Can a yoga retreat heighten the senses and make a great meal taste even better? Writer Sandra Tsing Loh finds out at an Arizona spa.
Over the last 30 years in America, we have had Iyengar yoga, ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga, hot yoga, power yoga, prenatal yoga and whatever kinds of yoga Madonna and Sting practice (is tantric sex involved?). Now, thankfully, yoga-and-lifestyle guru David Romanelli has introduced Yoga for Foodies, debuting at the Enchantment Resort in America's New Age mecca, Sedona, Arizona. Hello, gorgeous! Opening the brochure, I immediately experience a profound state of relaxation. This program looks doable, even for novices like me. The three-night retreat includes morning and afternoon yoga sessions, followed by a wine or chocolate tasting or even a three-course meal. I'm used to ending class by chanting "om" and "shanti," not by comparing the scent of a Cabernet to a Tuscan blend.
Weeks later, with a glass of Shiloh Road Cabernet in hand as the sun fades over the spectacular red rocks of Boynton Canyon, I know that no less than a miracle is about to occur. I have flown to Arizona, and I am going to fall in love with yoga in less than a week. I have long had a block about yoga. Understand that, in my hometown of Los Angeles, yoga is a scarily competitive sport led by flexible, willowy actresses and models (thank you for finding your zen, Christy Turlington) who look beautiful at 9 a.m. on a weekday without makeup and (what's with those yoga-top spaghetti straps?), apparently, without a bra. Their reward: water. My promised reward—great food and wine—sounds a whole lot better.
Before dinner our first night, we reassuringly human-size yoga foodies shake off our travel tensions and begin sharing our stories while snacking on pita triangles and hummus. "I'm not a yoga expert or a foodie," confesses a woman from Memphis, whose true inner focus is on body wraps. A Broadway stage manager from Manhattan was drawn to the resort's astonishingly tranquil setting, along with the prospect of finally finishing Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. By contrast, a hard-driving woman from Chicago came here for the burn. She wears a T-shirt that reads "Bikini Boot Camp," which makes me think of the Russ Meyer film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (I cite this creaky reference as an illustration of my age and, by extension, the stiffness of my hips.) We have all done just enough yoga to be a wee bit hounded by guilt over all the yoga we should be doing. As we swap yoga pet peeves, our dinner is served. The phrase spa food often causes me to panic, but a waiter presents us with plump blackened scallops wrapped in serrano ham, followed by salt-rubbed filet mignon. The accompanying wine helps blur the calorie counts, dutifully footnoted on the menu.Courtesy of Mark Lipczynski
The next morning, we convene in the movement studio at 9 a.m., ceding the floor to our leader, the sandy-blond, charismatic David Romanelli. Trained in ashtanga-based vinyasa yoga by various well-known gurus, Romanelli wants to spread the practice to as many people as possible by taking a less virtuous, more lighthearted approach to teaching. Around the time he co-founded At One Yoga in Phoenix in 1998, his college friend Katrina Markoff was starting Vosges Haut-Chocolat. They noticed that Markoff was combining chocolate with unconventional ingredients (wasabi, curry, chiles) while Romanelli was fusing yoga with his own unconventional passions (his iPod mixes for "downward dogs" include Dave Matthews, the Grateful Dead, Wilco and Willie Nelson). Yoga + Chocolate came to life in 2004 with a retreat the two of them led in Oaxaca, Mexico. This evolved into Yoga + Wine programs the next year after Romanelli collaborated with sommelier and Bliss Flow Yoga studio founder Angela Gargano. Last year, Romanelli started working with chefs like Jonathon Sawyer, Dean Fearing and Ming Tsai to host three-hour food-and-yoga sessions around the country. The Arizona weekend is his first multiday Yoga for Foodies retreat.
Romanelli's nickname, "Yeah Dave," comes from his posing so many hypothetical "What would you do if?" questions in college that all his fraternity brothers eventually stopped trying to answer and instead began responding with, "Yeah, Dave." Yeah Dave starts class by clicking his iPod to Soulfood's "Om" (soft chanting against a gentle house beat) and having us all lie down on our mats. He starts telling us he believes that each day, humans should experience three things: a beautiful moment, a funny moment and a delicious moment. His aim is to get us there.
I'm quite sure I can accomplish all three things daily without even having to get out of bed. But here comes the turn. Sure, Yeah Dave's surf-dude comedy patter is deceptively mellow: "This is a really complex yoga pose called…"— dramatic pause—"Bending Your Knees." Without any impending sense of worry—because who can worry to tunes from the Grateful Dead?—we bend our knees. Almost as an afterthought, Yeah Dave suggests we rest our chests on our knees and stretch our arms out before us into chair pose. No problem. However, now Yeah Dave launches into a lengthy childhood story about camping, while our thighs quietly burst into flames. He eventually interrupts himself to acknowledge we may be feeling a burn. Just for four more counts. "One…Two…Three…Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, says, 'Some experiences that are crucial to our maturity cannot be sped up and are only possible if they occur slowly.' " Yes, Surf Nazi! Terrific! Ever heard of the word four?
