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Back From Boot Camp: How Brutal Can a Spa Be?

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"Someone has finally created a butt-kicking spa as tough as the Ashram but with beautiful rooms of your own and gourmet vegan food," a dear friend called me last summer to declare with great enthusiasm. I was skeptical; this wasn't something I was praying for. Of course, I had heard stories from survivors of the Ashram, the hard-core detox, fitness retreat in Calabassas, California. They told tales of incredible weight loss and of moments of transcendent clarity, but I had never wanted to spend time away from my kids being bossed around (forced classes and hikes) and deprived (a strictly enforced 1,200-calorie-a-day diet). "They send you a 30-day preparation package, so you can wean yourself from caffeine, sugar and alcohol and begin your yoga and fitness routine," my friend continued. "You know we could get a great group of women to go and we could get through it together."
Well, that did it. I have three sisters and wonderful women friends that I never get enough time with, so I agreed that our New Year's resolution would be a path to better health and that we would launch it with a trip to the new and improved Ashram -- the Ranch at Live Oak -- at the end of January.

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I admit that en route to LA, I was filled with angst. Despite my best intentions, I had not followed the prep plan devoutly. I had given up caffeine but had not done my eighty crunches and eighty push-ups in the last week. I wondered, what had I signed up for? No BlackBerry service, no opting out of activities or opting in for extra food. When we arrived, we gathered by the fire in the great room and listened as the Ranch guides explained to us, in gentle but firm voices, that they would be our bosses in the days to come. They would wake us up at 5:30 each morning with a knock on our cabin doors. We would meet for an hour of yoga, then head up to the Ranch house for breakfast (meager but tasty) before setting off for an arduous hike that lasted between four and six hours. At the half-way point, we were given a pinch of Himalayan pink sea salt and four almonds or -- oh joy -- one day an apple!

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, our bodies were being detoxed with a strict vegan, gluten-free diet. We drank more than a hundred ounces of water a day to help keep us hydrated and to flush out toxins. The process wasn't pretty. I had been on antibiotics for a bronchial infection and so was warned that I could be sick. And I was. I knew from the stories I heard about the Ashram to beware of "Toxic Tuesday," the nickname for the day when the detox hit and people were known to get massive headaches and nausea caused by withdrawal from caffeine and/or the artificial sweeteners in their diet sodas. As it turned out, my toxic day already came on Monday. Five hours into our hike, my head began to swim. A little farther down the trail, I threw up with the most amazing view at my feet -- the Santa Monica mountains as they drop down to the Pacific Ocean.

In a way it was a metaphor for the week: pain sidled up to beauty. After the hikes, all of which included stunning scenic moments and strenuous climbs, we would celebrate over lunch (a small one, often just a bowl of soup) in a glorious spot. One day, as we sat at a picnic table on the beach, our feet in the sand, a sea otter and then a pair of dolphins crested the waves just in front of us, as though applauding our morning efforts.

Meals weren't just short on food, they were also short on time. After a brief post-lunch nap, we headed straight into afternoon fitness classes. One hour was devoted to massaging our muscles with foam rubber rollers, another to sculpting abs, followed by more yoga. At some point during the afternoon routine, each one of us was called out for our daily massage -- the day's guaranteed aha moment. Then, wearily we trudged up for dinner, where plates were always lovely to behold and too small to satiate. After dinner, various specialists joined us: a nutritionist, a doctor of Eastern and Western medicine who performed acupuncture, and a chiropractor, who did active release treatments. By 8:30 pm, we were in bed, exhausted and hungry.

But in the end, we did get results. The most measurable ones were an increase in our push-ups and crunches and a decrease in pounds (most people lost 5 to 7 pounds and between 6 and 11 inches). But the more meaningful results were those that came in the process: the epiphanies along the trail, as our group shared wisdom and weariness, the surprising gift of new friendships. Although everyone knew at least one other person in our group of 14, no one knew everyone. We had come from New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, leaving jobs and families for what we dubbed our "women's wellness summit." (The weeks before and after us had men, but ours was women-only.) Some aimed to lose weight; others to gain peace of mind or clarity of purpose.

Strip type-A women of their watches, BlackBerrys and car keys, while relegating them to work-out clothes and starvation diets, and an amazing bonding process takes place. We hiked longer and farther then we could have imagined possible. We went without food longer than we ever had before, and we managed to find humor and courage in both challenges. Our guides reminded us throughout the week to take time to honor how much we each had accomplished -- and every one of us did. But the experience was magnified by being able to stand in awe of each other's grace and energy. To me, that was most inspiring.

I lived up to my New Year's resolution and started 2011 on a path of good health, but the greater gift was returning home with a renewed appreciation for living in the present moment and gratitude for the unexpected opportunities that open new ways of thinking. After all, that is what the best journeys -- inner and outer -- should deliver.

Read about who should and should not go and how to sign up for one of Indagare's discounted weeks.