The Road to Wellville
Published: May 2009
By Shane Mitchell
Innovative spas are going beyond massages and facials—to healing and spiritual growth. The first step?Feeling good.
The co-inventor of toasted flakes, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, was lampooned in T. Coraghessan Boyle's novel The Road to Wellville as a righteous quack engaged in questionable medical practices at a spa for well-heeled, turn-of-the-last-century hypochondriacs. But Kellogg was more reformer than nutball. At his Michigan retreat he advanced a revolutionary concept of health and fitness employing proper diet, exercise, fresh air, and rest. (Okay, he was a little fond of radium cures and yogurt enemas.) Before the stock market crash of 1929, which led to his Battle Creek company's financial ruin, Kellogg raised national awareness of his sanitarium as a place where people could learn to stay well.
In 1940, Dr. Edmond Szekely and his wife, Deborah, opened Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, adopting many of Kellogg's practices for healthful living, minus the pseudo medical treatments. Since then, the spa concept has spread across the United States, with more than 9,600 destination and day spas from the Virgin Islands to the Kona coast. Most of those centers take a lighter, more pleasure-oriented approach to feeling good—focusing on massages, facials, and body wraps. There has been no role for medical experts or spiritual advisers.
But lately the boundaries have begun to blur. Self-help guru Dr. Deepak Chopra is opening satellite well-being centers at golf and beach resorts. Blood profiling and full-body scans are now available at places like Arizona's Canyon Ranch and the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu. And world-renowned medical institutions are augmenting their conventional treatments with acupuncture, yoga, and tai chi. Of course, getting a full medical exam or confronting your metaphysical demons while on vacation may be too intense for someone who just wants to learn yoga and escape daily pressures. That's where a select group of resorts and retreats comes in, bridging the gap between healing facility, spiritual center, and sybaritic sanctuary.
A registered nurse and certified music therapist, Jan Kinder has followed her own road to "wellville." "As a teenager, I took up yoga," Kinder says of her interest in aligning body and spirit. "And I would spontaneously meditate. I used breathing to control cramps. It was such a simple approach." On the eve of her 40th birthday, she suffered an abdominal hemorrhage and lost two-thirds of her blood. This near-death experience was a wake-up call, and Kinder became committed to the study of Eastern philosophies.
Three years ago, during one of her many visits to Caneel Bay resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kinder met general manager Brian Young at one of his weekly cocktail parties, and she talked him into letting her run a wellness program there. It eventually became the Self Centre, whose approach grew out of the expressive therapy classes that Kinder taught at New York City's Turtle Bay Music School and her ongoing studies with Deepak Chopra. Not surprisingly, she's big on fundamentals—proper breathing, meditation, yoga—set against a backdrop of bougainvillea, creeping sea grape, and white-sand beaches. Meditation classes frequently take place on Turtle Bay, with views of St. Thomas in the distance. In mai chi, practitioners stand waist-deep in the warm salt water to follow a series of fluid tai chi and kickboxing steps. On clear nights, astrologist Kelly Hunter leads stargazing sessions and discusses the cultural myths that are attached to Southern Hemisphere constellations. But the regimen that best exemplifies the Self Centre's back-to-basics approach is Breathwalk. Developed by M.I.T. psychology professor Gurucharan Khalsa and yoga master Yogi Bhajan, it teaches patterns of conscious breathing and walking that are meant to boost energy levels, stimulate flexibility, and regulate mood.
"Meditation, hypnosis, and massage have been used for millennia as treatments for illness," says Dr. Barrie R. Cassileth, chief of Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which runs outpatient wellness programs in New York City. "At some point, these treatments were diverted into a spa environment because of their relaxing properties." In addition to cancer patients, their families, and medical staff at MSK, the treatment facility welcomes anyone interested in mind-body therapies such as acupuncture, reflexology, and reiki. "We're the best-kept secret on the Upper East Side," says Cassileth. "We have great massages and don't allow tipping."
