Here's my true confession: I do not choose to relax. I like to imagine what it would be like to live a life of leisure, lounging around by the pool, sipping on cucumber-infused water, biding my time until my next spa appointment. I admire the people who can do it. But in truth, that's not me.
No, I like to work. I like long hours and extreme effort and as much tension as I can possibly build up. I may like to think about relaxing, but given the option to actually do it, I'd rather sit in front of my computer for hours on end, spinning away on whatever project I happen to have on hand.
Even my vacations tend to be effort oriented, if you can call them vacations at all. For one thing, I don't take many, and they're usually short. And for another, they always happen for a reason: to further my career (think story research, job interviews); to better my body (yoga conferences, detoxintensives). Work, in other words, must be getting done.
And so it was, two years ago, that I found myself at the Chopra Center at Southern California's elegant La Costa Resort and Spa. At the time, I was the editor of a magazine dedicated to the merits of leading a healthy, balanced life. Ironically, I had been working 12-hour days for months. My staff was begging for me to take a few days off; my boss kindly, then rather firmly, suggested that I do so.
I decided that at Chopra I could work on my yoga, do a little detox, log some meditation hours, and maybe even get a future story out of the mix (et voila!). What's more, I would deepen the typical spa experience by getting treatments based in the ancient Indian healing art of Ayurveda. I would take a little vacation, yes, but I would not waste my time. I'd sign up for a crash course in the Perfect Health program (normally a five-day program; I would do it in three), then get back on the job—informed, rejuvenated, and acceptably refreshed.
Situated in Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego, the La Costa Resort and Spa is breathtaking and luxurious. Surrounded by glowing, clearly affluent families in their matching golf attire, I had never felt so out of place. But when I set foot through the door of the Chopra Center, I knew I was at home. It was slightly darker and a little funkier...still lovely, but with the signs and symbols of yoga all around. There was Ganesha smiling down on me. It would be OK—I could make effort here; I could have ease.
The yoga, meditation, and cooking classes offered at the center confirmed this hunch. It was during one of these group sessions that I had an "Aha!" moment that would change my attitude toward relaxation—if not forever, at least for the course of this particular vacation. We'd all just had our dosha makeup diagnosed and now knew whether we were an airy, creative, changeable vata; a driven, intense, fiery pitta; an earthy, loving, steady kapha; or some mix of the above. (Most of us are made up of a combination of doshas, with one or possibly two that are predominant. To learn more about your dosha mix, take our quiz.)
David Greenspan, a former corporate executive who's now Chopra's lead educator in Ayurveda and meditation, was giving a talk on the interplay of the doshas within each of us when someone in the class asked, "What dosha type do you see most often at the Chopra Center?"Greenspan didn't have to think for long. "Vata types," he answered. "Vatas go out of balance very quickly, and they are the quickest to take action. Generally when vatas go out of whack, they start to feel anxious and overwhelmed, and they want to do something about it. Vata types come here saying they need to slow down so they can think clearly."
The least likely to show up, he said, were kapha types. "Imbalanced kaphas feel withdrawn and sluggish, and they don't do much of anything unless they really feel inspired," he explained. "It's a rare couch potato who will leap up and say, 'I need to get to the spa!'" Instead, kaphas tended to show up because a concerned family member sent them.
And right in the middle were pittas. "Pittas come in because they have been burning the candle at both ends—they've been running at such a high level of execution that they are literally fried," Greenspan said. "They are working all the time, barking at people, causing and getting headaches. They're not taking any time off for anything. They end up getting so overheated everyone around them gets burned. I call it scorching the village."
Huh. I myself am a pitta type, and something about this scenario sounded...familiar. My ears pricked up as he outlined the cure: "Pittas need to be soothed; they are inflamed. You can only get so inflamed before you incinerate yourself. You're like an engine running, running, running. You have to shut off so you can cool down."
I know the truth when I hear it. I was a pitta out of control. I needed to do what people come to spas to do: let go, unwind, and turn myself over to someone else to manage for a little while. Create space. Surrender. See what would happen.
