Mpls/St Paul: October 2001

An unlikely Iowa town is home to a spa practicing traditional Indian healing and wellness that may just change your approach to living.

By Amy Gage

Far into the reaches of southeastern Iowa, amid the corn and soybean fields that sustain Jefferson County, sits a sturdy yellow building - its main door facing east - where transformations take place. This is the Raj, a nationally known spa and retreat that practices the ancient art of Ayurveda medicine, updated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought Transcendental Meditation to the west.

Developed in India, long before the British invasion, the centuries-old system of health care helps people access their body's natural wisdom about how to stay well. If you've ever restructured your health habits by "listening" to your body, then you have some notion of the Raj's philosophy.

My three-day visit to the Raj in June began with an uneventful, six-hour drive from the Twin Cities that itself was a release from urban pressures. All vestiges of city life, including the freeway, ended at Des Moines, leaving me with country music on the radio and picturesque two-lane roads. Four hours into Iowa, just above the Missouri border, I drove through the blue-collar, somewhat shabby town of Fairfield, incredulous that the Raj could make its home there.

In fact, Fairfield has become a mecca for East Indian philosophy. Transcendental meditation sites dot the outskirts of the town (many employees at the Raj don't report to work until 9:30 a.m., so they can attend a morning session beneath one of the golden domes). In the 1970's Maharishi University of Management transformed the former Parson's College into its 270-acre campus, and since the Raj's opening in 1993, a residential neighborhood with Vedic architecture has been springing up nearby - pastel-colored houses, their front doors facing the rising sun.

Two miles north of town, in what has since been incorporated as Vedic City, I found a long, tree-lined driveway leading to a butter-colored building, A welcome packet and a printed warning not to feed the swans were all that greeted me. It was 6 p.m., and the quiet was both stunning and welcoming.

I tiptoed to my room - peach-colored carpet, a well-appointed bathroom, New Age music playing on the radio, a tranquil view of lawns and ponds - and rested until dinner, which included a vegetable broth, flatbread (called chapati), and a bounteous plate of rice pilaf and steamed zucchini and yellow squash, preceded by a ginger drink for digestion and followed by a more-fruit-than-sugar apple crisp.

Ayurveda analyzes balance - or more commonly, the lack thereof - among three mind/body systems called doshas. Just as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator gives you a snapshot of your behavioral tendencies, an analysis of doshas - Vata, Kapha, and Pitta - offers information about your physique and emotions, about what your mind and body can healthfully endure.

I learned at the Raj that I tend to over-exercise, pushing my tall, thin frame to the point of injury. I also learned - no surprise to my family and colleagues - that I'm driven and resist relaxation, with a tendency to "do" more than "be". An Indian healer at the Raj virtually ordered me to get more sleep, focus less on performance, and spend more time with my children.

Ayurveda Health consultations are part of a visit to the Raj, and a specific regimen of diet and herbal supplements is recommended for each client, but the two staff physicians make it clear that you are responsible for your own health. Most health spas pamper clients and market themselves as a get-away; the Raj is more of an education retreat, a place to rest and learn, and to receive luxurious hot-oil treatments, facials, and steam baths, in addition to cleansing the digestive tract. (Every other day, clients go on a liquid diet and receive gentle herbal enemas or basti treatment, a process rooted in the belief that disease begins when toxins accumulate in the colon.)

Ayurveda medicine (Ayurveda means "knowledge of life") is more about long-term prevention than a quick-fix cure. Guests learn about health from a holistic point of view involving diet and exercise, physiology and stress management, and emotions and state of mind. They discover which habits to change and what behaviors to avoid - and learn how to buck the fast pace of American life.

"It's a learning process. It's sort of a spiral," says Dahlen Foah, fifty, a museum and cultural-center designer from Atlanta, who visited the Raj for the first time this past spring. "If your body's in good shape and you're doing things the right way, your mind is in better shape also."

