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  • Shelley Dark


Totally recovered this morning thank goodness. Must have been something I ate. Or didn't eat. Don't you love borage flowers? They're in the herb garden and and they're using lots of other darling little flowers in our salads as well.

When I was booking this stay, I thought the equine experience sounded just a bit corny. Then my hairdresser said that he wished he had done it. And since I've been here, I'm hearing it’s a must-do. So I've booked it. Voilà!

It starts at six o'clock at the round horse yard over past the gym. I decide to take the SLR camera in its bag. I haven’t intended to use it here, because it’s big and intrusive. But we will be far away from everyone over at the horse yard, and my fellow guests may appreciate having photos of themselves with the horse. I’ll ask them as we go if they'd like some.

I wander over to phone John at 5.30 past a family of very quiet ducks who graze on the lawns.

That's the reception building in the background with herb gardens closer to the dining room.

The gym is well equipped - I haven't seen anything of it so far! The bigger swimming pool is here, and the tennis courts. It's too early for anyone to be using the equipment yet.

Sue our instructor arrives with her horse Stevie in a float. Her name is really Suzanne Spence and she lives nearby. She gives us each of us a booklet labelled Effective Communication: it’s about body language and personality profiling using a modern adaptation of the four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholy, and phlegmatic. Or as Sue calls them, Sunnies, Yogis, Mindys and Larrys. They're the names of four of her horses who perfectly reflect the personality types.

Everyone is happy for me to take photos, and would like them emailed to them. This is Stevie. He doesn't mind either.

Stevie is a chestnut gelding with a rope bridle. No bit, no reins. He’s not an intimidating size. He stands placidly as Sue starts to speak to us. After a while I realise you could let a bomb go off and Stevie wouldn’t flinch. She walks around and he follows her like a dog. She puts her hand out and he starts walking. She does something else and he stops. She moves her hand ever so slightly again and he begins to canter. She’s showing us that the tiniest action with our body can send messages to people and animals around us. That’s how she’s getting Stevie to do what she wants.

Then she starts to tell us about herself. She was always horsey. At some stage she began to realise that horses have the potential to help troublesome kids. She started working with them, calling it the Horse Whispering Youth Program, and found that kids who had failed at everything suddenly found their tongues and their soft side. Started taking an interest in something. Started attending school.

Then she started using horses to teach effective communication as she will do with us today. Her business got bigger and bigger, and now she has a book coming out in April. She’s just won a small business award. She is self-deprecating, funny, engaging, charming, intelligent and a straight shooter. Really quite adorable. She worked for 30 years in the fitness industry in management, instruction and education, and was sponsored by Nike. She wrote the HELP program which teaches instructors how to recognise eating disorders and exercise addiction.

We’re all to work with Stevie. But first we need to decide what personality type we are. There are Sunnies, the A types, the bossy britches. And the Yogis, the extroverted optimists. The shy retiring Mindy Melancholies who lack a little confidence and find it difficult to say no. And the phlegmatic steady reliable Larrys. All have their own body language. All can adjust it to better communicate with others.

Everyone has to classify themselves. Everyone classifies themselves easily. I know immediately I’m a mix of mainly Sunny with some Yogi. Sue says she has never done psychology, but she is as good a psychologist as I have ever heard speak. She demonstrates how a Sunny might march through a room, speaking to left and right in machine gun fashion ‘That report should have been finished yesterday’ ‘I want to see you in my office now’ ‘Let me know when you’ll be finished analysing those figures’. She has us laughing. ‘Yes,’ she says ‘Some Sunnies in office situations are worse bullies than the criminals in jail.’

She tells us that in order to get people to listen to us, we need body language which inspires confidence and trust. The different personality types may need to modify their body language in different ways. Sunnies can appear threatening. Mindys can slouch and put their hands across their body expressing their lack of confidence. Yogis can fail to be taken seriously. Larrys can be passed over.

At 8.30am our picnic breakfast is delivered to us: fruit, poached egg and avocado on toast. I could get used to this.

