Last weekend, I signed up for my 1st retreat here in Aotearoa – a weekend Empowerment Retreat hosted by my friends Dylan Walter and Simon Kopruch.
Before this, my impression of retreats was someplace out in nature where people could slow down, rest and rejuvenate from their busy lives.
Somewhere they could literally retreat into a space very different from what they are used to and relax and reconnect with themselves or with nature and God.
It turns out this was exactly what this retreat felt like, and more!
Day 1 – Welcoming
11th Jan 2019, 6pm
Upon arriving, we had some time to mingle with the group. A delectable plate of bites was even served by the beautiful Taryn, our in-house chef who would be preparing all our plant-based, vegan-gluten-dairy-free meals throughout the weekend!
Next, it was time for the opening Tea ceremony.
I felt that this ancient practice of pouring tea was a very mindful and meditative practice. Everything was done in silence. Just watching Dylan pour tea felt like a mindful meditation to me.
It was a great way to “set the tone” for the retreat.
He began by blessing each tea bowl in silence, looking at the individual recipient. Then washing the tea pots and bowls with hot water, adding the tea leaves, giving them a 1st wash, adding more hot water and finally pouring out the tea into our individual bowls.
I think the Tea ceremony lasted an hour or so. After that, it was time for some Kai (food)! Taryn made a delicious pot of Dhal curry, brown rice, a kale salad, smashed avocadoes and toasted seeds.
After that, we were briefed on the next day’s schedule and enjoyed another pot of Kawakawa tea and a special dessert treat from Taryn consisting of a whole date stuffed with cashew butter and dipped in homemade chocolate. I think back fondly of it and like to call it a “Cashew-da-bomb”!
12th Jan 2019, 530am
This morning, Simon woke us up really early for a meditation session with Dylan. The objective was to tune in with nature and rise before the sun. This was something we would eventually learn in Simon’s Ayurveda workshop. Also, we were to observe Noble Silence throughout the morning until after we’d eaten breakfast.
I learnt from Dylan’s guided meditation that meditation can be an intensely simple practice. Something as simple as being aware of your existence. Just being mindful of every feeling, sensation and thought that comes into the mind and observing it. Not reacting to it.
Eventually when the sun rose, Simon led us out onto the grass where we enjoyed a couple of sun salutations barefoot, facing the sun.
Soon it was breakfast time and we were treated with a granola, chia pudding, a mixed fruit bowl, bananas, coconut yogurt and almond milk.
When it came time to break the silence, I was almost unwilling. The silence was peaceful and allowed me to go deeper into my thoughts. Maybe someday I might try one of those 10 day silent vipassana retreats.
After breakfast, Dylan brought us out to the bush next to the farm for the Rongoa segment of the retreat.
This was ‘virgin’ bush, meaning untouched native bush. It felt almost like walking into sacred ground amidst the commercial looking farmlands surrounding it. To enhance the experience, we all went bare feet too.
We took a slow walk in and eventually sat under a huge white barked tree (Puiri?). Here, Dylan gave us a summary of what he’d learnt about Rongoa Maori, traditional Maori plant medicine.
I learnt that the essence of Rongoa is not about the chemical constituents various plants possess that may have healing properties on us humans. Rather, there is a much stronger spiritual aspect to it.
By healing us spiritually, the plants return us back to our natural state and allow the physical healing to follow.
We learnt that there are >200 rongoa but all we really needed to learn is just a handful to be able to treat most ailments.
1.Kawakawa – probably the most famous rongoa with its distinct, heart-shaped leaves. Its leaves are chewed for toothache, its tea is drunk for digestive health, as a poultice or balm, it can be used for boils, wounds and infections, lastly I learnt that rubbing its leaves on your skin can repel blood-thirsty insects!
2. Kumarahou (Gumdiggers Soap) – these flower right around the time to start planting Kumara hence its native name. Rubbing its leaves or flowers with water produces a soap! Kumarahou is amazing for all respiratory ailments from asthma to coughs and sore throats. Just make a decoction – boil then simmer for 20 mins.
3. Mapou (Red Matipo) – these are distinguished from their red stems which look like our blood vessels. Would you guess what Mapou is used for? A blood tonic! A decoction can be used for high blood pressure or blood cholesterol. Also for toothaches.
4. The Karamu is a sacred plant used for purification. A decoction of it is used to treat urinary disorders, cleanse the kidneys and assist with bowel, urine and menstruation flow.
5. Tupakihi is a poisonous plant if consumed however its balm is great for healing cuts, sore muscles, broken bones, sprains and strains. As a footbath, it is great for aching muscles too.
Dylan brought samples of balms and decoctions for us to try. Most memorable was the Kumarahou decoction which tasted awfully BITTER but had a sweet aftertaste that lingered in my mouth for almost a half hour. Kind of like liquorice.
