The beauty of a wellness retreat

A yoga and wellness retreat. Have you ever been to one?

To be quite honest, yoga and I have had a rather rocky relationship over many years. There have been many times that I have been so discouraged with my ineptitude that I lost all hope of the relationship going anywhere. There was certainly no zen to be found in any of our encounters. I tried courses. I tried programs. I tried just going. And yet, so many of the poses continued to be unavailable to me on a regular basis.

After a few years of much needed separation, one of my friends invited me to join her for a yoga class with a teacher she described quite simply as fabulous. Naturally I was wary of rekindling something that so far had produced only angst, suffering and anti-zen. But you know what? As I walked out of Mia’s cosy, calm and welcoming studio that day, everything had changed.

I got me some zen.

As a Performance Specialist, I show people how to weave movement, healthy food, sleep and less stress into their lives to enable them to access their best performance on a mental and physical basis. Of course, I can advise people how to do this in person, over the phone, in an online course or through sharing the written word but these are all delivered over short periods of time.

My friend Siobhan, a fellow Australian, had moved to Italy seven years previously and had been running amazing yoga retreats in the ever popular Tuscan region of Italy. We have much in common in the wellness arena and ironically fuelled by many a caffeine driven conversation, I quickly realised that bringing people together for an wellness retreat was something I would love to do. My mission was to incorporate all aspects of wellness and health in addition to amazing food, local wine full of antioxidants, a spectacular and restful setting, a spot of culture and a healthy dose of fun all underpinned by oodles of zen in the form of yoga incorporated into each day. Tall order you say?

Well, now more than two years of busting yoga moves, I have just realised a dream and finished running my very first Yoga and Wellness Retreat in Tuscany, Italy.

It seems that there are people around the world that agree with my tall order and last month, fourteen people joined me at the Yoga in Italy’s Il Borghino villa in the hills overlooking beautiful Lucca, Tuscany for seven days and nights. Quite the international cohort, the retreat attracted people from Western Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US, all looking for a slice of wellness.

By bringing people together from various corners of the world with unique personalities, outlooks and different life experiences, I worried that my retreat goers wouldn’t like each other or they wouldn’t enjoy what I had planned or the yoga would be too hard or too easy or they would struggle with vegetarian food. The list goes on. It became obvious within the first few hours of everyone arriving that I needn’t have spent a single second wasting energy on creating those elaborate scenarios. I had 14 beautiful people along for the ride and let’s face it – anyone making the effort to travel to a yoga and wellness retreat in a foreign country requires a positive mindset and willingness to be open to new experiences.

On that first night, whilst enjoying our welcome dinner of authentic Italian lasagne overlooking the shimmering pool under the stars, accompanied by the wine grown around us and fireflies drifting between the garden foliage, the week stretched deliciously ahead.

Each morning started with freshly brewed coffee or tea followed by 90 minutes of Iyengar yoga. Let’s be clear from the outset that I have not performed miracles and become a yoga teacher in the shortest time frame known to man. No, no, no.

Our yogi Vicki was a New Yorker but had been living in Italy for the past eight years. Along with everyone else in the group, I have never experienced yoga like this before. It is difficult to find the right words to describe Vicki – her way of teaching, her life lessons and the way that she instilled the love of yoga into every single person over seven special days was truly unique. The yoga experience in the room varied hugely, all the way from never having done a single move through to occasional yoginess and then right up to getting bendy every other day. Somehow Vicki catered to each level, making it comfortable yet challenging for each and every person and with gentle firmness throughout the session, she would remind us that we could do better or we could do more in particular poses and encouraged us to imagine what could happen if we held a pose for just that bit longer. Vicki made us all want to go that bit further and reminded us not to forget that time and space are essential for anything to grow. Namaste Vicki.

