I’m Stealing These 9 Science-Backed Health Tips From My Wellness Retreat—and You Totally Should Too

Can’t escape to a luxury wellness resort? No problem. These are the most helpful pearls of wisdom from my stay at Sensei’s Porcupine Creek retreat.

liz-vac-welleness-essay-Credit_ Chris Simpson

Courtesy of Chris Simpson

Midlife is rough so far for this exercise lover. At some point I started to grunt when lowering myself to the mat. It seems like the day I hit 45, my go-to workout routine stopped feeling quite as amazing, the eating habits that were fine for 30 years weren’t, and my ability to power through the work week on grit alone was showing cracks. But, I “rage, rage,” as poet Dylan Thomas once penned. 

Then two years ago, I turned to the well-being team at Sensei Lana’i, a luxury wellness retreat cofounded by biomedical research pioneer David Agus, M.D., and Silicon Valley magnate Larry Ellison. At Sensei, cutting-edge technology makes the assessment, and any and all advice is backed by the latest and most trusted science. This appealed to the health journalist in me. I took notes, turned many of the tips into new habits, and ended up sharing the best advice for a much-needed wellness reset with Real Simple.

Alas, well-being is a journey, not a destination. In January 2023 I faced a new batch of issues, and I decided to check out Sensei’s new location, Sensei Porcupine Creek in Palm Springs, Calif., to tackle them. 

What did I need help with this time? Mobility and flexibility: Why was someone who exercised so much creaking, wincing, and groaning all the time? Joy and confidence: Daily 4:30 p.m. slumps were so regular my kids started joking, “Has Mama taken to her bed yet?” And finally, rest and relaxation: I’m a champion sleeper, and this recent staring-at-the-ceiling business would not do.

The main issue, though, was my frenzied mental state as I considered a new career path and processed my evolving relationship with my college-bound high-school seniors. I wanted to embrace this new phase of my life, not overlook possibilities or miss memories because my mind was ricocheting with worries and to-dos. 

“Sounds like you want to open yourself up, physically and mentally,” observed Trevor Tellin, my senior guide, who summed up the whole mess in one perfect phrase in our first session. He conducted my functional fitness test, took my blood pressure, and dissected my body mass. (Sensei’s machines can spot any posture or limb length discrepancies, tell if one leg has more muscle than the other, and see how my stats for weight, fat, and fluid stacked up to my last visit—cool stuff.)

Trevor and I set my intention—the theme of openness—and literally everything I would experience in the coming three days would connect back to this goal. 

Here’s exactly what I learned at Sensei Porcupine Creek, what I took away, and how easy it’s been to make everything—the science-backed advice and healthy habits, the new ways of thinking and approaching challenges—a part of my everyday life. And hopefully you can gain something from it too.

01 of 09

Solve muscle pain and stiffness by addressing what’s above or below it.

By the next morning, Trevor had sent my assessments and goals to everyone on staff, so fitness guide and physical therapist, Nick Russo, P.T., DPT, CSCS, was ready to maximize our hour together. The goal: to improve my mobility, specifically by addressing my chronically sore lower back and mild shoulder pain. At Sensei they don’t just throw out quick fixes—they help you understand why, so Nick began with an explanation.

I should think about the spine in four sections: Two of them are meant to move, and two of them are meant to be stable. 

  1. The lower back (the lumbar spine) is meant to be stable.
  2. The mid-back right above it (the thoracic spine, which spans from the bottom of the ribcage up to the shoulders) is meant to be mobile. 
  3. The shoulder blades (the scapula) should be stable.
  4. The neck (the cervical spine) is supposed to rotate and be mobile. 

If the sections that are meant to move don’t move well, enough, or properly, the parts nearby will compensate to pick up the slack. Pain ensues. 

My lower back aches? Courtesy of my rigid middle-back muscles, stiff hips, and tight hamstrings. As for the shoulder pain, after ruling out a rotator cuff injury, Nick noted that muscles in my shoulder had been compensating for my immobile thoracic area and stiff, tense neck.

So he gave me this personalized, two-part mobility routine….

02 of 09

Release resting tissue tension first.

First up for me was two to three minutes of foam rolling my mid-back area, quads, and hips. Stretching, or even strength training for that matter, is much more effective if you first break up tension in the soft tissue. This means applying pressure to the fascia, the clear casing of connective tissue that surrounds every structure in your body and tightens up reflexively.

Exercise physiologists have found that foam rolling, when combined with dynamic stretching, reduces muscle stiffness and increases range of motion. Don’t just roll back and forth, Nick adds. Stop where it’s tender, lean into the discomfort, and breathe deeply.

03 of 09

Stretch actively.

Up next was 22 minutes of flexibility and mobility movement. My active, functional stretching routine included modified cat-cows, done with my butt seated back on my heels to take my lower back out of the equation and isolate all movement into my mid-back. I followed with open-book rotations and some hamstring and hip flexing.

I learned that the most effective way to become more limber—and stay that way—is to create movement that eases you into the stretch organically. No more forcing myself into 60-second downward dogs or bouncing my way into a deeper toe touch. By moving into and out of a stretch naturally and smoothly, the muscles move into new spaces safely and intentionally, which studies have shown trains the body to do that easily even when we’re not thinking about it. Active mobility takes advantage of the neurological principles of movement, literally retraining the muscles to relax fully.

