I was in Santorini when I received my initial e-mail regarding my first visit to The Ashram. Sitting in my hotel, a margarita in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I was scrolling through my inbox when this little gem appeared:
Dear Lauren, You should start storming the Greek landscapes and cut down on the retsina and up the mineral waters to get you prepared for your week of challenge!!!! Big hugs, Catharina.
Storming the Greek landscapes? Week of challenge? What? I'd read a bit on the place and knew it had a reputation for being physically demanding (most people describe it as "boot camp;" one friend said that calling The Ashram a spa was like calling the Khmer Rouge civil reformers), but to suggest I start preparing weeks ahead of time? Forget it. Or so I thought, until I returned home to another "reminder," this one with little hearts floating all over the paper.
Important!!! If you have any eating, drinking, or social habits that include . . . caffeine, nicotine, sugars, alcohol, diet drinks, or drugs . . . we strongly suggest that you abstain from them at least two weeks before your stay with us.
With the exception of drugs, the list pretty much encompassed my entire diet, and I briefly wondered what exactly was left to consume if all were confiscated. The fact that I would be denied coffee, then dragged from bed before sunrise and forced to hike was terrifying—if not downright laughable. I chucked the letter and took another swig of Diet Coke.
Something happened a few days later when I listened to a cell phone message while hailing a cab: I began to believe them.
Hello, Lauren, this is Catharina from The Ashram. Just wanted to remind you to keep hydrating! And you know that you're increasing your chances of getting ill here if you're still smoking and drinking those Diet Cokes! Quit both now and hydrate! Can't wait to meet you. Bye now!
And though I knew she couldn't actually see me through the phone I instinctively looked over my shoulder and stamped out my cigarette. They had succeeded where doctors, patches, acupuncturists, prescription drugs, gums, and hypnotists had failed: The Ashram had literally scared me into quitting.
Two Swedish women, Catharina Hedberg and Anne-Marie Bennstrom, picked seven acres of forest in the mountains of Calabasas, California, and started putting guests through their paces in 1974. In those 30 years, The Ashram (derived from Sanskrit, meaning "spiritual refuge") has evolved from a program so fringe and outrageous at its inception that Vogue refused to cover it to one that inspires cultlike devotion (65 percent of the guests are returnees). We've all heard the glossy client list—Oprah, Charles Barkley, Julia Roberts are alums—and four seconds on the grounds is all it takes to see why. There doesn't appear to be a single person on staff even remotely interested in what anyone does in real life: They claim not to care who anyone is and they act accordingly. Everyone stays in the main house, which feels more like a ski lodge than a place geared to spiritual enlightenment. Most of the 12 participants share rooms, and the remainder aren't exactly rejoicing in their good luck: Single rooms are about five by eight feet, with twin beds that felt a lot roomier when you were a kid, and some even sleep on the porch outside. Best of all? Only four bathrooms for all of us. This might be the only place on earth where you happily dole out $500 a day to fight for a shower after hiking 12 miles in 95-degree heat.
Make no mistake: This is not a conventional spa. People don't patiently add their names to a nine-month, 300-person waiting list for fabulous facials or seaweed body scrubs. Why? Because there aren't any treatments here. At all. With the exception of a single blissful massage each afternoon—something that after 12 hours of hiking feels more like a necessity than a luxury—there is none of the pampering you'd expect from a spa. It's actually not what's offered but what's missing that makes it such a special place. Unlike the Golden Doors or Canyon Ranches of the spa world, The Ashram has no options, no decisions, no interaction whatsoever with real-world things like money or television. (During my stay someone asked if he could purchase one of the waffle-knit monogrammed robes and was told he could not, but was welcome to take one for good behavior.) The type-A people who come here crave the discipline and structure in which they can actually relinquish control; they adore the fact that there are no decisions to make between treatments or classes, no appointments to remember or tips to calculate. The staff of 30 (a nearly three-to-one staff-to-guest ratio) care tremendously about everyone who visits. There are masseuses, but most influential by far are the instructors. They lead the hikes, teach the classes, and even stay over at night to make sure everyone is okay. Quite a few of them live together in nearby Topanga Canyon, having grown up together in New Mexico with hippie parents who raised them on yoga and organic food. They are some of the most communicative and attentive young guys I've ever met. And they simply provide everything: home-cooked meals, wrapping for sore ankles, dry T-shirts after sweaty hikes, extra windbreakers on chilly days, Tylenol or hot-water bottles, and a set routine of nonnegotiable activities every day. The result? A place where attorneys, executives, and stay-at-home mothers come to contemplate a recent divorce or death, escape a house full of kids, or jump-start a reorganization of their lives. With only 12 people each week and very few friends or couples (both are openly discouraged, as the staff believe the week is best spent focusing only on oneself and not one's partner), it's like walking into an instant family that serves as both group therapy and Marine Corps-level tough love.
