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An Inner Journey

By JUDI DASH

© St. Petersburg Times


TUCSON, Ariz. -- The 23 hikers slowly making their way up the cactus-studded hills of Mount Lemmon State Park looked like any other group of outdoor enthusiasts enjoying an invigorating weekend excursion.

But we knew differently. The 45-year-old man ambling along to my right had been rigid with back pain the week before. The 40-year-old woman chatting happily on my left had been reclusive to the point of hostility, her spirit broken by the strain of caring for two parents with Alzheimer's disease. Behind me, a middle-aged woman recovering from cancer, who just days before had expressed little enthusiasm for living, smiled at the crisp morning air. She huffed alongside a hefty 35-year-old bent on kicking his 20-year smoking habit and an equal amount of excess poundage.

Me? I was just seeking some balance in my life, trying to learn how to reclaim personal time and reduce stress from my workaholic ways. These people, all so seemingly different from me, had become like family. I rejoiced in their smiles as we panted triumphantly toward the open arms of towering saguaro cacti at the trail's peak.

For all of us, this was a vacation, a weeklong inner journey (although there was plenty of outdoor exercise en route) run by the Life Enhancement Center at Tucson's Canyon Ranch. Here in the Arizona desert, we had found fertile ground for making significant lifestyle changes to improve our emotional and physical well-being.

Health spas such as this one are among the fastest-growing vacation destinations nationwide. Although 10 years ago spa vacationers (then mainly women) sought to improve their shapes and, they hoped, their lives, by exercising and subsisting on rabbit food, today most health resorts tout "holistic" programs for both sexes. These programs typically combine vigorous athletic activities with workshops on inner harmony. If your mind is overwrought, they reason, it's no surprise you are overweight; if you are disturbed on the inside, you are likely to be out of kilter on the outside, too.

Programs range from American Indian healing and harmonizing rituals at Utah's Green Valley Spa and Tennis Resort to motivation and craving-control workshops run by the Hilton Head Health Institute in South Carolina. There's yoga and journal-writing to go with hiking at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts' Berkshire Mountains, and a confidence-building challenge course of tight ropes, climbing walls and trapezes at the Heartland Spa in Illinois. At Miraval, a luxurious Tucson resort not far from Canyon Ranch, guests groom and train horses for insights into their communication problems with people, then head for massages that employ soothing heated stones.

Canyon Ranch's Life Enhancement Program is perhaps the most ambitious of the holistic resort holidays, and our Saturday morning hike to Mount Lemmon's peak was a kind of graduation celebration.

Best known for the killer aerobic classes, mountain hiking and biking, and slim-line spa dining that have made it one of the nation's top fitness spas, the resort set up the Life Enhancement Center as an intensive behavior-modification program for guests with issues weightier than dropping a few clothing sizes. The tightly structured schedule of workshops, lectures, exercise and massage sessions is presided over by physicians, psychologists, dietitians, fitness instructors and body therapists who specialize in preventive health care.

The idea is to combine all of the usual workouts and pampering of a health resort with the kind of medical work-ups people seldom make time for until there's a problem.

Our base was an airy, Pueblo-style building about a 10-minute walk, but a world away, from the bustling sprawl of the main spa. Our quarters were in nearby casitas overlooking landscaped cacti gardens, an occasional sculpture or fountain and, beyond, the misty Santa Catalina mountains. We were welcome to join the aerobics classes, hikes and other activities of the main resort, but most of us preferred the supportive, quiet intimacy of the Life Enhancement Center, which has its own dining room, gym, lecture hall and massage cubicles.

My daily itinerary was laid out on a grid sheet with so few empty spaces I never opened the novels I had packed for downtime nor got to lounge on a poolside chaise.

At one session, Canyon Ranch's top psychologist, Dan Baker, told us we could reduce stress and increase contentment by filling our lives with a blend of meaningful work, play and relationships. (Sounds logical, but few in my group could boast such a balance.) This mix, he said, was the only way out of the "Peggy Lee Syndrome -- Is that all there is?"

Fitness director Doug Crowell showed us how to squeeze into less than an hour a workout that combines aerobic exercise with strength training, essential for maintaining bone density that otherwise starts to deteriorate at middle age.

Mel Zuckerman, Canyon Ranch's creator, emotionally shared his own life story -- one of obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, arthritis and bleeding ulcers, until, approaching his 50th birthday in 1977, he found health and healing at a spa in California. He decided to create his own version in Tucson.

At 70, fit and bounding with enthusiasm, he told us: "This week is about choice; about resetting priorities and contemplating possibilities. Believe me, you do not want to get emotionally connected to your desire to be healthy while you are gasping in an emergency room."

