The long, sun-bleached drive leading to the fairytale turreted Château de Robernier wends its way through vast vineyards – I gaze longingly, but sadly I’m not here for the wine. I am delivering myself, stress-worn and work-weary, to the rigours of a trailblazing six-day holistic retreat.
Bodhimaya (£3,595), held several times a year in this corner of Provence, near Cotignac, is the brainchild of London-based O’Shaughnessy brothers Daniel, the nutritional therapist, and Cornelius, the yoga, mind and meditation expert. Not only is there no alcohol, naturellement, but no caffeine, gluten or grain – nor is there solid food for the first three days of the intensive detox programme. Just vegetable juices – individually prescribed for each client – herbal teas, soup in the evening and carefully selected supplements. For most of the guests, that is, as I have opted for a milder, less drastic detox, planned specifically for me and my health needs. This is the whole point of Bodhimaya’s intensely personalised approach to detoxification, rejuvenation and health optimisation: it is the minutely researched care and attention at every step of the way that sets it apart from the normal run of retreats and is, it seems, the future of nutritional medicine.
So let’s be clear: if you’re thinking, as I did, nice spa holiday in the south of France, forget it. This is a serious, hardcore overhaul of your physical and mental wellbeing, intended to be life-changing and have long-term positive effects. I was halfway out of the door at my pre-retreat consultation with Daniel, at his Marylebone clinic, when he told me about the three-day juice/soup-only initial purge. Seeing panic in my eyes, he reassured me that, if I preferred (yes, yes, yes), he would design a special functional-food eating plan, a gentle cleanse to support the detoxification process and balance the “ecosystem of the body”. It seems “functional” is the new “F” word: it means food tailored to meet specific nutritional requirements.
Daniel explained that after the first three days, healing, nourishing and rejuvenating foods would be introduced in the form of smoothies and more substantial soups, followed at the end of the retreat by meals prepared by a functional-food expert, in this case Paula Ellis-Hill, who works closely with Daniel, conjuring up dishes from ingredients selected for their health-giving, or health‑regulating, properties.
Perhaps to ensure I don’t make a run for it, Daniel picks me up at Nice airport and drives the hour or so into deepest rural Provence, baguettes and saucisson receding with each kilometre. At the Château, I am greeted by white-jacketed staff and shown to my room, with its four-poster bed and air of faded aristocratic grandeur, and then introduced to the other guests. We are a small, disparate band of burnt‑out health-seekers: a young female British lawyer, an Irish restaurateur, various executives, a boyband member, an Olympic swimmer and a fashion forecaster who eats only raw food. We are like guests at a country-house party; it’s Agatha Christie on juice. And I for one could murder a glass of wine.
Despite its unappetising name, functional food turns out to be delicious. On the first evening we are given a Last Supper, a fond-farewell-to-food banquet, held at a long table in the candlelit ballroom; we eat gazpacho, Moroccan vegetable tagine with lemon and coriander quinoa, followed by a ridiculously rich chocolate “cheesecake” made with avocado instead of cheese. The aim, Daniel tells us, is to show that healthy eating can be imaginative (also at times very complicated – I would need to take Ellis-Hill home with me).
From 7am the next day, when Cornelius wakes me with hot water and lemon, a slow, sun-hazed rhythmic routine unfolds: an hour each of dynamic yoga and meditation, led by Cornelius, followed by breakfast – homemade granola with cashew milk and berry compote for me and juice for the other guests, with more juice at midday and 4.30pm for them, and lunch for me: sunflower-seed pâté and fennel, orange and black-olive salad. Another hour of restorative yoga takes place at 5.30pm, then an hour of meditation outside at sunset, after which comes dinner – a clear chicken broth for us all, with shreds of chicken for me. I am still ravenous, though, so the next day Daniel follows me around with a bowl of almonds in case I feel faint.
Each day, there are spa appointments, massages (my after-dinner aromatherapy one sends me floating up the grand marble staircase to my four-poster) and facials using REN products, as well as walks through the vineyards, talks and demonstrations – given by Daniel and nutritional therapist Olga Hamilton – on juicing, superfoods and fermented food. At one workshop we make sauerkraut (a powerful probiotic), mixing it with our hands – very therapeutic – and packing it into a jam jar, which I bizarrely stash in my suitcase to take home.
Each day, too, Daniel, Cornelius and Olga hold one-to-one consultations – as many as the client needs, they say – and here, for me, lies the true value of Bodhimaya. The retreat is just the start of the experience, but the consultations are part of an extensive and generous aftercare package. “After six days,” says Daniel, “people begin to come into themselves; they’re stripped back to who they are. And they find they can trust us.”