On the West Coast, spirituality comes first. That's what attracted Deepak Chopra, best-selling author and trailblazer for the mind-body movement. Formerly the chief of staff at Boston Regional Medical Center, Chopra began moving away from traditional medical practice in the late eighties to promote a new concept of perfect health—not an absence of disease, but a state of balance among the mind, body, and spirit. His approach fuses Western technology and Eastern wisdom, supplementing conventional medicine with Ayurvedic treatments, meditation, and other therapies. Last spring, the Chopra Center for Well Being relocated to La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California, and there are plans to expand the center to other hotels, including Miami's Doral Golf Resort & Spa and the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui. Sylvia Sepielli, the creative force behind spas at the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona, and Grand Wailea, is collaborating on the new La Costa quarters, which Chopra envisions as a facility where both medical and spa therapies converge. Seminars and retreats are based on his best-selling books, and incorporate yoga, integrated medical consultations, Ayurvedic spa treatments, and primordial sound meditation, which involves chanting personal mantras to the beat of the earth's natural rhythm. His newest venture is Wellness Golf, a program based on his upcoming book, Golf for Enlightenment. It combines visualization, yoga, therapeutic massage, and daily instruction on the resort's championship courses. His plan: Enlighten the masses and grab some tee time.
Rancho La Puerta founder Deborah Szekely is responding to a health crisis on both personal and communal levels. At the same time that she helps her 43-year-old son Alexandre battle recurrent melanoma, she's launching a program at the ranch called Awaken the Spirit. Every month, noted specialists—women's health advocate Dr. Christiane Northrup, cancer survivor and author Jeanne Achterberg, spirituality guru Marilyn J. Mason—conduct workshops that offer novel approaches to dealing with life challenges and learning preventive health practices.
Even after 43 years, Szekely's other spa, the Golden Door in Escondido, California, also keeps an open mind about the latest healing techniques. It has recently introduced the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, loosely translated as "baby steps." This method of implementing change in small increments helps people cope with trauma and tends to reduce the fear of failure attached to big commitments such as seeking a healthy lifestyle. It's about building consciousness: if drinking eight glasses of water a day seems impossible, just keep sipping from a glass on your desk. A 10-mile hike isn't in the cards?Walk to work. This sort of thinking is well-being in its purest, most uncomplicated form.
"The guests at both of our spas are people who want to live life more optimally. We teach people individual responsibility about their well-being," says Gary Frost, executive vice president of Canyon Ranch in Tucson. The spa has started offering wellness retreats, which include a medical evaluation and a roster of board-certified specialists who help manage issues such as stress, sleep disorders, and nutritional imbalances. Not to be outdone, Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires has created two programs that address longevity. "Ultraprevention" assesses your physiological functions and includes recommendations from staff experts on integrative therapies like herbal remedies and gyrotonics. "Lifemapping" involves training in holistic thinking and problem-solving for people facing major transitions, such as menopause and retirement. "Baby boomers are preoccupied with not getting old the way their parents did," says Frost.
Obviously, we've come a long way since Dr. Kellogg's Sanitarium. And though this road to wellness may often begin with pain, the journey doesn't have to be about illness. Dolphin Court Grand Spa at the Green Valley Ranch Station Casino provides a minimalist haven outside the nonstop, all-out bacchanal of Las Vegas. Sometimes, that's all you need. The spa lounge is belowground, hidden from the desert glare; 10 treatment rooms are positioned directly beneath cascading waterfalls, so every massage and facial in the earth-toned concrete bunker is accompanied by natural white noise. In keeping with the playful Vegas vibe, the spa disguises wellness with lighthearted treatments such as a "desert gold" clay wrap and a cookies-and-cream body mask. It smells like Chips Ahoy.
