The podcast that pressure tests the wellness industry
UPDATE: Spirit Levels has a new, upgraded website HERE. What follows below is an archive.
In its first month, Spirit Levels was featured on ABC radio twice and received 12 five-star reviews on Apple Podcasts. So what’s it all about?
In this weekly show, journalist Jenny Valentish and actor/filmmaker Frank Magree pressure-test the wellness industry, from the pseudo to the sensible.
Jenny is a former amateur bodybuilder and amateur Muay Thai fighter (a professional amateur, if you will), with a tendency to treat her body mean to keep it keen. Her book Everything Harder Than Everyone Else delves into what drives athletes who push their bodies to extremes, while her Walkley-nominated memoir Woman of Substances examined addictive behaviour and gender.
She has the perfect foil in Frank, a cold water therapy and breathwork devotee, keen to go deeper into new-age and anti-ageing activities. The tennis player in him is fascinated by peptides and recovery hacks. The performer in him harbours a not-so-secret desire to become more guru-like. Frank is an award-winning filmmaker 12 times over and as an actor specialising in bad dudes has been murdered 10 times by his estimation. Hopefully his obsession with longevity and biohacking will preserve him as a fighting-fit fella in real life.
The pair will road-test disciplines such as rebirthing, tantra, motivational techniques, NLP, cuddle therapy, extreme weight cutting, saunas, fasting, colonics, DMT and MDMA couples therapy, to see if they can extract practical benefits from the more out-there concepts.
Want to join Mike on the annual charity runs he puts on? Check out Quick as Thieves. Mike also referenced health podcaster Siim Land and the Quantified Scientist. The wearable tech he refers to is the Oura Ring, the Dreem headband and the ChiliPad cooling mattress. This episode was partially mixed by Ally Kallis. A Sonder X Production.
Episode released 3/10/23
As of 2023, the life coaching industry is worth $1.5 billion, with almost 23,000 coaches in the US alone. In Bali that figure is unknown, but if you’ve been to Ubud or Canggu lately you’ll know it’s quite possible that life coaches outnumber bottles of Bintang.
This episode is not about any coach who has actually conscientiously trained themselves to provide a specific, solid service. It’s not about coaches who are mindful about duty of care and referring people on to medical or mental health professionals when faced with issues outside of their skillset. Nope. It’s the frauds and the flakes we’re coming after. The coaches tapped into a system designed to instil fear that you’re not enough, and con you into thinking they’re hugely successful people who can do the same for you. Every Instagram post follows some nonsensical word-salad script. They’ve got a big emphasis on abundance and manifesting wealth, but offer no tangible advice. They come up with an absolutely astronomical price for their coaching and then ‘generously’ halve it (for two days only!) to make it seem like a bargain. They use trauma (often in inverted commas) as a hook, and quite likely they’ll be living and working illegally in a cheap country that’s long had the boot of white people on its neck.
Our guest this week is Marko Randelovic. He’s a documentary maker who has lived in Bali for years and has made it his personal mission to mercilessly meme the local life coaching industry. You can also check out his excellent reel, The Birth of a Bali Life Coach.
We all wish we could have someone to make our decisions for us sometimes, or be our personal cheerleader, particularly when we’re at a crisis point. But listening to this episode might help you to choose that person wisely… A Sonder X Production.
Episode released 10/10/23
Is throwing yourself full tilt into a physical activity a noble leap or a nosedive? It’s marathon season in Australia, inspiring many of us to leap from 5k to much grander feats of endurance. And runners aren’t the only culprits!
In the recent past, Jenny has hurtled headfirst into Muay Thai fighting and competitive bodybuilding like the world is about to end, while Frank has found himself in seriously gnarly surfing and rockclimbing situations, but believes who dares wins. This episode, we look at Strava show-offs, the gospel of David Goggins and the hideous reputations of ultraruns, in our bid to weigh up short cuts versus mastery.
Let’s say you decide to make the leap into a sport or event. What tests can you get so that forewarned is forearmed? Frank and Jenny get a barrage of them done and tell you how you can do the same. We’re helped in this mission by Doc Adrian Jury and our friends from the Stronger Stride podcast as well as the team at La Trobe University Bendigo’s Rural Health School/Holsworth Biomedical Research Initiative.
