WELLNESS: Refresher Course

Written by 
Catherine Censor
Photography by 
Troy Campbell
Our guide to a luxurious, three-pronged staycation at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.



Canyon ranch is enormous. The Lenox, Massachusetts, spa complex measures one hundred thousand square feet and houses indoor and outdoor pools; a running track; racquetball, squash, basketball, and tennis courts; state-of-the-art cardio and weight rooms, dance and yoga studios, and space for cycling, Pilates, and Gyrotonics. These are just the exercise options; there are also treatment rooms offering more spa services than you can shake a loofah at and outdoor activities spanning kayaking and hiking to high-ropes course challenges.


All of this action is connected to the gloriously restored 1897 Bellefontaine Mansion, where guests take healthful, gourmet meals and report for integrative medical services (even annual physicals are offered) through a series of glass-covered walkways. It’s like the biggest, most elegant Habitrail you’ve ever seen, populated by the world’s luckiest and fittest hamsters.


And yet most Berkshirites have probably never been inside. “Most of our guests come from Boston, New York, and other areas within driving distance,” confirms Heather Gallagher, marketing specialist for Canyon Ranch. “Very few come from the surrounding area.” Given the possibilities for a staycation, with benefits such as stress reduction, weight loss, or pampering on a grand scale, this seems like an egregious oversight. Why shouldn’t Berkshirites consider Canyon Ranch just as they do its neighbors Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company?


According to Gallagher, most guests stay for three nights—the minimum required—and it takes them just as long to figure out what’s here. (Aside from physical wellness, the center specializes in spiritual and metaphysical stuff like handwriting analysis, astrology, and Shamanic journey.) For those contemplating a visit, it’s helpful to have a goal in mind, an organizing principle by which to construct a roadmap through the establishment’s many classes, lectures, and services. Since that takes work—and work is antithetical to a spa staycation—here are three Canyon Ranch itineraries based on diverse goals: weight loss, stress reduction, and simple, self-indulgent pampering.


Weight Loss
Canyon Ranch abides by a holistic philosophy, so to characterize some classes and services as useful for weight loss and others as helpful for stress reduction is, perhaps, to miss the point entirely. As anyone who has ever struggled to lose a few pounds knows, stress can undermine even the best nutrition and exercise regimens. A popular lecture at Canyon Ranch is, in fact, titled, “Is Stress Making Me Fat?” (Spoiler: yes, it is), and fitness manager Brian Wright notes that, “Stressed is ‘desserts’ spelled backwards.”


Experts here, like life-management therapist Melanie Masdea, believe that individuals must tackle emotional and behavioral issues to reach the root of a weight problem. That’s a lot to cram into a three-day weekend—especially when combined with exercise. Depending on specific needs and goals, one might want to extend a stay or consider the three-day plan an introduction to healthier habits.


Canyon Ranch nutritionist Chrissy Wellington recommends a jump-start, opting for intense calorie-burning exercise classes and loading up on knowledge during the visit to create a workable program of nutrition, cardio, and weight-training for success at home. 

Unlike some spas, Canyon Ranch doesn’t put clients on starvation rations or even limit caloric intake with set meals. Each of the two onsite dining options—a café serving casual meals and a more formal dining room—offer restaurant-style menus but instead of prices next to each item are caloric and nutritional information. Meals are all-inclusive, so patrons order whatever—and however much—they want. In the dining room, the bountiful salad/breakfast bar serves yogurt, muffins, hummus, and nuts along with fruit and vegetables. Self-restraint is key. If weight loss is your goal, you’re going to have to count your calories.


“While the dining room can provide useful lessons in portion size—guests are always surprised at how small the servings are—if weight loss is your goal, I recommend booking a nutritional consultation,” Wellington says.


While a well-rounded exercise program is one that incorporates cardio, strength-training, and core work, Wellington suggests prioritizing cardio. To lose just one pound, you must burn approximately 3,500 calories over and above what you already burn. An intense cardio class, like Canyon Ranch’s Dirty Dozen, is the exercise equivalent of a blast furnace. The formula is simple: starting at one end of a basketball court, participants do one pushup, then run to the opposite end and back. The next set begins with two pushups before repeating the process, and so on to twelve pushups. Which adds up to seventy-eight pushups and a whole lot of running before tackling the second exercise: body-weight squats. More exercises follow. This insanity lasts forty-five minutes or until you “forget” how to count to twelve.


Of course, not everyone can hack a class this intense, so Canyon Ranch offers cardio for all levels of fitness. Wellington suggests Stride, a treadmill interval class. Participants vary speed and incline during walking or running to create periods of exertion and recovery. “What’s great is that you can replicate the experience when you get home,” Wellington says.


Those burned-out on traditional strength training might want to give the Kettlebell Essentials class a try. Reminiscent of a small, overstuffed handbag, a kettlebell is a solid round weight with a purse-like handle; some of the more interesting exercises involve swinging them in rhythmic, whole-body motions that feel surprisingly pleasant. (Unlike most strength training, which fatigues an isolated muscle, this whole-body work is considerably more gentle; the swinging motion is soothing, like pumping your legs on a swing.) Instructor Karen Allison observes that the body responds metabolically to kettlebells because the weighted exercises, done for time rather than number of repetitions, incorporate cardio and core work. Throw in a class like Define Your Midline, which focuses on core strength, and you’ve got yourself an exercise program geared toward weight-loss success.


