I hate yoga. With a passion. I once gave it four months — three days a week of namastes, shavasanas and warrior poses. At the end of this trial period, my downward dog still looked every bit as much as a dead one as it did at the beginning. And the last five minutes of class — corpse pose, in which you lie there doing nothing — were excruciating. My quads quivered and my calves cramped and I wasn’t supposed to move.
Rather than restorative and empowering, yoga stressed me out, while crushing both my self-confidence and my triceps.
In March I took myself to Canyon Ranch in Tucson, not only for the 80-degree weather, but also to get over my aversion to the practice, which was part of a larger plan to learn to relax and rest. Eleven weeks prior, I was, out of the blue and at age 39, diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
By the time Bob, one of Canyon Ranch’s drivers, met me at the Tucson airport, I had lost 18 pounds, endured three of six rounds of chemotherapy, couldn’t relax and had trouble sleeping. Cancer hadn’t changed my Type A personality. Doing nothing was still more difficult for me than a downward dog.
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It’s entirely possible chronic overdoing and its associated stress have nothing to do with my MS or cancer, but because Tucson was warm and Canyon Ranch has a rolling, 150-acre, cellphone-free campus (with the exception of designated areas) full of aromatic gardens, tranquil fountains, meditation spaces and hummingbirds, what was the harm of trying it?
Did I mention the biggest building on Canyon Ranch’s campus is an 80,000-square-foot spa with 26 massage rooms, one spa suite, four facial rooms, two rooms for body treatments, nine separate gyms and a yoga pavilion?
One could argue that such an outsize spa is necessary to combat the effects of the wellness resort’s 50-plus daily class options and activities, including DJ Dance Party; Wallyball; Don’t Worry, Bead Happy; a photography hike; Stretch Express; a drumming circle; a golf clinic; putting; indoor cycling and cooking classes. Also about one dozen yoga classes.
I won’t make that argument, though, because Canyon Ranch does not encourage excess or extremes, whether with exercise, alcohol or food.
Its daily happy hour serves mocktails, salt is only available upon request, and menus list the number of calories and amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and sodium in every choice. But guests are free to, and sometimes do, leave campus for dinner and drinks. The dinner menu at Canyon Ranch can include tuna tartare, Moroccan stew and butternut squash risotto topped with fresh Alaskan salmon. At lunch, there are fresh-baked cookies.
Guests stay in casitas, small Spanish-style bungalows, and a bellhop put me in the wrong one. But I was already unpacked and had tested the Italian Mascioni sheets by the time the error was discovered, so I stayed where I was and proceeded to jump into ranch life. Or rather, because I was here to try to slow down, I strolled into ranch life.
Quiet walks, sleepy yoga
From the back seat of the golf cart that brought me to my casita I had noticed a sign for the start of a two-mile walk. An hour or so before sunset, the light was straight out of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting — blinding and pure. With the walk’s start only a couple hundred feet from my front door, near the resort’s tennis courts, I decided it was the perfect way to enjoy the evening. Also, two miles was just about the distance I could cover before my dinner reservation (which, I learned, had to be made early in the stay unless I wanted to eat at 5:30 or 8:30 every night).
The trail soon passed through a gate into a riparian area. This is still part of Canyon Ranch, but its landscaping has been left to Mother Nature. Unlike the cholla and barrel cacti at the main campus, the ones here still have their thorns.
While signs around the main campus point you toward a spiritual wellness center, a labyrinth, restaurants, a golf performance center, an aquatic center and a spa, a sign at this gate warns about mountain lions. They often hunt between dusk and dawn, it says, and if you encounter one you should most definitely not run. Instead, “Face lion. Back away slowly. Be large. Shout. If attacked, fight back.”
(Later, I ask a concierge whether mountain lions are truly an issue. She says she’s not aware of a guest ever spotting one, but because the big cats do live in the Santa Catalina Mountains, less than three miles north of the ranch, the resort is required to post a warning.)
Never leaving the ranch’s larger footprint, sometimes crossing paved roads and almost always in view of homes, this walk is far from wild. Still, a roadrunner darts across the trail in front of me. Strolling, rather than speed walking, I notice a mohawked bird perched on a spindly branch at the top of a wizened palo verde tree. The bird is the size of a robin and the shade of an eggplant, if eggplants were opalescent. I name the bird Mr. T and think about him — the bird, not the real Mr. T — until dinner.
Opting against joining the captain’s table, I sit alone at a banquette and write in my journal and read, which feels appropriate. The dining room, although full, is as quiet as a library, except for the clinking of forks on plates and ice cubes hitting sides of water glasses. Couples murmur to each other, but mostly the silence seems rooted in country club manners and everyone enjoying their food.
Although there’s a “Yoga for a Good Night’s Rest” class that evening, I decide, purely in the spirit of not overcommitting, to wait until Day 2 to start my yoga rehabilitation.
