VISTA, Calif. -- With the proliferation of destination spas all over the country, each of them needs something that sets it apart. The latest spa twist is Theme Week, when, in addition to the usual exercise and treatments, days are devoted to, say, yoga, beauty, culinary skills, or mother-daughter bonding.
Cal-a-Vie, a luxurious little boutique spa in the hills 40 miles north of San Diego, last year instituted Labyrinth Week, and it was so successful that it is scheduled again this year for Sept. 12-19.
Labyrinths are ancient circuitous pathways sketched, carved, laid on the ground, or set in stone floors and designed to lead a person to a central spot and back. The difference between mazes and labyrinths is that mazes contain dead ends and branching paths and lack a clear center, while labyrinths have a center reached by a single path. Once you have walked that path, you are supposed to reflect, turn around, and walk the same distance out again. A labyrinth walk can be calming and soothing and a means to reconnect to one's spiritual center.
The labyrinth's origins are unknown. What is probably the first mention appears on a small Mycenaean clay tablet found at Knossos, dating from 1400 BC. The oldest known graphic representation of a labyrinth was found in a Paleolithic tomb in Siberia, and Neolithic labyrinths are found in the most diverse locations: on the shores of the Danube and the Aegean, in Iran and the French Savoy, in Ireland, on Sardinia, in Spain and Portugal. They were drawn on figurines of the Vinca culture at Brdo, near Belgrade, 7,000 years ago, and on feminine representations found at Kirkmadrine, in Scotland. An 800-year-old medieval labyrinth was discovered in the floor at Chartres Cathedral in France, and in 1995, the first permanent labyrinth constructed in the Western Hemisphere in 600 years was installed outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, an Episcopal church.
Since then, in a massive renaissance, labyrinths have been installed in parks, schools, museums, hospitals, homes, and even jails. In 2002, Diane Winningder, a spa guest, and her daughters built the 60-foot-diameter Cal-a-Vie labyrinth using stones from the 200-acre property and setting them on the classic pattern into a gentle slope overlooking the valley. Guests are invited to walk the path at any time of the day or year, but during Labyrinth Week, all activities besides the usual exercise, hiking, and treatment routines center on labyrinths.
Rich Aquino, Cal-a-Vie's certified labyrinth facilitator and tai chi and meditation class leader, studied under the Rev. Lauren Artress of San Francisco, the person credited with bringing labyrinth work back into contemporary consciousness and who helped build the Grace Cathedral labyrinth. During last year's Labyrinth Week, Aquino played African drums while we walked the candle-lighted path on an evening with a full moon and Mars clearly visible overhead.
Aquino served as musician because Cal-a-Vie had a guest facilitator, Margaret Nicolson Martin of Metairie, La., for the week. Martin is one of the country's pioneers in resurrecting the labyrinth as a spiritual tool. She's trained and certified by Veriditas, the Worldwide Labyrinth Project at Grace Cathedral, and has published two articles on labyrinths as healing tools in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. "The labyrinth has been a huge gift in my life," said Martin, who carries a canvas replica of the Chartres labyrinth with her for use indoors when the weather prevents outdoor walking. She says she even makes labyrinths with her hands when she's at the beach.
"In its most basic form, the labyrinth is useful for stress release," Martin said. "It's also a powerful, but gentle, meditation tool for Buddhists, Catholics, atheists . . . everybody."
Martin led us on our first labyrinth walk up on the hillside, holding out her arms to the sky and showing us how to be receptive to whatever thoughts we had. "Be open to insights as you walk the path," she said.
This seemingly wise, calm, stress-free guru, who has worked with cancer patients as well as teams of corporate executives, had us keep a "labyrinth journal." And one night, we each wrote on a piece of paper the name of something that we wanted to let go of, such as unhealthy eating habits. When we got to the center of the labyrinth, which had a small fire burning, we threw our papers into the flame and "released" those habits. On another night, termed "Receiving and Filling Up Night" by Martin, we found a bowl of water and a large bouquet of red and pink roses when we got to the center.
For those who cannot physically walk the labyrinth, Cal-a-Vie keeps a small wooden finger labyrinth in its main reception room so those guests can "walk the path" with their fingers.
Each private villa, set around the swimming pool and woodsy little waterfall, is decorated in the style of Provence.
Guests can join in on everything from the intense 6 a.m. mountain hikes to the nighttime labyrinth walks, or they can hole up in their private cottage and have their meals delivered to them in private, which, we guess, is what Michelle Pfeiffer and Julia Roberts do when they stay here. (Oprah Winfrey lured away the chef for her personal cooking regimen, which was later developed into a book, but no matter. Cal-a-Vie has found a fantastic replacement in Steve Pernetti.)
The labyrinth activities were voluntary, and the week was open to men and women. If anything, labyrinth walking added a more thoughtful aspect to what otherwise was a week of intense exercise, delicious treatments in the spa's new bathhouse, and beautifully prepared, healthful food prepared according to each of our caloric wishes.
Even for those who did not receive a spiritual awakening from walking the labyrinth, the sight of the walkers slowly making their way on different points of the path, a moonlight dance silent except for the drums and a Native American flute, was a calming and mystical experience.
Julie Hatfield is a freelance writer who lives in Duxbury.