East meets Wex
Monart in Co Wexford has once again invited two monks from a Shaolin Temple to spend a three-month residency at the five-star resort. Katie Byrne paid a visit and discovered Eastern disciplines are a worthy panacea for Western life
What, I ask the owner of Monart Destination Spa, Liam Griffin, inspired his decision to invite two monks from a Shaolin Temple in China to Enniscorthy, Co Wexford? Rest? Relaxation? Rejuvenation?
"Discipline, discipline, discipline," he answers, matter-of-factly.
A little on Griffin's back story first: he played inter-county hurling and football for Wexford and Clare and managed the winning All-Ireland Wexford hurling team in 1996.
These days, he's the Managing Director of the Griffin Hotel Group, which owns the Ferrycarrig Hotel in Wexford, the Kilkenny Hotel and multi-award winning destination spa, Monart, which, since 2010, has invited two Buddhists monks to stay with them for a three-month residency.
They teach guests Eastern disciplines like Qi- Gong, Tai Chi and Kung Fu or, more simply, discipline, according to Liam.
"Lack of discipline is a problem in sport," he explains. "A lot of frees are given away because fellas just aren't disciplined."
"So I studied and read a lot about these fellas in the East. They have discipline of the mind, which we don't have in the West. They can control the mind. And they have this culture of bowing to one another – they almost kill each other but they also bow.
"It took us three years to get them to Ireland," he continues. And one suspects that they'll be coming back for many years more.
There aren't many spa destinations in Ireland where a residency like this would work. At best it would look like a promotion, at worst a gimmick.
Yet the monks seem at home in Monart. They resonate with the surroundings and the integrity of the operation.
I watched them gently pacing through the sprawling gardens (more of which later) and I could see that there is a synergism at play here.
The word 'Shaolin' is replete with connotations. It suggests magic and mysticism and closely guarded secrets and sacred initiation rites.
And then, of course, there's the fighting talk of Bruce Lee: "You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple".
Until relatively recently, that temple was thought to be the inner sanctum, a secret society of sorts. But the resurgence of Shaolin in contemporary culture during the '80s and '90s – in no small part due to the Wu Tang Clan and Jet Li – captured the imagination of the rest of the world.
The esoteric has become exoteric and the temple (more specifically the Songshan Shaolin Temple Wushu Guan, built in 1988 in cooperation with the government) has become something of a tourist trap as Westerners travel en masse both to visit the cultural totem and train at one of the many Shaolin academies that are dotted around Henan Province.
Likewise, delegations of new-age Shaolins are now permitted to leave the temple on "friendship missions" and perform at shows and exhibitions, or take up residencies at places like Monart. Cynics may consider it an adventure in capitalism; the monks see it as an opportunity to showcase Shaolin culture and mindfulness. God knows we need it ...
In short, it has become more accessible, and accessibility only undermines authenticity in the eyes of the cynic. These monks still embark on gruelling training regimes. Some left their parents to enter the 2,000-year-old temple when they were three and four years old.
They led an abstemious way of life, avoiding sexual relations, alcohol and meat. It becomes a personal choice only when they are living outside the temple. (I discovered this when I saw one of the monks tucking into bacon at breakfast time.)
When you consider their journey, it's an honour just to meet Master Haibo and Master Xu who are leading classes and demonstrations at Monart until December 13.
Guests can partake in early morning meditation sessions with the two monks or learn about the deceptively powerful disciplines of Tai-Chi and Qi-gong. More athletic types can try Kung-fu.
My travel partner found it difficult to engage (or rather disengage) with meditation. She's the type of person who hears the lyrics of 'If You Like Pina Colada' and wonders if she left the hair straighteners plugged in when she tries to switch off.
Even so, just going through the motions left her feeling rejuvenated.
Another friend has no problem switching off – sometimes to her detriment: she visited last year and left in such a state of Zen that she clean forgot the pin number for her ATM card. It never came back to her.
There tends to be a fallacy surrounding meditation. While most concede that it is the path to relaxation, they also consider relaxation the path to complaisance. They think that those who spend too long in the lotus position lose the doggedness required to get ahead in the workplace. They think they will become less productive; that they will lose their edge.
On the contrary, by slowing down you speed up. Studies have shown that meditation actually speeds up brain processing. Mindfulness is like running a Hoover around the mind and cleaning away all the useless dross that in fact slows us down. Those who meditate are more alert, more energetic.
The evening Shaolin spectacle is proof positive of the phenomenon. The speed, agility and swordsmanship that the monks demonstrate is absolutely scintillating. Last year one of the monks threw a sewing needle through a pane of glass. I won't spoil the surprise for those who are Enniscorthy-bound this year, but rest assured – you will be wowed.
Relax. No work. Holiday." Those were the words of the monk who, with limited English, was performing the Shaolin 'Warrior' massage on me.
It was developed so that Shaolin warriors could release tension after training and keep their body supple. I doubt the early practitioners knew it would eventually be used to treat laptop strain. . .
The massage is performed under a blanket and focuses on the meridians and acu-points. It's a combination of intuition (he detected my knee injury almost instantly) and raw strength. Forget the soothing tones of the panpipes – the relentless kneading sounds more like stampeding horses.
They say the massage balances the body. If you're tired, it will energise you. If you're downcast, it will lift your mood. The manager told me a story about a woman who, after her massage, went into a fit of hysterical laughter followed by a bout of tears in quick succession. Worry not – she felt fantastic once her body recalibrated.
Monart is a destination spa, which means the pursuit of relaxation is their raison d'être. Even the architecture – curved and meandering – is part of their spell.
Bedrooms are spacious with balconies overlooking the surrounding woodland, it's adults-only and you can wear your bathrobe anywhere in the hotel, except in the dining room in the evening.
The piece de resistance, though, is the "wild Irish garden" designed by Chelsea Flower Show winner, Mary Reynolds. She creates "healing gardens that are full of the energy of nature". With a willow maze, duck pond and all manner of charming diversions, this is a landscape that begs to be explored. It almost whispers to you.
A visit to Monart will naturally inspire quiet contemplation, even if the monks aren't in attendance.
All Shaolin classes are free to residents until the Shaolin leave on December 13. A Shaolin massage is €100 for residents, and for non-residents Monart offer the Shaolin Day Spa: Shaolin massage, access to the Thermal Spa,all classes and lunch for €150.