The view from my hut at the retreat.

The view from my cabin at the retreat.

Insights from my recent wellness retreat were hard won, but worthwhile, so I thought I’d share for those who may be looking for a health solution that's a little “outside the box.”

Some of you may know that I’ve struggled for years with an increasingly over-reactive immune system, experiencing frequent rashes, sneezing and allergies, respiratory distress and even fainting. Thorough medical testing has yielded a host of things I’m sensitive to, but no answers were given but to avoid those (myriad) things and take symptom-masking medication.

Like dealing with a computer that had picked up viruses or malware, maybe my body could be stripped and rebooted. Perhaps a complete system refresh was possible—it had certainly become necessary.

On the recommendation of some reliable and credible friends, I chose Hale Pule, an Ayurvedic yoga retreat on an organic farm on Kaua`i, for my “reboot.” I spent ten days there, and here’s what I learned. (If you want to read past this, I share more about my experience in that remarkable place.)

  1. A consistent routine calms anxiety, depression, lack of focus and mood/physical symptoms. Set up a daily schedule that includes reflection time, regular meals, physical activity, time with others, etc., and stick to it.
  2. No (phone or other) electronics until after daily writing and breakfast to minimize timewasters and distractions and increase productivity.
  3. Simple, natural, nourishing, easy-to-digest foods can help the body heal itself. As the digestive tract improves, inflammation decreases.
  4. Your body WANTS to be healthy and whole. Use intuition to listen for its inner wisdom.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take some risks in your quest for answers, especially if the risks are in a healthy direction: i.e., giving up caffeine, refined sugar/flour, meat, diet soda, alcohol and substances, and over-the-counter medications. Maybe you won’t even need further intervention if you do that!
  6. Slow down. Be present for more moments of your life by turning off the noise and cutting back on activities. Let the brain wander. Sometimes it needs a rest.
  7. Renew your circadian rhythm/sleep pattern through regular daily exercise, no napping, finishing eating, drinking, and electronics by 6 pm, and going to bed by 9 pm. Tough the first few days but then… Nothing like good night’s rest!
  8. Spend time working and playing in nature every day. This will renew both mind and body. Humans did not evolve indoors.
  9. Treat food and mealtime with respect, reverence even, because food is medicine and the body’s building blocks. When talking with others, stop eating and talk. Then, eat while they are talking, or just take your time for the whole meal. Don’t shovel in mouthfuls of food while talking—neither activity is quality if you do.
  10. How to lose weight and stay slim forever: serve yourself no more than two handfuls of food (no matter what kind it is) and chew every bite until liquid. Stop when you first feel a slight pressure in your tummy, the first burp. You will never eat too much again if you stick to this method. The burp is a signal that your stomach is full. If you ignore it, letting out the burp and continuing to eat, the stomach makes a little more room and expands past what it really needs.
  11. Waste time gloriously, not passively, on occasion. You’ll know the difference—one afternoon on the retreat, I lay on a blanket under a flowering avocado tree buzzing with bees, and read a vampire romance. It was glorious, not passive, time wastage.
  12. Curious about something? Follow that feeling and dig deeper. Curiosity leads to creative ideas, and creativity to fun.
  13. Sit in silence (preferably dark) and pray, breathe, imagine, and let the mind wander and settle. If it gets too busy, go to paying attention to the breath and counting slow inhales and exhales. This is a hugely beneficial practice for the whole body, not just the brain. (Click on the photos to enlarge and scroll through.)

More about how it was for the interested:

The retreat began with a daunting email three weeks before my departure date: “Please prepare for your retreat by ceasing all alcohol, smoking, and other substances, refined flour/sugar, meat, and caffeine, so you don’t spend your retreat time in withdrawal from these things.”

EEK! Mike was out of town, which made it a little easier to withstand temptation, but I still had to undergo withdrawals from everything but smoking—and it was ugly. Somehow I soldiered through with only a few falls off the wagon. I arrived at Hale Pule’s lush grounds in the shadow of Sleeping Giant outside of Anahola grumpy from caffeine withdrawal and apprehensive, but determined.

Myra Lewin, the head of Hale Pule, is a radiant woman somewhere in her timeless latter years, and she and her assistants, the two lovely Kelseys, welcomed me and showed me to the cozy little hut that would be my home for the next ten days.

The schedule was not for the faint of heart: we rose at 4:30 a.m, did a Vedic fire ceremony in the yoga studio at 5:00 a.m., meditation until 6:15, yoga class until 7:30, and finally breakfast after which work on the farm was assigned.

Once that was done, free time until lunch and again in afternoon. Meals were highly anticipated events that took hours to prepare. Myra, me, her staff and the farm workers gathered to reverently partake of unbelievably fresh, organic food seasoned by exercise and sunshine into pure deliciousness.

