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The Empowerment In Retreating to Improved Health


The Empowerment In Retreating to Improved Health

Felicity Cohen: Hello, I’m Felicity Cohen. I’m so excited to introduce you to my wellness warriors podcast. For over 20 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for helping thousands of Australians find solutions to treating obesity and health-related complications through surgical intervention and holistic managed care.

My podcast is dedicated to all the people. Past, present and future who have helped shape my journey and continue to inspire me to work consistently to achieve a healthier Australia in both adults and future generations. I hope you enjoy.

Welcome to my Wellness Warriorspodcast today. It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Donna and Marcelo Abbate. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having us. My pleasure. So you both have so much to tell us in the way of your unique strengths in the wellness industry. So much history of a career that spanned many years of facilitation in health retreats for you, Donna and Marcelo with your client base as well.

So very different strengths and a lot to to share with us. First of all, I’m going to start with you, Donna, what was your first exposure to the wellness industry and what took you down that pathway originally?

Donna Abbate: I guess growing up, I was quite unwell and back in those days there was no coaches or naturopath or personal trainers.

I lived in New Zealand in the north island and on a farm. So I was quite sick with chronic asthma and I was always put into hospital with asthma. So once I kind of got a little bit older and I was feeling sick of being sick. I thought, well, who do I go to for support? And back in those days, there wasn’t much support still. But one of my best friends, she started seeing a naturopath and I thought, what’s a naturopath?

I got really hungry to learn about how to fix myself. So my first experience was really going straight from high school into studying naturopathy. So yeah, I did naturopathy straight out of grade 12 and that was the pathway for me. So I’ve been doing that now for 30 years.

Felicity Cohen: So what are some of your most significant learnings just from naturopathy before moving into the other disciplines that you’re so focused on as well? And that you’ve incorporated into your overall program and everything that you deliver. What do you believe are the most important learnings from naturopathy for you?

Donna Abbate: What I loved about naturopathy is you study so many different subjects. So you’re studying psychology and Chinese medicine. And you’re studying chemistry, biochemistry and nutritional sciences, and even touching on exercise. So it’s very holistic. So it was the perfect foundation for me to see things. Even yoga came into the equation back then and yoga wasn’t very popular.

So I started doing yoga and all those odd practices back then. And it was a depth of self-discovery for me. From there I started to leverage from it. So as soon as I finished my degree, I did exercise science because I was so young back then. I was only like 22 years old when I’d finished naturopathy. There wasn’t many naturopaths out there, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to build a business at that time.

So that’s when personal trainers started to be born a long, long time ago when it was the rich and famous people that kind of signed up for it for a personal trainer. It’s kind of like having your own personal chef now. It’s kind of like, Ooh, people don’t really do that. I was quite young in the industry as a personal trainer and I got really fit and that led me into wanting to do more yoga because then I was getting stiffer.

So then I started to expand on my yoga, but I didn’t become a teacher as such at that time. I really got into probably a good 10 years of developing Fit For Life, which is our company where it was naturopathy and personal training. I did massage and became quite integrated with my clients. I could offer more.

Felicity Cohen: It’s really exciting to work in an industry sector that you’re working in from its infancy and watching growth, development, change, and acceptance over time. It’s very rewarding to see those kinds of benefits. So I know your specific area of yoga that you teach and that you’re passionate about is Iyengar yoga, which I’ve learned from you and was lucky enough to be exposed to that form of yoga. It’s fantastic.

We don’t see much of it. What are some of the benefits that you see from Iyengar yoga?

Donna Abbate: Iyengar was a perfect path for me because being a personal trainer, it’s all about alignment and structure and posture. And so that style of yoga kind of fitted my model and it was good. By the time I got into health retreats, I found that a lot of people couldn’t do a lot of postures because of their lack of alignment and their injuries.

So I literally had to choose a practice that supported them to be successful as a beginner. And I found that Iyengar yoga, that’s where all the yoga props are born. And so I started to use all the props, which is Iyengar yoga to enable people to feel comfortable to do the yoga postures. And so it was really getting a clientele that couldn’t access different postures that led me onto that path of Iyengar.

For me, what I really needed, because I am was so structured at the time, I needed more flow yoga and more other disciplines of yoga. But I found that this was the best path in order to help be a service to my clients. And then from that I went off and studied Yin yoga, Vinyasa flow yoga and different styles of yoga.

But I keep being brought back to that because of running retreats, people just want to feel comfortable and want to learn how to do it correctly.

