At the Art of Living Retreat Center, the tea leaves were very telling.
In the Relaxation Room, on the ground level of the spa building, a refreshment table held several jars of loose tea with descriptions of their powers. There was Vata Tea, for guests who were feeling restless or anxious; Kapha Tea, for the lethargic and depressed; and Pitta Tea, for irritated and agitated souls. All of the containers were full except for one: Balance Tea, which “makes you feel really good.” I scraped the bottom for cinnamon pieces, cardamom, licorice root and rose leaves and brewed myself a cup of contentment.
The 380-acre sanctuary sits at the tippy-top of the Blue Ridge Mountain range in Boone, N.C. The winding drive to the 3,700-foot-high aerie can make you feel a bit Vata-Pitta, especially if you ignore the staff’s directions. “It can be challenging to find our spa,” read the polite warning on my reservation, “and we hate for our guests to experience unnecessary stress!”
Some of us didn’t listen. (Myself included.)
“I need a drink,” a harried visitor grumbled at check-in. The employee gently reminded him that alcohol is not permitted on the premises but offered him some tea.
Two hundred cc’s of Balance Tea, STAT!
The complex of buildings — lodging, meditation halls, restaurant — originally opened as a transcendental meditation community in 1999 but was abandoned several years later, the casualty of a family dispute. During the dark years, skateboarders and vandals used the buildings for their tricks, and frozen pipes created a polar ice mess. In 2011, the high-altitude getaway reemerged from the gloom as the Art of Living Retreat, a center based on the same-name movement founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 1981. The Indian spiritual leader, who has established programs in more than 150 countries, promotes a stress- and violence-free society. The Boone facility is a dwarf planet governed by his principles and practices.
The Life According to Sri Sri eschews meat (eat vegetarian) and booze (drink organic ayurvedic tea), and embraces yoga, meditation and nature — even when indoors. The day before my departure, I received an excited message from an employee: A mountain-view room had become available. Unfortunately, when I called back a few hours later, I had missed my window of opportunity. Fortunately, the retreat’s setting among cloud-tickling trees and a swoop of slopes and valleys basically guarantees a stellar view, no matter what your room number.
The property offers a variety of accommodations, from basic rooms to apartments, in wooden structures that resemble Appalachian chalets with a touch of the Himalayas. The lodgings are named after the world’s rivers: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi, Brahmaputra (hint: follow the Ganges). I stayed in the three-story building that also houses the Shankara Ayurveda Spa. I booked two nights in a spa room, which resembled a conventional hotel room, and one night in a retreat room, a monk-ish chamber. In the move, I relinquished the flat-screen TV and fridge, two full-size beds and thicker bedding. In return, I gained significant savings (more than $80) and a quieter mind (no Kardashians!).
People visit the retreat for myriad reasons, such as to detox, reconnect with the outdoors or simply decompress. I needed all of the above but also hoped to address my dependence on overplanning. At check-in, I cautiously reviewed the list of activities with Heather, the always-sunny guest services representative. I signed up for a morning tour of the property (essential for knowing my whereabouts) and yoga (part of Sri Sri’s platform). I penciled in evening meditation and kirtan (Sri Sri-approved diversions). Heather mentioned the pottery classes and spa treatments. I was powerless: Put me down for both. The Art of Living was now the Art of Scheduling.
For my overview tour, I waited for Heather in the upstairs dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that invite the landscape to the table. A group of women from a yoga center in North Carolina motioned for me to join them. They were fawning over their vegetarian breakfasts (scrambled tofu to Downward Dog for) and gossiping about heavy breathers in their class. When Heather was ready, I rose from my chair without exhaling too loudly.
We started at the reception building, which also contains the gift shop, restaurant and activities room, and darted through raindrops to the palatial Meditation Hall. Heather explained how its architecture follows the elements of vastu shastra, the Indian version of feng shui. The entrance faces east and sunrise, for instance, and the geometric patterns represent positive energy. Natural light pours through a rising pyramid of skylights. Outside, a water fountain burbles and a pair of white swan statues guard the hall like prettier gargoyles.
We descended a ribbony staircase to a labyrinth and fire circle, where guests and staff gather around the bonfire to sing or chant beneath the black tapestry of sky. As rain pelted us, we fast-walked to a smaller meditation hall fluffed with cushions and then ducked into the pottery studio. There I met Laurie, the peppy instructor, and her clay creations: chunky mugs and jack-o’-lanterns (hers), crooked vases and a bowl with a face only a mother could love (students’). She said she glazes and ships the pieces, but, based on the collection of misfit artworks, many students don’t leave a forwarding address.
For my pottery lesson the following day, I was running late and unraveling. I had lost my way back from town and had resorted to flagging down a postman for help. I was also wet, cold and illegally parked in the fire lane. I rolled into the studio like a skein of frayed nerves and found Laurie seated serenely at the pottery wheel, cradling a mug-in-process between her hands.
She deposited a lump of clay and small dishes of water on the long wooden table. We started molding the material into pumpkin-shape bowls. She showed me how to cut out a stem and leaves for the top. While we worked, she told me that art is a form of meditation. I felt my body relax with each squish.
My piece started to look less Jack and more cat, so I added whiskers and a round nose. We were so absorbed in our task that I had only a few minutes to make meditation class. The teacher told us to close our eyes, clear our thoughts and focus on breathing. In the darkness of my mind, I saw a glowing cat-o’-lantern.
The spa specializes in ayurvedic techniques, which help stabilize the seesaw of body and mind. I had signed up for the combo special of abhyanga (detoxifying herbal massage) and shirohara (relaxation therapy). My therapist, Medha, poured hot oil on my arms, legs, back, belly, head and cheeks and kneaded each body part until it turned to goo.
During the 90-minute treatment, we discussed family life (she has a son and lives at the retreat), travel (she hails from India) and olive oils (for massages, she recommends cold-pressed, raw organic sesame oil from Whole Foods). She used about half a bottle on me, and I slid off the table like a greasy fry.
For the best results, Medha told me to sit in the sauna and avoid showering for a day. A few hours later, I left the Art of Living Retreat with a tranquil mind, a languid body and enough oil to make stir fry for the week.
639 Whispering Hills Rd., Boone, N.C.
Retreat rooms from $79; hotel rooms from $95.