04 of 09

Rejuvenate with playful movement.

After my mid-day sports recovery massage, Kaleo, lead massage therapist, personal trainer, and integrative health coach, suggested 60 seconds of monkey arms—a simple arm-swinging exercise—whenever I needed an energy boost. This, he said, would loosen the aforementioned tense regions. Research also shows that this fluid twisting of the spine and swinging of the arms moves blood up and into the head and energy down the spine. New 4 p.m. power move for sure.

05 of 09

Give meditation a try—you will not regret it.

On day two, Trevor clipped a small sensor to my earlobe and took me through possibly the most helpful session of my stay, “Mindset 1:1 With Biomarkers.” It’s the reason I came back to Sensei to work on mental performance. Reading an article about why meditation is helpful is one thing—but seeing my EKG printout after just five minutes of guided imagery and breathwork with Trevor obliterates any and all skepticism about meditation’s physical benefits. There is simply no denying the effect intentional breathing and thought have on our hearts and nervous systems. 

Three Little Waves

The easiest meditation technique—and the one I use most often—is called Three Little Waves, which brings structure to the breath. Trevor told me to take one breath in, in whatever intensity or duration it shows up. Then concentrate to ensure the next two breaths match the first breath exactly in terms of depth and inhale/exhale cadence. If I needed a visual, I was to imagine watching three identical ocean waves. The EKG later showed three similar, evenly spaced out spikes (the space between the spikes reflecting the time between my heart beats).

Heart-Focused Breathing

Next, we did a few minutes of Heart-Focused Breathing, which Trevor explained allows us to drop out of the mind and into the body. It involved noticing my inhale as my breath came into my nose; imagining that breath making its way into my chest and heart space; and noticing its exhale out into the world. The EKG showed my heartbeat change again, this time with more space between the peaks. 

Moment of Appreciation

Finally, he talked me through a Moment of Appreciation. I was to think of someone I have good feelings about. I should imagine them vividly: how they look, smell, smile, move. And I should look for the emotions that come up, feel the gratitude, admiration, or intense love. That nervous system readout? A hockey stick all the way. 

This mental exercising is just like the flexibility training above, but for the brain. Like physical exercise, repetition turns it into a habit and a skill. The more you consistently practice these types of breathing meditations, the more easily and quickly you can call upon them when you need them, say, to fall asleep quickly, pause before reacting in a tense moment, reground yourself between meetings, or focus on intense mental work. 

Trevor and I decided to think of this meditation routine as a pre-performance snack. Life changing!

06 of 09

Walk using all your senses.

The next morning, I woke with the birds for my 30-minute Sensory Walking Meditation with Per, Sensei’s amiable, multi-certified meditation instructor. He gave this quick explanation before we began our stroll around the golf course: Sitting meditation taps into our interoception (our ability to tune into signals in our internal organs are giving us, whether it’s our heartbeat quickening, our muscles tightening, or our gut clenching). A multi-sensory walking meditation brings in our exteroception (the signals of scent, temperature, sound, sight, etc, that we receive from the outside world) as well. Being aware of both interoception and exteroception together opens our minds in new ways. 

Per had me walk slowly beside him, eyes closed. Notice the feeling of my feet in my shoes, he said, the fabric moving with and on my body, the wind or sun on my skin. Then listen: Notice the sounds of water in the creek or the landscapers tidying up, and see how each makes me feel. What can I smell? And can I still taste this morning’s coffee? And now open my eyes. Really see. Can I notice the different textures of the mountains and the grass? How are light and shadow playing?

I realized something about my own daily walks. It’s my habit to notice color and shapes, and always temperature, but light and shadow, not so much. My husband is a professional photographer who specializes in black and white photography. I had a pretty cool moment thinking, This is how Steve must see the world.

07 of 09

Notice small details on the daily.

At Sensei, this meant seeing the perfect geometry of the chef’s appetizer plate, smelling the nutty buckwheat tea before I drank it, and picking up on the wind making the bamboo trees knock together, one of my favorite sounds in the world. “To see, you have to be aware,” Trevor told me. “And to be aware you have to be mindful.” How much more could I see if I brought that curiosity home?

08 of 09

Understand what fuels you physically, cognitively and emotionally.

At the end of my stay, Trevor and I checked back in to sum up the biggest takeaways. “Think of your days like a Nascar race,” he said. “Short, efficient pit stops are the only way to go full speed the rest of the time.” 

He reminded me about my intention, which was to make my mind and heart open to the newness and change coming into my life. And he complimented me on the things I’d already put in place: more walking dates with friends, a commitment to meditation, even signing up for an improv class to stretch a new creative muscle.

09 of 09

Sync with the sun.

On my last morning, I took one last walk to the 15th hole to watch the sun rise. Our circadian rhythms—our bodies’ natural and unique sleep-wake cycles—sync with the sun. I’d heard that sunsets move us to reflection and introspection; with the rising sun we are reactive and alert. I wanted to celebrate my new beginning by sitting for a while as the desert day warmed. When I sat down on the cool, dewy grass, I noticed another impressive thing: I moved into position without making a sound. 

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