has become as common a come-on in travel circles as “eco-friendly.” There are wellness retreats, wellness diets, wellness beauty treatments, wellness classes, wellness resorts, wellness hotels, wellness weekends and, of course, wellness experts.
But what exactly is wellness? I thought I’d find out. And so, saddled with a sore Achilles tendon, an ever-present threat of heartburn and all manner of life stressors, I embarked on a cross-country search.
I was left, on various occasions, body-weary, sleep-deprived and incredibly waterlogged. Along the way I meditated and hyperventilated, and was watsu-ed and ceremonially “crowned.” I hiked and ran, floated and swam. I had my chakras read — my aura looks like a giant pistachio — and ate more quinoa than I can remember. And at the Esalen Institute, perched on the California coast and seemingly on the edge of the world, I got naked with a bunch of strangers and watched the sunset.
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The term wellness has old roots and myriad modern meanings. Dr. Halbert Dunn, author of the 1961 book “High-Level Wellness,” described it as something that included self-knowledge, creative expression and good health. Since then, that definition has evolved to the broader one we have today, which includes sleek, strictly regimented operations like the Ranch at Live Oak, a $5,600-a-week “endurance, wellness and nutrition program” in Malibu, Calif.
But there are still places where you can go to experience something more along the lines of what Dunn was talking about. Though Esalen does not drape itself in wellness terminology, the 50-year-old institute is still advertising its goal of “pioneering deep change in self and society,” and thus seemed like a pretty good place to explore the roots of what wellness might be.
For me, Esalen long had a reputation as a mystical hideaway on the California coast, but unexpected guests have not traditionally simply dropped in. Most are there to attend one of the institute’s hundreds of workshops, which can range from tantric sex to Gestalt theory. (Not at the same time, of course.)
Over the years, Esalen started allowing for “personal retreats,” which you can book after donating at least $50 to the Institute (plus paying for your accommodation). I did exactly that, and booked a $650-a-night “point house.”
When I arrived at Esalen, a three-hour drive south of San Francisco, my first impression was simple: Wow.
Situated on a nugget of land thrust into the Pacific, Esalen has commanding views of the California coastline, with its cliffs tapering into the ocean, and a campus that is both rustic and seemingly in harmony with Mother Nature. Vines creep along cobwebbed and rust-flecked fences that line the edge of a central glade where groups do HoopYogini, which combines yoga with a hula hoop. Monarch butterflies and green hummingbirds flit about the institute’s central garden — organic, naturally — while a stream burbles down a canyon to the surf below.
But as Esalen’s acolytes might say, the road to inner peace doesn’t take place in one night, which was all I had. Nor is it always luxurious. While the point house was a treat, with a small cliffside deck, complete with an old bathtub, much of the lodging here is more rudimentary, with a variety of shared rooms for visiting seminar attendees and “work-scholars,” an often scruffy and idealistic crew who help staff the institute’s kitchens and other parts of the institute between their studies. Meals are buffet-style in a communal dining room hung with guitars (and, surprisingly, often populated by quite a few people surfing the Web). There were healthy-looking people of all ages everywhere having animated conversations, playing chess and even sharing a smoke outside, something that seemed both charmingly and shockingly old-school.
That said, there are only a few enlightenment options for those who aren’t attending a workshop. I went to a relaxing early-morning guided meditation but avoided the Open Seat session, an Esalen tradition where a facilitator listens to whatever issues you want to discuss. The night I was there, attendees included two anxious-looking women and a patient-looking man. But I was not that man.
Speaking of manhood, though, I was a touch nervous about the details of the next Esalen tradition: the bath.
While the baths are not formally nude-only, I saw not a stitch of clothing on my dozen or so fellow bathers. Not that I was looking. Instead, I was enjoying other vistas; the baths, which are fed by sulfur-scented hot springs, sit just 100 feet or so above the Pacific, with an uninterrupted view beyond. And with massage tables both inside and out, you can get your back rubbed and taste the surf at the same time.
With the sun sliding beneath the horizon, questions of modesty or embarrassment quickly vanished. A couple of guys in the bath next to me chatted about sports, but most of my fellow bathers were just quiet. As was, surprisingly, my mind. I could hang out here — and let it all hang out here — for a while.
It was with just such a sense of serenity that I next traveled to La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., a sprawling hub for the well-to-do spiritual seeker. Touting itself as the No. 1 wellness spa in the nation, it boasts more than 600 rooms, 17 tennis courts, six swimming pools (including a booze-friendly one just for adults) and two golf courses.