Sue runs us through the procedure. It’s much the same for dealing with horses and people. Each of us gets into the ring, one at a time, and gets Stevie to follow our non-verbal instructions. This is me getting Stevie to walk. I walk a little faster and he starts to canter.

A hint from Sue: if you're in a meeting and you've lost concentration and have no idea what's being said, do the laser beam stare - straight at the speaker. It will convince them, and you, that you're listening.

This is what no looks like. We all need to be able to say no. Authoritatively so that we are listened to. Stevie won't move if we don't do it properly.

To communicate effectively:

  1. Exhale, deeply. (Sue calls this taking some jelly belly breaths) Relax your belly. We've heard this before haven't we? It's calming. No one is going to respond well to you or listen properly if you are tense. You’ll only make them nervous.

  2. Relax the shoulders but open them up - don’t hunch. You're showing you're open to others, not withholding.Stand with your feet slightly apart - the Wonderwoman or cowboy stance

  3. Stick out your belly slightly so your hips are ahead of our shoulders - she says to pretend you have a belly button piercing (!) and you want to show it off. Sue also calls it selling your pants. She demonstrates how a model walks with hips thrust out, shoulders open, arms free at the sides. Then she walks like a Mindy, slouching her shoulders with her hands over her belly. ‘If they were both modelling pants,’ she says, ‘which pants would you buy? Sunny’s or Mindy’s?

  4. Hold your hands at about waist level, elbows bent, relaxed. (see the first photo of Sue up at the top? like that.) Mindys should hold a pencil or a cup to help them hold their hand up. It opens up the body and makes you look more confident, friendlier. Keep you shoulders, jaw and arms relaxed.

  5. What is your favourite food? That’s what you are holding out to Stevie, or anyone you are trying to communicate with. A man in the class says ‘pork chops’. Forever after I’ll think of holding out pork chops when I hold out my hands.

  6. There are three parts to the process with Stevie - standing up looking at him and waving your forefinger to make him back up, holding your hand upwards to make him walk and canter, bending over to make him stop.

  7. You trail a whip along the ground behind you. Flick it ever so slightly on the ground if necessary. Then holding a rope across between the hands to get their position right (again, same as Sue in first photo). I marvel at how beautifully she has trained him. He is as docile as a faithful dog. I ask how old he is. 26. That’s old. You wouldn’t guess. He looks wonderful for his age.

  8. It’s amazing how Stevie just stands still and doesn't budge if the signal command isn’t done exactly right. Once you have it right, he moves. A couple of times he goes to sleep. He's done this before.

Sue is such a star. She's a great mimic, a natural psychologist, a comedian, a performer. She sums each of us up immediately, and helps us all to adjust our body language. As we watch her demonstrating, it's so obvious that she has all the personality types pinned down. And within minutes I'm seeing so clearly what other people's body language means. And she makes us laugh out loud.

The takeaway message is that there should never be any intimidation or fear in communication. There should only be respect and trust. What an amazing experience. I'm going to sell my pants more. Don't laugh. I mean it. If you get the chance to do a course with Sue, don't miss it.

I get lots of photos to email. At the end we all troop off for the rest of the tribal dance. Taryn is glowing and laughing. It’s as much fun as Nia was, but our heads are still back in the horse ring with Sue and Stevie.

At 11am our morning tea is a red ‘cake’ with pink ‘icing’. I'm fooled. It looks so much like cake. It's made from beetroot with no sugar. I take a little bite, wrap it in a napkin and put it in the bin. It finishes me for pretend sweet things. They pretend to be what they are not. It’s just as Sharon said in one of her talks. When your stomach thinks it’s going to get something sweet, it gets ready to digest something sweet. I’d rather savoury snacks, which taste how they look. There’s also a big bowl of fruit, so I eat an apple.

Before lunch we have a talk by Karl Ostrowski about incidental movement. He tells us he is 51 soon. He looks no more than 40. He’s trim, lean, very short haircut, beautiful shiny olive skin, shorts and a t-shirt. Everyone and everything is casual here. The women staff wear a uniform of a fabric which could be cotton, bamboo or rayon in white or green khaki stretch fabric. Flowing skirts or loose pants, t-shirts with different necklines, the long green khaki scarf.

