“Qigong is the practice of mindful of your body, mind and breath,” explains Michael, my Tai Chi instructor for the morning. “If you’re mindful of your breath and body but not your mind, you’re not doing Qigong.”
It’s a sunny morning, although I’m not sure a place called Desert Hot Springs experiences anything else. The grass is wet with morning dew, which trickles down my bare feet and refreshes me, along with the focused breathing and stretching of the Tai Chi class. We awaken our chi, the natural energy of any living thing, by lifting our arms open palm toward our chests, then pushing down toward the ground. We rock forward and backward, “holding the sun” in our outstretched palms, increasing the flow of serotonin. We reach to the ground, to the side, up and back like an slow-motion windmill, working our back’s flexibility. Despite the session’s 8am start time, by the end I feel completey awake.
I’m currently staying at Two Bunch Palms, a health and wellness retreat located just outside of the big brand resort and nightclub-filled Palm Springs. It’s amazing to me that so close to this tourist hub is a true getaway in every sense of the word.
While the land itself and its curative hot springs have existed in this location for over 600 years, it was in 1857 that the first settler arrived, writing about the spot — marked by two palms — as a great place to rest and find water. In 1909, the US Army Camel Corps of Engineers surveyed the land, declaring it “two bunches of palms.”
When the resort opened in 1930, it wasn’t too hard to come up with the fitting name of Two Bunch Palms.
Healthy Living At Two Bunch Palms
Two Bunch Palms features 77 acres (31 hectares) with 70 rooms, as well as walking paths lined with mineral water steams and attractions focused on nature and the centering of oneself. That’s the part of the resort I’m currently enjoying, taking part in one of the over 30 (free!) wellness and enrichment classes, from yoga in the Yoga Dome to guided meditation to Juicing 101. With all of these sustainable-living themed offerings, it’s no surprise that the property is becoming 100% carbon neutral by the end of November 2014.
After Tai Chi, I head back to my villa — complete with private courtyard and plush robes — for a rain shower with all-natural bath products made specially for the resort. From there, I head to Essence, the property’s health-focused restaurant. It’s breakfast time, and the venue’s Chef Cossi Houegban is whipping up omelets, smoothies and locally-inspired dishes like California goat cheese served with a house-made fig and whole-grain mustard on naan and a “California Omelet” featuring local veggies like tomato, kale, onion, celery and belly peppers served with multigrain toast and homemade jam.
I learn the restaurant was once a casino. In fact, until about a year ago it was called Casino Restaurant. I also learn that Chef Cossi was born in Strasbourg, France, and is a former Olympian, competing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for cycling, and also served in the French Navy for 13 years. Talk about impressive. Now that he’s a chef, he specializes in what he calls “caramel style cooking” — an infusion and layers of flavors from every continent on the plate.
From the restaurant I also catch a glimpse of the “Cool Pool,” called so because there is also a warm water grotto and a hot tub. The grotto is a meditation area — as are many of the spaces at Two Bunch Palms — and I find guest floating on buoyant noodles, sitting in ring floats reading books, letting man-made cascades tumble down their backs and people laying out on shallow stone seats with closed eyes. Me? I go straight for the hot tub.
The water is hot — 104 degrees Fahrenheit — almost scalding at first, but it doesn’t take long for my skin to enjoy the intense heat massaging my body, gently bubbling against me. I submerge my entire self, washing away every care in the world and breathing out any negative energy I may feel, my worries popping as bubbles on the surface.
The water is these pools is natural hot spring waters, rich in minerals like lithium, calcium, magnesium. Desert Hot Springs’ natural hot mineral water and cold water aquifers were found in the 20th century. The homesteader who made the discovery, Cabot Yerxa, called the site “Miracle Hill.” The local aquifer is heated by ancient geothermal forces located thousands of feet below the earth’s surface.
Near to the Grotto is the spa area, which I’m curious to learn more about. Inside, I meet a woman named Tish, the Spa Director, who is kind enough to show me around.
“This building is from the 1920s. It used to be a brothel, before it was a casino.”
What? I had no idea the property had so much history? When Tish see’s my look of surprise, she smiles.
“Let’s give you a short spa tour.”
She takes me around the historic spa building, which feels more like someone’s home than the pristine bleached spas that are more common. This is where they offer treatments like Lymphatic Massage, Custom Roman Bath Rituals for couples, Foot Reflexology and Cranial Sacral in water. What’s interesting is there aren’t only treatment rooms inside, but also in outdoor gazebos — not to mention mud cabanas, private watsu pools and quiet areas to reflect on nature.