Whiskey Beach, Rande Gerber's new party extravaganza at Green Valley Ranch, has a sixties groove thing going on. It looks straight out of Goldfinger, or at least Goldmember. At night, a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd hangs around the icy-cool, all-white bar and open-air performance stage as stadium speakers blast club tunes into the stratosphere. During daylight hours, however, the tone is naturally subdued by the desert heat. But that's when most revelers recuperate in Dolphin Court Grand Spa, designed by the super-hip, Portland-based firm Architröpolis, which channeled Le Corbusier for the steel-and-glass structure with a waterfall that drops into a reflecting pool flanking the entrance.
According to designer Michael Czysz— who has worked for such pillars of cool as Lenny Kravitz—Dolphin Court's owner underestimated the year-old spa's popularity and is already talking about extending it another 20,000 square feet. This may seem like keeping up with the Bellagios, but the concept of play has always been an important element in achieving a sense of well-being. And frankly, if you're not bent on having some fun with the concept of wellness, what's the point of going to a resort?You can always seek instruction in higher consciousness at an ashram or a monastery, minus the room service and aromatherapy massages.
In Napa Valley, Auberge du Soleil's spa is the perfect entry-level retreat. Guests can dabble in yoga or qigong, hike trails that wind through marshaled rows of grapevines, drift away in a warm-spring infinity pool, and stare into the middle distance in a "tranquillity" lounge, a quiet space reserved for contemplating an oak forest. Six spa treatment rooms surround a serene courtyard of 100-year-old olive trees and acanthus-leaf fountains; fragrant lavender and rosemary flourish in garden beds. The spa's superb body and facial treatments are based on fresh components from Napa gardens and vineyards. (The enviable local resources for natural and organic ingredients will impress purity junkies.) There's no preaching the latest spiritual mumbo jumbo and no pressure to give up nasty little habits; in fact, the inn's restaurant may prove too enticing for the most stoic dieter. Even if you could resist the seasonal menu, the exceptional wine list will trip you up. But to borrow a catchphrase from hippie guru Ram Dass, it's enough to just be here now.
Spa director Peggy Francis, who is also a reiki master, agrees. "People come to us for pleasure, and that's at the crux of healing," she says. "Where the mind goes, the body follows." The staff tries to inspire the well-being of guests with a peaceful, joyous spirit. Everyone smiles, greets you, touches your hand or shoulder. No one checks a watch to see when treatment time is up or rushes a guest out of a room to clean it for the next customer. As Francis says, "Guests are able to relax, go deeper within, and bring that experience home with them. We provide the vehicle, and then it's up to them to do it."
Take the first step toward a sound mind at these forward-thinking spas.
Caneel Bay Self Centre Jan Kinder conducts yoga and memorable one-on-one primordial sound meditation classes in a serene setting overlooking the Caribbean. Doubles from $375 Cruz Bay, St. John, U.S.V.I. 888/767-3966 or 340/776-6111 www.rosewoodhotels.com
Dolphin Court Grand Spa Having fun is half the point of this desert oasis 10 miles from the casino strip. Splurge and feel good while indulging in a champagne-and-caviar facial. Very Vegas. Doubles from $179, day spa packages from $160 Green Valley Ranch Station Casino, Green Valley, Nev. 866/782-9487 or 702/617-7777 www.greenvalleyranch.com
Spa du Soleil Napa Valley's natural beauty creates a sense of security and tranquillity. Book a reviving herbal tea ritual in the private steam bath and cool plunge pool. Doubles from $475, spa treatments from $130 per hour Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, Calif.; 866/228-2490 or 707/963-1211 www.aubergedusoleil.com
New Age Health Spa This holistic Catskill Mountains resort is a popular weekend getaway for yoga, well-being lectures, and hiking. Check out the new meditation center and guest cottages. Three-day retreats from $728 for two Neversink, N.Y.; 800/682-4348 or 845/985-7600 www.newagehealthspa.com
Phoenician Centre for Well-Being Health-minded services include meditation, yoga, and consultations with staff herbalists. Don't miss the new reiki chakra-balancing therapy with reiki master Leonie Rosenberg. Doubles from $495, four-day well-being retreats from $3,660 for two Phoenician Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz.; 800/888-8234 or 480/941-8200 www.thephoenician.com
Jump-start a new approach to healthful living in an inspirational setting.
