A Fasting Retreat? For a week? You’ve got to be kidding. The whole concept was as remote as refusing a giant piece of pavlova. ‘Fast’ to me, was a way of moving, the speed of my bike, the passing of time. I never for a moment had considered going on a ‘fast’. This was something Jesus and Moses did in the desert, Muslims recognize as an essence of spiritual cleansing, and Hindi gurus propound.
However, in a moment of madness and of perceived fatness I allowed my good friend Julie to persuade me to join her on a Fasting Retreat. Indeed, her excitement when sending me the link to a Aio Wira Retreat was hard to ignore. “It’s so good for you” she said, “It’s been known to improve brain performance, lower risk of diabetes and so many other benefits.”
The pre-fast information sheet advised us to moderate eating in the days leading up to the retreat, stick to salads and vegetables, cut out the caffeine and alcohol (are you getting the picture?) By preparing our bodies it would be easier to slide into the regime of daily juices, herbal teas, body brushing and giving ourselves enemas. Yes. You heard me. Enemas, not enigmas, nor the pretty little anemone flowers! There is nothing pretty nor enigmatic about an enema.
Aio Wira Retreat Centre is just 40 minutes from Auckland and tucked away on four hectares of native bush in the Waitakere Ranges. Founded in 1970 by a group of yoga students, the centre which is not based on any fixed spiritual philosophy, has developed to become a centre for many types of, body, mind and spirit gatherings and holds workshops from yoga, pilates and meditation to Qi Gong, mindfulness and wordless weekends. So many wonderful options for seeking and finding physical health, spiritual wellness and self-fulfilment, which leaves me wondering how I ever ended up on the fasting retreat.
Before arriving on a Thursday night, we stopped and had our last, light meal at the closest café to the centre. The last solid food for five days, then drove the last ten kilometres before turning onto a short gravel road. It was late but never too late to be greeted enthusiastically by the woofer (seasonal worker) and a fasting regular who had returned for his fifth fast in that many years.
We were shown to a row of homely rooms set up with wool blankets, crochet covers, cushions and hot water bottles, (or were they the enema bladders?) While unpacking, I happened to find a lost, lonely row of dark chocolate. Honest. I’m not kidding. They were not hidden there deliberately. Those four squares of chocolate were to test my willpower like nothing else. Well, nothing except the fact there was no cell phone coverage. I contemplated the best course of action. I could quietly eat the chocolate straight away, but, strictly speaking the fast had already started. To eat them would be to cheat. Wouldn’t it? I could tell the others and they would keep me on the straight and narrow or, they might make me share it! The final choice was to just forget I had it, which is what I tried to do.
We soon settled into the routine at Aio Wira beginning with a lesson on how to use the enema kits, accompanied by nervous giggles from those of the 17 participants who were first timers. A daily timetable was hung up detailing sessions for yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and sharing sessions with empty spaces for signing up for other optional health regimes including seaweed wraps, posture alignment and counselling offered by independent consultants.
By day two the growling and squeaking of empty stomachs dominated the sharing sessions along with more personal reflections of how people were coping. Strangely enough after the first 24 hours I felt no real desire to eat. The fruit juices and evening broth were doing their job. However, by Day Three, I was getting hangry and restless for contact with the outside world. All the talk of people’s bowel habits and enema encounters was becoming too much. It was time for a drive to Bethells Beach in search of wide open spaces, cell phone coverage, a coffee cart perhaps and, maybe, just a nibble on the chocolate. Gosh. I was beginning to behave like a teenager sneaking out after dark. Fortunately, I was not alone in my cravings and clandestine escapades.
By Day Four I had little energy for anything, even contemplating unwrapping those four squares of delicious, dark chocolate was exhausting. I began counting down and dreaming of the date-filled baked apple they had promised us for breakfast as a gentle breaking of our fast.
Tuesday morning began with much excitement. The thought of food made it difficult for me to meditate. The morning walk was just a mere stroll as we drawled over what we would eat when we left. And then it was over.
In small groups we took ourselves off to our cars and headed home. How many of the women would jump on the scales and how many of the men would down a quick pint was anyone’s guess. The only thing for certain was that most of us would be on cell phones as soon as we were in signal and that the four squares of chocolate wouldn’t last much longer.