Technically the week didn't start until Sunday at noon, when our group was retrieved from the LAX Airport Marriott by two disarmingly sweet instructors, but everyone I spoke to felt it had really begun the night before. When I admitted to raiding my minibar for vodka and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups at 2 a.m., everyone nodded knowingly.
"I had a steak with béarnaise sauce for dinner," whispered an attractive woman in her late thirties. "I never do that."
"We had Bloody Marys and home fries for breakfast," confided another woman, with her newly-made girlfriends guiltily casting their eyes downward.
Still, none of my group looked as though they needed to lose weight. Admittedly, I'm from the camp that just about everyone can stand to lose five pounds, but among the three men and nine women—mostly in their thirties and forties, with a couple older and younger—not a single person appeared even remotely overweight. There was a founder of a super-successful dot-com who ran marathons in his free time, a chef of an East Coast restaurant who had just finished a sushi-making class in L.A., a housewife training for a triathlon, a plastic surgeon, a woman who had recently sold her business, and a British television executive. Several had been here before and were hooked. Those who hadn't were persuaded by their spouses (who were) to give it a try. So why were they willing to travel to endure such a week? According to Catharina, people rarely cite weight as their primary reason. "When we first opened, people wanted results in pounds and inches," she says. "Now guests come to take a breather from the stress of daily life, to detox their bodies. If they lose five pounds that's fine with them."
And yet my group says that they did indeed come to lose weight. But there was something unspoken that brought them together as well, an idea that would have sounded too corny to say out loud: They were there for something more.
Set back at the end of a private drive off a gravel road and surrounded by sprawling horse ranches, The Ashram feels remote and heavily forested, even though it's a mere 15 minutes from Malibu. Massive eucalyptus trees shade most of the property and create those perfect shadows that make every hour feel like sunset. The simple pine yoga dome is perched on a hill above the house, looking out over a small valley, and a cluster of crystals hang from the ceiling, casting small rainbows and glints of light on the sloped walls. A barely noticeable path into the surrounding forest leads to a private clearing with benches and wild lilacs, a place the staff encouraged us to slip away to and appreciate the absolute, almost overwhelming silence. That was often necessary, considering the chaos of a dozen people in what was essentially the size of an average two-story family home. Only the handcrafted oak table set for 12 hinted that so many lived here. Built-in bookshelves covered one side of the living room and an old-fashioned armoire proffered herbal teas and bowls of sliced lemon. Bedrooms were equally no-nonsense, done in shades of yellow or blue, and aside from fluffy down comforters offered only what was required: a bed, a nightstand, a modest chest of drawers. When I commented on how soft the sheets were and inquired as to the thread count, Catharina shrugged and said, "Oh, who knows these things? As long as they feel nice, this is what matters." Everything was obsessively clean and tidy and decidedly humble, eliminating all pretense and providing only what we needed, not what we desired (much like the food, I soon discovered). Despite the small bed and shared bathroom, I slept more peacefully that first night than I had in many months.
Monday, our first "full" day—even though Sunday was fuller than any day I'd had in the last ten years—started with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call. I thought the most painful part would be having to sit with 11 strangers before sunrise and chitchat—sans coffee—but everyone was dressed in Ashram-provided sweatpants, curled up on the couch and on floor pillows cradling mugs of Yogi herbal tea. A feng shui album called "Music for Balanced Living" played softly. A fire crackled in the living room. The morning darkness, I had to admit, actually felt cozy instead of hateful. If one has to be awakened at such a punishing hour, this may be the way to do it. Breakfast (three apple slices, three orange segments, and a scrambled egg) was followed by foot wrapping. After donning layered hiking clothes and filling CamelBaks, we lined up for the instructors to perform their "foot origami," an elaborate procedure in which bandages were custom-cut to fit individual toes and heels. With our feet in their laps, the instructors would examine and identify problem spots, lance new blisters, and finish off by wrapping the foot so thoroughly, so meticulously, that it was possible to hike another ten miles without feeling the open wounds.