An activity marked each day and included – a scenic walk down (and of course, then back up again) to the very picturesque Tenuta Maria Teresa – a local vineyard where we sampled their wares, a bike and walking cultural tour of Lucca with the talented and entertaining Federico, a hike between the villages and over the mountains of the Cinque Terre with all its spectacular views and scrumptious seafood, a night out at the Puccini opera in one of the oldest churches in Italy and a delectable cooking lesson making pesto, gnocchi and tiramisu with Maria Angela our 76 year old chef.

Almost everyone at the retreat was not vegetarian and yet, the food was one of the highlights. Maria Angela makes the food each day with love, love, love and it showed in every single dish she created. There were ooh’s and aah’s around the table at every mealtime and animated discussions about whether we could recreate these delights back home. Thankfully, last year Maria Angela and Siobhan compiled “Food for Thought,’ a cookbook containing all the ancient recipes that are prepared on a daily basis for the yoga and wellness retreats. I think I have ticked off five items so far – only another 30 to go! Time and space, time and space.

How do you know if a retreat has been successful? It’s in the little and the big things and just like beauty, I think it is in the eye of the beholder. It’s having time and the space to check in with your physical and mental wellbeing, the opportunity to create a plan for how you could implement positive changes in your day to day life, feeling that sense of increased flexibility and strength in your body, the joy that comes from making new friendships and laughing a bucketload, the increased energy that results from putting the freshest, healthiest ingredients into your body and your senses being taken to another level by being soaked in Italian history, culture and countryside.

As retreat leader, I took so much away from those seven days. I know that the conversations that were had and the fact that my gorgeous group of attendees were refusing to entertain the idea of leaving Il Borghino EVER, were pretty clear indicators that they too, took much away back to their corner of the globe. Ciao for now Italia.

I truly believe that we all need something to look forward to and with that in mind, registrations are open for my 2017 Italian Yoga and Wellness Retreats. The first week in June is fully booked but the second week from the 1st-8th July is now open. If you or anyone you know would like to find some zen, drop me a line at julie@juliemeek.com.au for a brochure and further details.

How to Break the Snooze Habit

Snooze Button This morning I woke up to the sound of raindrops not so gently tapping on my bedroom window, just moments before my alarm started blaring in my ear. That alarm is the obvious sign that I need to get up and at ‘em and meet my buddies for a run. But you know what, the rain, cold and pitch black outdoors beat me today and instead I turned the alarm off and snuggled back into my doona. This doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it is inevitable that when I do eventually wake up and get stuck into my day, I beat myself up about not doing my daily exercise. I am not a very nice person to be around if I don’t get my body into some fitness action to start the day. And the thing is, if I miss my morning workout, with three young children and a business to run, the opportunity to get out and exercise doesn’t present itself again that day.

I know lots of people experience the same problem with the good old snooze button. Your arm gets a good workout but not much else. The question is, how can we ditch the dithering, avoid the snooze button and get away from our happy place under the blankets?

  • Put your alarm out of arms reach. Whether it is an alarm clock on your bedside table or on your phone, put it far enough away that you have to physically get out of bed to reach it. It’s way too easy to get your arm into snooze action if your alarm is close and handy. Placing it by the bedroom door is probably the best place so that you can just keep moving on out and get your gear on.
  • If you are a serial alarm avoider, have you heard about the alarm clock that runs away and hides to get you out of bed? You can choose from either the Clocky or Tocky, both runaway alarm clocks that are super durable and can jump from a 3 feet high nightstand. It just keeps up the alarm until you get yourself out of bed to find it – destined to become your best friend or worst enemy.
  • Set your alarm for the ACTUAL time you need to get out of bed not the time that allows you to hit the snooze button 50 times. This is one of my own downfalls because my alarm repeats every seven minutes and I often factor in a couple of these intervals before I get up. The reality is, the quality of this interval sleeping is never good and it much preferable to just get up already!
  • Have your exercise clothes and equipment at the ready the night before. It can be rather difficult to find ones exercise gear when still in the slumber zone (especially if its still dark), so don’t place that hurdle in front of yourself.
  • If you need to have small snack or drink before your workout, prepare it the night before, eliminating any need for using sharp instruments when your body is not yet functioning – because lets face it, that cannot end well.

