In the shadow of the mountains, Mary O'Brien discovers the gentle art of bend and stretch during a two-day yoga retreat.
Mount Sturgeon sparkles in the pale winter sun and the gardens are painted white after a surprise early frost. My breath dances in the chilly air. It's only 8am and the yoga group moves purposefully towards the studio, shivering, partly from the cold and partly from the anticipation of what's to come – three hours of intensive yoga.
We're staying at Griffins Hill Yoga Retreat in Dunkeld for the weekend. Some have come from Melbourne, some are locals who attend weekly classes and a couple are yoga teachers. We've come to seek instruction from senior Iyengar teacher Frank Jesse.
At first, three hours seem to stretch out infinitely – 180 minutes of detailed instruction and painful stretching. But once we're warmed up, we're all too busy to worry about the time. All my energy and concentration is focused on Jesse, listening to his instructions, trying to bend my awkward body into the right shapes, terrified that I'll be caught out as an impostor – an enthusiastic, but irregular, yoga attendee.
As the first session finishes, delicious smells drift out to the studio. Jesse's partner, Jane Gibb, has been busy in the kitchen. The long table is beautifully decked out with freshly squeezed orange juice, oatmeal pancakes, preserves, fruit and home-made baked beans. The class is united – we've bonded over yoga poses and now it's time for some good food and conversation.
Jesse has been teaching yoga for more than 20 years. He is one of 16 senior Iyengar teachers in Australia and has trained with the great man in India on several occasions. Jesse founded the successful Clifton Hill Yoga Studio in Melbourne and taught there for many years. He and Gibb, a horticulturalist, dreamt of moving to the country and used to visit Dunkeld regularly. Finally, two years ago, they bought Griffins Hill, a luxury bed and breakfast, and built a yoga studio out the back. Jane is in her element in the 2.4-hectare space she is transforming into a native and organic productive garden. She loves sharing her food and the yoga retreat gives her a chance to entertain with lavish vegetarian feasts.
We have a light meal of home-made dips and lentil soup with Turkish flat bread the first night and an Indian banquet the second. It's Jesse's responsibility to bake the bread and he does a mean bread roll, chapatti and Turkish bread.
We've got a few free hours on Saturday afternoon and, despite the temptation to flop, a group decides to walk up Mount Piccaninny, a relatively easy trail. It's idyllic as the day warms up and we meet a pair of tame wallabies and a wakeful owl on the gentle climb to the top.
Dunkeld is a pretty village in the southern Grampians, about 250 kilometres west of Melbourne. It's a great place for a yoga retreat, with good walks on Mount Sturgeon and Mount Abrupt, or you can head into the village to eat at the much-lauded gourmet getaway, the Royal Mail Hotel. There are local vineyards with cellar doors, such as Henty Estate and Varrenti, or you can have a hit at Grampians Golf Club.
The night I arrive, Jane drives me to Dunkeld on a moonlit road. As we head out of the village, we slow to a crawl, watching for kangaroos and wallabies, which seem to thrive in the area.
Yoga retreats are held every month at Griffins Hill. The one and two-night programs are suitable for beginners but you need at least one year's experience for the three or five-day sessions.
On this two-day retreat, we practise yoga for 4 hours the first day and three hours on the second. Jesse is a dedicated teacher who constantly checks that everyone is doing the postures properly. The studio is open for extra practice but my aching muscles have had more stretching than they bargained for.
The evenings are pleasantly spent chatting around the long table after dinner. There's a roaring fire and the first night, we opt to watch a DVD of local hero Jon Muir's solo trek across Australia.
Our last meal together, Sunday's brunch, is frittata filled with fresh garden produce, steamed beans, broccoli and sweet pumpkin, followed by apple pudding and coffee (yes, it is allowed but alcohol isn't) to finish. The mood is relaxed – we've done the hard work and I have great plans to return to daily life with an increased commitment to yoga, exercise and all things healthy.
Mary O'Brien travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Griffins Hill Yoga Retreat.