Think "Ashram" and visions of a hermitage in, say, India, appear before your eyes. Perhaps you are already imagining the guru there -- gentle and quiet -- guiding you to an inner peace. You are surrounded by mountains. You feel tranquil. You feel spiritual. Om.
Now, type "The Ashram" into Google, and the first thing that pops up is a website featuring a little cartoon of a chubby angel with a halo, sitting cross legged, inviting you to come get healthy -- and skinny -- in Malibu.
Good bye India. Farewell, gentle guru. Welcome to California.
Established in 1974 by two Swedish women, The Ashram is boot camp West-Coast style: Basic training with meditation, sprouted chickpeas and a hefty price tag thrown in. It's also -- and despite no marketing whatsoever -- probably the most celebrated retreat in the U.S., booked solid nine months in advance.
Every week, 13 guests go through the program, sharing rooms and bathrooms in a humble house that is a 40-minute drive out of Los Angeles. Days begin at 5:30 a.m. with yoga, then move on to a breakfast of, say, goji berries and hemp milk, and continue with rigorous hikes, endless gym classes, more healthy food and yoga. There are no phones allowed. No internet. No TV. And all this for $4,500 a week. Have I mentioned that it's booked solid?
A lot of what makes The Ashram famous are the famous people who have reportedly gone there. Another source of the Ashram's mojo is its devoted returnees. Close to 60 percent of those who do the program once will come back. In fact, there's a special deal: if you do it 50 times, reportedly, you get one free.
A gantze mitiya, as my mother might say.
Anyway, one recent Sunday - thanks to a birthday initiative from Josh, a.k.a. my boyfriend -- we found ourselves climbing into The Ashram's white van on LA's Sunset boulevard and heading out to join the cult.
Our driver, a good looking blond from New Mexico named Yarrow, welcomes us cheerfully: "It's going to be a superb week," he sing-songs out loud. "We have a superb group!" "Right on!"
I look around, futilely, for Queen Latifa.
Is anyone here famous?
There is, hunched in the back seat, one rockstar-looking guy, complete with tattoos, piercings, long jet black hair, a guitar and a blond girlfriend in leather by his side. Hm. "Famous?" I lip-synch to Josh hopefully. "I have no idea," he lip-synchs back.
Everyone else, sigh, looks rather normal: A mother and daughter from Virginia Beach. Best friends from Chicago. A wealthy businessman from London. Another wealthy businessman from San Francisco. A Merrill Lynch financial advisor from Missouri. Nikki, an athletic blond from Vancouver, and Maki and Kimimori, Japanese business partners who arrive on a 12 hour flight in from Tokyo in their hiking pants.
The first thing we do, after a welcome snack of raw kohlrabi, is get weighed and measured around every which what angle: Neck. Back. Shoulders. Hip. Thigh. Knee. Ankle. You get the idea.
And then, we pull on our uber expensive new hiking gear, fill up our new cool Camelbacks with water, tie on our bandanas -- and ta da, we are off, hiking uphill at a nice, easy pace.
Erm. This is not hard at all, I think. "I'm pretty sporty," I explain in passing to Kimimori, who we have re-christened Ken and, who, it turns out, does not actually speak much English, but listens attentively as I play up my military days -- twenty years ago -- and then easily segue into my favorite Tel Aviv triathlon triumph stories.
Two hours later, I am panting. We are onto the sixth mile and the never ending uphill is not so easy after all, it turns out. "Hydrate, hydrate!" the instructors remind us over the walkie-talkies we carry, as we spread further apart along the path.
Jaster, the rock-star-look-alike, and his maybe-model girlfriend are about a mile ahead of me, as are Nikki and Joe, the financial advisor. How frustrating! How annoying! Take a deep breath, I tell myself. This is about my journey, my challenges. But my mind keeps wandering. Don't rock stars and models smoke, drink and do drugs?! How is it possible that those kids are so far ahead of me??
Josh, meanwhile, a schmoozer of note, is behind, happily chatting to an instructor with a perfect butt about her passion for surfing. Ay ay ay. "My husband just died," I hear great-butt saying. Double ay ay ay. I do not feel the Zen. I do not feel the inner peace. And by the way, I could use an energy bar.
And then, as if God has heard my prayers, I reach Bosho, the gorgeous half Japanese instructor brought up by a Jewish lesbian couple who plays in a rock band (where do they get these people, you just have to wonder). He is standing on a hilltop with a snack--four almonds and a prune. FOUR ALMONDS AND A PRUNE? What happened to carbohydrates? I am tired. I am cranky.
Then I look around. It's beautiful. I nibble on my almonds as if they were the last morsels of food on earth, put on my iPod and get into a groove. The sun peeps out. I pass Ken. Ha-ha. I pick a little white wild flower and put it in my hair. Life is beautiful. "Right on!" I yell out to Yarrow.
When we get back to the house, caked with mud, we sit down to lunch: raw sunflower seed salad one day. Organic tofu and quinoa, another. It's pretty delicious actually. I eat the small portions with chopsticks to make them last longer. There are no seconds. No desert. No sugar. No honey. "Hydrate," they remind us. "Hydrate."
The afternoon activities come fast and furious: Water aerobics and water volleyball in a 98-degree outside pool, Pilates and weight training in the gym room, and yoga in the yurt. We all get Wiatsu sessions, an activity aptly named for Shiatsu and Water, which basically involves being dragged around the hot pool by an instructor, eyes closes, as she coons, "relax," and folds our bodies into all forms of weird directions. And we get heavenly massages, where we try to sneak in naps.
After dinner -- coconut chipotle soup, for example, or maybe edemame with raw spinach pesto -- we slink off to secretly use our cell phones, and -- a little bit thinner and totally zonked -- collapse into bed by 8:30pm.
And so it goes, with one day much like the next, except the hikes get longer and harder, up steep hills, across rocky ravines and down to sandy beaches. By the end of the week we have done more than 60 miles, and, yes, almost to my surprise, really begun to feel and look different. All this focus on our bodies, our eating -- on ourselves, basically -- is, it turns out, leading to some tranquility after all.
On the last day, we go in to get re-weighed and measured. Everyone has changed -- The mom from Virginia Beach looks like she had a facelift; Josh has lost nine pounds, and Joe has shed 16 pounds and lost a combined 20 inches in total! He is almost, strangely, unrecognizable.
"My friends were amazed," he admits a few weeks later, adding that they were skeptical he could keep it off, but so far so good. He is training for a half marathon. "The effects are still there..." Maki, who lost four pounds, adds, of her transformation. "Tighter stomach, great complexion, getting up well in the morning feeling ready to go."
And me? I lost a respectable four pounds and 11.5 inches from here and there. I feel great. I vow to eat small portions and healthy food for the rest of my life.
A month later, back in Paris and living directly, as one inevitably does, across from a patisserie, I have gained three and a half pounds back. Oh well. I was never one for great self discipline. But it was fun. It was a challenge. I saw some beautiful mountains. I felt I was one with the movie star set. I was happy. I even managed some fleeting moments of inner calm, out there in California.