Take a look outside

Fiona Wood

Dr Fiona Wood is a woman of many talents and maximises every possible opportunity to put them to good use. She became instantly known worldwide when the tragic events of the 2002 Bali bombings unfolded, with her team working day and night to care for badly burned victims.  It was during this time that the “spray on skin” cell technology pioneered by Dr Wood was used extensively and, in recognition of this work with the Bali bombing victims, Fiona was named a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003. Understandably, she describes this time in her life as brutal, with the workload, emotional toll and the travel hours extreme. For Fiona, in her line of work, the external environment of care could vary widely from a bombsite to a hospital bed to the scene of an accident at the side of the road.

When contemplating making changes to your own health behaviour, assessing your own external environment is crucial to success. Although your environment may not be as extreme as those that Fiona Wood finds herself in, it can change many times over a day or week and being aware of each scenario means that you can adapt and plan accordingly. Take a look at what is going on around you and think about the things that impact on your ability to lead a healthy lifestyle such as:

Do you work too much or do you need to change the way you work?

Identifying the ‘stuff’ that stresses you out and figuring out a way to reduce or eliminate it.

Do you get rave reviews when you cook or do your skills need a little fine-tuning?

Do you have food in the pantry or is the cupboard bare? Being organised with a shopping routine makes it easier to eat well. If you don’t have time to get to the shops (or even if you do), spend a fraction of the time doing it online and avoid all the temptations that are costly to your wallet and your body.

Have you got somewhere to exercise? Access to facilities, clothing and equipment to enable exercise are going to be pretty important for a successful fitness bid.

Are you racking up enough zzzz’s? The quality and quantity of your sleep routine can dictate the outcome of whether you exercise, what and how much you eat and how productive you are during the day.

Financial health – your income and budget can impact some aspects of leading a healthy life but sometimes its more about prioritising  how we spend our money.

The weather – we all know that rain is plain old water but factoring it into your exercise plans removes another barrier.  Perhaps you don’t want to get onto your bike in the pelting rain but Plan B might be the gym or weights at home for some strength training. Conversely, it is usually too hot to run during the day in summer (in Australia at least) but early mornings are too good to miss.

Skill power – are you aware of the skills required to steer your health in the right direction? How will you find out what skills you need? If you don’t possess these skills, how can you get them?

Looking after the environment in this case means your own patch of well-being.  Does it mean engaging a personal trainer or finding an exercise buddy, seeking out help from health professionals such as your GP, Dietitian or Psychologist? Upskilling of self by learning meditation, taking cooking classes, shopping online, doing a short course or further studies? Information is only a click away and it is yours to access.

Improving the quality of your life and reducing your risk factors for chronic disease or having enough energy to play with the kids after a hard days work are all worthy outcomes.   Of course, let’s not forget feeling good about yourself, being happy with your body and feeling fit and strong. These are great results not only for yourself but also for your loved ones.  Take a look around and see what you find.

 

Sleeping Beauty

Sometimes when I am feeling tired, I envy Sleeping Beauty.  I love that nobody bothers her.  Sure, they can’t find her in the overgrown castle grounds but nevertheless, she enjoys uninterrupted deep sleep. In our crazy, busy lives sleep seems to be one of those things that is easily sacrificed or at least diminished in the vain hope that we can achieve more, more, more. Recently I have been fortunate enough to interview Professor Barry Marshall as part of  a series of interviews for my second book. In 2005 Professor Marshall was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology for his work with Professor Robin Warren in showing that most peptic ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and not a result of stress, spicy food and too much acid. A truly interesting story and discovery. Is there a link between ulcers and sleep? No, but Barry Marshall believes that sleep is vital to not only his well-being but his daily physical and mental performance.  We are talking about someone who has a demanding job with a family, spends around 5 months of the year travelling and presenting at conferences and other meetings and really needs to have their brain running at full speed.  Sleep is a topic that attracts much attention and a recent symposium at the Australian Institute of Sport highlighted this crucial aspect of our lives. Dr Charli Sargent who is based at The Australian Centre for Sleep Research provided a good reminder that sleep is important for: growth – hormones  are released (essential for children and adolescents), energy conservation, memory and learning and tissue growth and repair.  How much sleep you need every night is very individual but most experts in this field will advise us to get between 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each and every night. Dr Sargent suggests there some ways in which you can enhance your sleeping habits and they include:

