Ready, Set, Grow

Writer Stephanie Shiu | May 15, 2019

The excitement is palpable at Gwinganna’s check-in. Come 2pm on a Sunday more than 60 guests from Australia and around the world arrive at once, scoping out their company for the next few days. There’s all types: burnt-out execs, mothers seeking ‘me’ time and even honeymooners. We’re all here to slow down and find breathing space – plus there’s no better place to people-watch (which becomes a pastime given it’s also a digital detox, and TVs and phones are out).

It’s my second visit, so I know I’m in for a treat, already aware how well my body responds to clean eating, and the mental calm achieved from spending time in tranquil Tallebudgera Valley. It was among the most challenging detoxes, going cold turkey on my favourite addictions – caffeine, technology and sugar. This time I’m here for the five-night Optimum Wellness programme.

I’m lucky enough to be staying in one of the light-bathed Meditation Suites. It comes with extras like a yoga mat and cushions to get comfy on while dipping into the books on self-reflection, or listening to guided meditations. Watching the sky change colour while keeping an eye out for kangaroos and peacocks from the deck outside replaces mindless phone scrolling. A nature reserve in its own right, five koalas and eight echidnas have also been released on property, as part of Gwinganna’s ongoing wildlife survival programme.


Scheduling devotees have no choice but to let go of control here. There are no timetables deliberately to keep you present. You find out what you will be doing on the day, often immediately beforehand. All you do need to know is that qigong starts at 6am on the front lawn every day, an easy routine to fall back into for repeat guests. Today Anna introduces the basic stance and start of the sequence.

I opt for a challenging walk, and the bush is just as beautiful as I remember, although slopes are slippery after rain.  We walk through tall grass, my bleary gaze sharpening as I adjust to the surroundings. Breakfast is porridge with fruit compote and scrambled eggs (those on a weight loss programme choose one only) before heading to a resistance class with our ‘yang’ instructor Ellice (who leads the programme’s high-intensity classes, as opposed to gentler ‘yin’ options) guides us through three circuits of variations on lunges, push-ups and planks using weights.

Carolina’s nutrition talk afterwards reminds us of the benefits of a SLOW (seasonable, local, organic, whole foods) diet to balance blood sugar. And the three C’s that cause weight gain: simple carbs, caffeine – which can hinder weight loss – and cortisol, which encourages the body to store fat as a result of stress. Looking around the lecture theatre, most of us seem to be experiencing our first detox symptoms; some struggle to stay awake, others have headaches. Perhaps we all need this more than we realised.

Afternoons are dedicated to relaxation. My Soul Path Reading with Kim, a clairvoyant and psychic medium, is spot on. She reels off specific, accurate details about my personal life, career and family relationships, delivered with warmth and humour. She makes suggestions on how to navigate times of change and drive personal growth. At times, a thought will enter my mind, only to be repeated word for word by Kim seconds later. “Yeah my kids hate it when I read their minds,” she laughs. There is much to reflect on after the first day; I go to bed both exhausted yet invigorated.


I’ve never skipped the morning walk before, but General Manager and Wellness Director Sharon Kolkka’s tells me Ellice’s joint mobility class is an absolute must. As we age, our joints stiffen, cartilage thins and ligaments shorten causing aches, and potentially arthritis or osteoporosis. Ellice stresses the importance of squeezing out synovial fluid from joints, which restores and rehydrates bones, cartilage and ligaments to strengthen and improve mobility through a series of movements we rarely incorporate in daily life (why don’t pick things up with our toes, instead of bending over?). Results can be felt immediately, and we learn how to warm-up our most overused joints, in the hands and feet, and move in a more sustainable way to prevent injury. Moving knees and hips in figures of eights hardly works up a sweat, but Ellice explains that activating joints in this way tricks the brain into thinking we have run a marathon, swum butterfly or played tennis.

