Holistic Health Retreats

Looking for a getaway that can change your life and your health? Consider a retreat that takes you way beyond the basic vacation.
By Sally Wadyka

Vacation can mean different things to different people. You can tour foreign cities, soak up artistic culture, veg out at a beach resort, or relax at a spa. And while all of these are wonderful ways to spend precious leisure time, you can also use your vacation to take away something more than a tan or a ton of scenic photographs. Vacation can also be a time to improve yourself or your life by learning to meditate, advancing your yoga practice, losing weight, detoxing, gaining fitness, or simply bettering your health.

A true vacation should have the power to transform you—to change both your body and your mind, as well as help you better understand the connection between the two. Patti Aleto, a 55-year-old general contractor from St. Louis, says her annual getaways to The Raj, a Maharishi ayurvedic health spa in Fairfield, Iowa, have helped her take charge of her health. “Unlike a regular spa, the treatments at an ayurvedic retreat work on a deeper physiological level, so the effects are very profound,” says Aleto. She credits a recent 10-day visit to The Raj with helping her body regain balance. “When I left, I felt deeply relaxed and had more mental clarity and more energy,” she says. And the results continue to impact her life today. “I now have the tools to better deal with the stress in my life,” says Aleto. “The spa’s given me the flexibility in my physiology to bounce back from stressful situations.”

Any good getaway should also offer an interesting array of services. “Look deeper into a spa’s offerings to make sure there are programs and activities that you enjoy and make it worth your time to go there,” says Erica Bennett, director of programming at Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona. Go beyond the brochures and websites by asking a resort specialist specific questions while being clear about your needs and expectations. If you’re still undecided, see if the retreat will let you speak to a past guest for a reference.

Here is an insider’s look at seven types of healing retreats—plus a few suggestions of places to visit.

Health specific
Any spa vacation can have a positive effect on your health, thanks to good food, exercise, and relaxation. But some retreats offer more specific health benefits to help guests heal and revitalize. The advantage to such a retreat is that instead of a hurried appointment with a primary-care physician, guests have access to a range of medical doctors who can perform common evaluations (such as cardiac-stress and bone-density tests), explain test results, analyze diet and lifestyle, and address certain health concerns. Some retreats go further by creating specialty programs geared toward people coping with specific illnesses, such as cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and heart problems.

Whether its medical slant is Western or Eastern, any good health retreat should focus on wellness as it addresses the entire person—body, mind, and spirit. When choosing a program, find one that can cater to your particular health concerns and has staff practitioners who can provide a wide range of services in various healing modalities.

We Suggest:

Alive Resort for Wellness and Longevity
British Columbia, Canada - 250.763.4744; aliveresort.com
Packages are available for groups looking to focus on general health at this retreat in the Monashee Mountains—pricing varies by length and type of trip. The staff includes medical doctors, naturopaths, homeopaths, psychologists, and stress-management coaches. After you leave, continue your journey by consulting with a coach by phone.

Green Mountain at Fox Run
Ludlow, Vermont - 800.448.8106; fitwoman.com
The Learning to Thrive With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome program offers a weeklong opportunity for women with this condition to better understand the diagnosis and develop take-home solutions to cope with symptoms. Costs range from $2,600 for a triple room to $3,330 for single accommodations.

Commonweal Cancer Help Program
Bolinas, California - 415.868.0970; commonweal.org
This weeklong retreat is designed for people with cancer and includes support sessions, massage, yoga, meditation, and vegetarian meals. Nightly lectures explore topics such as mainstream therapies and integrative techniques. The $2,460 fee includes housing, meals, and all programs and activities.

Weight loss
While most leisure trips highlight the sorts of indulgences that can lead to weight gain, there are vacation destinations that focus on helping you drop pounds. Depending on the program, a weight-loss retreat can be suitable for anyone with fat to trim, whether you have a few extra pounds or a serious weight problem. “The most important thing is to find a program based on teaching you to make lifestyle changes,” says Jessica Lynn, director of program development at the Hilton Head Health weight-loss spa in South Carolina. Look for a retreat that offers cooking classes, nutrition lectures, and sessions with licensed dietitians who can guide you toward healthier habits and lasting lifestyle changes.

To keep from gaining weight after a retreat, Lynn recommends a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week. And while that’s a healthy goal, you can expect to lose a bit more at a retreat due to increased exercise and controlled meal plans. The average stay at Hilton Head is 10 to 14 days, long enough, says Lynn, to start seeing results and create new habits. Though it may be tempting to find a program that puts you on a crash diet, Lynn cautions against nutritional plans of fewer than 1,200 calories a day, even for a short duration. “You might lose weight very quickly, but you’ll gain it back just as quickly,” she says.

