A New Hugh - Spear's Magazine

A New Hugh

Hugh Warrender rediscovers his cheekbones and kisses his love handles goodbye at the spartan Ashram in California

Hugh Warrender rediscovers his cheekbones and kisses his love handles goodbye at the spartan Ashram in California

I

can honestly say that the week I spent at the Ashram was among the most rewarding of my life. Tucked away unassumingly in a nook of the hills behind the California beach community of Malibu, the Ashram describes itself as a ‘retreat for health, fitness and renewal’, but to experience it is to discover it’s a whole lot more than that.

In stark contrast to the fancy American spas of repute such as Canyon Ranch or the Golden Door, the Ashram is unashamedly spartan by comparison. Nevertheless, its simple but comfortable accommodation and supreme sense of calm and acceptance make for luxury of a different kind. The ‘hard but kind’ nature of the regimen followed by its inmates for the six-day duration of the programme is not to be underestimated, but the degree to which your physical and mental boundaries are pushed makes for a unique experience of self-discovery and restoration.

Under normal circumstances, the Ashram is booked up many months in advance, and the queue of hopefuls wanting one of the thirteen coveted slots each week remains obstinately unaffected by the credit crunch. I, however, get lucky with a cancellation which finds me waiting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel at LAX Airport on a Saturday afternoon in February. Right on time a bus pulls up to the kerb, and I get on board with the few items I shall need for my week in a small duffel bag.

I meet my companions for the week ahead. The group is modest and diverse, although the Ashram has a reputation for having put many celebrities through their paces — Oprah Winfrey has been on a number of occasions, and reputedly Renée Zellweger went to lose the weight she had gained for her role in Bridget Jones’ Diary.

At first, our conversation is friendly but sparse, but we are brought together as a team over the course of the week, and come away with a great deal more knowledge of each other, and as a consequence ourselves, than I could ever have expected.

At one end of the spectrum we have a fiercely bright Harvard graduate in her late twenties, and at the other an elegant and plucky lady who celebrates her 70th birthday with us while we are there. To add a sprinkling of celebrity, we find out over the course of the week that among our number is an Olympic medallist from the 1980s, whose natural fitness and enthusiasm set the pace for the rest of us lesser mortals.

Upon arrival, our instructor for the day, Mark, tells us that we will not have to make a single decision for ourselves until we come to leave the Ashram, as our days will be laid out for us and all we need to do is follow. This is the first stage of what becomes a process of unburdening on every level. We set out for what will be the shortest hike of our stay, five miles mostly uphill near to the house where we stay. Mark and his colleagues watch all of us closely to assess our relative strengths and needs. The scenery is stunning.

The rolling hills and rocky peaks look out upon the Pacific on one side and an imposing range of snow-topped mountains to the other. In the coming days, as my legs groan at the idea of another pace forward after eight, ten, twelve, fifteen miles of steep inclines and rocky pathways, it is in surveying this magnificent scenery that I find the will to get through to the end. By the time we leave, we have covered almost 70 miles of intense hiking, an incredible experience of achievement, self-torture and physical exertion.
 

N

ow I should be clear that I am not a fan of yoga, which is no small part of the Ashram’s daily schedule. Waking at 5.30am, we go as a group to the geodesic dome that sits like a monument to the Ashram’s origins in the freewheeling California of the 1970s, and bring ourselves into the day with an hour of yoga.

The instructors vary each day, as does the relative intensity of the sessions, and much as I was opposed to doing it I learn as the week passes to appreciate its benefits. There is another hour of yoga each evening before dinner, mostly a less intense experience to put an end to a day of high exertion.

If not hiking or bending into pretzel-like positions, the rest of the day at the Ashram is taken up with exercise classes of different sorts. Weights, Lotte Berk dance and Tai Chi all find their way into the schedule, but for me it is hard at first to find the energy after the extreme hiking from earlier in the day. Much preferred is the steaming hot tub in which we all sit and chat with our mugs of herbal tea.

Respite comes for an hour each day when one is spirited away to a small hut and given a massage, but I can assure readers that this is not a luxury. Skilled therapists work on your aching limbs with a Dalek-like (harsh, but fair) touch to repair you for the next onslaught of uphill torture.

The food at the Ashram is entirely vegetarian, and it was this aspect of the week that worried me most — surely I would starve for lack of red meat and sustenance? While the programme is not designed specifically for weight loss (and many people go there for the fitness aspect only), it is hard for me to see how anyone could get through the week without losing weight, and in some cases the results are startling. Nevertheless, there is only one day when I feel meaningfully deprived, when my craving is assuaged by the offer of half an apple.

The Ashram is a showcase for how delicious and satisfying a vegetarian diet can be, and I speak for all of my group when I say that we all learn a lot about nutrition during our stay. Catharina Hedberg, the Swedish co-founder of the Ashram, interviews all guests upon arrival and decides what their diets are to be, depending on an individual’s goals and physical condition. In my case, I lose an astonishing 12lb over the course of the week, and with my metabolism running high a further three pounds fall off the week after I leave.

The physical change that comes over me over the course of the week, however, is the most startling. After a painful period of detoxification, I awake one day to see that cheekbones I had long forgotten existed have reappeared on my face. The whites of my eyes are brighter. My waistline becomes a great deal more user-friendly as the love handles I had come to accept as permanent recede. Each day that passes marks another session of mutual congratulation among our group as our bodies repair and improve themselves. We beam, all of us.
 

T

o go to a place called the Ashram conjures up images of beardy-weirdy alternative living, chanting and judgemental disapproval of anything short of the life of a swami. This is not the case here. The lifestyle and outlook of the staff and founders is indubitably ‘alternative’ to the one that I and most people I know lead, but it is not imposed upon the brave few who are lucky enough to pass through.

The state of gratitude and calm they display serves as an example to be respected and followed, not grudgingly accepted. There is a mental and spiritual journey to be pursued while hiking up those hills that comes easily and naturally, and at theend of the stay I can say that I gave my mind as much of a ‘service’ as I did my body. Moreover, I did it for myself, which gave me a strong sense of achievement, and the visible results to prove it.

As the saying goes, I got the T-shirt (literally — you receive one when you leave that says ‘I survived the Ashram’), and I wear it not with pride, but with humility. Something else I learned a bit of while there, and that was probably no bad thing.



 

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