Days at the Raj begin with no alarm clock. Breakfast isn't served until 8 a.m., leaving plenty of time for "sun salutations" (a series of yoga stretches performed facing east), meditation, and a light walk. Aside from lunch, time is spent primarily in classes, consultations, and two-hour oil and herb treatments - a delicious process in which two technicians massage your body, feet, and forehead. After dinner (more flatbread, soup, and steamed vegetables), the evening concludes with warm, spiced milk and lectures detailing the fine points of Ayurveda medicine, such as how dietary decisions - not just what you eat but when - influence the doshas (the three mind/body systems).

Some forty videotapes are available for watching in your room, where the only other distractions are the bathtub and bed. In addition to CNN, the only television channel available is one on the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. "Watching TV aggravates Vata dosha," the Raj literature explains. However relaxing television viewing may appear, it speeds up your mind and detracts from the contemplative spiritual focus that emerges after several days at the Raj.

"It's a different culture," says John Morrow, fifty-two, a certified public accountant from Wall Lake, Iowa, who visits the Raj for cleansing treatments five days each year. "I don't like Western doctors because all they treat is my symptoms. They never find out what's wrong with me."

Time both speeds up and slows down when you're removed from your routine. Days stretch out dreamily at the Raj, and yet my visit passed so quickly. During my first-day orientation, I learned that bringing laptops and work-related reading is discouraged, that sipping warm water throughout the day and sleeping eight hours is expected, and that the exercise is limited to yoga classes and low-key walks. "We don't want the body's mental and physical energy involved in other activities," says David Lonsdorf, director of operations at the Raj, "so it can be within, supporting the transformation."

The Raj bills itself as a site for rejuvenation and the treatment of chronic disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and arthritis. Among the dozen or so people I encountered during my stay, at least half were battling a health complication, including high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, and persistent headaches.

More women than men frequent the Raj, although I met several men who were there at the suggestion of their wives. "Women generally are trendsetters for seeking out better health," says marketing director Jim Garrett, "but that is changing. We're seeing more sensitivity to health issues in men."

Some of the awareness is attributable to age. We baby boomers are growing older, and often we're afraid of it - or caught unaware by the seemingly sudden shift in what our bodies can endure. Most clients of the Raj are between forty-five and fifty-five, a time when people must pay more attention to their health if they want a lively and fruitful second half of their lives, according to Nancy Lonsdorf, a Raj staff physician who is trained in both Eastern and Western medicine.

Like any life-changing process, the transformation isn't easy. It's tempting to write off the Raj's home-maintenance program as impractical - it requires way too much fussing with food - and incompatible with the demands of daily life. If I were to start each day with the prescribed stretching, meditating, and walking, followed by cooking stewed fruit for breakfast and preparing split mung beans with rice and broccoli to carry in a thermos for lunch (Lonsdorf claimed that I eat too many leftovers and raw foods), I'd barely get to work before noon.

True enough. But even writing those words, I hear the petulance in my voice - the resistance to change, the denial of age, the smirking at something that's different. If nothing else, a visit to the Raj requires an open mind and a willingness to acknowledge that your so-called healthful habits may actually be harmful. How often have I gulped a banana and bagel in the car during my commute rather that eating a leisurely breakfast at home ? How many of us relax after work by tossing back a cocktail instead of stretching into a quiet yoga pose ?

Modern American society, with its emphasis on speed and performance, doesn't support the Raj's precepts at all. That's why the biggest gift anyone can take away from the time spent there is the notion that sustainable change must be measured and gradual. Ayurveda is a way of life, a new and yet ancient concept of health that can't be forgotten. Six weeks after my visit, I try to remember that clearer thinking emerges after a period of stillness, that slowing down in mind and body is wise, not weak, and that self-care is different from self-centeredness.

"Their whole philosophy of life is just to pay attention," says Morrow, the accountant. "You have to use both sides of your brain. You have to see the beauty of the trees, not just the trees."


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