Felicity Cohen: Oh, I love it. And it’s definitely an area of yoga that you introduced me to, and I feel influenced by that beautiful opportunity. I find it really disappointing that I can’t access more of it here.

Especially during COVID you weren’t allowed to use the props and that became a problem. So hopefully at some point in time, we’ll see more of it because I think it’s spectacular. And I love that you get that whole body alignment out of Iyengar yoga.

Donna Abbate: You feel safe. Because I find that in order for people to let go, which is one of the aspects of yoga, you need to feel safe.

So since you put someone in a posture where they can be supported, then all of a sudden they can breathe properly, and then they let go, and then they feel, or they experienced yoga. So yoga is that essence that we try and get someone to. That feeling of joining and connecting to breath, mind, body, and breath.

And often when you do other styles of yoga, people are just so confused by the choreography. Am I doing this right? So they’re trapped in their head and they’re not really getting into their body and they’re not feeling grounded. They’re not feeling safe. They’re not feeling held. So then they can’t let go and they don’t have that real yoga experience. So that’s what I love about Iyengar.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful. Love it. All right. I’m going to come back to you. Let’s give him a shell or a chance to say a few words. I’m dying to hear all about your background and what led you into the health sector that. Now Marcello, can you give us a little bit of an insight into your background?

Marcello Abbate: So we immigrated from Italy to Australia in 1980, and there’s five boys in my family. When we first arrived, my mum started feeling unwell. As the years went on and I thought personally was more physical than anything else. So I thought must be her diet or it must be the fact that she’s not exercising.

So as I got older and saw her become more and more unwell and put on weight. When I got to senior school, I thought to myself, I’m going to learn how to be healthy. And like Donna was saying, in 1988, there was no such thing as personal trainers. So it wasn’t a fitness industry per se.

To go to the gym, it was more for bodybuilders and I was always a really little skinny person. I think at the age of 18, I was 56 kilos. There was nothing of me.So I finished high school, went into college and started studying personal training, what they call a diploma in exercise science now.

When I came out, I thought now I’ve got the tools to look after my mom and that sort of led me into looking after women with eating disorders. So bulimia and anorexia. And then that led me into looking after people about drug addictions. It was really something chose me. I didn’t choose it.

Really my whole thing was I’m going to get well and I’m just going to get my mum. Well, that was, that was the whole extent of my health journey. And then before I knew it, people were saying, oh, you look after this person. Can you look after my wife or my girlfriend fiance?

And so before I knew it, I had this whole business that I’m looking after people’s health. And I’ve just started noticing that it really wasn’t so much on the physical or what they ate. It was really their mindset. It came down to a lot of the way they viewed themselves and, and the way they viewed everything else around them.

And my background, I was always interested in martial arts. Being one of five boys, we always used to fight, always. I grew up with Bruce Lee and you know, those sort of characters and I thought I always did something, some form of martial art. And I remember opening up a book and it was a Buddhist psychology. You know when you read a book and you think it’s like that book was written for you. So I finished this book and I thought, this is what I’m going to study.

I just immersed myself in that as the practice kept going I met my lovely wife and she came as a package deal. So she had a 10 month old baby and I thought, oh goodness, I have no idea how to do this. So I took up a practice called Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan. And that started giving me the tools and skills to be a good partner, someone to be nice to be around, and a good dad. I’ve got a great relationship with my daughter.

As I was studying this, my clients in the fitness industry, as I was teaching them weights and cycle. They kept saying, oh, what is it that you’re studying? And as I kept telling them I’m doing this Bhuddhist psychology and Dale’s philosophy, well now it’s called mindfulness. So I got into the corporate sector and before I knew it, I started looking after companies, people within that company structure. So managers, CEOs, and whatnot. I was really lucky. I met this wonderful client of mine who owns a recruitment firm. And he said, do you mind mentoring all my managers and senior supervisors, which I think I was 29 years old. I thought I don’t know if I can do this, but I’ll give it a go. And one thing led to another and here we are. ,

Felicity Cohen: To me, it sounds like you’re an absolute born healer. Like you’ve actually just fallen into this space that you have achieved some incredible things with your clients over a huge life span of many years of connection. And I love that kind of that ground roots in Buddhist philosophy that we now refer to as mindfulness.

And we’re a lot more aware of how that impacts our lives on a daily basis. Were you able to help your mum? And what were the outcomes? I think it’s so beautiful that you were so focused on supporting and helping your mum and that drove you in that direction. How did she end up?