And so I did. I stopped, just for my two remaining days, striving and angling for control. I let the Chopra Center recommend my treatments and enjoyed a balancing shirodhara treatment, a soothing abhyanga massage, and a completely blissful sound-therapy-massage hybrid treatment called Gandharva, with glorious crystal singing bowls—something I would have never selected for myself—too frivolous.
I had the great fortune to meet with David Simon, the neurologist who's the medical director, CEO, and cofounder of the Chopra Center. He recommended that I simply create some space in my schedule every day—five-minute "buffer zones" before and after each of my many meetings and endless tasks. That would, he said, go a long way toward creating balance and helping me tap into my own compassionate heart.
For the next two days, I ate well; I drank tea. Between spa appointments, I did—amazingly—nothing. I sat by the pool. I sipped cucumber water. My head began to clear. I felt a little better. But though I was relinquishing control, I was still soaking up information. The best mind-body spas send you home with the tools you need to balance your life outside their rarified walls. I was learning what I needed to know about how to eat, sleep, exercise, and keep a cool head even as I kept a warm heart. And that, says Robert MacDonald, an acupuncturist and massage therapist who is director of healing for the Exhale Mind Body Spa (with facilities in New York City and four other locations around the country), is what makes a visit to the spa transformational. "When you embrace therapies like yoga or acupuncture or even bodywork, you're really reaching for tools that can elevate you to a higher level of functionality," he says. "If you go off to a spa and you just have treatments and don't learn anything, it's like going on the Atkins diet. It's great when you're using it, but when you get back to your regular life, it all falls apart. But a good spa is about sustainable transformation."
For Seane Corn, an occasional spa visit is part of her ongoing pitta-management plan. Corn is a busy yoga instructor, DVD star (her latest video is Yoga from the Heart), and an ambassador for the nonprofit organization YouthAIDS. "I'm a type A personality, and my pattern is go-go-go-go, crash," she says. "When I go to the spa, there's a reason for it—I need an environment geared to relaxation, feeling, and introspection. It allows me space to let go and receive."
An occasional spa excursion fits right in with Corn's yoga. "I think that anything that helps bring you back into the present is a valid form of practice," she says. "It is a luxury and a privilege—and optional—don't get me wrong. A $95 herbal wrap is not going to get you any closer to God. But we live in a culture of stress, and you should do everything you can to bring yourself into alignment."
For most of us, that means slowing down. We are overscheduled multitaskers, addicted to doing and not so big on just being. Natasha Korshak is the director of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness training at the storied Miraval Resort, in Catalina, Arizona. "We see all types here at Miraval, but I think of it as a playground for pittas," she says. "Many of our guests have high-level positions and are very driven. They come here and are ambitious with their agenda. I encourage them to slow down, to decide from moment to moment what they want to do. To think deeply about what they need now and going forward. The message at Miraval is: This is fun, but we're asking you to be present for every moment of it."
Indeed, for overtaxed Americans—particularly those who don't pursue a daily yoga or meditation practice—a trip to the spa can be a spiritual experience, says Jonathan Ellerby, spiritual programs director at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. "There is so much that stands between us and our spiritual selves—our minds, habits, disappointments, kids, jobs, taxes," he says. "People come here and they slow down and nurture themselves, sometimes for the first time ever. They may be having a shirodhara treatment or a massage and find that the mind relaxes and something else emerges. They can connect to a profound sense of peace, open-mindedness, and present-moment awareness. They say, 'How come I couldn't do this on my own?' I say, 'How come you thought you could?' We all need support sometimes."
And so I took a deep breath. I got some perspective, and I realized I was angry all the time. And then, I wasn't. I began to see how my life could be a little bit sweeter for me and for everyone else around me if only I'd chill out just a little. I would move forward with a commitment to take better care of myself, knowing that my life could be not only happier and healthier, but also more efficient and productive! And suddenly—from my positively pitta perspective—an occasional trip to the spa began to seem very worthwhile indeed.
Hillari Dowdle, former editor of Yoga Journal, is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tennessee.