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Summer Camp for Adults

Famed health retreat Rancho La Puerta

Hiking

Guests pilgrimage to famed health retreat Rancho La Puerta year after year. Three editors attempt to drink the all-natural, locally-sourced, organic Kool-Aid.

Where Deprivation is
De Rigueur

By Erin Meanley

Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico is a French fry-free property. There is also no red meat, chicken, mayo, ranch dressing, TV, Wi-Fi (except in the lounge), or alcohol. There are no cabana boys or room service. On the first night, we sat in our villa, fireplace roaring, smuggled wine in hand, reading books and staring at each other. At 9 p.m., we went to bed since there was nothing else to do—and because we’d all signed up for a sunrise hike at 5:30 a.m.

Activities were varied, plenty, and hippie-leaning. We meditated. We did water aerobics. We walked a reflexology path. I watched an artist teach “yarn painting.” I breathed fresh air, met roaming cows on a trail, drank gallons of water, and consumed more vegetables and fiber than I care to think about. (One tablemate, a nurse named Ellie, watched us devour slices of dense bread before informing us, “That’ll give you gas.”)

Throughout my stay, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would never be fed again. At the buffets, I cleared small plate after small plate like some kind of vegetarian Michael Phelps. Erin Chambers Smith told me she was giving me the Good Eater Award.

“I logged 18,000 steps in one day, while at the office I walk a mere 950.”

I didn’t stop there. I poured chia seeds, flax seeds, and nutritional yeast onto everything. In just four days, my nails grew to ridiculous lengths. I was Edward Scissorhands slicing the air during Tai Chi.

The fitness was not as challenging as the diet was strict. Ninety percent of the students in one class had never tried Zumba before. In a sculpt and tone class, people were stopping to ask how to orient their step platforms. The classes were relatively low-impact, and just 45 minutes in duration, but the big plus is that it allows you to try a lot of different disciplines.

The first day, I hiked a trail and took four fitness classes. I logged 18,000 steps, according to the pedometer they gave me. Ten thousand per day is the goal—but in an average day at the office I walk a mere 950.

Even though the exercise wasn’t hardcore, it was the most exhausting-relaxing vacation I’ve had. As a result, I slept soundly, which is not the norm for me. I didn’t touch Ambien or ZzzQuil. One ranch employee suggested that people sleep so well there because TV and Internet aren’t keeping them up. People listen more closely to their bodies, and just go to bed when they’re tired. The property’s quiet tranquility doesn’t hurt, either.

There’s much to be said for RLP. We walked between every meal, activity, and lecture. We met friendly people, most of them highly motivated and successful individuals—with Emmy Awards or summer houses to prove it—all reading literary fiction at the pool, open to change and new ways of living. And they weren’t judgy, either. As I wheeled my suitcase out on the final day, Connie from Annapolis called after me, with zero sarcasm, “Enjoy your French fries!”

And I did. They were from In ‘n’ Out. But I’ll tell ya, I kept that pedometer, and I have a newfound respect for vegetarians.

 

Open Your Mind, Try Something New

By Erin Chambers Smith

It started before I even got to “The Ranch.” I texted my colleagues who were already there that I was coming a day late. I didn’t tell them I was leaving a day early, too. I’ve always been the type to make my own way. I’d heard all about RLP’s health and wellness efforts, but the schedule and rules had me skeptical from the get-go. First, the bans: No alcohol, not even with dinner? No meat? No Wi-Fi?  Then there’s the open-your-mind activities: Cardio-drumming? Uh, not so much for me.

But the thing about RLP is that you really can tailor your stay. And there’s an amazing spa. So if you don’t feel the need to heal your soul one afternoon, or have a conversation with your lower limbs, or re-explore your relationship with God or your mother, you can always take a nap. Or lie by the pool. Or get a pedicure. I opted for all of the latter. I did go to one yoga class, and made a concerted effort. I also put on my joiner hat to take a “What is Feldenkrais?” class, a 15-minute primer before the actual class. I listened to the explanation, but ditched the class. Just not my thing.

“You can always take a nap. Or lie by the pool. Or get a pedi. I opted for all three.”

I read two books and three magazines in the three days I was there, and I completely broke the rules when it came to food. I snuck in my own wine, beef jerky, and salty pretzels. But not even those rations were enough. The philosophy in the kitchen is valiant. The garden is wildly impressive, and the salads are truly delicious. But three days of greens and granola doesn’t cut it. By the second day, I had figured out a way to save a hard-boiled egg from breakfast, and add it to the handmade tortillas (the size of a small soda lid) at lunch. With salsa and salt, it kind of tasted like a breakfast burrito. On the third day, there was a special event where they served guacamole (made mostly with peas!). I think I ate a half-pound of it.

