The Balancing Act

I know what you're thinking: Two weeks away from the office to visit spas — it doesn't get much better than that. Sleeping in, body wraps, massages, healthy food, plenty of time to do absolutely nothing. Who could say no?

Yet I'm one of those people who can't relax. I work too much, worry too much, don't exercise enough, and pretty much ignore all those other things you're supposed to do to have a healthy and well-balanced life. With the holidays approaching, what I needed most was to get things back in control. Everyone does. It's natural at year's end.

Still, the thought of sacking out at a resort and thinking only of my own well-being for two weeks goes against my Protestant work ethic. Driving out to the Berkshires to visit two spas — Canyon Ranch and Kripalu — I actually felt guilty. There had to be a higher purpose for this story than pure sybaritic indulgence. There had to be something more to the experience than the customary aromatherapy session and bottles of sparkling water.

And, in fact, these days, spas offer a whole menu of treatments and programs to help guests transcend mere relaxation and make some truly significant life changes. Balance is at the thematic center. There are body treatments like Reiki to bring your energy into balance, workshops to bring your mind into balance, fitness classes like yoga and tai chi to bring your body into balance — even psychological consultations and medical workups. For many people too reluctant to commit to regular therapy with a shrink, spas are helping bridge the gap.

Jolly Ranchers.
Arriving at Canyon Ranch is like pulling up to the White House: The intimidating guard house makes it clear that something exclusive is happening behind the doors of the mansion just beyond, the Gilded Age one-time summer home of a New York businessman who — like the guests frolicking on the grounds today — retreated here from the hectic pace of city life. The original mansion now houses the administrative offices and the medical and psychological services, of which the resort offers many — including cholesterol and bone-density testing. Beyond that are newer buildings with guest rooms, the gym and spa, and dining areas. All are connected by a glass-windowed walkway, so you never have to step outside into the scary real world.

Make no mistake: Canyon Ranch is designed for luxury. But not the intimidating type. The programs are healthy without being restrictive. Meals are surprisingly good, with real coffee and plenty of desserts — something I didn't realize was such a treat until I later arrived at Kripalu. The clientele reflects the more-than-$500-a-night rates: Most are wealthy women visiting from New York for a few days with their friends.

First up was a “lifestyle consultation” with Cynthia, a psychologist who promised to help me gain perspective. The brochure had said that it was up to me to decide what we worked on, but it had listed some suggestions anyway. So I told Cynthia I wanted to work on my stress level and learn how to handle life transitions. I blathered on for an hour, describing some of the bad habits that spark my stress meltdowns — procrastination, overseriousness. Like so many people, I second-guess everything: Getting anything done is an exercise in self-doubt, which means redoing the same thing a thousand different ways. Which leads to feeling overworked.

“You become immobilized with fear whenever you have to make a change,” said Cynthia when I finally let her chime in. “I think if you just trusted your intuition, you'd find that most of the time you know what you need to do.”

Somehow, her words lifted something. I felt pounds lighter, relieved by sloughing my problems off on someone who had no choice but to listen without judging. Talking to Cynthia was like hashing things out with an old friend rather than a doctor.

My emotional baggage securely stowed, it was time to bring my energy into balance. I chose a one-hour treatment called “polarity.” Sasha, a thirtysomething woman wearing Birken-stocks — everyone here wears them — told me to stretch out on the heated massage table (fully clothed) and snuggle under the blankets as she prodded my pressure points.

Oddly, I didn't feel anything. Nothing. Other than being soothed by the dark, the quiet, and the warmth, I felt the same when it was over as I did when I had come in — knotted, tensed, strict. “Don't worry, you'll feel the effects as the body continues to rebalance throughout the day,” Sasha assured me. “And tonight you'll have a deep, restful sleep.”

I left disappointed. What did it mean that I couldn't wrangle my energy back in balance? If prodding my pressure points didn't do it, what could?