Today’s ‘yang’ activity today is boxing. We go through combinations in pairs, taking turns punching with the other holding pads. The pool circuit class afterwards is also done in twos. We balance on a Bosu, slam medicine balls and sprint on the grass, while laps, weighted high knees and more ball throwing are done in the pool. My partner and I laugh so much it feels far too fun to be a workout.

My post-lunch wind down is Tribal Rhythms, designed by Stephen to help navigate life changes – and begins in a forest. There he asks, “Where do you come from?” “What is in your heart?” “What would you like to let go of that isn’t serving you?” and “What is your intention?” and invites me to make a commitment to myself based around my responses. He asks me to choose a stone to represent this change I intend to make. I stand in the clearing, observing the trees and sky, tendrils of smoke from burning sage curling around me. The sun emerges and casts warmth on my face.

We return to the spa, where an 80-minute massage follows, combining Hawaiian, Myopathy, Chi Nei Tsang and remedial styles. Stephen’s technique is so invigorating it feels at times as if he is dancing. The music, like his massage, is intuitive (he tells me later that he chooses songs from his playlist as they pop into his head, though the whole thing feels seamless). Chi Nei Tsang isn’t typically relaxing, but he coaxes me to soften and breathe into the belly. To finish, I choose a rock from a second box – to represent what is not serving me – which he tells me bury in the earth when it feels like the right time. So much more than just a massage, I leave grounded and with a better sense of self.

Dinner tonight is a delicious nut-crusted tahini barramundi with kale and roasted veggies. Meals are simple, delicious and incorporate recommended daily servings of fruit and veg. Each organic bite is free from gluten, refined sugar and dairy. No caffeine is served, though a glass of wine is optional on the last evening for those keen to celebrate. Another reason to celebrate is how ‘regular’ clean eating makes you…well, that might be oversharing.


Detox hump day is upon us. We’ve been told day three is when the headaches subside, energy picks up, and complexions appear aglow. Today’s challenging bush walk finishes with the property’s infamously steep driveway. I forgot how brutal the first 400 metres are, and just when we’re over the worst, Ellice suggests intervals between telegraph poles to bring our heart rates and up and down. This Gwinganna right of passage elicits a serious sense of accomplishment.

To cool off we jump into the pool, just in time for Ellice’s underwater running class. Weighted belts keep us afloat, though staying vertical is a challenge. In the deep end, styrofoam noodles become props for push-ups and mountain climbers, and we brandish them above our heads while treading water. They are also used in a tug of war with a partner, as kickboards, and, for a bit of fun, used as an anchoring seat while both of us try to ‘run’ in opposite directions.

We dry off eager for Sharon’s talk on stress management, which seems relevant to us all. It’s an important reminder that we should be spending 70 per cent of our lives in the ‘blue’ parasympathetic zone (rest and digest mode), where ideally, we make non-reactive decisions much like a CEO would, from a place of calm. In reality though, too many of us operate in the ‘red’ sympathetic zone (fight or flight), using our primitive ‘monkey brain’ in blame, attack and defense, which raises our cortisol levels.

My favourite takeaway of Sharon’s is that in any situation the way we think about what is happening to us is more important than what is actually happening. Given the internal dialogue taking place, it makes sense that our relationship with self should come first, though we tend to prioritise external pressures before our own emotions. By the end there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. “I just want people to feel something, that’s what it’s all about and we’re here to say it’s ok to have that conversation,” says Sharon, adding that the Gwinganna offerings addressing mental health are always fully booked.

Another highlight are the Unique Gwinganna Experiences, which give therapists free reign to create their own journeys, almost unheard of in other spas. From combining music to mixing techniques, or bringing in indigenous tribal elements, the creativity is endless. Purists also have plenty of options and Ayurvedic treatments are a specialty. This afternoon I try the Marma Point Relaxation Therapy, which eases tension through long movements focused on realigning the body’s energy centres. This uses Subtle Energies products, and the Gwinganna Signature Blend leaves me feeling, and smelling, divine.


