After I check in, the administrative assistant at Aja Malibu tells me that there's a basket and gardening clippers for me by the pool. I'm to explore the seven chakra gardens (sustained on grey water, of course) and pick whatever plants "speak to me".
I do as I'm told and go for a wander, choosing bright-yellow mint marigolds, lavender-blue anise hyssops and plenty of fragrant green herbs, such as holy basil, lemon balm and catmint. I bump into some of the others from the group while rifling around, and like me, they look a tad baffled.
We've been given two hours for the activity, but I'm done within 30 minutes and make my way back to the pool, where it was mentioned there would be snacks. Soon all seven of us are eagerly waiting … I guess I'm not the only one who thought two hours for flower-picking was a little over the top.
There are three kinds of seed-based cheeses served alongside sprouted buckwheat crackers; chunky tomato tartare topped with nettle pesto and beet olive oil; avocado-nettle smash inside little lettuce cups; and velvety cacao and seed energy balls. Everything tastes incredible and for a while I forget that it's organic, raw and completely plant-based.
We'll be eating meals built around the philosophy of "living food" for the next seven days, with much of it coming from the biodynamic gardens, (almost all of the more than 200 plants growing on the nine-hectare property are edible).
Aja Malibu is like no place I've ever been to. It's not a wellness retreat in the sense that it's all massages and pool time (although don't get me wrong, we have hours worth of treatments throughout the week and I do dip into the ozonized-water swimming pool). It's not an ashram because the Magick Process – the trademarked name for the wellness program offered here – is not based around one religious affinity; instead, it's a mix of many philosophies from various ancient cultures. And it's not a holiday in a traditional sense – more of a process – a regeneration of "self", founded around the seven chakras (energy systems on the body that are considered to connect to an individual's spiritual state).
The brains behind Aja is Australian-born Inannya Magick (yes, that's her real name), a charismatic soul who floats around the property in long flowing dresses and colourful ponchos. She's always around for the retreats and takes great care in being present with her guests, as well as employing permanent staff and part-time wellness specialists, who come to Aja to share their knowledge and experiences on all matter of subjects. Over the course of seven days meditation teachers, sound healers, shamans, herbalists, breath specialists and nutritionists all share their wisdom with me.
Magick spent decades studying plant medicine and spiritual philosophies, first looking to heal herself (she was a sick child and sought out traditional remedies after not finding respite in modern medicine), and then to help heal others. "I wanted to help others and so the Aja dream sprouted," she explains one morning when we meet in the Om room (the aptly named meditation room) for our morning meditation and daily chakra introduction. "I wanted to create a place where people could heal."
To a sceptic like me, healing is a strong word and for the first few days I find I'm a little resistant. Technology use is not allowed and I struggle with no email and Facebook access, but I slowly get used to it and spend more time walking around the gardens; perusing the huge quantity of books on display in the library; writing in my journal; I even become a regular at the apothecary, a staffed haven of garden-picked medicinal herbs that we are encouraged to use to craft our own teas and herbal elixirs. There's not that much free time though, as we're kept busy with workshops, excursions, spa treatments, talks and meditations.
The daily program differs depending on what chakra we are learning about and is kept hush-hush until we wake up. "We don't want you to think about the next day," Magick reasons. "We want you to focus on the present."
On root chakra day, the focus is about connecting to the earth and the evening fire ceremony, for which we are required to wear long grey capes, is one of my highlights. A shaman leads the event, accompanied by a chanting colleague and his wife … who is in labour. She assures us the contractions are far apart and we talk and sing and play instruments together deep into the night.
Sacral chakra day is about water and movement and we spend the morning at El Matador State Beach, talking about the flow of emotions before practising qi gong as the sea gently sloshes beside us. In the evening, a breath specialist runs us through how to better gain a deeper connection with our breath. We lie on the ground in the Om room, breathing forcefully while he enlightens us about the power of breath. I fall asleep a few times, but am quickly woken up and told to "breathe like it's your last breath"… I end up having a mini coughing fit, but our teacher doesn't seem fazed and tells me there is no such thing as breathing too hard.