A Sonder X Production.
Episode released 17/10/23
Australia looks set to be the first country to run an MDMA-assisted couples therapy trial. What is it about ecstasy that researchers and couples therapists found promising back in the 70s and 80s, before it was made illegal?
Frank and Jenny talk to ‘late-bloomer Boomer’ Charley Wininger about his regular use of ecstasy in his marriage (he’s now 74 and they’ve “rolled” around 80 times, which he likens to 80 honeymoons), and how as a couples psychotherapist he views ecstasy as “emotional superglue”.
Jenny and Frank recall their own Pammy Anderson/Tommy Lee-style first date that wound up with big promises being made and eyebrows being intensely groomed, and they get some advice on how to achieve such intimacy without the use of drugs, through the 36 Questions That Lead to Love, developed by groovy husband and wife researchers Arthur and Elaine Aron.
Frank’s film Sengatan on Prime Video.
Jenny’s article on MDMA couples therapy in the Australian Financial Review.
Sex educator Eleanor Hadley.
ADHD coach Meghann Birks joins Jenny and Frank on the show to nut this one out. Being ‘obsessive’ doesn’t have the most positive connotations, but our hyperfixations can also connect us to community, propel us towards goals and benefit our working life.
Some people have one lifelong obsession, while for others a special interest could last an intensive few months or years before being replaced by the next shiny thing. And then what do you do with all your unicycles/grappling hooks/cosplay outfits? (Meghann’s got an answer for that.)
What does the nature of our obsession tell us about what’s going in our inner life? (Gary Oldman indirectly answers that one.)
How is our reward system and identity affected by each venture? Finally, what’s the difference between an obsession and an addiction?
A Sonder X Production. Episode released 31/10/23.
Cold water immersion has many different faces. There’s the cold blast in the shower; ice baths; wild swimming… Which one are you prepared to look in the eye?
Frank is building an ice bath at Jenny’s house – so that he can use it when he’s there. That means he needs to convince his girlfriend of this painful practice’s benefits. Where better to start than on their holiday to the UK, where he can usher her into the North Sea, followed by a dunk in a glacier lagoon in Iceland?
Since the Melbourne lockdowns, Frank has followed a cold water regime, going for winter ocean swims. He also works at Peninsula Hot Springs, so of course he takes full advantage of their ice bath. Professor Marc Cohen is the medical director of the Hot Springs and designed the ‘Fire and Ice’ feature, so he’s got a lot to say about the therapeutic aspect of this practice and the workings of the sympathetic nervous system. That screaming you hear at the top of the episode? That’s courtesy of the Hot Springs four-degrees ice bath.
Finally, in the middle of winter, Frank meets the Port Melbourne Ice Bergs as they train to swim the heads – which will have them in the ocean for 75 minutes. Somehow, they manage to make their daily endurance feat sound like a really good time.
Episode released 7/11/23
Ep7: Getting Shredded
Bodybuilders are perfectionists. They’re fastidious on internet forums, economical in their IRL conversations, and at the gym they wear ‘No excuses’ singlets. As kids they may have been the ones insisting on only eating orange food, or completing a Rubik’s Cube in 15 seconds.
This episode, we’re looking at shredding, the art of getting jacked – be that for bodybuilding, gymfluencer photo shoots, athletes who need to drop a weight class, actors who need to look buff, or just because.
Jenny recounts her lead up to competing in bodybuilding (a once-only venture), when she transformed into a human Cadbury’s Curly-Wurly and brought home gold and bronze medals, but at a cost to her health. This is a rare fish-out-of-water insight into the surreal world of bodybuilding, part sport, part spectacle, which comes laden with risks and rewards. What draws people to it? What do they get out of it? Who excels at it? What gets spoken of and what doesn’t? And more pressingly, what did Frank think about the dramatically changing body of his girlfriend?
Our guests this week are Paul Jayilian, Jenny’s trainer and a world champion, who goes deep into the alchemy of ‘peak week’. Also, Jenny’s posing coach, Nat Kitney, who aims to be a soft place to land for her clients, in a sport that’s all about being hard on yourself.