A one-hour shiatsu session the next day held out promise. This time, again fully clothed, I stretched out on the floor and practiced breathing while Angelo — who looked more like a Tae Bo trainer than a practitioner of holistic medicine — tugged at my arms and legs and dug into my muscles. The result was transforming. The sense of relaxation deepened, and I drifted off into that no-man's land between awake and asleep. Knots came untied. Constricted pressure points released.

“Amazing, isn't it?” said Angelo. “Shiatsu works really well for a lot of people who just want to get their bodies in proper alignment.”

That night, I explained to Nanci, one of the guest coordinators, about how I was trying to work on my mind-body balance. She suggested I make an appointment to meet with Prudence, the resident psychic and tarot card reader. Prudence has plenty of repeat customers, said Nanci. “Some people use what they get out of a session as a guide for the whole year. Then they come back the next year and do it again.” Normally, I'm about as superstitious as a squirrel, but Nanci struck me as someone who wouldn't believe in such things, so I figured what the hell.

Prudence is an attractive woman with long, flame-red hair, who was dressed conservatively in black. There's nothing hocus-pocus about her. As she spread out my cards, she asked me gently probing, typically vague questions.

“I'm seeing choices are a difficulty in your life,” she said. “You really need to calm down. Get yourself balanced and grounded.”

I left a little nonplused. Aren't psychics supposed to tell you good things (“You will find love soon” or “You'll win the lottery”)? Prudence had struck at something much more personal.

That night as I ate dinner alone for the third time, I realized that none of the other guests had ever spoken to me. Everyone kept to themselves here, unless I struck up a conversation myself. It felt lonely.

When I checked out the next day, I promised myself that the following week, when I was at Kripalu, I would try harder to connect with my fellow spagoers. If I was going to achieve an inner balance, maybe I needed to let others weigh in on that. Maybe.

Om away from home.
That Sunday, between returning from Canyon Ranch and departing for Kripalu, I was in the office before 10, checking my e-mail, opening mail, cranking out a story. At 12:45, I remembered that my first appointment at Kripalu was scheduled for 3. I jumped in the car and barreled down the Mass. Pike, weaving in and out of traffic and cursing slow-moving cars with Rhode Island plates. I arrived breathless and angry at 2:52. Eight minutes to spare. Wasn't the whole point of this endeavor to relax?

The difference between Canyon Ranch and Kripalu is akin to the difference between the Four Seasons and a B&B. Where Canyon Ranch is stately and grand, Kripalu is humble and modest. Where Canyon Ranch's lobby was quiet and subdued, with a fireplace and plush sofas, Kripalu's was chaotic, crowded, and purely functional. Housed in a former Jesuit seminary, Kripalu is by no means luxurious. This is sensible shoes; I'm stilettos. When the friendly man at the front desk told me I would have to wear a nametag at all times, I blanched. Nametags are for power-tool conventions.

But as I settled in to the heated table for my Ayurvedic body treatment, a process originated in India that uses an herbal body mask to soften the skin and remove toxins, I remembered my pledge to keep an open mind. Emily slathered me in a sweet-smelling clay mask and loaded warm, heavy blankets on top. The effect is like being buried in sand, as soothing an experience as you'll ever discover.

After I rinsed off the clay, Emily prepared to determine my “dosha,” or Ayurvedic body type. She presented three scented oils and instructed me to choose the most appealing. I chose the one that smelled like jasmine. “Just as I thought,” she said. “You're a pitta.”

The description on the dosha information sheet said that pittas are irritable, competitive, and goal-oriented. Irritable? I didn't think so. Competitive? Maybe. Goal-oriented? Definitely. But not irritable.

