassment, was actually holding me back from trying new things or meeting new people. That kind ofchange wasn’t going to be overnight. It is a gradual process which over the last year or so since that initial weekend retreat has seen me say yes to people more, find a love of healthy cafes and cultivate a passion for yoga and dance – all things I would never have enjoyed before I left my home to move halfway around the world. And yes, I have returned to Mana:)
So thank you ladies for offering me that trip in the first place, and thank you to Mana – you will forever hold a place in my heart and I can’t wait to come home to you soon!