We live in the golden age of wellness vacations, where taking time off is all about becoming a better person.
When I was 22, I used to have a fantasy about going away to a sanitarium, like in “The Magic Mountain.” I would do nothing but sit on balconies, wrapped in steamer rugs, and go to the doctor, avoiding the rigors of the real world and emerging after a short period brighter, happier, better.
I’m beginning to think this was a prescient impulse. Over the decades we have embraced a widening and diverse array of practices and traditions, but the idea that we can be improved — in mind, body or spirit — has remained a constant. That this could be accomplished with money and in an allotted parcel of time has become increasingly popular with a generation reared in a maximalist minimalist moment that, as with fashion and interior design, demands grandiose, well-documented freedom from the world. If stuff was once an indicator of security, now the very lack of it — of dust, of furniture, of body fat, of errant thoughts — defines aspiration. A glamorous back-to-nature exercise in pricey self-abnegation has become the logical way to spend one’s leisure time.
We live in a golden age of the “wellness vacation,” a sort of hybrid retreat, boot camp, spa and roving therapy session that, for the cost of room and board, promises to refresh body and mind and send you back to your life more whole. Pravassa, a “wellness travel company,” summarizes its (trademarked) philosophy as “Breathe. Experience. Move. Mindfulness. Nourish.” (The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a wellness retreat in New England, boasts the eerily similar tagline: “Breathe. Connect. Move. Discover. Shine.”) A 10-day trip to Thailand with Pravassa includes a travel guide — who works, in her day job, as a “mindfulness-based psychotherapist” in Atlanta — as well as temple pilgrimages at dawn and, more abstractly, the potential to bring all that mindfulness back home with you. Selfies are not only allowed but encouraged.
Whatever happened to a good book and a martini? If in the recent past people’s idea of a vacation conjured images of Caribbean resorts and swingers’ parties, the idea of taking time off as a means of self-improvement still has strong precedents. For as long as Americans have worked regular hours, many have tried to make good spiritual use of their time off. As Cindy Aron explains in her comprehensive “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States,” the modern notion of “vacation” was initially the purview of the wealthy, and inextricably bound up with the idea of health. Hubs like Niagara or Saratoga were wholesome retreats from the dirt (and populations) of cities, where the air and water were both rarefied. In the mid-19th century, a class of white-collar vacationers emerged and gradually changed the once-exclusive retreats into the more democratic — and pleasure-focused — destinations we know today.
The concept of a purely fun break came later. Spiritual retreats were less self-indulgent and, when under the rubric of religious communities (as many of the 19th and 20th centuries were), actively salutary. The new wellness vacations are a kind of steroidal response to movements like Chautauqua, founded by Methodists in the 19th century to encourage lifelong learning and spiritual growth. In beautiful compounds, attendees could — and indeed, still can — take classes and hear music and sermons. For many middle-class Americans, the opportunity for continuing education, communion with nature and polite, wholesome society — absent of evils like alcohol or dancing — would have been a luxury indeed. But sophisticates like Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken mocked the earnestness of communities like Chautauqua; Lewis described this survey-course learning as “nothing but wind and chaff and … the laughter of yokels.”
Lewis is lucky that those early Chautauquans didn’t have smartphones. The wellness vacation in its current form is all the easier to mock: As has ever before been the case, spirituality plus money makes for an open target, but add in the fact that nothing really counts today unless everyone witnesses it. If an enlightenment retreat happens in a forest and nobody’s there to Instagram the sunrise, does it even exist? Our idea of spirituality and mindfulness also includes the attempt to project these ideas by distilling them to images of fitness-wear, multihued cold-pressed juices and toned women striking poses in silhouette against stunning natural backdrops.
If this projection is a mark of sophistication and privilege, so much the better. The humanist founders of Esalen were genuinely dedicated to the expansion of consciousness; that the Big Sur retreat should become a byword for trendy spiritual day-trippers (and an ambivalent punch line on “Mad Men”) is a sign of its importance. As ideas, like the “Pray” portion of Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular book, move into the cultural mainstream and lose their purity — as they become inextricably tied up with capitalism, really — it’s easy for us, Lewis-style, to sneer.
I, however, get the appeal. For all the spiritual work, and all the hikes, and all the sunrise yoga, and all the gut-cleansing, once you get there, as with my childhood sanitarium fantasy, you don’t have to make many decisions. Wellness vacations are planned for you, companions allocated, menus chosen. Even your breathing is dictated. We crave direction; helplessness is truly the ultimate luxury, a philosophy that has by now entered the mainstream. And yet, read another way, the point is to pay people to wait on you, while feeling great about it.
But why should anyone be blamed for wanting to, quite literally, better themselves? Karl Lagerfeld counts exercise and vacations as two of the many things he despises. More mysteriously, I once heard Werner Herzog give a talk in which he dismissed the notion of yoga practice, saying definitively, “It’s not my culture.” Clearly, to the elderly German director, there is something inherently distasteful in the notion that you could take up an ancient practice, throw in some expensive leggings and call yourself evolved. Then again, the Germans gave us the “The Magic Mountain,” and the resort on which Mann based his fictional sanitarium now houses participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos.