From Ancient Greek philosophy to modern biomedicine, there has been an understanding of the importance of maintaining a careful balance between yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are symbolic of two opposing, yet complementary forces: stasis and movement, calm and activity, which ideally exist in harmony. And although the concept is thousands of years old, it couldn’t be more relevant to staying well in today’s very “yang” world.
I fall firmly into the “yang” category. I’m a doer. It applies to every aspect of my life. Everything is fast-moving: my exercise, my mealtimes, my work – even my relationships. So when I booked to go on a fitness and wellbeing retreat a few weeks ago, I was ready to go all guns blazing into HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and an extreme diet to shift a few pounds in the run-up to a beach holiday… Because that’s what we’re meant to do, right?
Helios Retreats takes place each year between March and October – typically with a high-season break when the island is hottest in July-August – at a secluded villa high in the hills of Mykonos. It has attracted a range of VIPs whose names the Helios team are not at liberty to reveal. The six guests (never to be referred to as “boot campers”) are all chauffeur-driven up the spiralling narrow road to the stunning villa, which perches above an incredible vista of the island and the sea beyond. On our arrival, Helios Retreats founder (and Greek-god lookalike) Hugo Martini Mensch is waiting to greet us, smoothies at the ready.
We are all here for different reasons: some to escape the stress of city life, others to lose weight, some to get inspired to live a more mindful existence, and a few who are simply looking for an alternative, healthier style of holiday. We all start the programme with a gentle sunset yoga class on the villa’s highest terrace led by Sarah Highfield, a yogi with a formidable private client list, who has taught at some of the best studios in London, including Form and Bodyism. What she’s adept at is helping to unleash the “yin” in very “yang” personality types. And with me, she does it in a matter of minutes. As we open our arms in the first sun salutation, Sarah massages tiger balm into my tight shoulders and I surrender. For the first time in ages, I mindfully stretch, breathe deep and unwind for the 45-minute session, which ends with a 10-minute meditation as the sun sets over the island.
Helios personal trainer Danny Osborne explains the retreat’s approach to wellbeing: “Helios is about balance. Of course, we will be in for some intense exercise, but only if it is counterbalanced with relaxation.” Science backs up the value of this approach. It’s about cortisol, the stress hormone. “High levels of stress can provoke excessive levels of cortisol, which can cause your metabolism to slow down – and also increase the storage of fat around the abdomen. Training in a relaxing environment will help you lower cortisol, which helps you lose weight more effectively.” So alongside the high-intensity workouts, we also enjoy lazy afternoons by the infinity pool. In addition to our healthy, balanced and beautifully crafted menus, we can also have a glass of organic wine in the evening, without any trace of guilt.
I’m shown to my elegant zen-inspired room, replete with organic toiletries and a goodie bag brimming with “wellness” delights, including leggings, dark raw chocolate and a beautiful candle. I light it straight away to get into the zone and very quickly fade into a deep and rejuvenating sleep.
I am woken on day two, and for the rest of the trip, at the sprightly hour of 7am – initially unwelcome, but about which I feel quite smug after a few early nights. After a quick espresso, we walk to the villa’s helipad, where Danny greets us with a warm smile.
I’m not going to candy-coat it – his workouts are hard and sweaty. But they aren’t insurmountably exhausting. Danny focuses on short bursts of HIIT rather than an hour of non-stop cardio. We start off with 20-second hill sprints, followed by 30 seconds of gentle jogging. He explains – mid-sprint – that short bursts of high-intensity exercise raise your EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). “So rather than just burning fat during the workout, you also burn it for hours after the workout as your body recovers. And most importantly, it’s more fun.” I’m not sure I’d have chosen that adjective myself, but with the endorphins high and the knowledge that breakfast is next on the agenda, I remain motivated right through to the cool-down stretch at the end of the 50 minutes.
Breakfast is organic buckwheat and quinoa cooked in fresh coconut water, served with walnut milk and a spoon of homemade mango and passionfruit jam. It’s delicious and typical of what we can expect of the kitchen each day; the Michelin-trained chef elevates healthy food such as eggs on toast, fruit salad and smoothies into something that is truly indulgent.
The menu at Helios follows a “chrononutrition” regime, a method first developed in 1986 by Dr Alain Delabos, based on the belief that the time of day you eat affects your metabolism and health, and that the majority of the food we consume should be enjoyed before 5pm. As the body is not digesting as we sleep, this allows us to naturally detox overnight. Eating an early light dinner is not only proven to aid weight management, but also improves sleep and helps our muscles recover better from exercise we’ve had during the day. Seeing as the exercise scheduled for the afternoons is lighter than in the mornings, and my habitual stress is beginning to loosen its tight grip on my mind and body, my evening hunger levels (which are normally skyrocketing by dinner) feel nominal. And because the food throughout the day is sustaining (it includes both protein and carbs), a dinner of seabass cooked in basil and garlic, with a rocket, sundried tomato and pistachio salad feels ample.
The Bottom Line
I spend a lot of my time telling myself I have to eat well/work harder/exercise more. A by-product of this is stress, and a by-product of stress is cortisol – one of the biggest culprits when it comes to weight gain. Helios taught me how to relinquish these self-inflicted pressures by making time to breathe, relax and rebalance, not just to improve my mindset, but to improve my health and physique.
After leaving Helios, I drew the yin-yang symbol in my notebook – a small reminder to keep being kind to myself when I return to the big city. Let’s hope it lasts.
Spa Junkie, aka Inge Theron, is the founder of FaceGym, and pays for all her own travel, accommodation and therapies. She paid £1,995 for a six-night retreat at Helios, including twice-daily yoga and training sessions, all meals and airport transfers.