The Obsession With Wellness Retreats Goes Back Centuries

Trying to get away from the stress of modern life is far from a modern phenomenon

The luxury spa Canyon Ranch turns 40 this year, capping off four decades in which it has grown from a single Tucson facility to an iconic high-end wellness chain.

Canyon Ranch was originally inspired by founder Mel Zuckerman’s epiphany that he didn’t want to simply lose weight—he wanted to adopt a holistic approach to living better. Today, with several locations across the country and even a cruise ship business, Canyon Ranch has become known for its integrative approach to wellness, involving physicians, dietitians, and increasingly specialized therapists. Besides indulging in manicures, massages, and the like, guests can attend seminars on subjects like pain management, life after divorce, and women’s sensuality.

The breadth of Canyon Ranch’s offerings seems to be a sign of the times. Wellness retreats have exploded in popularity in recent years: According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism was a $639 billion industry in 2017, and experts are predicting that it will hit $919 billion by 2022. Countless getaways around the world cover a broad swath of niches, from beach yoga, body sculpting, and clean eating to reiki, creating vision boards, and recovering from bad breakups.

These trips sit at the cross-section of travel and the now-ubiquitous self-improvement and self-care movements. They typically have a broad focus on holistic healing — even the breakup retreat emphasizes healthy cuisine and individual time to reflect. (They are also, unsurprisingly, primarily aimed at the relatively affluent, who have the time and money to devote to uninterrupted physical and spiritual nourishment.) And they feel perfectly in line with our contemporary cultural obsessions with wellness and quick fixes. What is a retreat, after all, if not a 48-hour life hack?

But the desire to escape from the daily stresses of modern life, it turns out, is far from a modern phenomenon. “As society changes, we tend to become anxious about the impact those changes will have on our bodies, both in terms of appearance and health,” says fitness historian Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor at the New School in New York City. And the promised cures that feed today’s wellness tourism — treatments for fatigue, malaise, dull skin, digital overconnection — can best be understood as part of a continuum of practices stretching back centuries, linking health with the pleasure of escape.

The American spa has roots in the public baths of ancient Greece and Rome, where bathing was considered an activity both social and therapeutic. As the Roman Empire grew, multifunctional bathing complexes spread throughout its territories, often serving as centers for learning and leisure — many housed libraries, gyms, and entertainment spaces alongside the baths.

While the practice largely died out in the Middle Ages amid concerns over the morality of bathing, it reemerged in grander form with the rise of European “cure towns,” built on the belief — extolled by Enlightenment doctors — that mineral water had powerful rejuvenating properties. Towns with natural springs began gaining in popularity as tourist destinations in the 18th century; by the 19th century, they had become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. “These bathing towns were like Coachella meets health,” says Beth McGroarty, director of research for the Global Wellness Institute. “They were hugely social destinations, with art and fashion performances, with people like Beethoven and Mozart and Freud, and they were a hotbed of see-and-be-seen culture.”

The trend soon made its way to the other side of the Atlantic. Across the United States, spa towns sprouted up throughout the 19th century, eventually giving rise to thousands of resorts that offered bathing in hot or cold springs, along with entertainment and sometimes lavish meals. Early health-focused retreat centers known as sanitariums — not to be confused with sanatoriums, which were hospitals for tuberculosis patients — became places to help the constitution recover from the intensity of daily life. Guests would breathe fresh air, take long walks, indulge in spa treatments, listen to lectures, and, in some cases, partake of enemas, which were said to cleanse the system.

“These bathing towns were like Coachella meets health. They were hugely social destinations.”

When these wellness retreats emerged in the United States, they were often seen as a bulwark against rapid industrialization and urbanization. “Western countries were perceived to be at the forefront of civilization, but there was anxiety about what this was doing to people’s bodies,” Petrzela says. The idea of escaping cramped urban quarters for a fresh-air cure became increasingly popular for those who could afford it. One theory at the time posited that urbanization was depleting residents of their energy, causing a condition known as neurasthenia. The cure was gendered: Men were sent off to immerse themselves in nature, while women were put on bed rest to regain their strength.