My renegade ways became a bit of a joke within our group, and I was almost feeling smug about how I’d skirted the program and made my own little spa weekend.

Then I met the resort’s founder, Deborah Szekely, and I felt like an idiot.

We wandered into the weekly fireside chat with Szekely on our last night there. The lights dimmed, the pillows came out, the people gathered in a circle, and I braced for what seemed like another session of spiritual enlightenment. But out from the back hallway walked DS, as regular as any American grandmother. She sat in a chair at the front of the cozy room. She’s one of those people who has a calming aura, so the advice she gives comes across as especially wise. She began by passing around laminated cards with complex diagrams of the human body. One diagram showed all the vessels and nerve systems, and one zoomed-in on the human brain. “Think about how amazing your body is,” she said in her sweet Betty White-like voice. “Look at everything it can do. It makes human beings. It heals itself.” She paused and really let the thought sink in. Szekely, 91, talked about her daily one-hour Pilates workout. If she can do that, I should have tried Feldenkrais. She talked about the chemicals in our food and how little we really consider what goes into our bodies. (Suddenly I wondered how many milligrams of sodium were in that beef jerky tucked in my pocket.) She talked about the importance of quiet time for yourself. Reflection. Daily, she eats breakfast in silence with her dog. She encouraged everyone to take time at the beginning and end of each day to assess their actions and obligations. She also suggested an annual getaway to have a real conversation with yourself about your health and wellbeing. All jokes aside, the discussion was as calming and centering as any yoga class or church service.  

Szekely’s not preachy. She’s lived well, and talks and walks what seems like a lovely, peaceful life. I went back to our room for a glass of bootleg wine, but wasn’t so smug anymore. I knew I had missed an opportunity to genuinely try something new, to spend a few days walking in someone else’s shoes.

 

Slowing Down… for a Minute    

By Kimberly Cunningham

I am a heaping ball of stress. Even as I type these words, my shoulders are tensed, fingers clenched, heart palpitating with the click of every key. This isn’t new news. I come from a long line of worriers. But I became hyper-aware of my condition at the ranch. While my co-workers lounged poolside in their bikinis, flipping through magazines and novels, I lay there fully clothed with my book propped open, dog-eared on the same page it had been for days. I stared aimlessly at the trees, thinking about all the work I’d left behind, wondering if I was having an allergic reaction to all that nature, and feeling completely unable to relax.

Everywhere I looked, people were blissed out—their skin dewy with a post-workout glow. That day at lunch, one of the trainers told us the best gift he’d gotten from the Ranch was meditation. He said it would make us look and feel younger. “Just think of all the money you’ll save on Botox!” he promised. This hooked me. I put down my plate of kale and mushrooms disguised as lasagna, and hiked (at RLP you HIKE!) over to the first meditation class they offered. After much effort to get there, I was slightly disappointed to learn that we were meant to sit in silence for the whole class. Apparently, even the Dalai Lama has a hard time getting into the zone, so it’s no wonder I had a hard time, too. When we were supposed to quiet our minds, I was thinking: This is weird. I need to cough. I need to write that story. I forgot to email so-and-so. I wonder what we’re having for lunch? Dangit!

“He promised us we’d save a lot of money on Botox. This hooked me.”

Feeling defeated, I hiked, with less vigor this time, to another meditation class that involved crystal bowls and chanting. We lay on the floor as a teacher struck the bowls, creating a powerful and supposedly healing sound. Then we sang a song about forgiveness—Kleenex in hand, in case we started to cry. But I didn’t cry. In fact, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t cry, or concentrate, or meditate. And just when I was about to swear off the whole crystal-bowl-chanting thing as ridiculous hippie nonsense, I felt… something. Remember in Eat Pray Love, when writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes being held in the palm of God’s hand? Well, this wasn’t that. I wouldn’t even say I was under the fingernail of God’s hand. But suddenly I was still. And quiet. In that moment, I couldn’t remember a single email that was waiting for me, or anyone I needed to call. The crystal bowls chimed in the distance, and my bones sank into the carpet. When the class was over, I slowly hiked back to my room. What had happened? Did I fall asleep? Did all those vegetables send me into anaphylactic shock? I think it was the beginning stages of meditation.

Our senior editor, Erin Meanley, practices meditation regularly. She uses an app on her iPhone. Sometimes she comes into the office looking really refreshed. On those days I’ll usually notice and compliment her. She only recently told me that those days typically coincide with mornings when she’s meditated for 20 minutes. At RLP, they say if you practice meditation with consistency, it will change your life. And now I’m a believer! I realize more than ever that all this stress is going to put me in an early grave. Here’s to slowing down a little bit and learning to cope with the everyday stresses of life. Shoulders down. Fingers unfurled. Steady heart. Now breathe

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