Spa Getaway: Miraval

Imagine if you had the power to give someone you love anything at all — what would it be? Health, happiness, wisdom? How about all of the above? Actually, you can put all those remarkable gifts within their reach.

That is what a few days at Miraval spa did for me and my daughter Sarah, as we made our way through a series of treatments, workshops, relaxation exercises and experiences that showed us how to practice ‘mindfulness’ in everything we undertake. Mindfulness is the opposite of going through life on autopilot, something we all have a tendency to do. In an environment devoid of cell phones and electronics in general, the Tucson-area spa reinforces the notion that we can have the relationships and inner calm we want, but it takes proactive measures, i.e., mindfulness. That is not to say everyone heads out for Miraval with that specific goal in mind. More likely, they go for the reasons we did: four days of luxuriating in a beautiful place, dining on amazing food that is both good and good for you, and treating yourself to the occasional hour or two of pampering with an Ayurvedic massage or a Bountiful Earth body wrap.

But it doesn’t take long before you realize that everything here is about more than what it seems. It’s as if the Miraval van picked us up at the Tucson airport and deposited us, 50 minutes later, into a desert dream where flowering cactuses, rugged mountains and pastel sunsets redirect our thoughts inward.

We arrived just in time for Floating Meditation, a ‘class’ in which each participant is cocooned inside a yoga hammock suspended from the ceiling. As the instructor hands out lavender-scented eye pillows, she gently rocks our cocoons and talks us through a guided meditation to the soothing vibrations of crystal bowls—more relaxing than Prozac and a lot better for you.

Once you’re in the zone like this, Miraval makes sure you stay there. Meals are taken in a dining room that opens to the majestic mountains, and whether you eat inside or under umbrellas on the patio, the calming aura of the mountains— with hawks soaring gracefully in front of them—is never far away. Our first lunch gave us a peek into what we were in for the next several days: a food bar of wonders like Charred Roma Tomato & Basil Soup and Arugula Salad with Pear Walnut Dressing & Marinated Baby Artichokes—as well as hot options like Eggplant Roll-ups with Roasted Tomato Truffle Sauce. All were clearly marked with calorie, carb, fat, fiber and protein information.

That’s so you can make mindful decisions on your own. This is not the kind of spa that limits food intake—or alcohol, for that matter—to prove its effectiveness by making sure you leave weighing less than you did when you arrived. It’s more about helping you make wise decisions, ones you’ll be more likely to carry home into your ‘real life’ after practicing them here. Case in point: At my first Miraval breakfast—a glorious time of peace, just me and the mountains at 6:30 a.m. (my choice)—I helped myself to a bowlful of mueseli, eschewing the huevos rancheros, omelettes, turkey sausage and any number of other options I could have had. It wasn’t until I headed back for seconds that I noticed the calories, a whopping 370 per half-cup, compared to the nearby oatmeal at 80! Mindfulness lesson learned.

Day two started with an energizing Fitness Walk in the desert with Melissa, who also led our Cardio Drumming and Mindful Energy Movement classes. During the 2-mile trek amid the Sonoran Desert’s bedfuddling blooms (how can so much color exist in a desert?), she pointed out the various plants and let us know how lucky we were to be visiting at that very time. The desert was in bloom, and some of it only for this two weeks of the entire year. There were profuse yellow Tombstone Roses and fragrant Texas Mountain Laurel that smelled exactly like grape Kool-Aid. And hawks circling overhead, in their fluid, gracefully silent way. “Hawks are a sign your spiritual guide is going to tell you something,” Melissa said (even a walk is more than a walk).

A labyrinth path later that day provided the kind of epiphany that is a signature takeaway from Miraval. Our leader, Jess, prepared the group by telling us there is no trick to a labyrinth: “The way in is the way out.” But I knew better; nothing here is that one-dimensional. In we went, all 20 of us, in a single file. It was clear immediately that while we each had our own pace and method for experiencing the zigs and zags, we were also a community of individuals who had to accommodate each other, or no one was going to get anywhere. What do you know? Turns out the frequent 90-degree turns were a metaphor for the journey of life.

Group realizations are all fine and good, but the brass ring here is really self-realization, and through it, the route to inner peace, whether that means freeing yourself from anxiety, banishing negative self-talk or removing the blocks to closer relationships. That’s how my daughter Sarah and I found ourselves in Chrysalis of Sound, a remarkable session that combines Native American ceremony with meditation to take each participant on a journey inside themselves.

Out of context, it will sound peculiar, but after three full days of Miraval, we were open to what it would bring. The eight participants lay on heated mats lined with amethyst and tourmaline crystals. Tibetan bowls were placed on our chests, eye pillows on our eyes, garnet rocks in our palms and crystals on our third eye (the area between the eyes thought to have mystical significance). The practitioner, Dr. Tim Frank, a naturopathic physician and shamanic healer, went around the room and tucked each of us tightly into a fabric ‘cocoon,’ then proceeded—through drumming, gongs and the movement of eagle feathers—to guide us through a flight of the spirit away from whatever we had earlier verbalized as negative thoughts/behaviors and toward positive ones.

Say what you will, but in that 45 minutes, strange and inexplicable things happened. Under my eye pillow, I ‘saw’ a shadowy figure peel away from my body. And when a loud gong caused vibrations in my bowl, I felt the sensation of something bouncing from my chest. Strangest of all, though, was the distinct vision of a liquid streaming onto my so-called third eye, much like the warm oil of my Ayurvedic treatment had done a few days earlier. Only this time I clearly saw that it was chicken soup and deduced it must be from my spirit mother. Maybe it explains the hawks.

[if you go: tips]
Pack Light. You will not need anything but exercise wear and maybe one ‘nicer’ outfit for dinner—if you ever get the time to change into it. Guests routinely dine in whatever they happened to be wearing prior to dinner!

Schedule Carefully. Maximizing your Miraval experience will take some planning, since some classes you want may not be daily. Think about whether you want your treatments in the evening, when they may get in the way of dinner, or if you’d rather have your evening free for leisurely cocktails and dining, which means treatments will have to replace classes and outdoor time.

Come a Night Early. To maximize your first day at the spa, fly in the night before and stay at an airport hotel. The Miraval van can come for you around 10 a.m., which gets your day started earlier than if you fly in that morning.

Fly into Phoenix Instead of Tucson. The savings might be worth your while, and Arizona Shuttle goes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to a stop near the spa for $41 each way. The spa van will transport you the rest of the way.

Be Adventurous. This is ‘you time,’ so try different kinds of experiences and step outside your comfort zone. Mix it up with ziplining, hiking, water aerobics, Pilates, meditation and personal growth sessions like Mindful Stress Mastery.

Enjoy the Food. You’ll probably never encounter this much good food that is also good for you. Take advantage of the variety, but pace yourself in terms of quantity. Between meals, visit the complimentary Palm Court Smoothie Bar (where you also can get espresso drinks), and before dinner, enjoy the hors d’oeuvres in Brave Bill Lounge.

A Spa for All Seasons. Miraval is open year ‘round, and guests have their favorite seasons. I’ve been twice in early spring, when it’s still cold enough for a nip in the morning air, but warm enough to take meals on the Cactus Flower Restaurant patio—which offers one of the most breathtaking views on the planet. I’ve heard ‘monsoon season’—mid-June to mid-September—is spectacular and that guests come specifically to watch the sheets of rain over the mountains.

Photos: Dorothy Weiner and courtesy of Miraval