In the early part of the 20th century, as popular conceptions of wellness became more intimately tied to external appearance, retreats focusing on weight loss emerged with the promise of a better life through extreme slimming. Participants (mostly women and children) would wake early, engage in sometimes grueling physical activity, and consume small portions of low-calorie food.

Petrzela says these resorts were typically punitive in nature. “It wasn’t like today, where you’re doing yoga on the beach,” she explains. “It’s like, ‘You’re fat, you have a problem, and you’re going to do the hard work as a punishment for not conforming to social norms.’” She adds that they also paved the way for a gentler — but perhaps more insidious — wellness-inflected approach to weight loss: “The subtext is always to lose weight so you can enjoy life more, but that better life might be because you live in a society that’s kinder to people who weigh 10 pounds less.”

Which brings us back to Canyon Ranch, whose founder, Zuckerman, references his stint in so-called fat farms in the chain’s origin story and its ilk. A growing interest in weighing 10 pounds less and having a better life while getting there helped to spur a wave of destination spas that championed a mind-body-spirit connection. Golden Door, another luxury spa (currently one of the most expensive in the United States), opened in 1958 in San Marcos, California, with a mandate to reconnect customers with their inner selves. It now offers a range of activities from water volleyball and self-hypnosis to calming body wraps and food drawn mostly from the property’s gardens, orchards, and apiary.

It’s impossible to talk about who participates in wellness retreats without noticing who doesn’t. Golden Door, Canyon Ranch, and their peers are undoubtedly luxurious, but even those that are less extravagant still have a strong class component. Throughout history, going somewhere else in the pursuit of wellness has always required both disposable income and leisure time. “These were people who were able to spend on their health, and it corresponds in a larger sense with the idea of whose bodies are worth saving,” Petrzela says. “You don’t see a lot of worry in the mainstream press about laborers working in unhealthy factory conditions, inhaling toxic fumes, and losing their hands in meat grinders. This is about middle- and upper-class white bodies. And you can still see that today in the glaring whiteness of wellness retreats.”

Perhaps more recent but no less pronounced is the gendered slant of the wellness tourism industry. While ancient spa culture involved both men and women, in a recent survey from the Wellness Tourism Association, 92 percent of respondents identified as female. In part, Petrzela says, that’s because women could use more of a break: Research suggests that they experience burnout at higher rates than men, and they continue to shoulder more of the workload at home. “For women who can afford it, the idea of one week where they don’t have to organize their kids’ schedule and the office gift collection is really appealing,” Petrzela says. “It’s an opportunity to get away from taking care of others.”

Going forward, McGroarty predicts that the retreat focus will continue turning inward, with an increasing emphasis on mental wellness and disconnection from the digital world. “Everyone is always on,” she says. “In some ways, wellness is now very much a reaction to a sociocultural shift that happened when we became overwhelmingly digitally connected.” Hence, digital detox camps and sleep-based retreats. In a nod to pervasive burnout culture, Canyon Ranch is opening a new center, the company’s first in California, just outside Silicon Valley. Offerings will include luxury tree houses, year-round hiking and biking, and, of course, spa treatments.

“Wellness retreats have always been a ritual in cult stress reduction.”

Petrzela, meanwhile, predicts another turn. “I think we’ll see more ‘work hard and play hard’ retreats, with intense workouts during the day and bottle service at night,” she says. “It speaks to the broader influence of wellness in our culture. Ten or 15 years ago, that was just called spring break, and no one would be talking about exercise.”

Whatever incarnations are to come, the core of the wellness retreat has and likely will remain unchanged: the idea that going somewhere new to focus on the self can, if not effect total transformation, at least stay some of the damage wrought by ordinary stresses and demands. “Wellness retreats have always been a ritual in cult stress reduction,” McGroarty says.

Of course, a solution based on escapism, by design, isn’t a lasting one. “It feels too overwhelming to massively overhaul your day-to-day life,” Petrzela says. “So people look to these retreats as a temporary way to get away instead of rethinking what you do on a daily basis, which takes a whole other level of commitment.” Inevitably, it becomes time to haul yourself out of the hot spring, check out of the sanitarium, shed your spa robe, and return to the place you’ve escaped from, with its frenetic pace and toxic temptations. The nature of the escape may fluctuate with the times, but it seems it will always be appealing.

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