Beyond the Spa: An In-depth Look at the Future of Wellness
In the name of wellness research, I've gone through a downright comical number of treatments over the last six months, the most memorable of which had to be a healer cleansing me of symptoms after my second Moderna vaccine. I got on the phone with healer Dana Childs, an intuitive known for consulting with Hollywood A-listers, for an interview and started by apologizing. I'd been running a temperature since getting my second shot the night before, I explained. Childs asked if she might run a quick practice on me, which I was in no position to turn down.
"Do you feel nauseous?" She asked, tapping into my energy via Zoom (I was in California, she, in North Carolina). She nearly gagged. "Like you're going to be sick?"
I was, though I hadn't said so until she asked. After a few quiet minutes-me, squirming, her, intensely focusing-Childs said I should feel better by the time our interview wrapped up in half an hour.
My immersion into all-things wellness started in November, after months of stress in Los Angeles compounded by a harrowing election season, a pandemic, and a series of wildfires and power outages that kept us inside, in the dark, and sweating for weeks on end. After months of existential dread, I drove eight hours-and crossed state lines for the first time since March 2020-to arrive in Carefree, Arizona, which sounded like the only location that might combat my tension levels.
Southwestern wellness retreats were already having a moment when I arrived on the scene. The Biebers themselves had been to Amangiri not long before I turned up in Carefree at CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa to sound bathe-masked, six feet away from other CIVANA guests-and practice yin yoga as the sun rose. Among other wellness rituals, I met with an astrologer who did a socially distanced reading for me, mapping out my years in a web of planetary movements, and ambled along a Meditation Labyrinth in attempts to quiet my mind and tap into my elusive sense of inner peace.
As we move deeper into my experiential look at the future of wellness, I should offer a brief disclosure: I can't decide whether I actually buy into any of this. I'm not what you'd call a believer in new-age wellness, but my skepticism comes with good reason. I didn't come to astrology via a magazine horoscope at age 16, charting out the course of my latest crush. It's quite literally in my blood. My family are Brahmins, born and raised in North India, and my grandfather was an extremely sought-after seer, known for palm reading and horoscope matching. Not having a particularly good relationship with the man, I have always been reticent to believe in his craft, even though he's made some striking predictions about my family and myself that did, indeed, come true. So, perhaps because I was raised in this world of eastern wellness (before it popped up at five-star resorts), I'm not someone who's sold on intuitive healing or astrology readings.
After my stint at CIVANA, I connected with someone who had been ingrained in this world of eastern healing for much longer than I had: Deepak Chopra. Chopra's company, Global Partners, recently partnered with CIVANA on an Ayurveda-centric retreat focused on holistic well-being. As he honed the course of this five-day retreat, with plant-based menus, one-on-one Ayurvedic consultations, and daily yoga and meditation, he shed some light on the recent shifts in the wellness space.
"For some people, the pandemic presented an opportunity to reinvent their life when it [came] to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being," said Chopra. He explained that, after months of acute stress, which inherently weakens the immune system and can increase anxiety and depression levels, wellness-seekers need a more well-rounded approach to wellness. A massage and facial just isn't going to cut it anymore - and that's why we're moving further into this expanded definition of wellness.
"In the last few decades, wellness has changed to include not only physical, emotional, and mental well-being, but also career, social, community, and financial well-being. They are all integrated, in that all of these buckets correlate with each other. Until they are all addressed, we are missing some of the essential components of wellness," Chopra continued.
Amangiri general manager Julien Surget is also in the thick of the recent wellness revolution, having helmed the iconic Utah wellness retreat for the last five years. His description of Amangiri's approach to wellness is very in line with Chopra's philosophy of holistic well-being.
"It goes beyond the walls of a spa," said Surget. "It's about physical well-being, it's about pampering, it's about mental health and just generally taking care of oneself."
Really, the future of wellness can be distilled into those six words: beyond the walls of a spa. Luxury wellness no longer leads with hot stone massages and Biologique Recherche facials. Instead, five-star resorts are creating full-blown sanctuaries where their clients can truly heal. And if you thought that was happening before the pandemic, just wait until you factor in the upheaval of 2020.
