The gravel on the drive is loose in parts and calls for careful driving. As you approach the place of peace, you are forced to slow your city ways if you don’t want to slide off into the bush.
After all, happiness and inner enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. And upon arriving at the homely retreat deep in the Kenthurst bush, you have just begun your journey.
Those who have found that inner peace in this sanctuary for the past 30 years and more know what awaits them.
That enigmatic smile of Australia’s most beloved Swami Sarasvati, the bird-like Indian woman credited with introducing yoga to this country in the 1960s, is capable of wiping away at least some of the stress of visitors. A few days of yoga, meditation, bush-walking, massages and healthy eating will do the rest.
Here, at Swami’s Yoga Retreat, you can play tennis, swim, walk in groups or alone, and take advantage of the swag of treatments to restore, or even capture for the first time, physical and mental balance. People from all over the world come to the retreat, sitting on 24 hectares, to repair their bodies, minds and relationships.
Neat, cosy rooms with ensuites, a communal dining area, swimming pool, tennis court, massage therapies, yoga classes and walking trails make your stay both comfortable and uplifting.
"People often come here on a Friday straight from work, still wearing their suits, and they start to unwind within 48 hours"
— Sanjay Hackett.
Sydney Hills residents are lucky to have such a sanctuary on their doorstep, yet many new to the area may not even know it exists. After all, the Swami is no longer at the height of her fame, which reached a peak in the 1970s through her popular national show on Channel 10. Following that, there were videos, books, talks and television appearances and then, in 1983, the retreat opened.
When her TV program started in 1969, the day after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, Australians thought they were looking at an alien creature, albeit a fit and petitely pretty one. The fact that she was already in her early 30s with the suppleness of a teenager, able to put her limbs in places they should not go while smiling effortlessly, was mind-blowing to many Australians who had not heard of yoga.
At one stage her fame almost surpassed The Beatles’ popularity, at least in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall, where, in the 1970s, she drew a crowd second only to the Fab Four’s earlier visit to the centre.
That’s how her dedicated son, Sanjay Hackett, tells it, as he talks proudly of his now-frail mother who is, sadly, living with early-stage dementia.
The Swami is still a presence at the retreat, with her long black mane and smooth skin virtually unchanged from her heyday. Yoga and meditation remain a part of her daily life, although Sanjay now takes most of the classes.
While, of course, she is in her late 70s, the enigmatic Swami “only admits to 39”, Sanjay says. And why not?
The two walk closely together as they take me on a tour of the retreat, often exchanging affirming hand grabs. Swami smiles as Sanjay tells the incredible story of her “discovery” back in 1969.
Swami Sarasvati, that gentle woman who grew up in an ashram in the northern Indian region of Baranesi, had been sent by her father, also Swami Sarasvati, at the age of 18 to introduce yoga to Australia. The Swami comes from a long line of yogis, so her life’s mission was to spread the word about yoga and meditation.
“Mum was doing yoga on a northern Sydney beach when a woman who was watching her told a newspaper reporter that she had seen a woman emerge from the sea in a sari, completely dry,” Sanjay said with a smile. “The reporter interviewed her and found out about the Swami’s story, of the benefits of yoga, and wrote about her. Soon after that, Channel 10 approached her about doing a show. It had been due to air the day of the moon landing, which was all over TV of course, so it went on the next day.”
Almost as soon as Swami hit our screens, we were hooked, with people — mostly women — of all ages moving their bodies in ways they had not imagined possible, on their lounge floors.
By then, Swami had been married to her Australian husband Darryl, a surf-lifesaver with an interest in yoga, for some years and he became her producer. He died 10 years ago after a long illness.
Sanjay was born in 1978 and was swept up into the world of yoga from a young age, teaching from his early teens. While his mother has always been his guiding light, these days Sanjay leads the way, with his revered mother by his side. He trained to be a lawyer, and lives part of the week with his wife and two young children in Drummoyne, who join him most weeks at the retreat.
“Helping mum with this retreat is far more satisfying than practising law,” comes Sanjay’s understatement as we sit down for lunch with guests. “People often come here on a Friday straight from work, still wearing their suits, and they start to unwind within 48 hours, which is when they have to go home,” Sanjay said. But, then, many of those return when they have more time off work, knowing how beneficial it will be to their stressed lives.
Sanjay is open about Swami’s dementia, saying, “It is part of life. Yoga and meditation allow you to live a good life, but it does not make you impervious to every disease,” he said. “Mum has lived a good life, and has helped so many people. When we were in India last year, she said that if she died tomorrow, she would die happy.”
And you really can’t ask for more than that.
A retreat day
7:30..... Wake up bell
8:00..... Morning affirmation walk
8:30..... Wake up yoga exercises or meditation
9:00..... Fruit and muesli breakfast
10:30... Therapeutic yoga class
1:00..... Wholesome salad lunch
2:30..... Yoga Nidra (relaxation) class or bush walk
3:30..... Free time to use gym, sauna, spa or just relax by the pool
6:00..... Delicious vegetarian dinner
8:30..... Herbal tea
Swami's Yoga Retreat
183-185 Pitt Town Rd Kenthurst
Phone 9654 9029/ 1800 999 156
Tariff, from $398 pp twin share one night to $2,030 six nights. Single rates. Extra for treatments that include massages, facials and panic healing. Details at swami.com.au/yoga-a-health-retreat