He’s passionate about his subject and has several degrees. We need to do more incidental exercise during the day, as well as our organised activities. He squats like an Indian. He asks us all to squat. In my dreams maybe. There are several places in the world where it's common for people to reach their hundredth year. In each of these regions it's common to sit in the squatting position.

There are benefits to squatting every day, even for a few minutes: the pelvic floor is toned, the back is strengthened, lumbar flexibility is increased, there is more mobility in the sacroiliac joint, the viscera are massaged, haemorrhoids are reduced or even disappear. (Sikirhov 1987, 20 patients with haemorrhoids, 18 disappeared or reduced, 12 and 30 months later, no recurrence)

We should practise squatting. If you can't do it, lean up against a wall and slide down it, or hold on to a post and lower yourself, or lower yourself with a swiss ball on the wall behind your back. At worst, put a stool underneath you to squat on.

The human body is designed to squat to defecate. There are several manufactured stools to put in front of the toilet, one called Squatty Potty, another called In Lieu.

Karl asks us to stand on one leg with our eyes closed while he times us for 30 seconds. We need good balance in our old age. I have to put my foot on the ground at about 3. Some people, including the girl next to me, hold the pose for 30 seconds without putting their feet on the ground.

I ask her how she does that. She says that for a couple of years, she has been closing her eyes and standing on one foot while she cleans her teeth. At first she couldn’t do it, but she got better and better. I’m amazed at such a simple idea. Another take-home.

The ability to go from a sitting position to standing without the help of the arms (chair raising strength) is an indicator of longevity.

The way we sit for long periods without getting up is also bad for our bodies. Scarily, one study of people who sit for more than 6 hours a day has shown the same rate of heart attack in those who exercise regularly and those who do not. In other words, sitting for long periods negates the effect of exercise as it impacts on cardio problems. Get up every 15 mins, or on the hour at least. Karl tells us about an app called Workplace Break which rings an alarm every hour, and can suggest a different exercise to do each time.

Another study has shown that out of 73,000 women there were three times the coronary events in people who sat for long hours during the day than in those who did not.

How to stop sitting: every time phone rings or an email arrives, stand up, have a standing work station, set an alarm for every half hour, put your mobile in the next room so you have to walk to it when it rings, use stairs, carry groceries rather than use a trolley.

By the time you're 50, you have lost 2kg of muscle. But the time you're 60, its 3kg. By 70, it's 4kg. Don't even ask about 80. Squatters hold muscle better. In another study, doing weights in the gym doubled the metabolic rate for 36 hours compared with running which only elevated it for 4-6 hours.

It's being discovered that endurance athletes are suffering health problems from the intensity of their exercise. The human body isn't made to do marathons. These athletes have been found to be suffering from osteoporosis, heart irregularities, and it is thought that the heart muscle is being damaged by a chemical called Troponin which is produced after the second hour of exercise.

Interval training is the way to go - smaller periods of steady exercise interspersed with bursts of speed rather than all at high intensity, or all at low intensity.

SUMMARY: We need to learn to and practise the squat and incorporate more incidental exercise into our day. Sitting for long periods without getting up at least once each hour leads to a much greater incidence of coronary events. Balance is important for healthy old age. Weight bearing exercise and interval training is important.

I'm looking forward to lunch. It's seafood paella - absolutely delicious, with prawns, mussels, vongole, fish. And lots of vegetables. We are beginning to get to know each other and mealtimes are enjoyable. There are some very impressive people here.

Mid-afternoon I go for a complimentary makeup with a willowy young blonde girl whose own natural-looking make up complements her perfect golden skin. She’s been working as an extra in a film. She is amused when I say the makeup of the girl before me is ‘fabulous’. She has a friend who likes vintage things and uses that word all the time because she thinks it's a vintage sort of word. She mimics her, saying ‘fabulous’ in a breathy Marilyn Monroe way. I say that I use the word because I actually am genuinely vintage. She thinks that's very funny too.