Marcello Abbate: I mean she would come to the gym, go for walks. You meet people where they’re at. That’s what I always say to my clients, regardless of their position of power. I would say to people you want to meet people where they’re at. And so meeting my mum where she was at, she was a heavy smoker, drank a lot of coffee. And it was just really just getting her to, say, well, if you’re going to have one cup of coffee, then have one glass of water. If you’re going to have how many cigarettes then for that, you have to do 10 steps for each cigarette. And just became, over the years, the ability for her to then see the importance of walking, exercising, and coming to the gym. She passed away young, so she was just before 70 years old. But over the years, all the doctors kept saying what’s keeping you alive is this movement, what’s keeping you alive is the health part.

She was heavily medicated. My mum was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Back then, I didn’t know what that was. They really used to get a lot of these people and institutionalised them. At one period, I would have been 14 years old, she was institutionalized for a long period.

So I was in grade nine and I remember us five boys just raising ourselves really. So we go to school on our own, come back. And when my mum came back out, I remember the doctor saying, this is what your mom has been diagnosed with.

So really for me it was just all about health but on all levels of health, not just physical, mental, but also spiritual health. And getting people to understand what is it that they’re really passionate about. What’s their purpose. What’s their driver. And that’s what I mean about meeting people where they’re at. I work with barristers or a Supreme court judge. And then when you get to know them, they’ll tell you they’re passionate about something that’s just so abstract to what they do on a professional sense and getting them to really play in their passion.

So you’re a CEO, but you’re not just that title. You’re a Supreme court judge, you’re a personal trainer. But you’re not just that title. You are so many other things. So I guess for me, what I’m really passionate about is getting people not to just create one identity for themselves, just to explore a whole range of the different identities.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful and I love that your mum was most probably the catalyst for your career pathway. What a beautiful gift that she’s given you.

So with your corporate clients, some of them you’ve worked with over many, many years. Those relationships must be incredible. What do you think are some of the most powerful stories or journeys of change that you’ve been able to share in with some of your clients over the years?

Marcello Abbate: I mean at the start of every year, my clients sign on for a year. My clients have been with me for between 12 and 20 years. So the most powerful thing, for me anyway, is I get welcomed into their family. I’ve seen these kids got from 15 years old to now 40 years old. They have children of their own. I’ve been best man at seven weddings. For me, I’m always humbled when you get asked, can you be the best man at my wedding? I’m thinking, surely you must have close friends and so forth. That really is humbling that being welcomed in people’s families, looking after my clients, wives, or husbands, their children, or run a mentoring program from grade nine, right through to their finished university.

So just being part of that child’s life until they finished uni is just, again , you have to pinch yourself to think that my clients have that much faith and trust in what we do to be part of raising this child. So that’s the most powerful thing, watching people grow and choosing what they’re passionate about and then finding their lifelong partner, having children. That to me is everything

Felicity Cohen: That’s spectacular. And I think that growth, that story of growth and self-fulfilment that can also happen at any stage of life. We often have so many limiting beliefs about ourselves. If we can kind of shed a lot of that and look at what can my future look like at any stage of life. It doesn’t have to stop anywhere. And I think all of these concepts around health and wellbeing that are holistic, if we kind of try and bring so much more of them into our daily lives, the extension of a healthy, well-lived, amazing, passionate future is so much more real.

Marcello Abbate: A hundred percent. One of the most powerful things, I think, you can take home from mindfulness practice is this is it. You get your one round. You don’t get to replay. There’s no take-backs. This is it. You just get the one shot.

I think that’s one of the things that really stuck with me growing up is I get one shot at this. So I’m only limited by my own imagination. Only limited by my own aspiration. So if that’s the case, well, I can pretty much create whatever I like, but doesn’t mean you don’t get that bumpy ride along the way. In our practice, we call that Dukkah. So this bumpy cart that goes along life. I’ve had really close friends passed away over the years through cancer or car accidents and so forth.

My mom passing away. So there’s always things that happen in your life. I think the most powerful lessons that you learned from mindfulness is; it’s your choice, what you want to do with what’s happening. You get to choose, you get to choose how you confront your highs and lows.

Felicity Cohen: I love that. And it’s a really strong message and so powerful and really important to all of us. Thank you. I think we all need a little bit more of you in our lives, so I’m kind of like, wow, Donna’s the luckiest girl on the planet.

Donna Abbate: I fell in love with him, so I think everyone else can to.

