As a fiercely independent traveller with a propensity for getting tanked with strangers in planes, trains and the backseats of automobiles, I find the idea of spending a week at a wellness retreat practising yoga and eating flaxseed is downright terrifying.
But when Josh Davies, an Australian chef working in Bali told me about his new gig at Chosen Experiences, a next-generation health retreat designed to help participants push the boundaries of their physical and cognitive development, my interest was piqued.
Chosen’s seven-day “Lifestyle Optimisation Program” is the brainchild of Americans John Stanton and Robin Connelley. After meeting at Oxford University in the early noughties, they spent more than a decade co-working between Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong as venture capitalists. They were successful, but it came at a cost.
“I was exercising and eating what most people would consider healthy foods, but the pressure I was putting myself under meant I was not taking care of myself mentally and emotionally,” Stanton says.
“The tipping point was about five years ago when I went two weeks straight sleeping only two or three hours a night. And I had colds all the time and I didn’t know why. I’d become outwardly happy but inwardly unfulfilled – sacrificing my health and wellbeing for what’s considered success. So we took a couple of months to reset and reboot in Bali.”
However, as entrepreneurs with a network of high-net-worth individuals, Stanton and Connelley did not remain idle for long. In 2013, they launched Ninja Camp Bali, a retreat targeting the untapped cross-space between the wellness and adventure travel trends.
Last year they took it to the next level by adding mental health and goal-setting experts to their team and exported the experience to exotic new destinations: Iceland, Guatemala and South Africa. And they rebranded it Chosen, derived from the Japanese word “sho-zen”: to challenge.
Are you experienced?
The first new lifestyle skill I learn at Chosen’s hidden luxury villa complex on Bali’s west coast is how to use a timber toilet stool that transforms a Western toilet into a comfortable Asian-style squat.
I’m hesitant at first but after one go I’m hooked. By repositioning the body in a more natural way, it allows one to thoroughly empty the bowels – and feel a little lighter. It’s also healthier than my old morning-ritual of lighting a cigarette while sitting.
But the greatest shock to my system takes place at dinner on the first night of the week-long course, when the waiter pours me a glass of water. I feel an urgent need to speed-dial a sommelier but cannot as I’ve left my mobile phone in my room during meals as part of Chosen’s digital-detox strategy.
To his credit, chef Davies knocks the sugar-and-wheat-free whole foods menu out of the ballpark, with dishes such as organic pork rib on the bone, pan-seared butterfish, an orgy of salads and, for breakfast, thick-cut barbecued bacon and gluten-free French toast. I eat several serves per meal yet by the end of the week I will have shredded more than a kilo.
We exercise two, sometimes three, times a day, beginning with a tough but rewarding beach workout on day two.
“We had these really ripped guys from Hong Kong who work out in air-conditioned gyms,” says co-founder Connelley. “But when we got them on the beach, they got eaten by the sand. They were like, ‘what the hell?’.”
We sweat bucket loads during an “animal movement” class with French martial artist Guillaume La Port; climb ropes attached to the ceiling at a nearby gym with Danielle Midalia, a petite but inordinately strong personal trainer from San Francisco.
We go canyoning and rock jumping in the jungles of northern Bali and learn how to surf with private instructors at the Balinese surf mecca of Canggu beach. We learn how to make smoothies and bliss balls with chef Davies.
And we have swimming lessons from two-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Klim, who inspires and regales us with anecdotes about how he succeeded in the face of overwhelming odds during a goal-setting workshop.
Growing up watching Klim win gold on TV, I thought he was superhuman. But after spending time in his company I realised he’s just like the rest of us: a person muddling through life trying to make the best of things, but with more focus than most.
A collection of moments
There are moments during the course – like the time we’re asked to line up facing the ocean to breathe in positive ions – when my eyes roll to the back of my head. And Stanton, for his boundless enthusiasm and energy, has a high-five obsession that leaves my palm red by the end of the week.
Another time, when I ask a waiter for orange juice at the breakfast table, I cop looks as though I’d just ordered a vial of heroin. But as chef Davies explains, pure orange juice, much like fizzy soft drinks, creates a blood-sugar spike in the body.
“Once the spike burns out, it can lead to things like mood swings, susceptibility to stress and anxiety,” he says, offering me a ‘yellow juice’ instead – a delicious blend of pear, yellow watermelon, turmeric and ginger.
My eureka moment manifests during a Yin yoga class with yogi-cum-philosopher Rachel Fearnley from London. While listening to her recite a passage from Jeff Foster’s reflective masterpiece The Way of Rest, the memory of an old trauma resurfaces. A thick oily tear rolls down my cheek, forming a Rorschach-like stain on a yoga mat before evaporating into the heat of the day.
“In a million different ways,” Fearnley’s soothing voice reassures me, “you have only ever been seeking yourself.”
Prices about $5567 for single occupancy or $5051 per person for double occupancy, plus flights, dependent on exchange rates. chosenexperiences.com