It is important to note when harvesting rongoa, one should do it with intention. Ask the plant for permission and blessings before harvesting it. And only harvest what you need. Never to the point of killing the plant and always return the unused parts (such as the tea dregs) back to nature. This closes the cycle.
Also, we should never harvest plants from the roadside (due to pollutants), nor when it is raining. Lastly, many plants are poisonous and one should only harvest when one is 100% sure!
The rongoa workshop had a surprising part 2 that I doubt anyone expected.
After a quick break back at the house, we were led to another part of the property where Dylan showed us a grove that had once been a pine tree plantation. Pine isn’t native to New Zealand and when left untended, many were starting to fall over. There weren’t any new pine seedlings too. In their place, many native plants like Manuka and cabbage trees had started sprouting throughout the area. This highlighted the land’s ability to regenerate with time, if left untouched.
Next, Dylan showed us where he had planted almost 100 native tree seedlings. He’d obtained them from a nursery that was about to close down. We were tasked to pull out the weeds that had grown around them so that they could get adequate sunlight.
Interestingly, almost all of them were manuka! Dylan informed us that Manuka is a very hardy plant that can grow in any environment or soil type. Once it has grown into a large enough bush, it will provide shade for the other native plants to grow underneath it. Hence manuka is always the first to be planted in a land restoration project.
It felt good doing our part in giving back to the land. Often I feel like humans take so much for granted, especially from Mother Nature. And we don’t see how valuable it is until we lose it.
Come lunchtime, we were famished from the physical activity and sunshine. Lucky for us, Taryn had prepared a feast of quinoa, beetroot hummus, kumara, a salad, avocados and some toasted seeds.
Simon reminded us of the Ayurvedic practice of having the largest meal of the day in the middle of the day. This is because that is the time where your digestive fire is ,agni, is the strongest.
After lunch, we had some free time in which almost all of us ended up taking a nap. Another Ayurvedic principle is that of allowing oneself to rest and digest after a meal; refraining from any work. I guess we were sedated from both the heavy meal as well as the early morning call.
Before dinner, a bunch of us sneaked in a trip to the nearby Orewa beach! Man, I have never seen a more crowded beach in my life! Summertime definitely reflected on the gleaming, tan faces of the beach goers.
We had a great time splashing and swimming in the cool water. I was particularly astonished at how gradual the shore’s incline was. Even about 100m out in the waves, I could still stand and the water would only reach waist height!
Dinner was a simple meal of dahl, rice and toasted sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Relating back to the Ayurvedic practices, dinner should be a light meal and not too late too. Interestingly, I found that the pan-toasted seeds were so flavorful that they felt like a ‘salt replacement’!
Finally, around 7 pm it was time for our Yin-Yoga session with Simon.
It was to be held at a nearby Yoga Shala which one of Dylan’s neighbours had built. We had a pleasant 15 min walk along the gravel road lined with native bush all the way to her place.
As the name suggests, Yin yoga is a very Yin-centred practice. It consists of holding a variety of poses or stretches for 3-5 mins and really relaxing into the pose. In total, the entire session lasted 3 hours long! But I think we covered less than 20 poses in total. Time seemed to fly by, especially since our friend and fellow retreat companion Wiremu serenaded us with his guitar and acoustic tunes.
It was probably the most relaxing type of yoga I have ever done. I kind of fell in and out of sleep holding the stretches. Waking whenever I heard Simon’s voice guiding us through another pose and falling back into a trance-like state as I held the pose and slowly felt the tension ebbing away.
Holding the poses for such a long duration of time also allows for a much deeper stretch. I definitely recommend yin yoga for anyone who is tight and/or suffering from an over-hectic life.
That night, we had an even more pleasant walk back in the dark. Initially we had candles but I found that too bright for my eyes. Only when the wind blew the candles out did we start to really enjoy the walk back along the gravel path lit up by the moon and stars in the sky.
It felt so surreal. So peaceful. And definitely reminded me of my army days walking in the forests at night on missions except that this time I did not have a heavy load on my back and the air was so clean and cool and I wasn’t sweating profusely from the humidity haha.
13th Jan 2019, 7am
We started out later today to allow for some extra rest but still roughly around the time the sun rose. Most of us slept pretty late last night too.
Noble silence was observed as we entered another round of guided meditation by Dylan. This was followed by some free time to move or journal and reflect on our own.
Come breakfast, we were pleasantly treated with what looked like a pinkish-purple nice-cream mountain! Dylan had prepared a slushie of frozen bananas and berries while Taryn had made her delicious granola and fruit bowl again. Topped up with some more bananas and coconut yogurt, it was truly a delightful, plant based breakfast!
After breakfast, we went straight into another highlight of the retreat – Simon’s Ayurvedic sharing session.
Simon began by sharing his health journey.
(I’m recalling from memory and may not get this 100% right so forgive me Simon!)
