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Tina Sumner needed a life makeover. Stress from her job in the residential real-estate industry in Nashville, Tenn., caused chronic headaches and insomnia. A former professional dancer, she no longer had time for regular exercise. And between her job and new marriage, healthy eating had gone out the window. Feeling depleted, she decided to make a change. “My goal was to come up with a life- and sanity-maintenance plan,” she explains.

What she needed was some insight, perspective and support. And she found it – at The Crossings, a learning center, meeting place and wellness spa located outside of Austin, Texas. The Crossings’ Wellness Retreat program, one of numerous health-and-lifestyle-enrichment options, encourages guests to choose classes, consultations and services that work toward a specific goal or interest. In addition to attending classes and consults, Sumner would have full use of the center’s eco-designed facilities, wooded hiking trails, meditation sanctuary, spa and outdoor “vanishing-edge” pool. And she’d dine on healthy spa cuisine during her stay.

For guests like Sumner, wellness-education resorts such as The Crossings, Canyon Ranch, Kripalu and Miraval Life in Balance fill a need not met by traditional destination spas. While deliciously relaxing massages and mud baths still appear on the menu at these facilities (thank goodness), the spa treatments are part and parcel of a larger mission to help people achieve greater health and balance in their lives.

Offering more than just a temporary refuge from stress, these centers provide guests with the skills and knowledge they need to transform their existence when they return home.

“We understand that people can’t come in every three weeks. So teaching them to make a permanent change is a pretty big focus of ours,” says Anne McLaughlin, communications director for the Lenox, Mass., campus of Canyon Ranch. “The goal is to get you on the path and give you the right tools to take the next step in making a true commitment to healthy living.”

In 1979, Canyon Ranch created the template for today’s wellness-education resorts. The premise, then radical, now seems elementary: Healthy food can taste delicious, exercise makes you feel – not just look – better, and reducing stress is the key to a better quality of life.

Now, with thriving resorts in Lenox and Tucson, Ariz., plus “Living” communities (condominiums in all-healthy environments) and SpaClubs (luxury day spas) planned across the nation, Canyon Ranch remains a leader in the promotion of health as a lifestyle. Its all-inclusive packages include lodging at one of its luxury resort locations; its trademark healthy, gourmet cuisine; a stipend for spa, sports and wellness services; classes and lectures by experts in the areas of fitness, longevity and personal empowerment; and a customized program of lifestyle and health services and workshops coordinated by a personal program adviser and registered nurse to help guests achieve their personal goals.

“People come here to change their lives,” says McLaughlin. “We provide the opportunity to learn something new, try it out in a safe and supportive environment, and then take it home to live it.”

More Than a Vacation

Whether hidden away in the mountains or desert, nestled by a lake or perched atop a wooded knoll, destination wellness-education resorts are steeped in natural beauty and are carefully designed to evoke a sense of calm.

“You need silence and space in order to evaluate what’s going on,” says Marty Dillingham, MA, wellness coach and therapy supervisor at The Crossings. “A lot of people don’t slow down enough to evaluate. This gives them a place to start.”

For Katie Barnicle, of Plymouth, Mass., the soothing natural beauty and gentle pace of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, located in the Berkshire Mountains less than three hours from New York City and Boston, offered the serenity her soul craved. Barnicle, a 43-year-old single mom and environmental scientist, had barely paused since her breast cancer diagnosis a year earlier, and she was drained – physically, emotionally and mentally. She describes her stay at the Center as “a gift to myself for getting through the treatments.” It was also an important part of her healing process.

Kripalu, the largest yoga and health retreat center in North America, is a nonprofit educational facility dedicated to providing guests with lifestyle-education and wellness workshops and spa services that improve their health and quality of life. Barnicle wanted to get back in touch with her physical and (postmastectomy) newly altered self through yoga, and to revive a meditation practice that she put on the back burner throughout her illness. She got both, and a great deal more.

Barnicle chose a four-day Retreat and Renewal (R&R) package. In addition to enjoying yoga and meditation classes, she hiked on the 100-plus-acre property, danced, received massage, had an Ayurvedic consultation, got weight-loss support and joined a sharing circle, in which she felt safe enough to release emotions she had held in check for 12 months.

She returned home feeling restored and equipped with the knowledge to create room for quiet contemplation in her daily life. Now, for example, breakfast is a “silent” meal, and she makes time daily to meditate or have other quiet time.

“I went to Kripalu for a physical experience and I left with an incredible emotional transformation, something I never expected,” Barnicle says. “It is this gift that I cherish the most.”

Getting a Jump-Start

While some people, like Barnicle, go to destination wellness-education centers to regroup and recharge after a difficult experience, others come seeking the inspiration and tools to make big changes in their lives, says Karen Reilly, adviser for the Life in Balance programs at Miraval Resort and Spa in Catalina, Ariz.

“Sometimes, in order to implement what you want to do, you have to take yourself out of the environment that’s not supporting your intentions,” she says.

Miraval offers nine Life in Balance retreat programs to help guests move toward their goals, including the popular “Weight in Balance” and “Thriving Through Midlife: A Program for Women.” In addition to offering coaching and core workshops, classes, and private consultations that address these programs’ themes, the resort provides more than 120 other classes and services.

