Photo: Glen McCurtayne
When stress gets the better of her, Tonya Ward retreats to a place of peace and quiet.
In my yoga class I hear whispers, whispers of an ashram hidden in the belly of Mangrove Creek valley. An ashram where the resident yogis meditate, chant, tend the vegie patch, practise yoga and contemplate life. It welcomes visitors for yogic retreats but will they accept a steak-loving media consumer like me?
I've heard about the 5am starts, no caffeine, meat or alcohol, bouts of enforced silence and scrubbing floors in the name of karma. It sounds pretty extreme for a holiday. However, extreme is what I require; I'm pregnant, I have two sons wearing cracks in my sanity and I crave silence.
A good friend is enlisted to come along, though she protests, "I'm too stressed to de-stress!" That sums up our lives in one hit. We definitely need to go.
The Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain lounges comfortably beneath cliffs and beside a wide stretch of Mangrove Creek. The ashram has been here since the 1970s, when a group of devotees settled in tents and caravans, and has been attracting escapists ever since. Now a serene collection of accommodation, teaching and activity rooms, the ashram houses 20 to 30 residents and an influx of visitors attending various retreats.
We choose the de-stress program, promising two days and nights to relax, recharge and learn practical techniques to keep us de-stressed at home. I have my doubts but after an introductory session with teachers who positively glow with wellbeing I'm beginning to like my chances.
Before sunrise the "singing alarm" drifts across the valley, inviting us to the day's first yoga session. Strangely it doesn't feel like a chore to get out of bed so early and we silently join the other early risers in the cool morning air as we head to the practice pavilion.
Our class comprises men and women aged 16 to 68: IT workers, government officials, teachers, mothers, electricians and students. Lessons are interspersed with activities - including karma yoga or the floor scrubbing I'd heard mentioned. The idea is to go about daily tasks with mindfulness and gratitude. If I can learn to vacuum and wash dishes without resentment, this will be worth every penny. I am assigned to fold yoga blankets and pick flowers for the meditation rooms; my friend cuts vegies and gossips in the kitchen. It's hardly taxing.
We sit and listen to the cicadas drone and the bellbirds sing as the teachers speak with a wisdom and insight you rarely come across. We learn breathing and meditation techniques, chanting and physical yoga postures we can even do in bed. My favourite is yoga nidra, a deep relaxation practice that releases tension and is said to heal the body at a cellular level. Thirty minutes is regarded as equivalent to 2-3 hours of sleep.
Life in the ashram is a little alien for the sceptic. Practices such as Kirtan, the Saturday night entertainment where residents and visitors play instruments, clap hands and move around singing Sanskrit phrases, is particularly unusual. The best approach is to let yourself go.
In the same way, the 12-hour period of silence from bedtime until after breakfast seems natural rather than restrictive. It's a nice change not to have to natter for no reason. The silence is surreal but calming, although I do laugh out loud to see a few snippy yogis arguing in gestures and grunts over an Earl Grey tea bag.
By now my anxieties about the weekend have dissolved. The food is simple and tasty - vegetarian, sure, but laced with more flavour than I've experienced anywhere else. There is black tea for my caffeine needs teamed with one precious afternoon chocolate-chip cookie. The accommodation is simple but spotless and comfortable and there are facilities such as a library, computer room, sporting equipment and even a little shop selling yogic goods.
By the time I drive home I'm a changed woman with the very best of intentions. Every day I'm going to meditate, do sun salutations before breakfast and yoga nidra before bed. I'll lead a simpler life, eat wholesome meals and clean up with gratitude.
I'm met at the door by squeals and hugs. Nobody has bathed since I left and the house is utter chaos but they've taken care of dinner - pizza is on the way. This could be harder than I thought. I take a deep breath - Om.
The Satyananda Yoga Ashram is on Mangrove Creek Road, Mangrove Mountain, about 40 minutes' drive north of Hornsby. It has a variety of weekend, five-day and longer specialised programs, including yoga cleansing, yoga art, yoga boot camp, yoga and the blues and family programs. Weekend retreats from $200, including all meals, accommodation and activities. See www.satyananda.net.