“Grab two blankets. One will be for your head, the other will be to cover yourself,” says the instructor when I do walk into a class the following afternoon. “If you fall asleep, that’s great. We’ll wrap you up.” Hmmm. This is not the yoga I’m accustomed to. And I am quite tired from a morning tennis clinic, Pilates and the fact I didn’t fall asleep until nearly 2 a.m. the night before. How have I not heard of restorative yoga?
Over the next 45 minutes, we do only four poses, all of which involve lying on our backs on the floor: easy breathing pose, twist to the right, twist to the left and then legs up the wall. We’re in each pose for five to eight minutes. When it’s time to move into the next pose the instructor gently rings twice what I surmise is a triangle. I surmise because I can’t summon the energy to actually open my eyes to verify.
I fall asleep while twisting to the right and also in the pose where my butt is against a wall and my legs are up at a 90-degree angle. When the triangle rings for the last time, I feel a twinge of sadness. I am restored and my self-confidence is intact. As soon as I’m in one of the areas on campus where phone use is permitted, I text my boyfriend. “Day 2 and I’ve already found a yoga class I like!” I know that technically this type of yoga is called restorative yoga, but I re-christen it. “Nap yoga is my new favorite thing!”
Not all strolls and naps
To prove that aliens haven’t taken over my body and mind, the next morning I fall into Type A habits and go on the ranch’s most difficult hike: 10 miles at a pace upwards of 3 mph.
Vans carrying hikers seeking different levels of challenge leave the campus every morning. Shorter walks that don’t require driving to a trailhead start and end at the ranch every morning, too. These go through the neighborhoods around campus and often include part of the two-mile loop I did my first evening.
I am not certain how I’ll do with 10 miles, but what better way to find out than with two guides, both armed with fruit, energy bars, chilled water — and first aid kits — for me and my fellow hikers?
Several hours later, I am fine and standing with eight other guests on a rocky outcrop in the Coronado National Forest, munching on a banana and enjoying sweeping vistas of Tucson and the rugged mountains surrounding it.
Sabino Canyon is only a couple of miles from Canyon Ranch and has phenomenal hiking, but the fitness staff likes to give guests variety. Although the drive to the trailhead on Mount Lemmon is about 40 minutes, our van is the only car there. By contrast, the day of my arrival at the ranch, I had borrowed one of its hybrid bikes — free for guests — and ridden through an upscale neighborhood to the Sabino Canyon visitor center. Hundreds of cars crowded that parking lot.
Back at the ranch by early afternoon, it’s time for something I dread even more than yoga: a 50-minute Sacred Body spiritual wellness service. Acupuncture is about as “out there” as I get, medically speaking, but a friend gifted me this session ($230). “It will change your life,” she promised.
Canyon Ranch, whether in Tucson or Lenox, Mass., is best known for its outdoor activities and fitness classes, but the spa’s definition of wellness is wide: services and staff, including four board-certified physicians who practice integrative medicine, treat the body, mind and spirit. Some guests use doctors here as their primary care physicians.
Besides knowing Sacred Body addresses the mind and spirit, I know nothing else when I walk in Stephanie Ludwig’s door.
Ludwig, who has a doctorate in psychology, a master’s in transpersonal studies and another in divinity, starts with easy questions: How would I rate my level of satisfaction with my body on a scale of 1 to 10? Are there things about my body I’d like to change but haven’t been able to? How much do I care about what other people think of my body? What am I currently doing for my body that is beneficial? Harmful?
She’s engaged me hook, line and sinker from the beginning. As fundamental as these questions are, no one has ever asked them of me before, and I have never asked them of myself.
When she asks me what my body would like to do if it had 10 minutes all to itself, without thinking, and with a fully formed vision of how it would feel and look and where in my house it would happen, I reply, “Nap in a hammock.” I have no idea where this answer comes from. I haven’t been in a hammock since I was a kid.
The session ends sooner than I’d like, but her questions give me enough to meditate on for some time. (This is good because even telephone sessions with her are $230 for 50 minutes.) Also, I can’t stop picturing myself in a hammock.
Two months later, I’m still thinking about those questions, and a hammock. More importantly, I’m still doing yoga. I go to a nap yoga class twice a week.
Instructors back home are a little harder than the ones in Arizona, though. We do six poses instead of four. Also, the scenery out the studio windows isn’t as inspiring than at Canyon Ranch. And the cookies aren’t nearly as good. Seriously.
Dina Mishev is a freelance writer living in Wyoming and is the editor of Inspirato and Jackson Hole magazines.
If you go
Where to stay
Canyon Ranch - Tucson: 8600 E. Rockcliff Road, 520-749-9000, canyonranch.com
There is a three-night minimum stay. Deluxe rooms start at $3,540 per person (double occupancy) and $4,290 (single occupancy); this includes all meals and most activities, lectures and classes.
What to do
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area: 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road, 520-749-8700, 1.usa.gov/1mqrs9r
Hike, picnic or look for Sonoran Desert wildlife in this section of the Coronado National Forest that’s a short bike ride or drive from Canyon Ranch. $5 parking fee.