What happens at an LA wellness retreat?
Vitamin Z is a newsletter about health and wellness. If you are new, you can join here:
If an alien visitor arrived in modern-day Los Angeles, they might reasonably conclude that the city’s dominant religion is wellness. The pursuit of wellness—toned physiques, youthful glowing skin, a balanced mind and body—defines today’s generation of upwardly-mobile Angelenos, who devote themselves to health with religious zeal.
Erewhon Market is the shrine at which health-obsessed Angelenos worship. And wellness retreats are LA’s version of a religious pilgrimage.
When I was invited to a wellness retreat last weekend in Topanga Canyon, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had visions of sound bath ceremonies and vibrational energy healing. Yoga, meditation, plant-based meals: These were strong possibilities, too.
The retreat was led by Samara Zelniker, founder of Mindfulness Matters. Samara’s retreats are “designed for busy professionals looking to bring more beauty, awe, and meaning into your everyday life.”
I had mixed feelings going into the retreat. There’s a certain privilege to paying hundreds of dollars for “wellness.” You can’t buy health. The most important things you can do for health—sleep, nutrition, exercise, social life—are inexpensive or free. The obsession with self-care can feel like a never-ending buffet of spa treatments, yoga pants, and the latest CBD-infused creams.
Spend enough time in LA and you’ll hear about a different wellness retreat each week—from yoga and meditation getaways to plant-medicine experiences led by shamans.
I imagined a Saturday Night Live parody of an LA wellness retreat. Kelp harvesting? Yes, my dude! Making honey at a beekeeper reserve? Sign me up! Therapeutic butterfly whispering? Awesome!
The arrival instructions said to dress in yoga clothes and sneakers. I was told to bring a journal and pen, a water bottle, sun protection and an optional change of clothes.
At 10am Saturday I arrived at the site in Topanga Canyon. The house was on a hilltop with majestic views overlooking the valley below. I was given a tour of the property by Leah Kitching, founder of LA’s Studio Elevate Pilates.
The dream called Topanga
Topanga Canyon may be the ideal place for a wellness retreat. Nestled in the foothills outside LA, it’s a rustic escape from city life. The indigenous Tongva people considered it a sacred location. It’s the kind of place where you might hear strangers ask each other, “What is your greatest purpose in life?”
I set down my yoga mat and grabbed a kombucha. I met a few other participants: a therapist, an executive coach, an HR director at a wellness company, and several yoga and pilates teachers. It was mostly women, but there were a handful of guys, too.
We were served fresh smoothies: nutrient-rich, plant-based goodness. They gave me the burst of energy I knew I’d need to get through a full day of wellness activities.
We set off for a hike through Topanga Canyon. I noted all the health benefits we were ticking off: Aerobic exercise, check. Sunlight exposure and vitamin D, check. Nature therapy, check.
People in LA love to rhapsodize about hiking and its soul-cleansing powers. And it’s true: Hiking is nature’s ultimate mood-enhancer.
Intention-setting and yoga
After the hike we gathered on a hillside and sat down in a circle. We were led through an intention-setting exercise. When it was my turn, I mumbled something about hitting the reset button and connecting with nature. People nodded in approval. Ok, I thought, I’m crushing this wellness retreat so far.
Next up was yoga. It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful, serene yoga spot than Topanga Canyon. Nature all around you, birds chirping—prime conditions for reaching your zen state.
We were given bottles of Juna botanical tincture to rub on our ears and neck. The blend contains CBD and organic turmeric oil “to center the mind and relax the muscles.” I went into happy baby pose and felt the sun caress my skin.
Emotional intelligence workshop
After lunch (a vegan Mexican casserole made with cashew cheese), we participated in an emotional intelligence workshop. We talked about impostor syndrome and its five archetypes: the perfectionist, the expert, the superman / superwoman, the soloist, and the natural genius.
We were asked to consider: When does this inner critic come out for me, and what does it feel like? And then: What if our inner critic was our biggest strength?
I was paired with a partner, a working mother of two. We talked about presence, the challenge of staying present in a world of digital distraction. We talked about the pressure to be the best. She told me she wanted to do more yoga and meditation, but felt like she wasn’t good at it.
I was reminded that the voices in our head shape the narratives we tell ourselves. Sometimes the inner critic that served us well when we were younger no longer serves us as we grow and evolve. Like being overly competitive. We don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy it. You can take up surfing as an adult, and there’s something liberating about knowing you'll never be the best surfer, but that’s ok, it’s even comforting.
As my surfing instructor once told me: “We have a saying, that the best surfer isn’t the one who’s the best at surfing. It’s the one who’s having the most fun.”
Reiki energy session
I had never heard of reiki before I moved to LA. People here are obsessed with the ancient Japanese healing art. Walking down Sunset Boulevard, you can’t throw a rock without hitting at least one reiki practitioner.
Our reiki energy session was led by Darianna Parra, a student of Japan’s Usui Reiki tradition. From Darianna’s website:
The word Reiki comes from the Japanese word (Rei) which means “Universal Life” and (Ki) which means “Energy”. It is the life energy that flows through all living things. Practitioners of this ancient healing art understand that everyone has the ability to connect with their own healing energy and use it to strengthen energy in themselves and help others.
I decided to set aside my skepticism and surrender to the experience.
We lay down on our yoga mats as hypnotic music played on a speaker. We were asked to leave our arms spread out if we were open to being touched and “receiving energy.” I closed my eyes and tried to relax. By the end of the hour, I’d fallen into a deep restful state that felt like lucid dreaming.
How did I feel after the retreat? The same, pretty much. I wasn’t magically transformed into a new person. I didn’t suddenly look and feel 10 years younger.
I did leave feeling rested and refreshed. Inspired by the group discussions. Nourished by the time for self-reflection in nature. I became curious to learn more about reiki. I made some new friends.
There’s something special about gathering people together away from home to reset the body and mind. In the book “Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness,” the author writes that the communal dimension of wellness is grounded in “the principle that in fixing yourself, in working at the personal axis, you play an important role in the transformation of society.”
We gathered for a closing circle to share our reflections on the day. I was given a curated gift bag stuffed with wellness products: activated charcoal deodorant, anti-aging sea serum, aloe vera toothpaste, turmeric-ginger-citrus immunity bites and a jar of immune-boosting supplements.
My day of wellness was nearing its end. I joined the others for Red Saint botanical spirits, brewed with “rich rooibos and delicate honeybush” from the high mountains of Southern Africa. The cold drink soothed my throat as I watched the sun disappear over the canyon.
Samara and her team at Mindfulness Matters will be hosting their next retreat in February 2022. It will be a week of sun, surf, yoga, and inner exploration in Pavones, Costa Rica. You can find more info on the retreat here.
My friend Dina Kaplan runs an annual meditation retreat called Mela. I helped produce the last retreat (pre-pandemic) and it was a fantastic experience. The next one will be in January 2022 in Ojai, California. It’s designed for founders, investors, people in digital media, non-profits, business, finance and entertainment. You can learn more about it here.
Until next week,
By Daniel Zahler
Hi there! Thanks for reading. If you stumble on my newsletter, you will notice that I write about health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health. I hold a JD and BA from Harvard, have worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and serve as a GLG council member advising global business leaders on healthcare innovation.
Check out my articles in Thrive Global here.
There are a few things to do:
Follow me on Twitter.
Hit reply with your feedback and ideas :)
Share this post with others.