Quest for balance

Lance Richardson subjects himself to massage, meditation and yoga at a health retreat.

The floor is covered with women, legs twisted one way, torsos in the other direction. More than two-dozen heads tilt languorously backwards as Kris McIntyre directs the room to imitate a Hollywood starlet in photographic pose. A few people breathe heavily into the stretch and then, in the next movement, a woman explodes into laughter as her feet slide off the mat, soles slick with sweat.

''Laughter is good,'' reassures McIntyre. ''Laughter is a key aspect of opening up the heart.'' There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of slapstick in a weekend involving a lot of time spent on a yoga mat with limbs pointed at the ceiling.

As a Ryoho yoga therapist, writer and host of Yoga TV, McIntyre identifies two types of retreat that predominate today. On the one hand are high-end luxury experiences whose cost rules out many people. On the other hand, which she terms ''the crustier end of the scale'', there are boot camps focused on privation and endurance.

''I wanted to create something that was accessible on both a financial level and also in terms of ability,'' she says.

Her project - a collaboration with Peppers Salt Resort and Spa, where the retreat is held, and The Golden Door in Kingscliff - attempts to find a happy medium between physical exertion and relaxation. Over the course of two days, participants can recover from an early-morning stretch session with a dip in the resort's man-made lagoon, or, I discover, walk around the hotel in little more than pyjamas.

At the centre of the weekend is a type of yoga developed by renowned Australian practitioner Andrzej Gospodarczyk. A unique fusion of Indian Hatha poses and Japanese yoga, it draws on meridian points and uses the concept of yin and yang. Food, breathing, skin brushing (garshan), even tongue-scraping - Ryoho attempts to heal and relax through a holistic approach to the body, spiritually and physically.

A typical day begins with 7am beach exercises and closes with each person wrapped in blankets, calmly meditating. Between these bookends are yoga sessions, bouts of free time and massages at the Golden Door spa.

I choose lomi lomi, my first toe into the world of Hawaiian relaxation, meaning ''to rub and roll''. The masseuse uses copious amounts of oil along with her hands, forearms, elbows, fingers, feet and knees to get the job done. It's known, alternatively, as ''loving hands''. There's a chin-brace to stop you sliding off the table.

After this, hot-and-sour steamed snapper fillet with somtam salad is a small but delicious dinner. On this occasion it's followed by a session with special guest Brad Thompson, a Feldenkrais practitioner and author of The Breathing Book, who works us into a frenzy of hyperventilation and then teaches us how to breathe out for 30 seconds at a time. By the time I hit the pillow my body is sore and my lungs throb.

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I wake up feeling incredible.

As the weekend's presiding authority, McIntyre is an effective teacher. Always up for a laugh but able to reign in our group's tendency to bouts of hysteria, she commands attention as she runs along the shoreline at 7am (''Follow me, my pretties!''), or explains the underlying tenets of the macrobiotic food movement (and then admits that it is really difficult not to fall off the wagon).

Perhaps her charm is a complete absence of fanaticism. Wary of finding myself in a situation in which a penchant for coffee would make me the detox pariah, I'm surprised to discover that even a glass of wine is acceptable with dinner.

''I've done it really hard and I've worked out what works for me,'' McIntyre says. A three-month intensive workshop with Gospodarczyk in a tiny Murrurundi bunkhouse opened her eyes to the difficulties of maintaining a strict regime in the real world.

''You spit out the other side feeling quite weird and it's hard to strike a balance after that.''

Instead of an ''all-or-nothing'' ethic, this yoga retreat offers the ingredients for each person to sample and take away as they choose. In this respect the scope for hosting people with different levels of dedication and ability is notable. McIntyre speaks of a previous client who quit smoking and drinking, became a vegetarian and lost 10 kilograms after participating. ''Obviously she was a very driven woman but if we can create even a little change, that's great, too.''

As I lift my legs in happy-baby pose or practice that starlet stretch, I'm surrounded by a variety of prostrate figures: single women, empty nesters, mothers and daughters, groups of friends, people recovering from illness and others who just want to get away from the world for a few days. Being the only man, at least on this particular weekend, comes with a considerable novelty factor. ''You're brave,'' I'm told more than once, although ''lucky'' is also used.

Certainly it's hard to dispute the latter when my room has a tub so big I could host a small party in it.

Breakfast by the pool is a sprawling buffet that deftly avoids all the stale pitfalls of hotel buffets and across the road is the one-hatted restaurant Fins, run by celebrity chef Steven Snow.

Peppers is a self-contained world, pivoting on an axis of luxury. Everyone here is lucky - not least McIntyre, who leads retreats here four times a year.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW and Peppers Salt Resort and Spa.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Peppers Salt Resort and Spa in Kingscliff is a 20-minute drive from Gold Coast Airport at Coolangatta. See peppers.com.au/salt.

Yoga retreats Weekend retreats at the resort are designed to suit beginner and intermediate levels of experience. They cost from $533 a person, twin share. This includes two nights' accommodation, full buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, six yoga classes, a yoga mat, a 50-minute Golden Door Spa treatment and full use of resort facilities. Non-residential packages are available from $390 a person. For bookings phone 6674 7777.

The summer-autumn retreat is on February 25-27, concentrating on digestion, respiration and eliminating cravings.

The winter retreat is on June 10-12 and is for lower-back strength, stress release and sexual energy.

The winter-spring retreat is on August 12-14 for flexibility, back and joints and cleansing.

Salute the sun around the state

There are many yoga retreats around Byron Bay. Some of the most comprehensive are those offered by Byron Bay Yoga near Tallow Beach, each of which spans five nights and encompasses yoga nidra, cleanses, detox, chanting and dance; see byronbayyoga.com.

Also in Byron Bay, Radiance Retreats specialises in luxury and pampering yoga camps at Gaia. If its programs suit your taste, Radiance also runs international retreats in Bali, France, Italy and Spain; see radianceretreats.com.

Olivia Newton-John's Gaia Retreat and Spa in the Byron Bay hinterland has several packages of its own, each involving a daily yoga element, as well as naturopathic assessment, tai chi, meditation and even art classes; see gaiaretreat.com.au.

In Sydney, Skye Baird has dedicated wellness programs and hatha yoga retreats in locations such as Manly's Q Station; see skyelifestyle.com.au.

Satyananda Yoga runs a variety of retreats in Victoria, New Zealand and Mangrove, NSW. The latter is the largest residential yoga centre in the southern hemisphere. A short drive from Sydney, participants can choose weekend courses or longer stays, family yoga and even ''Yoga for the Blues''; see satyananda.net.

Also close to Sydney, the Billabong Retreat between Dural and Windsor has weekend retreats that focus on nature and relaxation. Tents are available and this one calls for co-operation in meal preparation; see www.billabongretreat.com.au.

If you're after something a little more active, Broulee Surf School on the south coast runs women-only combined yoga and surf camps throughout the year. The strength training and breathing techniques of vinyasa yoga are used to improve the surfing technique. The retreat includes twin-share beach accommodation; see brouleesurfschool.com.au.

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