We Suggest:

Hilton Head Health
Hilton Head, South Carolina - 800.292.2440; hiltonheadhealth.com
Ten-day packages start at $3,400 and feature a multitargeted approach to weight loss that includes diet, fitness, stress management, and personal empowerment. Look forward to meals made from lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy, unrefined carbohydrates.

Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa
Miami - 800.327.4914; pritikin.com
Packages start at $4,500 for one week, single occupancy, and include gourmet, low-fat meals, cooking classes, personal fitness training, and professional nutritional guidance. You’ll be eating and learning to cook dishes without unhealthy fats or sugar.

Many health experts believe that regular detox is necessary to purge contaminants that build up in the body from exposure to environmental pollutants and chemicals in our food. Detox retreats often include clean eating, exercise, colonics, acupuncture, and other cleansing activities.

At The Raj, an ayurvedic cleansing program begins before you leave home, with herbal formulas designed to loosen toxins at a cellular level. Once at the spa, an ayurvedic expert performs a pulse diagnosis to assess toxicity levels, imbalances, blockages, and digestive weaknesses, then customizes your cleanse based on that information and your body type. “Ayurveda doesn’t treat symptoms specifically,” explains Graciella Zogbi, ayurvedic health educator at The Raj. “It treats root causes to help the body regain and maintain balance in order to self-repair.” By balancing the body, detox enthusiasts believe that some health conditions, from allergies to digestive troubles, can be resolved.

Not all detox programs are based on ayurvedic principles. Some Westernized programs rely on raw-food diets, juice fasts, or clean eating that eliminates foods like white flour, sugar, and caffeine, often in combination with colonics and gentle exercise. But whether the detox program you choose is ayurvedic or Western, make sure it has a good record, not just of results but also of safety. Programs that involve multiday fasts or overzealous colonics can be dangerous and detrimental to your health. (For more on safe detoxing, search “Detox the Right Way” at naturalsolutionsmag.com.)

We Suggest:

The Raj
Fairfield, Iowa - 800.248.9050; theraj.com
One-week, all-inclusive detox programs start at $4,745 and offer a variety of ayurvedic treatments, including four-hands massage, herbalized steam treatments, and gentle oil enemas, as well as a transcendental meditation program for stress.

The Chopra Center for Wellbeing
Carlsbad, California - 888.424.6772; chopra.com
The six-day Perfect Health retreat begins at $2,875, not including accommodations. The detoxifying program focuses on the ancient Indian healing and cleansing practice of panchakarma. Limited to 24 guests at a time, the package includes a consultation with an MD.

Meditation can take many different forms, from secular relaxation to Zen Buddhist, but whichever type you try, meditation can improve your health by slowing your heart rate, improving blood flow, relieving muscle tension, and minimizing the release of stress hormones.

When choosing a meditation retreat, consider your personality, spirituality, and goals. Some programs don’t allow you to speak for the duration of your stay (to help turn your attention inward), while others include readings from Eastern religious texts and mantras to help focus your attention and calm your mind. In mindfulness meditation, an essential component of Buddhism, practitioners hone their attention on breathing, which is thought to allow them to experience true feeling without judgment. Other meditation practices, like those at The Golden Door in Escondido, California, are more secular in nature. “We teach a Westernized version that involves a simple counting technique rather than a repeated Sanskrit mantra,” says Francine Hoffman, the resort’s Inner Focus coordinator.

The key to finding a fit is deciding which elements suit your personality, interests, and ability to sit still. “There is no one approach that will work for everyone, which is why we offer a variety of different methods for guests to try,” explains Hoffman. For those who don’t like sitting still, the luxury resort also has meditation-in-motion techniques like labyrinth walking—in which you walk a circular path of ancient design—or Spirited Walker, a class that teaches participants how to focus the brain and breath while walking or hiking.

We Suggest:

The Golden Door
Escondido, California - 800.424.0777; goldendoor.com
Weeklong packages start at $6,000; look for discounted rates during special weeks. In addition to meditation instruction, the Inner Focus Program offers meditative practices like qigong, Zen archery (designed to develop focus and concentration), and expressive arts.

Shambhala Mountain Center
Red Feather Lakes, Colorado - 888.788.7221; shambhalamountain.org
Three-day Learn to Meditate programs cost $285 to $565 and include simple accommodations (from shared dorm rooms to basic private rooms with baths) and meals. Shambhala also offers Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats, as well as workshops on health and healing.

If you’re looking to take a yoga class or two, you’ll find them available at most spas. But a yoga retreat, on the other hand, can allow you to immerse yourself in various techniques and help take your practice to the next level, even if you’re not an experienced yogi. “We have programs geared toward beginners that are samplers of various techniques,” says Cathy Husid-Shamir, spokeswoman for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “A retreat is a great place to come and learn.” Before booking, though, be clear about your expectations. Talk to one of the instructors or program directors to discuss your ability and the styles that you have practiced to make sure you don’t end up at a retreat that will be too easy or hard core.