As Surget put it at Amangiri, "Spa facilities and spa offerings are part of our wellness program here-but [they don't] define it."
Movement and outdoor exploration are now a huge part of wellness offerings, as are retreats, wellness practices that draw from other cultures, and spiritual counsel.
"You can get as much mental restoration from rock climbing or a beautiful hike than you could from a spa treatment or a silent meditation in the flotation tank," pointed out Surget.
Surget says that when he arrived at Amangiri five years ago, yoga, Pilates, and sound baths were just coming into play, along with these outdoor wellness immersions. However, as their brand evolved, they also began to introduce retreats with specialized practitioners-now an important part of their wellness model.
In an effort to understand more about what these practitioners offer (Reiki? Acupuncture? Spiritual counsel?), I sought out the specialists hotels are now bringing into the fold. I hung with people like Dana Childs, of the infamous post-vaccine interview, Millana Snow, a Los Angeles healer and founder of Wellness Official who often does programming at luxury hotels, and Sharon Viernes, a Chinese medicine guru currently working as a massage therapist at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Clients often come to Viernes with digestive or reproductive issues. She said that one of the biggest reasons people seek out alternative forms of wellness is to confront a problem that western medicine hasn't been able to solve. "That's what drove me to find [Chinese] medicine, too" she said.
Chinese medicine, as Viernes explains it, is all about correcting imbalances and ridding the body of energy blockages. "When someone is experiencing pain, discomfort, illness, or disease, it is because something is stuck," explained Viernes. "So, all of the modalities [that fall under Chinese medicine]-bodywork, plant medicine, cupping, Gua Sha-the whole purpose is to open up the energetic flow in the channels like your nervous system or circulatory system."
Correcting chakra and energy imbalance can be a big part of one-on-one sessions with Snow and Childs as well. Snow often guides breathwork to help clients tap into those imbalances and traumas, in order to help them heal.
"We have different layers of our being," explained Snow. "In my approach, we have the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual (which is also the energetic). So, with energy healing, I'm looking at your auric field and your chakra system while you're doing breathwork, and we're working on your emotional and mental states. We often find that we have energy that's literally stuck in our fields or in our bodies."
Snow has found that, for many of her clients, those blockages are caused by ancestral trauma that they have not yet confronted. "For example, I have a lot of clients who come from lineages of slavery. And when we think about the obvious implications of that over time, you know there's something in our psyches or in our habits [that's impacted by that inherited trauma]."
Ultimately, these healers see a lot of people in crisis, which perhaps is why they've sought out a luxury retreat or spiritual counsel in the first place. In my own state of crisis, per usual, I tried one of these one-on-one spiritual sessions at Ojai Valley Inn, where healer Nancy Furst dug into challenges and uncertainties in my life that needed attention. In a tranquility room surrounded by sage and crystals, she orchestrated readings based on questions I had about my past and present self and the trajectory of my life.
For me, the one-on-one at Ojai Valley Inn was an obvious display of intensive mental health healing incorporated into hotel wellness offerings. I left my session with Furst brimming with revelations about myself and my life (which I, by the way, processed afterward with two poolside Bloody Marys), and like I'd left some of the weight on my shoulders in that tranquility room with her. It was not unlike how I feel when leaving therapy. Here's my question, though: Is that what I want out of a five-star resort experience?
I posed this question to Snow, who said the practices of spiritual healing and therapy aren't at odds-there's a clear difference between the two, and they can both serve you in tandem.
"We're complimentary. We don't cancel out western medicine, we can actually help facilitate more of the healing that happens when you get certain procedures done," she said. "Medical intervention doesn't always need to come first," Snow added in another conversation.
This way of thinking prevails not just in the realm of spiritual counsel, but within functional medicine circles as well.
"Our goal is not to replace medicine-it's to enhance it," said Dr. Jeffrey Morrison. Morrison's NYC practice, The Morrison Center, is a leader in functional medicine. He meets with clients about their health-related needs and has numerous specialists on-site that can do reiki, cranial healing, consult on Chinese medicine, and more. His practice really does represent the future of wellness-it's a one-stop-shop for functional medicine, and it can absolutely be practiced in tandem with visits to your general practitioner.