Of course, as I loaded up my dinner tray in the cafeteria that night, I was irritated to find that the vegetarian selections were fit for a mouse. Keep an open mind, I reminded myself. After all, over the weekend, I had eaten pizza, several chocolate chip cookies, and even a McDonald's chicken sandwich. Maybe small portions of organic brown rice and steamed vegetables were exactly what I needed. I found a seat in the noisy dining room, fully expecting to dine alone again. But moments later, a thin, bald man (nametag: “Robert”) asked if I'd like company. Robert was a physical therapist from out of town who taught yoga and meditation on the side. He was here to take teacher-training classes in pregnancy yoga. It was nice to have someone to talk to again. Then he told me about his ability to have out-of-body experiences.

To my mind, waking at 5:30 in the morning is an out-of-body experience. But by the time I got to the 6 o'clock yoga class, the room was already bustling with people practicing poses, stretched out on mats under blankets, breathing deeply. It didn't seem to matter what movements or poses you did. This was more about freeing your mind before the day ahead.

Which was good preparation for the morning “sharing circle,” where a free mind was a prerequisite. The idea is to create an environment in which everyone feels safe enough to share — without being judged. That means no feedback is allowed. No nodding. No hmm-ing. No agreeing or disagreeing of any kind. Just raw emotion. One man confessed that he was a control freak. A big, muscular guy in his early thirties wanted to learn how to open up his heart to love.

I was overwhelmed. Everything cut too close to the bone. I don't open up to anyone, let alone strangers. When it was my turn, my throat tightened. “I feel uncomfortable,” I muttered. “This isn't really my thing, and I have a hard time relaxing, and I just feel . . . really . . . uncomfortable.”

I looked around the room. No one seemed to be judging me. They appeared to be in their own worlds, absorbing what I'd said the way caterpillars digest leaves. They all had their own reasons for coming to Kripalu: to relax, to mark a birthday, to slow down, to find themselves again. But I realized the real purpose is the same: Everyone is struggling, and everyone wants to find a way to make peace with themselves. They're no different from me.

DansKinetics is a kind of dance class that incorporates yoga techniques. My session was led by an energetic woman named Megha with wiry, curly brown hair. To begin, Megha turned on a song from The Lion King.

“Now,” she cried. “Roar like lions!”

Remarkably, everyone “grrrrred.” Except me.

“Now claw the ground like you're marking your territory!”

Everyone bent down and, still grrrrring, clawed at the brown utility carpeting. Except me. I hid in the corner, giggling.

When it was time to partner up, Tammy, a young mother of two from Long Island, latched on to me. She seemed to identify me as a partner in skepticism. We twisted and skipped and shimmied around the room for about two hours, and when the class was over, one tall New York man, who said he was at Kripalu to relax before running a marathon, was so swept away with emotion he whipped off his shirt. Tammy looked like she wanted to run. “I have religion in my life so I practice spirituality,” she explained, as she gathered up her things. “But for people looking for religion, it's certainly a way to be spiritual.”

Whatever you choose to believe, there's no question that the classes and rituals here go straight to the heart, exposing our innermost emotions, the ugliest and the most beautiful parts of the self. As for me, I'm more comfortable undergoing a full-body spa treatment. Like that afternoon, when Vasanti, a middle-aged earthy type with a couple of strategically placed bead-decorated braids, coated my face with organic masks and fresh-scented steam. The results were wonderful. I may not have opened up in the sharing circle, but I've always been able to endure an organic mask. It almost made all the grrrrring and clawing worthwhile. Almost.

The next day, I couldn't take any more. The sharing circles, DansKinetics — I'd participated enough. I slept through the 7 o'clock alarm. I slept through breakfast and skipped the sharing circle and the partner yoga session.

I finally dragged myself outside. Maybe a little nature was what I needed. But after a few steps, I heard the jingle of car keys in my jacket pocket. I couldn't resist the urge: I needed coffee.

Trawling the side streets of Lenox, I frantically searched for that beacon of hope, that haven for the floundering soul, that symbol of everything that's right about Massachusetts: Dunkin' Donuts. I finally found one, five miles away in the next town. I ordered a large coffee with cream and sugar. In the window, I caught a reflection of myself, hunched over a Styrofoam cup, draped in black from head to toe. I looked pathetic, a big city cliché, a character in a Nora Ephron movie. But at least I was caffeinated.