At Kripalu, you will practice poses every day with certified yoga instructors and also have a range of other activities to choose from that will round out your experience. Look for a retreat that offers workshops about yoga-related topics (such as meditation, mindfulness, and anatomy), beautiful surroundings for a walk or hike, and healing-arts practices such as massage and energy work. Consider instructors’ backgrounds to make sure they are trained and knowledgeable in the techniques that interest you.

We Suggest:

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Stockbridge, Massachusetts - 866.200.5203; kripalu.org
Costs for the six-day Yoga for Health program range from $825 for shared bunk-bed dorm rooms to $1,950 for a private room. The price includes daily workshops on healing yoga and yogic breathing techniques, classes that teach you how to practice at home, and all meals.

The Expanding Light
Nevada City, California - 800.346.5350; expandinglight.org
The two-day Learn Ananda (a spiritual form of hatha yoga) Yoga Retreat starts at $288 and includes all classes, meals, and accommodations.

From exercise novices to accomplished athletes, anyone can benefit from the right fitness retreat—the key is finding one suited to your interests and abilities. If you aren’t self-motivated, opt for a program that has guided activities, classes, and one-on-one training possibilities. If you prefer to go it alone, make sure a resort allows for opportunities for independent exercise and exploration. Ask yourself if you’re looking to continue activities you already know and love, or do you want a retreat to expose you to new fitness experiences?

While almost any spa or resort will have a gym facility and a few fitness classes, there are destinations that truly embrace the active lifestyle—both indoors and out. At Red Mountain Resort & Spa in St. George, Utah, daily hikes take place in the 5,000-acre Snow Canyon State Park amid the high desert, sand dunes, and towering red-rock cliffs, and many t’ai chi and yoga classes are held outdoors. “We want people to challenge themselves from a fitness perspective, but in the process connect with nature and experience the beauty of the outdoors,” says Tracey Welsh, the spa’s general manager.

When assessing a spa’s fitness program, Welsh advises looking at its commitment to safety. “Make sure any outdoor guides are trained in wilderness first aid and that those leading other classes and activities have specific training and certifications,” she says. Also, look for a program with some take-home lessons. “You want to learn tools you can use to make your new fitness activities a sustainable part of your lifestyle,” says Welsh.

We Suggest:

Red Mountain Resort & Spa
St. George, Utah - 877.246.4453; redmountainspa.com
Packages start at $200 per person per night and include daily hikes and access to outdoor pools, bicycles, walking trails, strength and cardio studios, and the Pound Puppy Hike—a chance to take dogs from a local shelter on a walk with other guests. For an additional fee, guests can also participate in activities like rock climbing, yoga, and canyoneering.

New Life Hiking Spa
Killington, Vermont - 866.298.5433; newlifehikingspa.com
Starting at $209 per person per night, trips to New Life include daily morning hikes ranging from easy three-mile nature walks to challenging eight-mile steep climbs, plus a variety of afternoon fitness classes.

Personal Enrichment
Somewhere in between a simple spa retreat and a purely educational vacation lies a wonderful combination of the two. Many spas offer a variety of classes and programs catered toward those who want to get more than a massage out of their spa visit (but want the massage, too). “We have our core programming, which includes yoga, meditation, fitness, outdoor activities, and spa services, and then we look at how we can round that out,” explains Erica Bennett of Miraval Resort. At Miraval, special programs for personal enrichment cover a broad range of topics, such as healthy cooking, painting, and coping with life transitions. Miraval’s Creative and Mindful Cooking workshop gives guests the chance to make dishes from the spa’s signature healthy cuisine, practice menu planning, and make healthy substitutions in the kitchen.

If you’re looking for a personal enrichment program, it pays to do research into a few different places. Find programs that suit your interests, like a cooking class if you already love to spend time in the kitchen, or that give you the opportunity to try something new or different, like painting or ballroom dancing.

We Suggest:

Miraval Resort
Tucson, Arizona - 800.825.4000; miravalresort.com
Resort experiences start at $425 per person per night. Most immersion programs are extra; for example, the four-day Creative and Mindful Cooking course costs $600.

Mohonk Mountain House
New Paltz, New York - 800.772.6646; mohonk.com
Rates start at $217 per night at this scenic estate in the Hudson Valley. Every month brings different theme programs, from tennis camps to ballroom dancing. Those looking to express their creativity can try a five-day art workshop for painting or photography.

Tennessee Fitness Spa
Waynesboro, Tennessee - 800.235.8365; tfspa.com
Weekly rates of $775 to $1,575 allow you to enjoy an array of spa services and fitness programs. During the Belly Dancing program, you’ll get a full week of energetic classes that culminate in a group performance.

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who specializes in health-related topics.