Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie at… The Ashram

Twelve-mile hikes and hunger pangs: welcome to The Ashram

Spa Junkie at… The Ashram

May 12 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2

It’s 9.30am and a typical Monday morning at my gym in west London. I watch Italian football coaches and bankers give way to Chelsea yummy mummies, fresh from the school run, their toned bodies perfectly turned out. Now that summer is round the corner, getting bikini-ready is all they talk about and boot camp is the method du jour. I have wanted to try a boot camp for a while so decide to join in the conversation.

One of the women has just come back from Devon’s Yeo Town. Although she says a week of “Yeotox” has done the trick, with perfectly fine accommodation and suitably challenging yoga, she didn’t like hiking at such a relentless pace in the cold and the wet. “That’s why I went to The Ranch,” piped up another, “a new retreat in Malibu.” She describes a beautiful Spanish hacienda located in the hills with an organic farm and views of the coast and, most importantly, hiking in sunshine. And you can hang out in LA for a few days afterwards, which is so much more civilised. Like bobble-head dolls, the group unanimously agrees.

And so I set about researching boot-camp-style retreats in Malibu. There are a few new kids on the block but the grande dame is The Ashram in Calabasas in the Santa Monica hills above Malibu.

Its reputation is truly formidable. It calls itself the “smallest roughest toughest leanest meanest sweetest health retreat on the planet”. To spa cognoscenti, who tell of sybaritic stays at the Amansala Bikini Bootcamp in Mexico, the Canyon Ranch in Tucson and Rancho La Puerta in Baja, The Ashram is known to be by far and away the most extreme.

I manage to make a reservation for the Princess Room, which, I’m told, is the largest. I toy briefly with the idea of sharing a room with a stranger, with me sleeping on the open-air balcony, but I’ve been told you do hear the coyotes howling at night. I set about convincing a girlfriend in LA to join me. The barter: a week at my villa in Ibiza this August. We have a deal!

* * * * * *

DAY ONE

I arrived in LA a couple of days ago to deal with the jet lag, and am now ensconced at Chateau Marmont. Rachel, the pint-sized TV presenter I’ve talked into coming with me, joins me for breakfast on the terrace. We decide to bow out in style with the legendary Eggs Benedict.

An hour later, we are herded onto a coach with people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Having read about triathletes using The Ashram for training and Victoria’s Secret supermodels booking in before catalogue shoots, I am surprised to see I am the youngest and slimmest by a long shot. How will they create a challenging and effective programme with such a varied fitness group? Rachel tries to put my mind at rest. After all, The Ashram has been running successfully since the 1970s. She then reels off a long list of Hollywood celebrities who swear by it. There’s even a rumour that Renée Zellweger and Julia Roberts bailed out after just four days because the course was too tough for them.

We arrive at The Ashram. As someone who has backpacked around Asia, I am not fazed when faced with the bare necessities. But The Ashram is not just basic; it’s really tired and in serious need of a scrub and a lick of paint.

After settling into our flowery-walled bedroom, we are weighed and then measured in 14 different places, including the obvious (waist, hip and thigh) and less obvious (neck, knee and ankle).

A dinner of celery sticks is followed by an NA/AA group-style introduction. We talk about our lives and reasons for being here. Then everyone hugs. It’s very American.

DAY TWO

We’re woken up by a 5:30am knock on our door. We have an hour of yoga, which is actually more like stretching, followed by a spirulina shake and a potassium pill. Then it’s time for our morning hike, a pattern that will be repeated, with minor variations, every day. They “ease us in” with a five-hour uphill hike. Then on to the Fire Trail, a sink-or-swim path with a terrifyingly steep incline. We are split into little groups based on fitness levels, each with their own guide. I partner with an eight-time “Ashrammer”. As my legs begin to burn, my fears about lack of intensity evaporate.

By the time we’re back, lunch is served: a tiny portion of sunflower pâté on crackers with bitter leafy greens. On route to the kitchen for at least a few more greens, I notice padlocks on the fridges. As I have put weight loss high on my agenda I am not offered an extra cracker. The hunger pangs are so bad I start eating lemon wedges.