Reilly helps guests wade through Miraval’s huge menu of choices and design a program that meets their needs. This could mean an energy-work session or yoga class for someone who needs to slow down. Someone feeling “stuck” or dealing with fear might take the signature “Miraval Equine Experience,” which helps individuals identify and adjust patterns of learned behavior simply by interacting with (but not riding) gentle, specially trained horses.

For every guest, Reilly recommends a balance of stress-reduction, fitness, mindfulness and nature activities, as well as nutrition classes, to touch upon all aspects of wellness. “Putting it all together is important,” she says. “To make a healthy lifestyle work, you have to have the whole package, not just fragments.”

During her four-day retreat at The Crossings, Tina Sumner wanted to restructure her eating habits and start a regular yoga practice for both stress reduction and exercise. So working with spa staff, she developed a personalized program composed of a nutritional consultation (including a trip to Whole Foods to learn how to make better food choices), private yoga instruction, relaxing spa treatments, a qigong class and life coaching.

She reports that she is still practicing the skills and lessons she learned during her stay. She’s eating a mostly plant-based diet, drinking more water, doing yoga three times a week, and she’s learned to use conscious breathing to help control stress at work. As a result, her headaches have almost disappeared, and she is sleeping more soundly. “It sounds so simple, but these things helped so much,” she says. “I feel so much better.”

“You don’t have to come here and make radical changes,” says The Crossings’ Dillingham. “It’s the small things that you can incorporate into your life that matter, like factoring in a 15-minute break, drinking water, saying affirmations. They make a huge difference.”

Making It Stick

Wellness-education resorts provide the setting, the classes and the experts to help inspire people to make healthy changes, but, ultimately, the action must come from the participant. Teaching people how to take what they’ve learned and apply it toward life outside of the resort is a primary focus.

“We say, ‘This is all about choice, and the choice is yours. We’ll help you, we’ll support you, we’ll give you the tools, but you have to do the work,'” Reilly says.

Miraval, for example, offers a “creating-a-home-practice” class to help guests seamlessly integrate their spa-learned lessons at home. At Canyon Ranch, former guests can book phone time with the consultants who advised them during their stay, and they automatically receive Connection, the resort’s lifestyle magazine. They can also stay in touch with the resort’s teachings through its Web site, which offers articles, recipes, lifestyle-maintenance tips and reader polls.

Guests in The Crossings’ personal-retreat programs receive a coaching session at the end of their stay to evaluate what they’ve learned and to set goals for maintaining momentum once they’ve returned home. Here, as at other wellness-education resorts, guests are invited to write a letter to themselves that will be mailed a few months after they leave as a powerful physical reminder of how they felt when they completed their program and set their intentions for the future.

“Our goal is to empower individuals,” Dillingham says. “You have the answers within yourself. We are helping people to trust that and to make empowering choices for themselves.”

Making Change

Many destination wellness-education centers fall into the luxury camp, with world-class resort facilities, gourmet cuisine, and some of the top names in the areas of health and lifestyle education. But some venues, such as Kripalu, offer simpler accommodations and amenities that are reflected in their prices. Others, such as The Crossings, have an à la carte menu so you can choose services that fit your budget. Look for specials or seasonal promotions for the best rates at any facility.

Canyon Ranch
Locations in Tucson, Ariz., and Lenox, Mass.

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Stockbridge, Mass.

Miraval Life in Balance
Catalina, Ariz.

The Crossings
Austin, Texas

Program Perfect

Classes and services for every taste and preference.

These sample schedules provide a glimpse into the numerous programming options at health-and-lifestyle-education facilities. Whatever your taste or interest, there is something for you. At the larger resorts, in fact, the choices can feel overwhelming, and program advisers are on hand to help you decide which classes and services will help you reach your goals. Even at the smaller centers, there’s enough variety to meet your needs and to encourage you to stretch your comfort zone a bit.

Of course, if you’d prefer to simply stroll the grounds, sit in a hot tub or read a good book during your personal retreat, that’s fine, too. Sometimes stepping off the train of your busy life for a few days is the best health-and-lifestyle choice you could make.

Canyon Ranch. Early-morning yoga; learning to maximize your metabolism for weight loss; a group mountain-bike ride; eating lunch with a nutritionist; assessing and enhancing your memory; and, finally, receiving an anti-aging body treatment. These are but some of the myriad options at the Tucson, Ariz., and Lenox, Mass., resorts.

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. In the rolling Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, a guest might rise for an early-morning yoga class; eat breakfast in silence; join a sharing circle; go pole hiking; sweat and move with Danskinetics, a dance/movement class; receive an Ayurvedic consultation and body treatment; attend a body-image workshop; take another yoga class; and watch an evening movie.

Miraval Life in Balance. Where the goal is to teach guests to achieve a Life in Balance, a guest could enjoy a morning fitness walk followed by bird watching; eat breakfast while practicing mindful eating; attend a class on “Aging into Wisdom”; watch a cooking demonstration; conquer her fears with outdoor trust exercises; receive a hot-stone massage; take a desert sunset photography walk; and attend an evening lecture/workshop on the “Sacred Art of Sandpainting.”

The Crossings. In the quiet beauty of Central Texas’s Hill Country, a Wellness Retreat guest might start the day with a tai chi class; go on a nature hike; receive an organic facial using seasonal ingredients; learn a divine-abundance meditation; swim and relax by the pool; and receive a nutritional consultation that includes a take-home meal plan.

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