Felicity Cohen: Thanks. That’s spectacular. Thank you so much for sharing.

So I’d like to start talking a little bit about your journey into the health retreat space, and it’s an area that I’ve known well, probably since the early two thousands, but it’s changed so much. Health retreats once upon a time, they were fat camps. That’s the way people used to see them. The evolution and the change that you’ve been a part of that for 15 years.

You’re a very experienced facilitator in health retreat programs. Tell me about sort of the changes that you’ve seen in how people perceive health retreats now.

Donna Abbate: Yeah, I find it’s more about the reset. You know, when I ask people every week, what brings you here? I just want to reset. And you never ever hear about losing weight. I have to keep scratching the surface and then it’s kind of the last thing on the list.

But they want to feel well mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They want to feel connected again to themselves, to their partners. They want to be a better person.

Felicity Cohen: Yeah. What do you think is the most significant part of a health retreat for someone who’s never been before? They’re stepping into those doors for the first time. What does that experience look like? And what are some of the most powerful takeaways that that person might experience from that first-time opportunity? Donna Abbate: You’re engulfed in complete wellness from being in nature. Just being in nature alone, something happens to your nervous system. All of a sudden, you start to relax to that without even being any facilitators there just being in nature does so much. And coming back to that circadian rhythm, getting up with the sun and going down with the moon. And switching off from the internet and switching off from wifi. And coming back to whole foods, coming back to nature. So it’s so holistic because as a naturopath sitting across the table from someone who’s never experienced a health retreat, they have no reference point of what I mean when I’m talking about being relaxed, or being in touch, or being connected, or to eat really healthy. To experience. All layers of health is what you experience when you go to retreat.

So it’s a new set point. It’s almost like an internal photograph where it’s just like, so that’s what health feels like. And it’s something that you can’t comprehend. You have to have the experience and it’s life-changing

Felicity Cohen: I completely, I agree that it’s life-changing. It’s transformative.

It’s also a great holiday in itself. Because that detox from digital, media , phones and iPads , televisions and everything. All the noise, all the clutter and all the toxic environmental factors that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. By removing all of that and having that opportunity to enter into, into a space that does connect you with nature. For me it’s just incredible when you do leave those doors a completely different person.

It’s also a lot about the people that you work with that can make such a difference in a person’s life. So exciting news is that we’re going to be working on the Wellness Warriors retreat for all of the patients who come through our doors at Weight Loss Solution Australia.

And that is something I am so excited about because we get to share with them that whole experience about what is a health retreat. What is the value? What is it going to bring me? And I can see that there’s such an opportunity for really elevating and transforming an experience through going through a weight loss journey.

But adding this in as a completely new dimension that is going to leverage that in just such a different way. It is hard to express and to put it in words. But I know that part of that story is going to be about connecting with not just our fabulous team, who many of them already know, but working with you as our amazing guest facilitators to inspire, motivate, and enhance that journey. There’s going to be so many amazing things on the Wellness Warriors retreat in the program. Can we start by running through just some of those elements and what that might look like and what people can expect when they come along to our Wellness Warriors retreat?

Donna Abbate: I just stay there in a very short space of time. Like we’ll be together for three days, for example. Our first one we’ll be there for three days. Again, you’re coming into nature into that cocoon and feeling safe, feeling that sense of connection and community. You literally walk away feeling grounded, inspired , peaceful that’s whole as well. Again, on every level from the food, the Qi Gong, the meditation practice, the mindfulness, all of the inspirational messages and seminars. And then there’s exercises. So on every level you just going to be infused with just goodness, health, wellness.

Felicity Cohen: It’s pretty exciting

Marcello Abbate: I think, too, you get the opportunity. When people come to a retreat, the biggest effect for them, as Donna was saying, is the environment. It’s how we cultivate that environment. The idea is to empower that person to then cultivate that same environment for themselves.

So when they go back home, they start creating that within their home structure. So they start becoming more disciplined on what time do I wake up? What do I have for breakfast? Make sure that I take my apple cider vinegar on an empty stomach, make sure I do my breathing exercises. The little tips, simple tips that you start applying, that then have an effect, that flow-on-effect.

It’s not just for yourself. What we’re really passionate about, when you’re dealing with a couple of adults, you know that’s going to feed back to those children. That’s it. And that’s for us as well. One of our greatest passion is if I can create an effect for you, that’s going to have flow-on-effect to your kids. They’re naturally now going to be raised in an environment where there’s more health, more relaxation, more openness, especially in communication.