I am up before the wake-up knock on my door having adjusted to a time of day I rarely see in the real world, energised and ready for our last full day. I’m lulled into a false sense of security having crushed yesterday’s driveway challenge, unaware that today’s walk to the treetops is on par in terms of steepness, but gorgeous views distract from burning glutes and finishing in the sublime rainforest makes everything right again.

Word around the breakfast table is that Tribal Rhythms is the activity pick of the day although no one quite knows what it involves. When I learn that Stephen, who performed my Tribal Rhythm treatment will be leading, no further convincing is needed. He offers the same boundless energy in this free-form dance class, which is well-paced so that guests build confidence during the warm-up, building in intensity until we’re putty in his hands. At one point he gets us to dance with as much silliness and awkwardness we can muster – and we happily oblige.

It’s not only exploring unconventional ways to move. Stephen takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, supporting the expression of everything from anger through to joy using our bodies. There’s drumming, clapping, and smiling through much sweat. For the last 30 minutes, we lie down for a guided meditation turning our focus inwards. A moving song at the end stirs emotions across the room, and Stephen points out that we are seeing each other for who we really are, our barriers now broken down. Bringing complete strangers together and creating a sense of community in two hours takes a special kind of talent.

Renewed on a soul level, the body is pampered next with TCM and acupuncture at the spa, which is just as relaxing, if not more, than full-body massage. Naomi checks my pulse, tongue and eyes to diagnose, picking up on anxiety (a result of running on adrenaline) as well and neck and shoulder tension. After rubbing lavender oil on my temples, she places needles on the front of my body. The one dotted right between my eyes in provides instant relief like I am tranquil-paralysed. She works on kidney imbalances to bring me back to the parasympathetic zone Sharon spoke about in her lecture. I understand why we should linger here, and I leave centred and re-energised, feeling every bit the CEO.


This morning qigong is held in the pavilion due to rain, but we’re still treated to panoramas of ominous clouds rolling into the valley on the momentum of roaring wind. Our energy is tangibly more unified compared to the first day, and we move through each pose more fluidly. The exercise ends as it always does – we bow to thank our bodies for all they allow us to do, before showing the same gratitude to those around us. What began as an awkward gesture between strangers has morphed into a comforting ritual.

The drizzle puts me off hiking, so instead I take a guided orchard tour with Shelley, resident organic gardener, former chef and walking encyclopedia of all things green. She points out the property’s plethora of trees: citrus, lychee, mango, jackfruit and chocolate pudding fruit. She shares growing advice, from when to plant to how much fertiliser to use. A real character, she dazzles us with her moon chart which she refers to regarding best days in the cycle to harvest, as well as non-gardening tasks, such as when to wax, dye your hair, do housework or go on a date!

Most captivating is Shelley’s insight into beekeeping. We learn that one teaspoon of honey is the life’s work of a bee, and silently vow never again to bin the pot until every last bit has been savoured. She lets us try honeycomb straight out the fridge, doling out generous hunks to the salivating lot of us. Having gone without sugar for five days, I expect a massive rush, but feel surprisingly balanced, which she explains is how you tell the difference between real and store-bought honey.

My flight leaves early so breakfast is the last chance to sit down with my new friends. Nothing bonds people like a detox and I will miss the daily encouragement, commiseration, tips and stories. More than half are return guests, which speaks volumes about the value of this experience. There’s a group here on their fifth visit, for their annual ‘boys’ trip’. Several have been gifted this time away by loved ones to reset and nourish themselves. The connections made here remind us what is important, especially the one we have with ourselves, which reminds me there’s one last thing to do. I head to the orchard and wedge the rock from Stephen deep in the soil, burying with it worries, comparisons and negative self-talk that I will no longer give space to reside within me.

Gorgeous views distract from burning glutes and finishing in the sublime rainforest makes everything right
~ Stephanie Shiu