The icing on the cake comes when we exit the spa and come to a beautiful villa, which Tish tells me was Al Capone’s old hideaway, and that the property is filled with underground tunnels the gangster used to escape from authorities.
Okay, so the validity of this statement is somewhat blurred, and the real answer will depend on who you talk to. While I was told by numerous staff that it’s true, another told me it’s actually an urban legend, although one many people believe (just read this article by the LA Times). One story goes that Robert Beaumont, Two Bunch’s former owner in the 1980s, created the myth about Al Capone after visiting a hotel in Arizona, where the innkeepers told him that it used to be Capone’s hideout. He thought it was a great story, and one he could use to add intrigue to Two Bunch. And so, the myth began (unless, of course, it’s truth).
That being said, a secret complex of underground tunnels does exist beneath the property. And Al Capone did apparently spend time at this location, enjoying its mineral rich waters and the serenity of the area. Before he went to prison, that is.
Just before sunset, I head out to explore the property and its “attractions.” From my room, I’m able to follow a neat dirt path that veers past numerous stops to enjoy, streams trickling nearby the entire walk. This isn’t on accident. Not only does this allow Desert Hot Spring’s mineral waters to be enjoyed at all times, but (fresh) water, one of Earth’s Four Elements, represents life, good health, purity and change. As Two Bunch Palms is a health and wellness getaway, the clear streams further heighten guests’ ability to make positive transitions, gain peace of mind and achieve optimal well being.
Just past the tennis courts is a small pond and adjoining table with chairs, resting peacefully under a drooping tree.
Meditating On Life
Adjacent to this is a meditation labyrith, featuring seven layers you walk through, each curved path bringing a new epiphany. The rock-lined maze is adorned with treasures: glass bottles, sparkly hearts, wax fishes, scented candles and other assorted seemingly random items. Entering the labyrinth you’re supposed to clearly envision something troubling you, which you’ll be seeking resolution for as you walk (although you can also simply reflect or feel spiritual, as well). Make sure you’re centered and focused, which can be accomplished by taking deep, thoughtful breaths.
Deciding to simply allow this to be a spiritual walk, I close my eyes, trying to let my whole body digest my thoughts. I breath deeply, something that oddly takes me a moment to get the hang of. But once I do, I can feel stress and negative energy simply purging itself.
Each section of the path focuses on a different chakra, or non-physical points of the body where energy channels meet. I enter on Path 3, the Solar Plexus, where you contemplate your path in life. This isn’t too hard for me, as I find myself doing this a lot even when I’m not wandering around a meditation labyrinth. The next, Path 2, focuses on the Sacral Plexus, which is where I am to work out my feelings and reactions toward life’s tests. For someone with anxiety, it’s easy to pinpoint my reactions, but not as easy to work them out. But, I try. That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it? To relax. To center myself. To grow.
I continue the labyrinth, each path leading me to dig deeper into myself and the physical world, my spirituality and my inner voices.
Once I reach the center — which takes oddly long for the seemingly tiny labyrinth, I take my time. I sit for awhile, enjoying the scenery around me: the desert, the palm trees, the pond, the couple holding hands as they walk the resort grounds in their robes, the nature so different from my concrete jungle home of NYC, the peaceful pace so foreign to me as I juggle 101 projects each day while working. I forget these issues and just…breath.
An Experiential Stay
When I feel completely fulfilled with the labyrinth I continue my journey of the grounds, past the citrus groves and turtle pond, to the beginning of the onsite Roadrunner Trailhead. The sun is beginning to set, and I can think of no better time for enjoying a desert hike. The fact that Desert Hot Springs resides at the nexus of numerous ecological provinces — meaning the land features extremely diverse flora — becomes even more clear. Creosote bush, desert willows, Mojave yucca and sugar pines become awash with fiery orange, red and yellow, splashed with just a hint of pink and purple for good measure.
While I’m used to subway trains, honking taxis and screaming couples playing the soundtrack of my life, right now the only sounds I hear are the birds, the bees and someone’s dog off in the distance. I stop walking, sit in the sand, pull out my camera and shoot, wanting to capture this moment in a frame. But, despite what I see through my lens this moment can never really be captured, not fully. It must be experienced to truly be understood.
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