You can’t hold your breath in New Zealand’s South Island.
Just when you think you have discovered the brightest blue in the land of lake-water blues you turn a corner and another one bursts forth, forcing a sharp inhale.
Aro Hā Wellness Retreat sits on 21 acres on the shores of one of those lakes, Lake Wakatipu. Legend has it that the inland lake’s unusual rise and fall of about 10 centimetres every 25 minutes or so is caused by the breathing of a sleeping giant.
Aro Hā is all about breath. Slowing it down, sitting with it, noticing it and relishing in the moment.
I am not good with breath; I hold it for minutes without realising. My urban stressed-out lifestyle is not built for mindfulness, it is built on adrenalin in a constant state of fight or flight. Which is why I find myself exhaling on the Aro Hā yoga studio floor each morning at sunrise in a desperate bid to reconnect with myself.
Clearly I, and 10 other guests, have come to the right place. The wellness retreat has been loved up by almost every Condé Nast Traveller award possible since opening in January 2014. But Aro Hā isn’t just about luxe. Sure the architectural design has won numerous sustainable design awards and the lodge boasts trillion dollar views, but simplicity is the key.
I am woken each morning from my exhausted slumber to salute the sun on a yoga mat before a raw vegan breakfast created from the produce grown on the property’s land. So far, so good, right? Then comes the daily hike, a 10- to 17-kilometre trek through pristine forests, alongside running glacial waters, up mountain peaks, down rocky valleys.
At some point on the trek the retreat guides suggest we stop our chatter and walk apart one at a time in a state of silence for 20 minutes. Twenty minutes morphs into half an hour, which morphs into 45, which honestly feels like just five.
Aro Hā doesn’t just preach mindfulness, it lives it, and the resort design reflects this in clean lines and simple spaces. The warmth of a wood fire, the intake of a fabulous lake view from an infinity hot tub, a picture window in the yoga room that paints a picture few artists could truly capture.
Nature is held in high respect and shared with guests, like me, looking to detox from the stress of urban living and digital distractions. Organic produce is grown on site and 110 plant species incorporated into the clean vegan cuisine.
It is all the dream of Americans Chris and Beth Madison and their co-founder Damian Chaparro. They spent two years scouring the globe to find the right patch of pristine earth to create their wellness dream. Aro Hā is where they found it, setting up a $32 million hydro- and solar-powered sustainable retreat that is more about passion than profit.
The afternoons are spent having a massage or soaking in hot and cold waters at the resort’s fitness spa before yoga rounds off the day and dinner is served. It doesn’t take long to de-stress when your body is supported with good food, exercise, meditation and yoga.
My head hurts on day two as the toxins from caffeine, sugar, processed foods and too much computer time leave my body along with emotions held deep down. But come day three and I am running like a mountain goat up the morning hills, filling my lungs with fresh air with every step.
By day five there is a rhythm to my breath I had long forgotten. I think they call that Zen.
Words by Rachael Oakes-Ash