Ayurvedic eating is all about strengthening the digestive system (agni) which is seen as the source of health: when the body is digesting and benefiting from healthy food, it naturally wants to heal and support itself and can handle various stresses better.

My health problems were seen in this perspective as being “out of balance” with too much “pitta” or fire element, so in the afternoons I had treatments, mostly wonderful hot oil rubs, that were designed to calm my fire and help me be restored to a balance—which was exactly what I was craving.

I had a horrible first night in my little hut without any chemical sleep aids (which I’d been taking for years) and had a nightmare that I was dying when I finally did fall asleep. I staggered through the next day, hardly able to stay awake, but advised not to take a nap because we were working on restoring my natural, unforced circadian rhythm.

The next day and night were better, but still very hard. I was anxious, exhausted and achy and there was no chemical or other escape. All the sitting upright, from meditation to meals, was killing my (weak) back and there was no aspirin to be had. I longed for escape, some easier softer way, but there was no way out but to go on.

Nuggets of goodness and insight began to emerge by Day 3. I loved the farm work. Being among the plants felt restorative. I became interested in the others there with me—I was the only one on a personal retreat, but the four yoga-practicing farm workers, there on a work-for-trade situation, were incredibly thoughtful, beautiful young people that made me feel very welcome as one of the oldest people on the property (besides Myra.) Next to them I felt like a barnacle-encrusted booze bottle washed up on the beach among beautiful shells: lumpy and uncoordinated during class, unable to sit through meditation hour, my inner light (if I even had one) had been obscured by years of mental and physical scar tissue.

Vanity died as I gave up makeup, shaving, and any sort of hair styling—what was the point? I was stripped to my chubby, nondescript, fifty-something essence. Degrees and accomplishments meant nothing in this setting. I cried randomly—during yoga class, during yard work, during meditation—and didn’t know why. “It’s just energy that’s been stuck moving around,” Myra assured me, which felt comforting.

With my remaining will, I determined that whatever I was challenged with, I would say YES, and fall forward in the direction of trust.

Night 3 I was rewarded by a full, blissful, chemical-free night’s sleep. Day 4 I woke up at 4:30 feeling ready for the day WITHOUT the alarm! I was completely off of all my medications and supplements, and the real change happened on Day 5, when my cognitive functions came back online and I was suddenly inspired to work on my memoir during free time, a project I’d brought along but had little hope of actually tackling. Day 6 I went to the beach alone and walked vigorously and swam, (on top of the already rigorous schedule) testing my energy level—and it was steady and strong throughout the day, without the highs and lows of my previous pattern.

Day 7 I got the complete plot of the next Wired novel downloaded into my head during meditation hour, and had to run out and frantically write it down in my journal in the 15 minutes before yoga class started. I loved the meditation, because I wasn’t told to empty my mind or do a mantra—instead, propped against a wall because of my back, in the sandalwood pre-dawn dark I prayed, listened and God talked to me… and gave me great ideas.

Day 8 a familiar allergy rash erupted—but in a place it had never been before, and looking different. I was crushed at this “defeat,” and went to Myra for a consult.

“Did you eat fruit?” Myra asked, her sea-blue eyes concerned. Slender with wonderful skin and luxuriant, long silver hair, Myra’s what I’d love to look like in my latter years—and she can do a headstand, too.

“Yes, but not any of my allergy fruits,” I said. Testing had showed histamine reactions to pineapple and cranberry, as well as a host of other things. I’d been ignoring all that and just eating whatever was put in front of me, and doing well until now.

“No fruit for you. Here’s some salve, and we’ll cool you down with aloe juice at meals.” So we did, and I learned a new way to deal with my rash without cortisone cream—and that fruit is probably not my friend, at least while my digestive tract and gut biome are rebuilding.

Things continued to improve, and the day I left I got into the same clothes I’d worn ten days earlier for the plane, and they hung on me. My skin felt soft and dewy from all the oil rubs and clean living. My hair was bouncy, my eyes bright, and I felt an inner calm. “You’re glowing,” said Julie, the family friend who picked me up and took me to the airport.

The barnacles had been knocked off. Hale Pule, and my experience there, was transformative.

I’ve continued to implement the changes I committed to. I get up at 5 and do meditation, followed by my own yoga routine in the living room. Then I have a simple rice cereal breakfast, walk the dog, and write—and not until I’ve got at least a thousand words on my current work-in-progress do I open email or social media.

There’s still a ways to go—my tinnitus remains, and some skin issues, and I have more weight to lose—but I’m off of everything, sleeping and eating well, producing quality work, and loving life more than ever. Mike approves of my shiny new yoga body, and is even trying my cooking.

Sometimes you just need a full system reboot, and it’s good to know that places like Hale Pule exist to help.

Shiny new yoga body

Shiny new yoga body!

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