  • Avoiding caffeine in the 4-5hrs prior to sleep (although this does not affect everyone in the same way)
  • Avoid stimulants like TV and computers directly before sleeping
  • Napping can boost sleep but should be limited to 60mins
  • Maximise opportunity for sleep
  • Improve sleep hygiene – dark, quiet, temperature-controlled room
  • Develop a sleep routine
  • Keep a sleep diary
  • Avoid sleep tablets where possible (address all other avenues first) as they do not increase deep sleep, can affect your performance the following day, may cause addiction and are a short term fix

Deep sleep is really important and often seems to be the elusive element but it does accounts for around 20% of sleep time and involves growth and repair while REM (Rapid Eye Movement) involves dreaming, memory and learning.  Sleep impairment can have a direct impact on our memory and I know that when I am tired, lots of things seem to fly out of my internal hard-drive, some of which don’t seem to come back again. Sleep impairment is directly proportional to your daytime performance but the secret weapon could be napping. Napping is beneficial when sleep at night time is not adequate to alleviate sleep pressure. Professor Marshall uses this tactic often and finds that a 60 minute nap in the middle of the day ensures that he can maintain a high level of performance and productivity.  He has perfected a skill that I would love to have and that is his ability to sleep or nap anywhere in the world in any situation.  Barry feels the ideal time frame for him is 60 minutes and this fits right in with expert advice in this field. This may mean sleeping on carpet or at a desk or on the floor in airports fully clothed with shoes doubling as a pillow. Italians have got the napping skill sorted and their culture reflects the need and support for the siesta straight after lunch.  The Australian culture (and many others) do not support napping and we often feel the need to ‘carry on’ even when our brains and bodies are telling us otherwise. In the event that napping is not possible for you, Professor Marshall suggests scheduling empty time in the day to avoid overload and give your brain some quiet time, so when you are expected to be as productive at 5pm as you are at 9am, you are up to the job. When it comes to our health, sleep really is one of the best performance enhancing tactics.      

On the Tenth Day…

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…Ten wombats sleeping…nine crocs a weeping, eight flies a feasting, seven possums playing, six sharks a swimming, five kan-ga-roos, four cuddling koalas, three little penguins, two pink galahs and a kookaburra up a gum tree. Aaaahhh, sleep.  Can somebody find me some?  I don’t need 8 hours sleep but more than 5 would be a treat.  Too many things to do and three little kids do not make a good recipe for a restful sleep.  I know I am not alone but I also know that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture so bring on the Christmas break I say.  One sleep to go. Which brings me to our fast paced world and our now flexible mealtimes.  When I was growing up my goodest mum had dinner on the table religiously at 6pm and we all sat down and ate together (I am still trying to perfect that myself, unsuccessfully I might add).  Eating early seems to be a thing of the past as we are working longer hours and may have children and other family commitments that prevent us from eating our evening meal at a civilised hour.  Some people find that it is uncomfortable to eat close to going to bed and this is turn will disturb sleep.  Others may not find this to be the case. There is also the question of what you are eating prior to sleeping. Snacking on chocolate (unless its your 4 nightly squares of course), biscuits and cake (many of which are high in fat) are not great choices before you lie down for 8 (?) hours of sleep.  The evening is when your body is least active and therefore not burning a lot of fuel. Essentially, you are the best judge of your own body but if you are experiencing disturbed sleep, acid reflux or other problems, then have a look at your eating habits before bed.