I do a little packing. At four o'clock, I'm ready for the Essential Wellness Package. It's in one of the consulting rooms in the Wellness Centre, with its lovely old counter. The package is comprised of iridology and live blood analysis. Doing this is really 'out there' for me. I am expecting a naturopath who talks the talk. Holistics. Probiotics. Vitamin supplements. A few gasps and tsk tsks at the state of my health. A shopping list a mile long. Pills and potions.

Instead I get Nick, a picture of man-chic with spiky haircut, clear skin and trendy glasses, whose background is in medical science.

I don't say so, but I think iridology is so much gobbledygook. As if he has read my mind, Nick says he used to grave doubts about it as a science until he studied it for two years. Now he’s convinced. He says some markings in the eye are definite indicators of weakness or predisposition for disease or inflammation, others are not so reliable.

He takes closeup photos of each of my eyes.

The photo of my left eye fills the whole computer screen. There are scattered brown blobs over my blue iris. It looks a mess. That's just a bit of hazel colour, he says. Relax.

He begins to analyse. We look at the general fabric of the eye. The white should look like a closely woven fabric. His classifications are silk, linen, hessian and net. Mine are silk/linen. So far so good. He points to an area which he says indicates likely problems with the left knee. The only painful area of my body is actually my left knee. He says I could have problems with my thyroid. I have a defunct thyroid through Hashimoto’s disease, an auto-immune complaint diagnosed in my late thirties. 'Get out of here,' I say, 'have you been looking at my medical records?'

He speaks about other areas. The pancreas might be a bit weak. I don't even know where it is. It means I may need to reduce sugar and carbohydrate consumption. Controlling my blood sugar levels. I need more zinc. A slight indication of a dementia ring on the left eye, none on the right eye. Maybe I'm half-demented. It's quite fascinating.

I’ve never looked at live blood under a microscope. Nick takes a drop of my blood and puts it on a slide. We look at it together on the computer screen. It’s fascinating to watch, little white circles (red blood cells) moving rapidly around, with tiny bits of white fluff (fat cells) rocketing around between them. The motion is due probably as much from being squished on the slide as from real activity, and then slowing down. We watch for popping, where a cell pops and then disappears to leave a shadow of itself - we don’t want that to happen to too many. Nick says if I’d had a packet of potato chips last night the whole screen would be a white cloud flurry. I wish I had. My red blood cells are a bit fragile. I hear about haemolysis, neutrophils, eosinophils, monocytes, lymphocytes. It's very interesting what role each plays.

I enjoy talking to him. Everything he says makes sense. While I won’t be relying on iridology for future health diagnosis, I don't get the feeling that he would recommend it as a sole method either. I am really interested in his explanations.

He says his 77 year old mother-in-law walked part of the Camino track this year, by herself. What a girl! Isn’t that fabulous? Gives us all hope. I tell him about my new business and how after hearing Sharon’s talk, I think I might be stressing out my adrenal glands. He offers diet suggestions to boost them.

At the end there is no hard sell. He suggests adjustments to my diet based on the zinc test we did the other day, and also what he sees on the computer screen, and my own observations. There is no feeling of a time limit on the consultation. He spends a long time writing out suggestions to improve our diet when I arrive home. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners. No pills, except perhaps brahmi when I feel I need it, for helping to keep dementia at bay. Must look it up.

I go back to my room to get ready for dinner. I put a few things in my car in case it’s raining tomorrow at checkout.

I'm feeling hungry by now. Dinner is slow-cooked lamb and jus and mashed potato which isn’t potato - I think it's parsnip again. But not too bad. Lots of yummy steamed veggies as usual.

The after-dinner surprise is a fire in the amphitheatre outside the dining room. We have all written down three things we intend to let go from now on, and every one of us throws our piece of paper on the fire to burn. It doesn’t take long. I couch my phrasing carefully: I'm letting go of 1. too much sugar 2. too much alcohol 3. B.A.D

Tomorrow is the last day. We leave after lunch after the birthday party. I’m sad in one way, but I’m ready to go in another. The birthday party should be interesting. Night buddies.

shelley dark, writer 

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