Stress Reduction
It isn’t always obvious that you’re a stress case in dire need of help. For instance, I know I’m affected by stress in my life from all the usual sources: nutty colleagues, sneaky deadlines, an adolescent daughter, and an aging rear-wheel-drive convertible that wants to make wobbly snow angels on rural roads. I always assumed I handled stress well. I don’t bark at people often, I don’t empty the refrigerator after a bad day, and I don’t self-medicate with martinis. So I’m fine, right? Not really. A few months ago, I had a really tense morning at work and decided to walk it off at lunchtime. I pushed the lobby door forcibly … and took it clean off its hinges. Hulk angry! And since “Hulk” in this case is only four feet, ten inches tall, she clearly has some issues.


To get in touch with “what’s happening inside,” Masdea recommends Restorative Yoga or beginner classes, meditation, the Breathing for Health and Vitality lecture, and a tai chi walk. These are precisely the kinds of activities I usually avoid because they don’t burn lots of calories, build biceps, or keep me entertained … which may explain why I need them. I resolve to give some of them a try.
First up: the tai chi walk. As I soon discover, it starts at 7:45 a.m., outdoors. Two strikes against it already. Okay, maybe I’m being hasty. As the instructor explains, tai chi is an ancient martial art that enhances energy and improves focus and mood. It’s flowing, graceful, and so slow that it makes my brain itch. Somewhere between “cloud hands” and whatever it was that involved flapping my arms, I lost it. We’re standing outside on the terrace of the Bellefontaine Mansion, and the instructor points out October Mountain, home to James Taylor. “Let’s send him some positive energy!” she chirps as we initiate yet another round of super-slow arm flapping. (James, if you’re reading this, I apologize. I did not send you positive energy. Instead, I sent a kind of slow, simmering frustration. If you feel the need to write something really dark, that’s probably my fault. Feel free to ignore the impulse.)
I had better luck in yoga. Restorative Yoga, it turns out, could be called Esoteric Naptime. Tools: a bolster, a blankie, and a mat. Flop forward; flop on each side; lie on your back with your butt on the bolster. Those feeling feisty can extend their feet toward the ceiling. I did fine with the poses but sprang too rapidly out of them, prompting the instructor to chide me gently. “In this race,” she says, “the slowest finish first.” I want points for not responding, “Only in the Berkshires, honey.” See?Progress.


Beginner’s yoga is slightly more active than Restorative Yoga, but still gentle enough that you have time to wonder if you’re burning any calories. That, actually, isn’t the goal; instead the focus is on purposeful breathing and getting in touch with what’s happening inside. Since I benefit from specific, actionable recommendations, I really liked mind/body instructor Mark Gerow’s lecture on breathing. Rather than just telling our group that we’re all a bunch of mouth-breathers (which we are) or commanding us to take deep breaths more often, Gerow teaches techniques for turning breathing into a coping mechanism. For instance, individuals can lower their blood pressure immediately by making their exhalations longer than inhalations. And one can stimulate the right brain, where creativity supposedly lives, by closing the right nostril and breathing through the left nostril.
Although I tried to get in touch with my insides, I found that the most successful stress-reducers during my Canyon Ranch stay were also the most superficial. I liked Strip Fit (relax, no clothing is removed) because I was too caught up in following instructor Janet Lee’s choreography to be embarrassed and I had fun imagining that I might be able to make it as a professional erotic dancer if the lights were really dim and the patrons extremely drunk. Oh, and the Lavender Relax treatment (more on that shortly) coaxed me into a very happy place. It was the least busy my mind has been in a long time. Feeling calmer isn’t exactly the same as becoming deeply spiritual, but it helps me step away from stress. Masdea seems to agree. “Whether it’s dancing barefoot in Nia [a movement practice] or going for a hike or getting a manicure, it’s all [about] health and healing,” she says. 


Even with all of the health and healing going on at Canyon Ranch, there’s still room for sybaritic pleasures. Guest rooms, for example, have flat-screen TVs and silky Anichini and Mascioni sheets, custom designed for Canyon Ranch by William Caligari. The giant bath towels wrap around me almost twice and the cushy terrycloth robes are so chic that some guests wear them to dinner. In addition to workout wear, the Showcase Boutique gift shop sells fine jewelry and scented candles. And the spa and salon components offer so many facials, massages, and beauty treatments that a girl could check herself in for a three-day weekend comprised exclusively of pampering. Amazingly, almost no one does that.


“Most people come here for a reason,” says spa director Samantha Cooper Brex. “Some come thinking they just want pampering, but after a day they realize what we have here and they start exploring.” The most popular spa service at Canyon Ranch is the basic Swedish-style massage. “It’s stress-reducing, it feels good, and it’s good for you,” says Cooper Brex. Touch therapies can be remarkably therapeutic; for those uncomfortable with massage, Cooper Brex recommends a facial, which, like massage, helps to relax the mind while imparting healthier, cleaner skin.


I choose Lavender Relax, an indulgent, one hundred-minute-long aromatic body treatment. First, the practitioner rubs me down with an exfoliating scrub, wiping it off with warm washcloths. She massages my legs, arms, and torso with lavender-scented cream and wraps me, burrito-style, in heated blankets. While I bake, she rubs my feet and completes a lavender scalp treatment. It is blissful. James Taylor, I sent you positive energy. You might be in a better place now. I know I am. [FEB/MAR 2011]


Catherine Censor is an editor, writer, and former personal trainer who lives in Katonah, N.Y.



Canyon Ranch
165 Kemble St.
Lenox, Mass.


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