It’s also, notably, home to the Chopra Center, a polished, commercial outlet that sells everything from mala beads (starting at $5.50) to a weeklong teacher training course that can run more than $12,000. The event and product catalog is more than 70 pages, and includes a range of products specifically geared for your “dosha,” which it defines as your “mind-body type.” (There is a quiz, no kidding, to help you figure it out and shop accordingly.)
The center is also where Deepak Chopra — a well-regarded mind-body expert and author — has recently initiated his concept for “workplace well-being,” a group wellness program aimed at corporate customers that purports to decrease absenteeism, increase productivity and promote greater vitality and mental health. Prices start at $3,995 for a 90-minute lecture by one of the center’s speakers — but not Chopra — for up to 40 people. A full-day session for such a group starts at $20,000 for stress management tips and group meditation (including ayurvedic lunch).
For its part, La Costa is handsome, dotted with exotic flowers, fountains and a spacious spa offering all manner of treatments and other indulgences. But trying to be all things to all people comes with a certain risk, namely the impression that certain “wellness”-related flourishes are little more than window-dressing. For dinner, for example, at the resort’s Blue Fire Grill I chose something called From the Fields, which was described as an “ayurvedic inspired vegan dish of the best local produce and grains.” What it turned out to be, however, was an over-roasted acorn squash, stuffed with a bland fist of quinoa and carrots. It made me long for the simple grub at Esalen.
The squash was still weighing me down the next morning when I decided to try a plyometric power class. Fitness is a big deal for many at La Costa — you can’t toss a mala bead without hitting a jogger — and when I arrived at the fully stocked gym, 10 minutes late, the three other older men in the class were already sweating. One guy dropped out after 20 minutes, and I was soon huffing so badly that I was unable to finish a section of bear crawls. The sequence involving sprints, squats and thrusts, meanwhile, made me consider calling 911. I do seem to remember music — Billy Idol, maybe, though I also vividly recall Cher — and finally, thankfully, some stretching. On the floor. The sweet, kind floor.
When I stumbled out, I still didn’t exactly know why they called that plyometrics. But let’s be clear: I did not feel well.
My final stop was Rancho La Puerta, a venerable wellness resort just south of the border, in Tecate, Mexico. Founded in the 1940s by Edmond Szekely, a Romanian philosopher who ardently believed in the power of fitness and who, according to reports at the time, apparently chose the area because it was on the same latitude as Galilee. (“Romanian Professor Founds Cult,” read a headline in a 1949 edition of The San Diego Union.)
Nowadays, guests are still strongly encouraged to take morning hikes — often leaving before dawn. There is also a hefty roster of bodywork options for your tired calves and backs, one of which was something called watsu, which is basically aquatic shiatsu, a process that its practitioners say replicates the feeling we all have in the womb.
As I gently eased my way into the pool — heated to a skin-friendly 96 degrees — I felt just a touch silly at the prospect of being swooshed around by the watsu instructor, a man who looked as if he could bench-press a house. And yet that quickly dissipated as he massaged my muscles in what approximates a weightless environment
Most visitors to the Rancho come for a week to take in an array of almost nonstop classes and activities, as well as its lovely small cottages, landscaped gardens and ample statuary of the female form. I, again, had only about 24 hours to peruse the offerings, and was almost instantly — perversely — stressed out: Would I go to a life coaching class, a “ranch Spanish” course or something called sound healing, which involves lying on the ground and listening to the ghostly echoes caused by rubbing crystal bowls?
Still moving slowly, though, I managed to miss them all the afternoon I arrived. I was wandering toward the Rancho’s labyrinth — an inlaid stone maze under a bower of trees — when I was approached by Briggitte McReynolds, who asked me — unprovoked — whether I wanted to “get crowned.”
Was it a euphemism for a mind-altering substance? No. Instead, McReynolds had been running a workshop, for three days, on making ceremonial crowns out of paper decorated with all manner of feathers, baubles, fake flowers and butterflies. Would I, she asked, “energize” one of the crowns in a ceremony?
Well, sure. Soon enough I was standing in a circle, holding a crown and surrounded by other members of a workshop I had not attended.
McReynolds explained the process: Each person would talk about why they made the crown, walk the labyrinth, and then place it on their heads, to “put the batteries in,” and take their place as a “leader in their life, not a lingerer,” with a connection to the “divine male, and divine female.”
I rolled my eyes. But then, McReynolds — sporting red henna hair and purple toenails — said something that knocked me off my high horse.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re just making this up.”
And then, when people began to talk about why they made their crowns and what they symbolized — finding their voice, finding wisdom, for their grandchildren — it was hard not to be touched. And after I walked the labyrinth and was crowned, I walked back to my room feeling surprisingly good.