"For four or five thousand years, there have been practitioners of healing modalities that have worked over time. The ones that are most famous are traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and traditional Tibetan medicine-those are the big three that have stood the test of time," said Morrison. He also said there's one very clear reason these modalities are still used regularly (and are now growing in popularity): They work.
Morrison pinpoints one of the most appealing parts of spirituality-centric wellness, whether at Amangiri on a monk-led retreat or during a one-on-one with a healer or reiki specialist. If traditional medicine is made for the masses, spiritual healing and functional medicine is tailor-made just for you.
"Whether it's needle work, movement, mindset, or herbal supplements, all of these things have roles for each individual. [Functional medicine] is a hyper individualization of practicing medicine," reiterated Morrison.
In discussing the rise of eastern healing practices in American wellness, it is of course important to question just how appropriative this is. It's no secret that luxury wellness culture in the U.S. is white-dominated, and yet, most of the practices we're tapping into hail from various parts of Asia. (However, not all of the practices seeping into wellness resort programming draw from Asian and South Asian tradition - some are rooted in Indigenous tradition, like Native American spirituality.)
As someone who grew up around the exact Hindu practices that later became wellness fodder for luxury resorts, I'm wary of the general co-opting of eastern practices for western financial benefit. But in bringing it up to many of the biggest names in wellness, it inspired some very healthy, informative conversations around appropriation in the wellness space.
Chopra suggested that the adoption of eastern customs by the western world is not going away-so the best path forward is acceptance and encouragement.
"I feel this is a trend that cannot be stopped, so we must expect it and accept [non-Indians as] academic scholars in India [and] non-Indian teachers who have explored these disciplines in depth," said Chopra. "Overall, I feel very good about non-Indian practitioners [adopting our teachings] for the overall good of humanity."
Sharon Viernes, who is Filippino and came to practice Chinese medicine because her husband is from Hong Kong, said that she isn't worried about appropriation, so much as she notices the differences in how Americans approach Chinese medicine. There are, for example, slight inaccuracies in terms of how Chinese medicine is represented within American wellness-which are worth researching and questioning. She noted that, in the U.S., Chinese medicine has become synonymous with acupuncture. "But [for] someone who's from China? They're focusing more on the herbs."
In discussing the appropriation factor with Millana Snow-I as an Indian woman who often encounters practices I grew up with used by white practitioners, and she as a Black woman who has been studying South Asian healing techniques for 15 years-she showed me how important it was to seek out healers who have taken the time to learn respectfully from the cultures whose practices they're adopting. During your one-on-one sessions with healers and functional medicine specialists, it's not difficult to ascertain how they came into their knowledge of the tradition they now practice. So many wellness professionals I've spoken to, regardless of their cultural background, have spent extended amounts of time immersed in the cultures they now share with clients and guests. They have learned the history and philosophy behind the healing practices they preach and are sensitive about the language they use when sharing these principles.
I am still working through whether I buy into this new wave of healing practices-or whether I'm really able to get past the appropriation factor. But I will say that I desperately needed the wellness immersion I went through in the name of research over the last six months. I think-over the course of the pandemic-a lot of us have encountered challenges, blockages, chakra imbalances, or whatever you might choose to call them that we need to recover from. And this time spent at wellness sanctuaries across the country and talking with wellness practitioners has done a lot to help me.
At my first meeting with Dana Childs, which I was so wrapped up in that I forgot to record, she talked me through my anxieties, linking them back to childhood roots I certainly would not have volunteered in a Zoom interview. And in our second meeting, she took on my post-vaccine symptoms, and when we hung up, I legitimately wasn't nauseous anymore and my temperature cleared up shortly after. Generally, after speaking with her-just like after my conversations with Snow or Dr. Morrison, and especially after my healing session at Ojai Valley Inn-I felt a sense of relief and genuine calm, which is a somewhat foreign feeling for me. Now, why wouldn't that be what you want out of a five-star resort experience?