I return to my room and flop onto the sofa. I can’t help wondering why they have not done more with the place. I’ve enjoyed the day and I’m feeling good, but the accommodation is so depressing. I try to figure out how much money they must be making. The Ashram is perpetually full yet our measly food rations can’t cost more than $10 a day and they keep fixed costs down by using freelance staff. So why haven’t they put in a decent pool and fixed the place up? I go to bed concluding that this must be the best business in the world.

DAY THREE

I wake up grumpy and with a headache as my toxic liver, kidneys and other tortured organs join forces to remonstrate with me for the indulgences of the past few months. Today on our 12-mile walk there’s little talk, just the occasional grunt and a nod or tap when someone wants to pass on a narrow stretch of dirt track.

After lunch, it’s Bar Method practice. It focuses on isometrics and involves static exercises using a ballet-style rail attached to a mirrored wall. After a six-hour hike, it’s a relief to stand still and stretch my tired limbs. But the relief is short-lived. “C’mon, move it up a gear! On your toes and bounce, ladies and a gentleman. I want you to imagine you have a rod from your head to your ass; keep it straight and feel the burn.” We perform tiny movements that seem a hybrid of ballet and Pilates. Even die-hards like me are cracking. We all repeat, “Long and lean, we want our legs to be long and lean.”

The forced loo sharing (one bathroom for every four guests) means I have made friends fast. I form a clique with two other women who have travelled from London, one a handbag designer going through a painful divorce, the other a Bafta-nominated documentary filmmaker. Jewish-born, she has just made a film about a Palestinian suicide bomber. She risked her life going undercover and living in a sect in the Palestinian desert. At night, as we lie on our beds hungry and exhausted, she tells us of her incredible experiences. The “good nights” from adjoining bedrooms remind me of The Waltons. However, sleep is short and restless as walls and ceilings are paper-thin. If it’s not the New York investment banker snoring upstairs, it’s the wild dogs howling at the moon. Needless to say, the mornings are not pleasant as we wake up in the dark before being ushered to the flower-power-like yoga dome.

DAY FOUR

I’m in a world of pain. The blisters on my feet are now unbearable and not even the cheery manner of my sexy mountaineer can make me smile. The instructors are cute in that granola-surfer-boy way, but with all the obvious symptoms of detox, my hair in a wet, ratty bun, and my very unflattering shorts and mountain boots, I decide that flirting is out of the question. Guests chalk up around 75 miles during a week here and some of us get given extra miles. I’m down for 100. I tell my instructor that my thighs are bulking in the same way that happens with cycling – which is not the required result. More stretching, he says, and an extra half-hour on the ballet bar. I wish I hadn’t mentioned it.

After the morning hikes, a lunch is served either on the beach or back at the house. They know we don’t need a great deal of time to digest the measly portions because there’s just a 10-minute break between the meal and the obligatory underwater resistance exercises and pool volleyball. From the pool, it’s up to the weights room, where various abdominal exercises, push-ups and arm lifts are performed with the aid of big plastic balls and free weights. An hour of agony later, guests are guided back up to the dome for a meditation-heavy hour of yoga. Then back down for dinner, which can be anything from a bowl of lentil soup to a millet burger. The pace is relentless, and although I was initially very disappointed with the so-called yoga, it has become my favourite part of the regime as I get to lie down for a little while during the day.

DAY FIVE

I am now in the groove; my body and mind have a firm grip on the routine. Today we have about 14 miles uphill – the most gruelling hike to date. The Ashram format is alarmingly simple. There are no doctors and there is no organic miracle food. It’s a simple input-output ratio.

You consume 800 calories a day and you spend all your waking hours hiking, lifting weights and doing calisthenics, water aerobics and yoga. With none of the classic spa amenities such as saunas, steam rooms, facials and body wraps, the daily routine starts to bore and the group thing is wearing me down. The only quiet time alone is my treasured hour at the end of each day when I am in my little massage hut being straddled by one of the very able therapists who are a godsend after eight hours of exercise. I marvel that, despite the repetitious nature of our days and the incredible feeling of hunger, there are no temper tantrums and just the odd snappy response to a queue for the loo. But there is still time for the mood to change…

Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, accommodation and treatments.