We shuffled into two Suburbans, and after being given detailed trail instructions were released at 7 a.m. to "find our own pace." Within ten minutes I was completely alone, most of the group having forged far ahead. I wondered what exactly I was supposed to do for the next four and a half hours. How could I do anything for this long that didn't involve a computer, a cell phone, or at the very least a cigarette? Minutes started to blur, then hours, although I had no proof of this since my watch had been confiscated upon my arrival ("it's always 'go with the flow time' here," I'd been told at check-in), and I just kept wondering, What is the point of hiking? Put a Barneys at the end of a trail and I can understand why someone would blaze it. But the idea of finishing just because wasn't gelling for me. Ten miles, two small pieces of watermelon, and one not-so-small rattlesnake later, I actually did finish. The car's air conditioning distracted me only slightly from the pangs of hunger and the excruciating muscle pain.
We endured an hour of active yoga before finally, blessedly . . . lunch: a solitary bowl of cut fruit. I can't even discuss it—it hurts just to remember. The instructors benevolently bestowed a half-hour break "because it's your first day!" We all sat motionless—some glassy-eyed, some quietly weeping—before we were ushered, gently but firmly, through an abdominal class, aquatic resistance training, pool volleyball, and a final hour of yoga at sunset. I was told that I would receive a massage "at some point" that afternoon, but I must have slept through it. Dinner was a shockingly small serving of Indian dal with a few steamed vegetables. No one spoke. By this point we'd all accepted the fact that outrage was pointless. As I stumbled toward the showers and strategized how not to collapse under the hot water, I saw a couple of fanatics following the instructor back up to the yoga dome for the day's only optional activity, a "light" meditation. They invited me to join them. I would have laughed if I'd had the energy. Instead I cried.
Places of spiritual retreat are bound to have buzzwords. The favorite here is "detox." The all-encompassing goal of the week is to purge our bodies of the toxins we ingest. Everything is planned with this in mind. Most of the herbal teas have cleansing features. Water is consumed by the liter, not the glass, from dawn to dusk. Meals are not only vegetarian but entirely organic, and believe it or not (I didn't at first), absolutely delicious. The fact that Rosemary, the chef, managed an extraordinary variety of meals three times a day using only fruit, vegetables, and the occasional much-coveted grain, was astounding. "Processed foods contain many of the toxins that contribute to illness. We try to instill in our quest the concept that the more we live in symbiosis with nature, the healthier we can become," she explained.
We devoured spinach salads with warm vinaigrette, mixed green salads with freshly ground hummus, nori avocado sushi rolls, and homemade gazpacho. Every gram of food I placed in my mouth was delicious, on par with the best restaurants anywhere, and it wasn't just because anything tastes good on a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet where you're burning every precious calorie you consume. (Incidentally, if you don't want to lose weight, you can request "extra food," which gets you goodies like half an avocado sandwich with your lunch and unlimited raisins and almonds instead of the rationed three of each during snack time. Just be prepared for withering looks from ravenous tablemates when you tuck into those surplus morsels.) The ingredients are all impossibly fresh and everything is prepared by hand, served on minimalist Asian dishes with teak chopsticks (both chic and utilitarian: chopsticks slow down intake considerably, making you feel as though you've consumed more food than you actually have).
I did occasionally crave a cheeseburger, but was surprised at how little I missed sugar, bread, and caffeine—or so I thought. Our third Ashram day was affectionately called Toxic Tuesday. By noon I understood why.
The morning hike was hell, of course, another 11 or so miles, with a hill so unrelenting that I took to placing my hands around my thighs to physically hoist them forward.
Sure, the muscle aches had already become second nature, pains my body now intuitively navigated itself around, and my feet were on fire, but I didn't start to feel really lousy until we returned to the house. A splitting headache with nausea ensued. As I curled up in a fetal position on my bed I could think of nothing except how to reach an airline and schedule a flight home.
"It's just Toxic Tuesday," one of the instructors said as he tried to coax me up to the yoga dome. "It's your body detoxing from all the poisons you put into it. Diet Coke addicts always have it the worst; aspartame is so toxic."
"Perhaps it's just my body responding to the very unnatural fourteen hours of exercise we do per day here. What do you think about that?" I snapped back. But he had heard it all before.
"You'll feel infinitely better by tonight and like a new person by tomorrow. Tuesday is always the most difficult day." He was right.