Both brothers are incredibly unassuming – almost disconcertingly so – but behind the zen modesty there’s impressive expertise, innovative thinking and a genuine, all-consuming passion for “looking after people”, as they put it. “For a lot of people, good health depends on time, and our clients are time-poor, working ridiculous hours and constantly on and off planes,” says Daniel. “We’re used to dealing with that; we can make a diet work in line with a person’s schedule. We fly out to meet them, take calls at 4am if someone is going through a hard time and send one of our team to Whole Foods to do their shopping, or to their home to show them how to cook or go through the menus of restaurants they’ll be eating at.”
The brothers explain that their personalisation of therapies and their blend of intuition and state-of-the-art scientific research “allow the boundaries to change with each client”. Their approach has proved so successful that Bodhimaya organises bespoke retreats (from £55,000 for seven days for up to four people), customised according to the clients’ needs and wishes. These can be for one person or for groups of up to 14, at a location of the clients’ choice, from the Maldives to Lake Como or a private yacht. “We take care of everything,” Cornelius says. “We create a special programme and bring the yoga teacher, spa therapist and functional-food expert.”
Daniel’s specialities include energy imbalances, weight management and digestion, and he has had a “very good success rate”. Treatment, either in London or on retreat, the brothers tell me, usually begins with a quest for nutrition advice; then “the mind gets tied in”. Clients often first present with digestive issues or fatigue, after they’ve tried everyone and everything else, and there is almost always underlying stress. Cornelius, who, by his own admission, turned his life around through eastern philosophy and meditation, has studied such disciplines for many years, but says the Bodhimaya mind programme is “down-to-earth, based on logic – we don’t push beliefs”.
As well as helping clients to develop a “wiser and more peaceful approach to life, which reduces stress and anxiety”, Cornelius offers a treatment called “somatic release”, which he learnt from a blind Ayurvedic massage therapist in the Himalayas. Holding the head, and using the slightest of movements around the neck, he is able to release tension in the body. It’s a technique that has certainly worked for me, helping me to cope more easily with stress.
Cornelius works increasingly with CEOs, MDs and executives, particularly in the banking world. He gives one-to-one meditation sessions at his clinic, or at a client’s home or holiday villa or even at their workplace. “Meditation is no longer associated with a hippie mentality; it can help increase productivity by changing people’s response to stress,” he says.
My own aftercare centres on BodhiGen – Bodhimaya’s version of nutrigenomics, the emerging science that studies the way food and genes interact. Daniel is one of only a handful of nutritional therapists qualified to carry out the test. The results require expert analysis and translation into practical recommendations for diet and supplements. Of course, he gives them his own slant: “We analyse genetic information, but also look at and listen to the client.”
Raw genetic data from saliva is fed through software, which identifies issues based on the latest research available. The information is then assessed along with the client’s health history to devise a programme designed to bring their body to an optimum state of wellbeing. “You might not be able to change your DNA,” says Daniel, “but diet, nutritional status, toxic load, environmental factors and stress all influence how genes are expressed.” He talks a lot about the importance of “methylation”, a biochemical process linked with detoxification and immune function that is affected by our genetic expression.
The procedure involves spitting into a test tube, shaking it and, hey presto, six weeks later my ancestral history surfaces, along with all sorts of intriguing details. Some, fascinatingly, tally with certain of my peculiarities: recently, I found I can’t drink coffee – apparently because I’m slow to metabolise caffeine. I’m also difficult to hypnotise, acutely sensitive to noise and, less accurately, I think, a “likely sprinter” – but then again, who knows…
When I leave Château de Robernier, the merry band of Bodhimayans all look and sound rejuvenated, bursting with steely intentions. Weight losses are impressive. Some, no doubt, will fall off the wagon; others say they feel transformed. As for me, I begin to change my diet, up the yoga and become addicted to Daniel’s homemade granola. I am adapting slowly to the recommendations resulting from the test and taking the specially composed vitamin and mineral supplement in powder form. The overall effect is subtle but profound: there is a marked improvement in my energy, sleep, mood and response to stress, and my anxiety levels have decreased.
A week after my return from Provence, I open the cupboard under the stairs and find, among the tools and shoe polish, the sauerkraut, which has been fermenting in the dark. It couldn’t be more low-tech and homely. From high-tech to hands-on, that’s Bodhimaya health.