A Spa Pain-Relief Workshop to Nix Migraines, Pain, and More

Scenic Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley (Mohonk Mountain House Spa and Resort)

It seems like only yesterday that my pals and I used to get together over a glass of Pinot Grigio and giggle about dating. These days, we’re drinking some awful green kale concoction and someone’s worried about tennis elbow, migraines,….don’t even get me started on my foot pain. I could go on for hours about my foot pain! But could anything be more boring and depressing? That’s why I jumped at the chance to go to “Tame the Pain Weekend” at Mohonk Mountain House — so I can become a better conversationalist. And maybe, just maybe, to find a solution to my chronic leg spasms.

I’ve had foot problem since — well, almost every woman I know over 25 has them. (Which is why I think we saw the “ugly shoe” trend last year — designers with mangled feet were looking for something comfortable to wear.) I’ve tried everything from orthopedists, neurologists, and chiropractors, to a host of docs who’s, er, pedi-gree I forget. So I had nothing to loose by going to Mohonk for lessons about how to breathe my pain away.

Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley is one of the most beautiful properties in the Northeast. A sprawling Victorian castle overlooking a lake, Mohonk boasts 85 miles of woodland hiking trails, boating, swimming, horseback riding, ice skating, and more, making it one of the few places that’s equally fun to visit no matter the season. Their popular theme weekends like “Rock Climbing,” or a “Photographer’s Getaway” are augmented by mindfulness workshops, which, like Tame the Pain, are aimed at teaching participants how to work the mind-body connection. Still, as I consider the idea of spending a total of nine hours cooped up in a room with other pain-wracked guests, I’m wishing I’d signed up for the “Chocolate Lover’s Retreat.”

Related: Escape from New York to the Must-See Spa at Connecticut’s Mayflower Grace

My husband Martin (shoulder injury, biking accident) is joining me too — and while I’m a skeptic, Martin outright dismisses all new age-y cures as hokey. But if I have to do the Tinkerbell thing (“Clap if you believe”), if this isn’t going to work, then it isn’t going to work either of us together.

Husband-and-wife doctors Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg are leading the workshop. There are about a dozen participants, whose complaints include injuries, insomnia, and stress; a few people, like us, are first timers, others have come for tune-ups with Brown and Gerbarg. When Dr. Gerbarg announces that they have assistants called “breath angels” scattered around the room to help us with exercises, I cringe. As we begin “learning how to breathe,” I wonder if that isn’t something I’ve been doing naturally since birth, when the OB/GYN smacked me on the tush and I let out my first wail.

The author during the workshop (Lynn Shnurnberger)

Apparently not. Or at least not in a way that ensures peak performance. Over the course of the weekend we practice the “ha” breath to increase alertness; “coherent breathing,” which slows breathing down to about five breaths a minute — as opposed to the usual 12 to 20 — for relaxation; and a technique called “ocean breath,” which is especially easy for people who snore to master— Martin is a Ninja. We learn movements to improve joint mobility and increase circulation and “open focus attention training,” a meditative practice aimed at dissolving physical and emotional pain.

By the fire at Mohonk (Mohonk Mountain House Spa and Resort)

As we leave the lecture room for a break, a group of children looking like mini-Michelin men in snowsuits are running toward the line for the bus to the ski lift; another group — in nothing but bathing suits — are hurtling toward the pool. We have massages in Mohonk’s luxurious spa, a unique retreat which features the most extraordinary views and relaxation areas. Later, Martin ventures out to go snowshoeing and animal tracking while I contentedly sit by a fire, reading and watching what amounts to an iconic Currier & Ives winter scene through the window.

My pain it isn’t cured after the two and a half day workshop, but nobody said that it would be. And I’ve learned some techniques that I think will be helpful. And Drs. Gerbarg and Brown very generously give up their free time to meet with each of us for private consultations. They are the real deal.

As for Martin, during a meditation, my non-believer, science-minded husband had what can only be called a mystical experience: without any prompting, Martin imagined his long-dead father coming toward him and embracing him in a bear hug. I didn’t have any spiritual encounters, but I did have a sexy one. When we were told to partner up, shut our eyes and lightly caresses each other’s fingertips, I found myself swaying to the music with, er, abandon. (I can only hope that everyone in the room really did really close their eyes.)

Related: How Going to a Spa Helped Me Heal My Relationship With My Mom

Dr. Brown says that there’s a Japanese phrase that translates to “taking in the woods,” explaining that being in nature stimulates the parasympathetic system, which serves to relax and slow us down. Being at Mohonk to “Tame the Pain” or for any mindfulness weekend, sounds like a perfect combination of place and plan to remedy what ails many of us — whether it’s a specific ache and pain or just the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Martin and I had our doubt, but Drs. Brown and Gerbarg have another program scheduled at Mohonk the weekend of June 12 and we just may check in for a refresher. I practiced my breathing exercise on the subway this morning and was so becalmed that I almost missed my stop. Besides, now that I’m not focused on complaining, my conversation decidedly has gotten better — all of my friends are curious to hear about our weekend.

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