Getting this far has involved a lot of ups and downs, kind of like the weight-loss experience itself. Two plane rides — from Minneapolis to Detroit, then Detroit to Albany — each with an ascent and descent that mirror my own emotional flux. I have been working to lose weight for two years, and I’m on my way to a weight-loss retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in western Massachusetts. Even though this retreat bills itself as a feel-good experience, I worry a little about the threat it could pose to my self-esteem, and I feel unsure about how it will help my prospects of long-term success. My preconceived notions about weight-loss retreats leave me a bit ambivalent, skeptical even. I feel like I’ve tried practically everything over the past couple of years. Can a five-day retreat really help me drop stubborn pounds and return me to the world with my spirit intact?
I’ll get my answer soon enough. Now the shuttle van is on a road that climbs steadily until we reach a peak — below us, tucked into the rolling hills, we see Kripalu. Our driver, Bob, who has been transporting people to and from the center for nearly 20 years, shares his take: “It’s always the same. I pick up a group at the airport and they are quiet,” he says. “Maybe not so sure what’s to come. But on the way home, they can’t stop talking. It’s like they are reborn.”
Kripalu’s Integrative Weight Loss program is one of the rare retreats (see “Destinations for Weight Loss,” below) that focus on bringing mind and body together. They counsel participants to understand their relationship with food and improve their appreciation for the bodies they have now. They believe it’s the awareness of these things — not calorie counts or numbers on a scale — that will help produce successful and sustainable weight loss.
On the ground, this approach can take unexpected forms. By Tuesday afternoon, day two, I’m on my hands and knees in the main hall, leaning against a stranger and purring like a cat. I’ve promised myself I’d be open, but, honestly, I feel silly. Our YogaDance teacher tells us to growl if we feel like it. And move like animals. Crawl, leap — whatever feels right. Eventually, my feelings of awkwardness subside. Kripalu works its magic on me, and I find myself running around the room with a silk scarf, not even thinking. I’m dancing — present in my body, and feeling good about it.
I feel overwhelmed by gratitude for all the support I’m receiving here, so much so that I find myself lying on the floor weeping as the class comes to a close. I’m beginning to understand that this weight-loss retreat will be full of surprises. Clearly, I haven’t tried everything yet.
A Mindful Journey
During our first few days with group leader and life coach Aruni Nan Futuronsky, we learn that weight loss is about much more than weight. “We reframe the journey from one of mere weight loss to one of mindful healing,” Futuronsky says. “What would it be like to make choices that support that?” Susan Lord, MD, an integrative physician who counsels our group on the first day, states the principles behind this approach even more directly: “If you can change your mind, you can change your body.”
Many of the choices we make are automatic, Futuronsky says. They feel like a means of survival — supporting families, sustaining certain friendships or propelling careers. But unthinking behavior readily perpetuates a cycle of stress, and of mindlessness. “Before you know it, you’ve finished the entire box [of food] and have no recollection of eating it.”
To teach us about making more conscious choices, Futuronsky leads us through an exercise in mindful eating. We are each given a small cup with two raisins and two raw almonds. First, we try a raisin. As we reach for it, Futuronsky tells us to see it, examine it and smell it before placing it in our mouths. We move it around in our mouths first, and then chew it slowly. “Be present for the flavor, for the sensations of chewing,” she says. “Notice the deliciousness of the raisin. Be there and experience it.”
Afterward, we take three deep breaths of gratitude and recognition of our intention in eating the raisin. We repeat this practice with the almond, this time with our eyes closed. Several of us are shifting in our seats. But as we breathe and slow down, a calm comes over the room. We won’t always eat with this exaggerated slowness, Futuronsky says, but she suggests we try with a few bites at each meal.
After attending to how we eat, we move on to the what. Annie Kay, MS, RD, RYT, author of Every Bite Is Divine (Life Arts Press, 2007), teaches us about nutrition with a focus on moderation rather than demonizing certain foods. “The more we learn about things like inflammation and other imbalances, we can see that it’s not as simple as calories in, calories out,” she says.
Some foods nourish our bodies, Kay explains, and others negatively affect the digestive system. But she doesn’t describe certain foods as “good” or “bad.” If you want chocolate cake, she recommends enjoying a small piece occasionally, with someone you love. And be willing to skip it at least some of the time. “I encourage people to get their sweetness from people and life,” she says.
Cooking classes are another key part of the mindful eating program. Kripalu chef de cuisine Jeremy Smith speaks with us about meal planning, stocking the pantry and mise en place — “putting in place” the ingredients before starting to cook. “You don’t start your yoga practice without your props,” he says. “Same for cooking.”
That said, cooking isn’t about perfectionism. “That’s what baking is for,” Smith jokes. There is always room to make adjustments — use acidity from lime or lemon juice to bring out the flavors, and prevent oversalting, for example — but don’t stress about it, he tells us. It is important to prepare high-quality, nutrient-dense foods that don’t harm your system. And if you are cooking with love, consciously putting your prana (or life force) into the food you make, it will be nourishing.
Change in Motion
At an integrative weight-loss retreat, exercise is used to help bring mind and body together. It’s tailored so everyone can reap its benefits. Each day of the program starts with a walk at 7 a.m. Three different Kripalu staffers walk with us, one taking a brisker pace, the other two staggered behind so we can all find our best rhythm. We walk for an hour, along the roads and paths of Kripalu’s property, nearly 300 acres set in the Berkshire Mountains.
Our movement continues on Tuesday and Thursday with hourlong “Get Fit” classes ledby Kala Gresser. These focus mainly on body-weight exercises, sometimes incorporating a Swiss ball and light weights. I exercise regularly at home, often with heavier weights and HIIT-style circuits, but the workout challenged my body in new ways. Gresser also offered modifications.
“This [exercise] is about moving more briskly, increasing our heart rates, giving ourselves more of a challenge, while also listening to our bodies,” Gresser says.
The program includes one instructional yoga class on Monday night, but at Kripalu, there are plenty of additional classes available: Ninety-minute sessions are offered daily at three experience levels. I found the first-level class approachable for beginners; it included lengthy guided meditations for savasana (rest pose) at the close of the session.
YogaDance is offered daily at noon. Each class is led by a different instructor; one session was freestyle with a few suggestions for how to move, another more step-based, but students are always encouraged to move however they want. A class I attend with Toni Bergins, founder of the New York–based JourneyDance, quickly helps me become more comfortable in my body. “Look around,” she proclaims. “You are all so beautiful!”
Bringing It Home
During our closing session, Futuronsky leaves us with some important parting words: There is no magic bullet that will lead to weight loss and healthy maintenance. This is a way of life, not a diet or a program. “Lifestyle is the problem, yet lifestyle is the solution,” she says. Some things we will need to do again and again: Notice habitual behavior, then relax and realign to a more mindful choice. “The highest spiritual practice,” she says, quoting the founder of Kripalu, teacher Swami Kripalu, “is self-observation without judgment.”
There is more confidence in the entire group as we depart. In our sharing circles, led by Futuronsky and life coach Cristie Newhart, we find safety and compassion. This is also a place of friendship — for each other and for our selves. I feel hopeful hearing Newhart’s words: “Many people think that if I become accepting of myself, I won’t change, I won’t lose weight,” she says. “But that’s not true: The only way to change is to start with self-acceptance.”
When Bob arrives to load our luggage in the vans, we are chatty. I see a smile cross his face as our eyes connect: He was right — we feel reborn.