“Being good at yoga is not about being flexible,” says our host, Paul von Bergen, explaining to the group that yoga is more than just asana. Paul is giving us a glimpse of what’s to come in the next two days of our mid-week stay at Billabong Retreat, nestled in bushland at Maraylya, less than an hour’s drive north-west of Sydney.
We are sitting in the yoga room, one of two timber yurts linked by a large deck, designed and built by von Bergen in 2010. It’s the first yoga class and we’re gently warming up the body with some flowing movements synchronised with the breath.
“Concentrating on the linking of the body movement to the breath gives the mind just enough to deal with, to focus so it’s not tempted to get distracted,” guides Paul as we move into a vinyasa of Down Dog, Plank and Cobra. “Incorporating the breath into the practice is really essential, especially if you are trying to get refinement of the mind… calming of the mind,” he adds.
Paul takes us through a sequence of Warrior I, Triangle and Angle Pose, before we practise pranayama and follow a guided meditation. The sun has started to set and the bush view is transforming in the glowing light. As Paul closes the class, he suggests we retire to our rooms for a little rest and return to the open-plan dining and lounge room in the other yurt for dinner. And so we fall into the nurturing rhythm of Billabong Retreat: relaxing yoga classes followed by delicious vegetarian meals.
Sitting around the two dining tables, we get to know each other a little better over dinner. Tonight, Paul’s wife Tory has prepared a spinach and black sticky rice pie with cottage cheese and homemade tomato sauce, and for dessert, an apple crumble straight from the oven. After taking seconds and praising the food, we move into the yoga yurt to watch an inspiring documentary before returning to our rooms for bed.
There’s a range of accommodation at Billabong Retreat, including cabins tucked into an escarpment overlooking the billabong; two permanent “walk-in” tents with beds and heating; and guestrooms in a Federation cottage. No matter which you choose, you’re guaranteed a good night’s sleep, lulled into a dreamy state by the hum of crickets, croaking of frogs and songs of all kinds of birds. Together with the rustle of gum tree leaves in a soft wind, it’s a soundtrack worthy of a meditation recording.
There are no crowds here in the bush, and Billabong Retreat is no exception. With just 10 participants, it’s a small group that easily fits into the yoga room. At 7am we reconvene there for our morning class. The windows are still fogged with the morning’s dew as we practise some new poses and go over some that we learned the day before.
“Listen to the gentle sound of the breath, the smoothness,” says Paul, raising his arms with an inhale and lowering with the exhale. “I continually reiterate, let the breath lead the movement, because I know I have to keep reminding myself. It is dharana, focus. It is also pratyahara, not being distracted by the senses,” he explains. Meditation and pranayama are included in each class, along with some chanting or spiritual discussion that enables students to go a little deeper into their yoga practice than an ordinary weekly class would allow.
Invigorated, we move into the dining room for breakfast—there’s hot porridge and stewed fruits on the stove, local breads for toast, homemade muesli and a wide range of teas. Sitting with us at the table, Paul lets us know that today there’ll be a shiatsu seated massage class taught by a local therapist. Additionally, some of the retreaters have booked massages with another visiting therapist at an extra cost, and will enjoy those during the day when we are in class or on siesta after lunch.
While the retreat is scheduled, Paul encourages us to rest in the afternoon, to take advantage of the sofas in the lounge room or out on the deck, which has a combustion wood heater for cool weather. While others borrow a book from the retreat’s collection or get some shut-eye in a hammock perched on the escarpment, I take a walk down to the billabong. Sitting in the open-air yurt by the water, I am captivated by the sights and sounds. Ducks glide by, small birds flutter in and out of the native bushes and frogs can be heard in the distance.
Given its setting and purpose, Billabong Retreat is an eco-friendly operation with solar power and conservation methods in place—guests are encouraged to be mindful of energy and water use, and to put food scraps from meals in a kitchen bin reserved for compost. Tory and Paul grow a wide range of herbs on the 12-acre property and have plans for a large vegetable garden to supply the kitchen’s needs.
Mindful of sustainability, Tory sources locally grown food such as fruit and vegetables, free-range organic eggs and honey. Inspired by Ayurvedic concepts and wholefood philosophy, she focuses on providing tempting vegetarian fare.
“I love for people to feel nourished when they leave here. I used to see a lot of faces a little wary about what they were going to get to eat. Maybe they’re a little scared of what they’re going to be given on a yoga retreat, and think it’s going to be light meals, but it’s definitely not like that. I make really healthy afternoon tea, fruit is always on offer and I serve up a nice pudding after dinner,” she says.
She avoids processed sugars and instead uses rice syrup or guava syrup for sweetening desserts. “I also use lots of spices and herbs, good oils such as rice bran and sesame, and unusual grains. It’s definitely about cutting-edge ways of cooking and how you can use food to heal,” says Tory.
On the last day of the retreat, our morning class is a special one. Paul reveals that over the past few lessons he has been gradually teaching us the poses that make up a seven-minute practice that we can do at home and easily fit into our daily routine. Paul was inspired by US-based yoga teacher Mark Whitwell, who developed a seven-minute yoga practice (available as a smartphone app) after asking his students how much time they could realistically devote to yoga each day. For the next hour, we practice Paul’s sequence repeatedly, ingraining the postures in our muscle memory, each time Paul giving less instruction so that we learn to become mindful yogis, and thankfully not what he calls “yoga robots”.
Molly Furzer stayed as a guest at Billabong Retreat.
Billabong Retreat is an easy 50-minute drive north-west of the centre of Sydney. You can also take the train to Vineyard or the bus to Rouse Hill and arrange for Paul von Bergen to pick you up for a small cost.
Mid-week retreats with Paul von Bergen are held regularly. The cost for a two-night retreat is $399, which includes morning and evening yoga classes, all food and accommodation. Yoga schools, meditation groups and other modalities also hold retreats at Billabong Retreat. Check the website for a calendar of events; www.billabongretreat.com.au.
Massages can be booked for on-site; make an inquiry when booking your retreat.