We tried meditation, yoga and alternative breathing techniques. We learned how to get the most out of a treadmill workout, monitor our moods to control food choices and use music to calm or invigorate our systems.

There were pool aerobics, stretching over giant rubber balls, group walks in the nearby mountains, healthy-back exercises, and weight training using barbells, resistance machines and stretch bands we could pocket for impromptu workouts anywhere in the world.

There was even a shoe clinic for choosing the right footwear for different athletic activities, with a slew of brands and sizes available for immediate delivery.

Squeezed in between these sessions were blood tests; bone-density, fat and hormone measurements; and some deep, delicious massages, including a newfangled massage called Watsu that is performed while floating in a swimming pool to the accompaniment of soothing music.

Among the 23 people in my group (the Life Enhancement Program accepts a maximum of 40 participants per week) were all ages from 20-something to 70-plus. They wanted to stop smoking, lose weight, reduce stress, tackle midlife crises or push through the pain of divorce, death, disease or dysfunctional relationships.

Listening to introductions at our opening-night orientation session, I worried I was in the wrong place. So much heartbreak, no small number of neurotics and some folks who just rubbed me the wrong way made me consider abandoning this ship in favor of the fitness fever over at the main spa. But as I got to know these people during long walks and sharing sessions, I began to glimpse snippets of humor and caches of compassion that made me realize they were not so alien after all. Like any family, we each had our strengths and weaknesses but found the group support worth the niggling idiosyncrasies.

None in our group emerged trouble-free, but most of us learned how to put our problems in perspective, to tackle the ones that were fixable in a more productive way and to reach out for help when we were in over our heads.

By the end of the week I had lost a few pounds, developed tension-reducing deep-breathing techniques that I still use and determined that every issue in my life cannot be approached with panic. I've also learned that, alas, exercise is a lifelong sentence, not just a penance to perform periodically, and that breaking self-destructive habits and building better relationships requires the kind of determination and hard work I had previously devoted mainly to job advancement.

Could I have reached those same conclusions and embarked on a similar road to wellville back home?

Our little group took a poll and decided we didn't think so. At home, with work and family and a slew of other responsibilities tugging for attention, we would have been hard-pressed to carve out enough personal time to make any major changes. For one week in Tucson, that was our full-time job, a me-first luxury in which few of us would have indulged in the real world. If you go

The one-week Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, (800) 726-3335, runs year-round. Price starts at $2,651 per person, based on double occupancy, and includes accommodations, meals, workshops and athletic activities, a selection of medical tests, private counseling, massages and other pampering services. Partial scholarships are available.

Other health and healing vacations include:

Green Valley Spa and Tennis Resort, St. George, Utah; (800) 237-1068. Guests hike in red rock canyon country, meditate, perfect their backhand at the Vic Braden Tennis College and join American Indian healing and harmonizing rituals.

Cooper Wellness Program, Dallas; (800) 444-5192. Run by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who literally wrote the book on aerobics, the center provides the latest in aerobic conditioning, behavioral counseling and workshops on healthy dining and relaxation techniques.

Hilton Head Health Institute, Hilton Head, S.C.; (800) 292-2440. Guests can play a few rounds of golf, stay in villas overlooking the greens, and participate in walking clinics and workshops in motivation, craving control and disease prevention.

Kripalu Center, Lenox, Mass.; (800) 967-3577. Holistic retreat in the Berkshire Mountains offers yoga classes for beginners to pros, vegetarian food, a wide range of massages and workshops in stress-reduction and self-esteem through journal-writing, visualizations and group sharing.

The Heartland Spa, Gilman, Ill.; (800) 545-4853. Laid-back resort with mix of athletics and pampering services plus a Challenge Course, a system of tight ropes, climbing walls and trapezes that builds confidence through teamwork. Inner Diet Assessment hones in on psychological barriers to weight management.

Miraval, Tucson, Ariz.; (800) 232-3969. Elegant spa resort with gourmet low-fat food, mindfulness workshops, mountain hiking and cycling, creative dance and unique massages using soothing heated stones. Innovative self-esteem-building programs. Resources:

The following books provide useful information on other health and healing vacations:

Vacations That Can Change Your Life, by Ellen Lederman (Sourcebooks Inc., $16.95)

Transformative Getaways, by John Benson (Henry Holt and Co., $15).

Fodor's Healthy Escapes, by Bernard Burt (Fodor's Travel Publications, $17). Judi Dash is a freelance travel writer who lives near Cleveland.

Originally published November 2, 1997



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