F&W Best New Chef 2005 Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (left) practices yoga five days a week, alternating 90-minute Vinyasa flow sessions with Bikram (hot) yoga.
Eighty minutes later, I am bewildered: I have never come out of a yoga class that felt like a one-man stand-up show—albeit one peppered with quotes by Kafka and Khalil Gibran and yes, even childhood nostalgia—so sweaty and exhausted. Our reward after class is what Romanelli calls "slow food." We are immediately led downstairs to the library, still wearing our yoga togs, our minds calm and receptive.
Chef Steve Sicinski of Enchantment's Mii Amo spa is the first to admit that his job poses a conundrum. Channeling his inner Yeah Steve, he confides that he struggles with the whole notion of a spa menu. Having trained at Le Cordon Bleu, he sometimes chafes at spa limitations. Where is the red meat, the pasta, the butter? (His wife insists that at home, off "spa chef" duty, he cooks with an almost frantic amount of butter.) Another challenge is finding local ingredients in the desert. His creative solutions range from a tart prickly pear margarita to a deeply smoky seafood chowder which, while clearly not drawn from indigenous foods, feels—in spirit—appealingly Southwestern.
That said, the first Mii Amo tasting plate I see looks like my basic spa nightmare: a fancy tangle of greens on a slightly too-large plate. There appear to be jicama, watercress, pomegranate seeds and lots of citrus. I remind myself that I should be extremely glad, at that moment, not to be squatting in chair position. I should be glad to be eating anything. I recall Yeah Dave's Carlo Petrini reading from class. "Some experiences that are crucial to our maturity cannot be sped up." OK. I take a small bite. I breathe. The theme of our tasting is "Small Bites, Huge Flavor," which is exactly what this salad delivers with its navel oranges, red grapefruit and touch of lime zest.
The afternoon yoga session ends with a wine-and-chocolate tasting led by Enchantment Resort executive chef Ted Cizma. Before a roaring fire, as the orange sky turns to indigo above the canyons outside, we perch on couches next to the indoor pool. Each of us is handed a glass of 2007 Potel-Aviron Chénas Vieilles Vignes. Cizma tells us that this is a premier cru Beaujolais, not the fruit-punchy Beaujolais Nouveau many of us are familiar with. We are told to smell the wine, sip the wine and then bite into the 12-year-aged balsamic vinegar–infused dark-chocolate Vosges truffle on our plates. We have tasting sheets to scribble our first impressions but are also encouraged to call out the smells and tastes we identify. Our next pairing is the 2008 Arizona Stronghold Mangus, an Arizona-produced Super-Tuscan style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, with—what?—dark-chocolate Taleggio cheese truffles? Cheese and chocolate? Such juxtapositions (in such small amounts) make me really stop and think about what I'm tasting. Maybe it's the wine, but I've entered a deeper state of relaxation, even bliss. It didn't hurt that the chef also put out an antipasto tray with a selection of cheeses and Italian salumi, which I'm pretty sure was not quite spa-ready. Is it possible that I have already reached foodie yoga nirvana?Courtesy of Mark Lipczynski
For the rest of the weekend I learn new yoga postures, new food-and-wine pairings and even some healthy cooking tips. The endless flow of sun salutations that I once dreaded actually doesn't seem as bad when I know my reward will be a lunch of superfresh ahi rolls (I have them every day) and, yes, an amazingly meaty buffalo burger. Dinner, usually a rushed affair back home, becomes the most reflective moment of the day, with dishes like rigatoni with a hearty chile-chorizo Bolognese sauce and a mushroom soup that tastes as if it had been made with cream (the secret involves a painstaking process of boiling potatoes until they become mushy and combining them with nonfat milk). I almost feel like I should be going to a spa after indulging in such great meals. Then again, there's nothing like a few downward dogs to stretch the stomach.
Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of Mother on Fire. She is a contributing editor to The Atlantic.
Yoga Retreats for Foodies: Where Downward Dogs Meet Food and Wine
Yoga master David Romanelli combines yoga with other passions: Food, Wine and Music.
Yoga + Food
In January, Romanelli started hosting monthly three-hour Yoga for Foodies sessions with guest chefs at New York City's Culinary Loft. $95.
Yoga + Wine
This spring, Romanelli and Angela Gargano's Napa Valley yoga retreat will include tastings at wineries like Robert Sinskey and a wine dinner at Bottega restaurant. May 26–29; yeahdave.com.
Yoga + Music
Romanelli will lead workshops on food, music and yoga at the Yoga Rocks the Mountains Festival in Snowmass, Colorado. July 15–17; yogarocks.info.