Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me, but I wasn’t sleeping well. My body hurt. I missed my old energy and vitality. I decided I needed to jump-start my quest to feel good again, so I departed for Kripalu, a yoga and health center in Massachusetts’s Berkshire Mountains.
I took easy yoga classes, and hiked in the deep woods on snowshoes, went to the spa, and soaked in the hot pool. I began each morning with a silent breakfast.
I also took classes on topics like resiliency and inflammation, picking up enough new information to suspect that my deep fatigue might signal an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder, which later proved true.
Most of the people I met at Kripalu were also there to care for their health. “I was exhausted before I found out I had cancer, and then I used whatever energy I had to fight the disease,” one young mother of four from Toronto told me.
While she got much-needed rest at Kripalu, she also participated in a 30-day program that included nutrition classes, meditation, and movement. “I need to understand how to take care of myself every day so I can be healthy for my kids,” she explained.
Some may think going on a retreat in a spalike environment sounds indulgent. But even thousands of years ago, people understood that spas can be vital to recovering wellness. Healing retreats have their origins in places such as the asclepieia of ancient Greece, temples where ill people told their dreams to a priest who then recommended treatments, often including a visit to baths or the gymnasium.
Healing retreats like Kripalu — where wellness programs for those with cancer or Parkinson’s are offered alongside yoga and nutrition classes for the masses — often provide more health-positive support than most medical facilities.
That’s because, unlike hospitals, healing retreats allow for deep rest. They serve up nourishing food and powerful information in nurturing spaces. Here are just a few destinations that fit that bill.
Soul Healing at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Ariz.
When Megan Warzeniak of Moraga, Calif., was offered the chance to go to Miraval as a company perk, she thought it sounded enjoyable. She had no idea she would leave feeling transformed.
Set in the High Sonoran Desert, Miraval is a luxury wellness resort renowned for its elegant design. But instead of finding the place ostentatious, Warzeniak was mesmerized by the kiva fire pit set on a rural part of the property, as well as the meditation labyrinth. The splendid views of sage, wild lavender, deer grass, and the Santa Catalina Mountains were breathtaking.
Warzeniak, 54, tried out a two-hour spa treatment called Spirit Flight, which combines a full-body massage, acupuncture, and craniosacral therapy along with spinal alignment, shamanic healing elements, and drumming.
At the beginning, recalls Warzeniak, “I found it hokey.” But she decided to roll with it and wound up glad she did. Once she dropped her skepticism, she found herself identifying things that were holding her back from how she wanted to live. There was an opening, she says, where she was “releasing anger and understanding joy. It was an aha moment.”
That experience allowed her to approach the next four days with an open mind. Warzeniak, a cancer survivor, went on a ropes course, worked with horses, took hikes, and did yoga. Engaged in focused activity, she felt more present than in her everyday life, where she’s constantly pulled in different directions. “I’ve started to understand what it means to be in the moment,” she says.
Like Warzeniak, Experience Life senior editor Courtney Helgoe had an unexpected opportunity to visit Miraval. A lifetime Midwesterner, she wondered if she could overcome the feeling that she was unworthy of all the luxurious attention, but the place won her over, too.
Helgoe, 44, loved walking the resort’s labyrinth and having time to watch the desert birds — including a roadrunner and a nest of three baby great horned owls. She had a powerful healing session with an energy healer accompanied by a live harpist — an experience she admits she might previously have considered silly.
And after spending time with several other visitors at Miraval who faced difficult health issues, Helgoe began to see the resort’s offerings in a different, more practical light.
“We instinctively understand that space and time are important for emotional healing,” says Helgoe, “but we can forget how important they are for physical healing, too.”
Even if a spa getaway doesn’t directly address a physical issue, the supportive services help make the most of the time you’ve set aside for your rest and recovery.
Healing Traditions at the Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa in Fairfield, Iowa
Karuna Eve Nicols of Austin, Texas, knew it was time to start taking care of herself again. “I had many years of accumulated stress, constant headaches, and pain in my joints; I had become completely exhausted,” says Nicols, 59. So she headed to a spa in Iowa.
Surrounded by trees, a pond, and trails, the Raj — which looks like a French country estate — was designed using ancient Vedic principles to amplify its soothing, calming effect on visitors. All of the treatments offered here are based on Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing. (For more on Ayurveda, see “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Care“.)
Nicols took part in the Panchakarma program, a nurturing approach that uses massage treatments (some involving multiple practitioners), oils, herbs, and food to encourage detoxification.
Because we’re routinely exposed to toxins in our environment and food supply, says Mark Toomey, PhD, the director of Ayurvedic programs at the Raj, purification is an important part of their larger health programming.
“When someone comes here, the goal is to give them an understanding of who they are and the qualities that make up their physical body — as well as the information they need to maintain balance,” Toomey says.
Because the Raj hosts only 15 to 18 guests at a time and meals are shared at one long table, the sense of community is strong. Nicols particularly loved the staff. “All the people who worked at the Raj were supportive. I felt so safe, so well cared for,” she says.
Over the course of her stay at the Raj, Nicols improved each day. So when she got home, she decided to stick with the Ayurvedic practices and dietary shifts she’d adopted during her trip.
A month later, she noticed she felt calmer, with no headaches or aching joints. More than six months later, Nicols is still feeling strong and considers her trip “a thoroughly beneficial experience.”
Fresh Start at Tree of Life Center US in Patagonia, Ariz
George Gregory, 63, of New York City, had been living with type 2 diabetes for years. He carried excess weight and his blood sugar ran dangerously high. “I woke up every morning feeling like I was going to die,” he says.
After a long search for help, he found Gabriel Cousens, MD, a holistic physician and author of There Is a Cure for Diabetes. Cousens founded the Tree of Life Center, which offers holistic treatment programs supervised by a medical team.
Gregory enrolled in the 23-day Diabetes Recovery Program, which includes a diet of organic and low-glycemic raw food, instruction in a mind-body approach to habit change, and nutrition classes — as well as access to the center’s other offerings, including yoga, qigong, and acupuncture. He was one of eight participants.
Gregory was surprised by the results. After just three days, participants in his group were seeing dramatic improvements.
The center reports that 61 percent of visitors with type 2 non-insulin-dependent diabetes and 24 percent with type 2 insulin-dependent diabetes leave with fasting blood-sugar levels below 100, having gone off insulin. (One challenge: The center asserts that maintaining those levels requires adhering to a raw vegan diet, which many health experts view as unnecessarily limiting and potentially difficult to sustain.)
Gregory says that the close personal attention of Cousens was healing in itself. “I have had one doctor in my life who actually asked me about my life. Most didn’t make eye contact,” he says.
The setting of the Tree of Life is another supportive factor. Nestled between mountain peaks, the property purports to have an energetic vortex. The living quarters are simple, designed to take guests inward and into nature. The program encourages participants to get as much sleep as possible, listing restorative rest as one of the program’s main healing points.
The diabetes program is expensive, and not for everyone, but for many participants, the cost is worth it. Gregory feels as if he got his life back. “I have great energy, I’m sleeping well, and I’m 1,000 percent more positive in my outlook,” he says. “I wake up every morning ready to go.”