This episode was mixed by Ally Kallis. Episode released 14/11/23
Ep8: Breathwork and Altered States
Breathwork is increasingly infiltrating our daily routines, thanks to the popularity of James Nestor’s book Breath and the Wim Hof Method. As Nestor says, it’s the new science of a lost art.
This episode, Frank levels up from his usual box breathing (which he uses before surfing and voiceover gigs alike) to altered states. He goes under the guidance of breathwork practitioner Alex Buxton, whose personal journey is quite incredible – from a ‘Heart of Darkness’ moment in a jungle in Thailand, to spending eight years in an ashram, and then becoming a whistleblower, which saw him exiled from his community.
Alex explains holotropic breathing and rebirthing, then takes Frank through several sessions of his favoured practice: Facilitated Breath Repatterning. It’s a technique he learned in Bali that offers something very different…
Episode released 28/11/23
Ep9: Survive the Christmas Party: Game Plans For Introverts
Welcome to episode nine, where Jenny outlines her top 10 game plans for introverts, sociophobes, awkwards, stuck-ups and wary Marys who can’t avoid the Christmas party season.
Let’s check if this episode is for you. Answer these questions with a yes or no.
- Should people be allowed to talk when you’re eating?
- Does one person trying to sleep outweigh the needs of two or more people wanting to party?
- People clapping on planes when the plane lands – heartwarming?
- Did you wear your fringe at least two inches past your eyebrows in high school?
If you answered no, yes, no, yes, you should definitely hit download.
This episode we’re joined by Matto from Tell Your Friends You Love Them, a gregarious host who moonlights at festivals such as OK Motels and Boogie Festival as their warm-up guy and good-times purveyor. He gives us all his best tips for conversation starters, reading the room, mindset ideas and confidence hacks. Add that to Frank’s natural-born bon vivantiness (he is the youngest of seven, after all) and Jenny’s nerdy research, and we’ll have you hitting Christmas parties like a one-person SWAT team.
Episode released 28/11/23
Ep10: Do First Crushes Set Our Patterns?
Think back to you, aged 10. If your way of demonstrating romantic interest entailed throwing a tennis ball at someone’s head in recess, has anything really changed in your passage to adulthood, other than the method of delivery?
This episode, we investigate whether our first romantic experiences dictate our patterns for life.
Frank’s early pattern was to befriend someone and play the long game. Jenny would choose inscrutable men she could project qualities on to, before finding out inscrutable usually means ‘has nothing to say’.
This being Frank’s episode, he indulges himself by tracking down his primary school love, Lisa Rankin, to see if his memories match up to hers, and whether their patterns were set for life. Along the way you’ll hear cute-as-hell stories from others about their first loves, taking us from cult commune to police bust.
Episode released 5/12/23
Ep11: The First Rule of Cuddle Club
When confirmed sociophobe Jenny tells Frank about the Japanese trend of cuddle cafes and how cuddle therapists are now popping up in Australia, along with snuggle parties, it looks like she’ll be leading this episode. Until she bottles it. And so it’s up to our resident extrovert Frank to visit the Life Spirals Cuddle Gathering in Melbourne and report back.
When Frank finally emerges blinking into the bar scene of Fitzroy, he has a thousand yard stare. But is it possible he could be profoundly changed? And will Jenny have to go back to her highly expensive oxytocin spray to try and manufacture her own form of social bonding?
Episode released 12/12/23
Ep12: Ecstatic Dance Like Nobody's Watching
What’s the difference between 5 Rhythms, Ecstatic Dance and Contact Dance? We crack open a cacao in Melbourne and Bali to find out. Over the melancholic cry of sound bowls, Frank wistfully recalls a few near-orgies he’s attended in Ubud and Canggu, but Jenny finds her experience pleasingly more like an old ravers’ home without the drugs.
Our guests this week, 5 Rhythms teacher Chloe Stuart and ecstatic dance DJ Jazzy O, explain how dance can provide therapy, connection, community, free us from judgmental behaviour and – if the stars align – give us an orgasm on the dance floor.
Thanks to James Ballard for the composition and production of outro banger Frankie Flowers. He makes heaps better music than that with his project September 87.
Feel the ecstasy at Jazzy O’s Soundcloud.
Thanks to Chloe Stuart and Sam Pawson at Studio Paradise.
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