It started when he himself got sick due to a buildup of toxins in his body from the environment and from food. He had a cyst which the doctors had no cure for and suspected it might be cancerous. This health scare led to him finding out more about the health industry and nature health.
He discovered the importance of a clean and pure water source, one free from fluoride and chlorine and all other unnatural contaminants in tap water today. Then he watched a documentary called “Earthlings” and that made him decide to go plant-based to do his part in not participating in the cruelty humans carry out towards other species.
Eventually he also got into Yoga and its Ayurvedic teachings. But it was not until he met Siri did he delve fully into Ayurveda. Siri is a Sri Lankan who owns and operates 7 Siri, Taste of Sri Lanka, restaurant. He comes from a long lineage of Ayurvedic practitioners who have passed down their knowledge through word of mouth. Growing up in the Sri Lankan forests, Siri knows can recognise almost any plant and its medicinal uses there.
Incidentally, Siri’s brother is the commissioner of Ayurveda in Sri Lanka and recently, he took Simon along with him to a trip to Sri Lanka where Simon got to see a public hospital operating fully under the principles of Ayurveda.
Here is a summary of what I picked up from Simon’s workshop:
- Yoga is more than physical poses. It translates to ‘union’ and is something one works towards during practice. I also learnt about the 8 limbs of yoga (see picture below)
Simon’s 5 main takeaways from Ayurveda
- Sleeping on your back – the Savasana pose and philosophy describes how all ‘Yang’ muscles are disengaged in corpse pose and this allows most muscles to lengthen and the body and mind to fully relax. One would need a firm mattress and its best to remove the pillow or use a thin pillow to let the neck lengthen.
- The importance of detoxification – our bodies accumulate unimaginable amounts of toxins from our environment today. Ayurveda has a system of detoxification called Panchakarma that is worth looking into. Some easy home methods include oil pulling, tongue scraping 1st thing in the morning, more physical activity to facilitate lymph and overall circulation, sweating more through physical activity or through infra-red saunas.
- Attune to the cycles of nature – basically a healthy daily routine that uses the sun and seasons as guidelines. Rising with or waking before the sunrise, slowing down and engaging in more Yin activities in the evening, sleeping before 10pm. Avoiding screens after the sun sets, eating seasonally and locally. Breakfast before 8am, largest and main meal in the middle of the day and having a light dinner at least 2 hours away from bedtime.
- Understand your uniqueness – this is in line with naturopathic philosophy where every individual is different and thus requires a personalized treatment plan. Simon gave a brief rundown of the ‘doshas’, an ayurvedic method of classifying one’s constitution. There are 3 types – Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Often, people are a mix of 2 with one more dominant than the other. One’s dosha also relates to how well one would be able to tolerate fasting.
- Reclaim your power – your life, your will is yours. Slow down. Tune in to your own intuition. Only you know what is best for you.
Do not blindly entrust your health into others’ hands and check to see if a drug or doctor’s advice is really intent on helping you heal or to continue driving profits for the pharmaceutical industries.
‘Ayu’ means life and ‘veda’ means knowledge or science.
Hence Ayuveda is much more than a medical system. It translates into the science of life.
The retreat concluded with another sumptuous lunch by Taryn and a final Tea Ceremony by Dylan. We were pleasantly surprised by when Dylan said we could take home our Tea bowls and gave us all a packet of dried red tea leaves to accompany it.
I’m inspired by the Ayurvedic teachings and am now trying to follow what we did in the retreat such as waking before the sun rises and having the biggest meal at midday.
There were also lots of books available during the retreat which was contributed by Simon Dylan and others, The few that caught my eyes and which I plan to read sometime in the future are:
- How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger
- My 20 Golden Rules: Your Guide to Exceptional Health by Jason Shon Bennett
- Carrots Love Tomatoes and Roses Love Garlic : Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte
- The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell
Documentaries to watch:
- “Earthlings” Documentary – watch it free here
- “What the Health” – documentary about the link between today’s leading chronic diseases and the food we eat
- “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret”
- “Forks Over Knives”
It was a magical weekend and no amount of words or pictures can come close to truly describing the experience. I was able to rest, rejuvenate and think about life while connecting with some amazing people and gaining new knowledge. Not forgetting the delectable plant based meals prepared with much love from our in-house chef, Taryn! It truly was an unforgettable experience.
I particularly like this quote by Dylan on how he decided to just go ahead with Simon and host the retreat even though they had so much uncertainties.
“Believe in the magic!”Dylan Walters
I too believe that as long as you have good intentions and put in the Mahi (work), magic will happen. Just trust and have faith and everything will fall into place in your life.
Many thanks to the organisers of the retreat who also sent us a follow-up document summarizing the teachings of the retreat plus a few recipes from Taryn, without which this blog post would not have been so detailed. We also had a nice get together at Siri’s restaurant a few days later to try some Ayurvedic Sri Lankan food 😋