My buzz lasted long enough to help me through that evening's session of chanting. Rama Berch, a woman with long, graying hair swept up in a utilitarian barrette, accompanied us with a harmonium as she explained the stories of the Hindu deities and the benefits of chanting to them. I continued to struggle to keep an open mind. First was a chant to Ganesha, who is apparently adept at removing obstacles. That sounded good to me. I gave it an honest shot. But I felt silly. I glanced around the room and saw that most of the other participants were really getting into it, swaying meaningfully with their eyes closed and knowing smiles on their faces. My fellow chanters' faces of happiness and release were inspiring. Alas, it just wasn't for me.

Homecoming Dance.
Back in Boston, I quickly slipped into my old habits. I worked late, skipped my evening jogs, and gobbled down whatever food was quick and easy. But I caught myself thinking a lot about what I had gone through at Canyon Ranch and Kripalu: the balance between solitude and connection, work and rest, fear and courage.

I decided to give it one more go. I booked an appointment for a simple, old-fashioned massage at Bella Santé on Newbury Street. It was just what I needed, a relaxing and restorative hour of pure nothingness. Best of all, when it was over, I went home to my own bed and my own space where there's a coffee machine and red wine and chocolate brownies and all the other forbidden fruits that sustain me and maintain my fragile balance.

Just Say Spa

When you can't find the time for a weeklong spa visit, these local day spas step in with luxurious settings and pampering treatments.

Bella Santé
Escape the crowds on Newbury Street at this luxurious full-service day spa. Soothing hot-stone massages can be followed by a spell in the spa's steam room. Bella Santé also offers a full menu of pedicures, manicures, and herbal wraps.
[38 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-424-9930,]

Giuliano Day Spa
This spa favorite has relaxation down to a science. Unusual services include the Rasul Signature Room, where guests are treated to a body mud mask in a private, tiled, aromatic steam room, followed by a refreshing rain shower. Traditional services such as Swedish massages and facials are also offered.
[338 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-262-2220,]

Now that Boston beauty maven Gretchen Monahan has opened a second Grettacole salon and day spa at the Westin Copley Place, fans of its expert facials and massages no longer have to travel to Chestnut Hill for their fixes. Both locations offer a full range of treatments in a subtly classy setting.
[10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, 617-266-6166; The Atrium Mall, Chestnut Hill, 617-964-6998,]

The technicians at this salon and spa are experts in the art of rejuvenating skin care. A treatment here, whether it's an oxygen facial or a seaweed mask, is a lesson in relaxation.
[71 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-437-7171,]

Splash Spa
Fitness fiends flock to this day spa located inside Sports Club/LA. You don't have to be a member to enjoy the calming green tea-ginger wrap and muscle-soothing massages. Afterwards, relax in the club's expansive steam room and sauna.
[4 Avery Street, Boston, 617-375-8200]

Daryl Christopher
An herbal linen wrap at this salon and day spa is all it takes to ease away stress. Encased in warm, flower-scented sheets, you'll feel relaxed and revived as your tension melts away. The spa also offers a range of services from shiatsu to hot-stone massages.
[37 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-424-0250,]

This vast spa houses its treatment rooms in a quiet subterranean retreat far from the bustling salon streetside. All the better for enjoying the muscle-melting massages and restorative facials using luxury products like Decleor.
[28 Arlington Street, Boston, 617-426-6999,]

Le Pli
Housed in Harvard Square's Charles Hotel, this cozy spa offers treatments for visiting celebrities, dignitaries, and locals alike in a relaxing European-style setting. Make an appointment for a Swedish massage, seaweed body wrap, or herbal facial, then treat your feet to a pampering with the spa's signature paraffin pedicure.
[5 Bennett Street, Cambridge, 617-547-4081]