A few days later, on throat chakra day, I struggle my way through a throat workshop, where we have to sing our affirmations out loud followed by everyone joining in. I've always been a shy singer and so just say mine, and blush a little when everyone joins me in chanting it over and over again. I enjoy the post-dinner sound healing session much more. For this session we simply lie on the ground cocooned in soft blankets while a sound healer walks around the room singing and playing gongs, wind chimes and who knows what else. I have my eyes closed and the sounds coming from above are dreamlike. I start to snooze and hear the sound of snoring beside me … I guess I'm not the only one being lulled to sleep.
As the days progress the oddness of the week diminishes. I don't reach for my phone in the mornings, I start to enjoy stillness of the body and mind, I relish my time exploring the grounds, and of course I enjoy my spa treatments, including everything from acupuncture and shirodhara therapy to binaural beats healing and craniosacral therapy.
When it's time to leave I linger. I want to stay and meander around picking flowers, float in the pool staring up at the puffy clouds, doze off while a therapist pours warm liquid over my forehead, or fall into a deep slumber listening to the sound of pan flutes.
I can, however, take home what I've learnt. I came to Aja looking for tools to fix aspects of myself, but I've come away with the realisation that I am the tool – I just now know how to use it.
FIVE MORE GREAT WELLNESS RETREATS
THE FARM AT SAN BENITO, PHILIPPINES
In a lush jungle oasis, The Farm at San Benito combines holistic and modern medicinal philosophies. Guests can opt to focus on areas including weight loss, stress reduction, detox, or medicinal emphases such as diabetes management and cancer care, with doctors on site to take care of guests' restorative needs. See thefarmatsanbenito.com
GWINGANNA LIFESTYLE RETREAT, AUSTRALIA
Perched on a mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland, wellness at Gwinganna is about turning off (no television or Wi-Fi here) and tuning into self. Yoga, meditation, qi gong and equine healing are just some of the therapies offered in the mornings, while afternoons are for unwinding in the spa – which, of course, is therapy too. See gwinganna.com
SHANTI-SOM WELLBEING RETREAT, SPAIN
Surrounded by undulating hills and sprawling meadows, Shanti-Som is a boutique resort that feels more like a slice of south-east Asia than a slice of Spain. Throughout the year yoga, weight loss and Pilates retreats (to name a few) are programmed; and special interest retreats – with focuses such as chakra experiences and conscious living – are on offer for those wishing to make a private booking. See shantisom.com
THE BANJARAN HOTSPRINGS RETREAT, MALAYSIA
Nested in tropical jungle at the base of towering limestone cliffs, The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat utilises what nature has to offer. Geothermal hot springs pools, a meditation cave, a thermal steam cave and a fish pool are all landscape-inspired features, with Malay Ramuan, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda wisdoms all used across the range of wellness programs. See thebanjaran.com
At this tranquil retreat on the gulf of Thailand, guests can choose from an extensive selection of programs, with fitness, yoga, weight loss, cell vitality and many others on offer. The spa cuisine incudes meat, poultry and seafood for those not on detox programs, so guests don't feel like they're missing out (the idea is that the dishes can be recreated at home). See chivasom.com
Aja Malibu is in the Santa Monica Mountains, about 90 minutes drive from LAX. Qantas and Virgin Australia fly direct to Los Angeles from several of Australia's capital cities.
There are seven eco-friendly rooms on site, each one sympathetically designed to echo the ethos of Aja Malibu. Furnishings in the rooms and public spaces were sourced from all around the globe and each piece comes with a personal story (for example, the tea set Magick uses each morning is a handmade collection she obtained from a Taiwanese tea specialist; while a beautiful tapestry in the Dreamweaver Suite was crafted by an elderly female Peruvian Shipibo tribe member).
The Aja Malibu experience is a seven-day, six-night package, with each day dedicated to a chakra. All activities, treatments, workshops, plant-based cuisine and an endless supply of tea is included. The week-long program is priced at $US10,000. See ajamalibu.com
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Aja Malibu.