One Woman. No Phone. Five Days in a Health Retreat.

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May 11, 2017

We sent a technology dependant on a digital detox. By Alexandra Carlton. 

If you’re reading this, it means I’ve managed to decipher my handwriting, which is as legible as a doctor’s prescription pad – if the doctor were a four-year-old. Ordinarily, I’d type notes straight onto my laptop but I’m doing a five-night complete digital detox at Golden Door Health Retreat & Spa Elysia in NSW’s Hunter Valley. No phone, no laptop, no tablet – so everything’s being scribbled the old-fashioned way.

As someone who checks her phone about 150 times a day (I counted) and who believes that making it through an episode of a TV show without glancing at social media is as good as reading a book (I read that joke on Reddit), I’m uneasy. So uneasy that I ignored Golden Door’s suggestion to “pre-tox” – cut down on life’s finer things (coffee, alcohol, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed) before I arrived – and instead ramped up the toxing. Crammed in four podcasts a day. Composed Facebook posts announcing I’d be out of action. Scrolled Twitter, with a couple of G&Ts for the ride. If Golden Door was going to take me down, it would take me down fighting. And playing Candy Crush Saga.

I arrive for the Optimal Wellness Program on Sunday, the same day as every guest doing the standard three-, five- or seven-night wellness retreats (weekenders do Friday to Sunday). The property sits on a large hill planted with fragrant lavender and pink pepper trees, giving each of its 74 villas a dazzling view of pastures and grapevines. There are indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, a yoga room, basketball and tennis courts, a wellness centre and a spa so decadent that you can’t help wondering if it contains calories.

First stop: reception, to hand over my phone – my cheery, chirpy, trusty companion. “I can’t tell you how distressing this is for me,” I wail to the front-desk staff, who smile kindly but waste no time prising it from my fingers. Golden Door doesn’t ban phones entirely but guests are asked to leave them in their villa at all times. However, I’m going hardcore and not touching the thing for my entire stay.

We’re ushered into the communal dining room, where lunch is a beautifully composed Buddha Bowl of roast vegies with satay sauce. Instinctively, I reach for my phone to snap a pic before I remember it’s gone. If you’re served a pretty meal and don’t put it on Instagram, I wonder glumly, “Did it really happen?”

By Monday, I’m ready to leap into the packed program. I’m up by 6.30am for tai chi at the top of Meditation Hill, where we work through the ancient Chinese movements while hot air balloons float silently over the valley and kangaroos watch us from just a few metres away. This is the most Instagrammable thing I’ve ever seen, I fret. But it’s impossible to stay tense when Jaye Hoelscher, the retreat’s program manager, persuades us to breathe, focus, see and just be. In time, my forehead uncrinkles. My eyes open wider than I feel they have in years. Senses that have been employed almost exclusively in the service of pings and pop-ups seem jolted back to life.

This strange feeling of “waking up” continues throughout my stay. I surprise myself by wanting to fill every moment with things that I didn’t think I had the time or energy for before. I take at least three exercise classes a day: functional movement, gym circuits, yoga, swimming and Pilates. I try things that seem silly but turn out to be eye-opening, like the InBody body composition analysis that tells me I need more magnesium and vitamin B. Every activity is optional but I have unfamiliar new vigour, especially when my scrunched-up back and shoulder pain, from too much computer use, vanishes. Each day, I do as much as I can, punctuated with three fresh, nutritious meals from executive chef James Knight, such as brown-rice porridge with lime and coconut, and Thai fish curry.

If I had my phone with me, I know I’d skip things. It would be too easy to hide away with it for a few comforting hours in my villa. Now a spare 10 minutes before a class or a meal becomes an opportunity to observe a green tree frog tucked behind a rock or to simply sit and take 12 deep, nourishing breaths. It dawns on me that connecting with social media isn’t the issue in itself. The problem is everything you miss out on while you’re engaging with it.

By the end of my stay, I’ve stopped twitching instinctively for my phone. My nervous system has eased from its permanent state of semi-alertness, no longer tensed for notifications. I’m also no longer someone who gazes enviously at bouncy, healthy people on Instagram. I am a bouncy, healthy person – albeit one who’s not on Instagram, for now.

I arm myself with an action plan for home. Golden Door suggests implementing small changes made during the program to make a difference in your life so I’m putting a “phone bowl” at my front door where our devices will live in the evenings. At a seminar on breathing, I learn that many of us hold our breath from tension when we read emails so I vow to inhale deeply instead, to minimise their impact on my state of mind.

When I turn on my phone again, the pings and flashes make me feel slightly nauseous. There are 58 Facebook and Instagram alerts and 629 emails. One friend is worried that I’ve died. I answer a few urgent enquiries (calmly, breathing) and check the president’s Twitter feed before switching off the phone to begin the drive back to Sydney. It seems you can step away for a bit and the world keeps turning. 

SEE ALSO: 10 Luxe Wellness Retreats in Australia