That’s really what one of the things that we want to impart in the retreat is that.

Felicity Cohen: Love that, it’s really spectacular. And I know that people will walk away transformed, you know, the impact on families and things that you can slowly implement. And I think if you take those messages away after three days and say to yourself, I’m going to put this into practice for the next 28 days.

Just use that as a first step. And if you can do it for 28 days, then let’s think about, well, how do I feel? What’s different? What’s changed? And how can I then look at what’s the next 28 days? And slowly, slowly those new lifestyle behaviors become habits for life. And if we can implement those new habits, we’re going to be encouraging our entire community to become healthier, to become more functionally fit and to have a totally different vision of their futures.

And that to me is super exciting. The word empowerment for me stands out. Because if we can empower people to make those positive lifestyle behavioral changes, that’s what we’re here for. And that is a hundred percent what we want to do. And I’m really excited because it’s something that I’ve really wanted to be doing for such a long time.

So I think the opportunity, firstly, to connect with both of you and to have your knowledge, your experience, and all that you can bring to this retreat is just beyond belief. Amazing for our patient community and population. So thank you for coming on board with us.

Donna Abbate: We can’t wait. We’ve chosen beautiful destinations to run the retreats and unlimited scenery and serenity and walking tracks. I can’t wait, just going on a holiday with a group of people and doing what we love.

Marcello Abbate: I think just the ability to pass on as many tools as possible. And that’s really that you get this platform where as your clients will come to the retreat, they can start giving us feedback of, this is what I struggled with. This is what I really want to focus on for the next three days that I’m here. And so that level of attention that they get in a retreat where it’s just all about them, that’s very powerful for them.

Felicity Cohen: Absolutely. So I’m excited because we’ve got people coming along who might be newcomers to their weight loss journey and working with Weight Loss Solutions Australia, it might be new to them. They might be in their first 12 months, or they might be a few years post-surgery. I’ve even got someone coming who is 11 years post-surgery and I think that’s great because she’s saying to herself, I need something that’s going to give me that opportunity to really get back on track, to refocus, to reset as you mentioned on it.

To reset is so important. For me personally, I love everything that I gained from a health retreat. I try to find an opportunity about once a year, because I know that is my reset opportunity and it does, it just pushes those buttons. And you just take that leverage from the moment you leave and just keep that flowing forward. That is a spectacular thing to achieve.

So, yes, I can’t say more than I’m beyond excited. And thank you both for coming in today.

Before I finished, there’s a question that I like to ask all of the guests who come on board the Wellness Warriors podcast. So let’s start with Donna, what does wellness mean to you?

Donna Abbate: I guess without thinking about it, just in touch with what it means to be your authentic self. And for me, exercise helps me to feel into who I am. So then I’m not frazzled in any way. My mind is clear. Yoga helps me to stay grounded and feel capable of anything. The breath makes you feel so relaxed and clear. There are so many pathways into accessing your true nature and your authentic self.

When you’re in touch with that, you feel more joy, you feel more connection, to your partner, to your kids, to everyone. So for me, wellness is leading with the heart and getting back into your body and feeling really comfortable with that.

Felicity Cohen: Beautiful. Love it. Marcelo. What does wellness mean to you?

Marcello Abbate: Choice and possibly. To get a good education, you know, your parents always say, get a good education and lots of doors open up for you. Have the perfect state of mind and there’s not one door that’s closed, ever. So choice, then the possibilities for you to enter any door that you want. That’s what wellness means to me.

And I see that in every person that I look after. Their ability to be in that creative part of their minds to say what’s next for me, that empowerment for that person to, regardless of what age they are, to turn around and say at the age of 50 I’m going to study art. We have a client and we’ve been friends with she’s a doctor. We’ve been friends with her for more than 25 years.

She has nine degrees in psychology and art. And you just name it. It never ends. She’s at university now at the age of 73 years old. Fit, healthy, just that state of mind. So when I think of wellness, I always think choice and possibility. I have a myriad of choices and possibilities to do any one of them.

Felicity Cohen: I love both of those answers. That was spectacular. Please, thank Donna and Marcelo. Abbate for joining me on the Wellness Warriors podcast. Thank you.

Thank you for joining the Wellness Warriors podcast. It’s been a pleasure to have you online with us. If you enjoyed the series, please leave a review, subscribe and follow.

And we look forward to sharing many more stories with you in the future.

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