Oh, Wednesday, the start of a much better week. I climbed out of bed at 5:30 a.m. without a single murderous thought toward anyone. The hikes were still grueling, but they no longer felt like death marches. I even began to realize that the four or five hours of daily hiking were intended for something other than punishment: It was time I would never ordinarily have for thinking, breathing, noticing the absolutely stunning mountain flowers and views of the valley. More than one person commented that my eyes looked really clear, and even I could see that my skin was glowing in a way it never had from any of my lotions, exfoliants, astringents, or moisturizers. If Kiehl's could only bottle this.
Incidentally, I had never managed to lift my eyes from the dirt path before and therefore hadn't noticed that we were in fact hiking somewhere quite beautiful. The hikes were pretty similar each day: ten to 12 miles, mostly uphill, about half the time on wider fire roads and half on cleared paths through dry brush. The majority of trails are lower-altitude (the highest we went was 2,500 feet), and you see mainly scrub brush and oak trees. There are also sycamores, yucca, and a bunch of mean-looking cacti, as well as a smattering of bright-red Indian paintbrush flowers. Terrifying pests and animals one could see include rattlesnakes, garter snakes, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, and the very occasional much-discussed mountain lion (which I never saw, thank God).
There were still hurdles, of course. For example, I decided to skip Thursday's hike and spend a little quality time with my new feel-good self by the pool, but just as I shrugged off my robe and opened my book, an instructor materialized.
"You don't think you're just going to sit here and do nothing, do you?" he asked teasingly. I smiled politely and willed him to disappear. Instead he told me to meet him in the weight room in five minutes and walked off before I could say anything. We did three hours of one-on-one training that morning—weights, pool, and yoga—and by the time the group returned from the hike all sweaty and exhilarated, I actually regretted not having joined them. I discovered later that it had been the instructor's day off and he'd voluntarily come in to work with me, as they always do when there's a risk people will loiter around doing nothing.
He wasn't the only one. Each of the ridiculously in-shape instructors pushed, encouraged, and demanded that we continue when we thought it was impossible, but they were right there to pick us up, give hugs, offer kind words and individual attention. "I think one of the real reasons people come here is to feel nurtured," an instructor told me when I commented on how angelically patient he was with all our whining and complaining. "These are people who spend their lives taking care of children or looking after employees, but no one takes care of them. We're here to listen to what they need, how they feel. They focus on themselves for just a little time, they'll be so much better equipped to care for others. It's one of the things we do here that I'm most proud of." All this delivered without a hint of sarcasm!
By the end of the week it all started to make sense: How wonderful to be in a place where they feed you healthy things, bandage your sore feet, and nurse you when you're not well. They not only tolerate the hypochondriacs (me), complainers (me), and foot-draggers (me), they even make us better.
I blazed through Friday's hike and classes with a warriorlike focus, and by the time our final day arrived I was a card-carrying convert. We repeated the "mini hike" from the first day, and I'd shaved a half-hour off my time without even trying. Like every other person in my group, I'd lost weight (only a couple of pounds since I'd gone on the "extra food" plan, but everyone else averaged seven), increased lung capacity, and spent hours a day thinking about things other than deadlines, this season's croc handbag or vanilla skim lattes. Of course I couldn't admit to any of this when I returned: It's just so hokey to buy into the New Age, Zen, detox, organic bullshit of it all.
"So how was it?" everyone wanted to know when I finally hit my first patch of cell phone reception on the way to the airport. (Oddly, I hadn't missed not having a phone.)
"Nightmare," I said automatically. "Completely and totally hellish. Every bit as bad as I'd thought."
They clucked sympathetically, made plans to meet for martinis, and said I was lucky to have survived the whole wretched experience. I agreed, and still haven't shared the little note I stuck in my purse upon leaving:
It's my pleasure to confirm your next visit to The Ashram for Spring 2004. Can't wait to see you back again for another rejuvenating week!!!! Much love, Catharina.
THE ASHRAM is open 52 weeks a year—with each week running from Sunday to Saturday and costing $3,500, all inclusive—but the best time to go is clearly in the spring or fall, when you can avoid the grueling summer heat or chilly winter rains. There's a 300-person, nine-month waiting list for a spot, although spaces often open up. Be prepared to answer some personal questions when you call to book, including height and weight and intentions for the week (one of the men in my group delighted in telling us that he coolly joked, "Well, I'm about five-ten, three-fifty," and was met with a stunned silence from the Ashram employee who was undoubtedly preparing to uninvite this particular guest). Oh, and good luck.
Located in Calabasas, CA, The Ashram can be reached at 818-222-6900; www.theashram.com.