Shambhala The spa at Parrot Cay Resort has weeklong life-improving programs guided by such yoga luminaries as Shandor Remete and Erich Schiffmann. Pop-yogi Rodney Yee returns for two intensive seven-day workshops (December 15—21 and March 30—April 5). Seven-day retreats from $5,310 for two Parrot Cay, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos 877/754-0726 or 649/946-7788 www.parrot-cay.com
Canyon Ranch Health Resort The Tucson ranch's Life-Enhancement Center runs the Optimal Aging Program (December 8—15), a series of workshops, individual consultations, and blood profiles that address life-change management and healthy aging. At Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, one-hour Ultraprevention and Lifemapping sessions are available to all spa guests. Five-day packages from $5,404 for two (Tucson), four-day spa packages from $3,262 for two (Berkshires) Tucson, Ariz., and Lenox, Mass. 800/742-9000 www.canyonranch.com
Escape daily pressures with these programs devoted to mind/body practices.
Chopra Center at La Costa Resort & Spa Deepak Chopra's ongoing seminars and retreats include The Soul of Healing (once a month; next retreat November 22—27). Three-day seminars from $795, not including accommodations Carlsbad, Calif. 888/424-6772 or 760/931-7566 www.chopra.com
Mii Amo The holistic Southwestern spa sponsors monthly programs with guest speakers. Next up is Lisa Chiles, author of Lighten Your Load: Simple Spiritual Tools for Everyday Living, who teaches guests how to release unhealed pain and connect to their spiritual selves (November 3—7). Five-day retreats from $3,180 for two Enchantment Resort, Sedona, Ariz. 888/749-2137 or 928/282-2900 www.miiamo.com
Rancho La Puerta As part of the progressive spa's Awaken the Spirit seminars, psychiatrist Carl Hammerschlag will lead a lecture series called Creating Healing Rituals & Ceremonies (December 7—14). Seven-night spa packages from $4,180 for two Tecate, Baja California, Mexico 800/443-7565 or 760/744-4222 www.rancholapuerta.com
THE DOCTOR IS IN
Diagnostic services—body scans, blood workups, physician consultations—have been added to the roster at some spas. All technicians and physicians at the following facilities are board-certified.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Integrative Medicine Outpatient Center The center is opening its wellness programs, with a focus on body work, nutrition, and pain relief, to the public. Movement-therapy classes (tai chi, yoga, Pilates) and stress-reduction workshops are also available. Stress-management classes $15; 60-minute massages $85 303 E. 65th St., New York, N.Y. 212/639-4700 www.mskcc.org
Holistica Hawaii Health Center The Waikiki property has both three-day medical consultations and weeklong personalized programs designed to ease the pressures of lifestyle change. Services include body imaging, genomic testing, fitness analysis, cooking classes, and, of course, spa treatments. Three-day wellness retreats from $8,000 for two Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort, 2005 Kalia Rd., Honolulu 866/339-1333 or 808/951-6546 www.holistica.com
Hælth/SoHo Manhattan's newest complementary medicine center was founded by the late Dr. William Fair, former chief of urology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In a modern loft space, Hælth offers yoga, massages, nutritional coaching, acupuncture, and herbal therapies, as well as individualized integrated healing programs. One-day health-assessment from $175 599 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 877/442-3584 or 212/334-9600 www.haelth.com
Mind/Body Medical Institute Affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson's integrative center addresses stress, women's health issues, school and workplace health, and yoga for mind/body change. Ten-week program $350 Chestnut Hill, Mass. 866/509-0732 or 617/991-0102 www.mbmi.org