By Amiee White Beazley | May 22, 2015 | Lifestyle
The “Aspen Idea” has taken on a new meaning around town. As both locals and A-list visitors alike invest in mind, body, and spirit, town’s shared ideals and communal efforts all point to modern-day Aspen’s elevated status: “the city of well-being.”
According to Aspen Yoga Society founder Gina Murdock, “Aspen is one of those unique places in the world that’s got ‘it’—intentionality that is beyond the physical. It’s as if the place is urging us to elevate ourselves as beings.”
It’s summertime on Aspen Mountain. The red and black cars of the Silver Queen Gondola ascend at a quick clip to my right, moving in a near-silent hum overhead as I trod upward on the single track. I’ve been hiking up this mountain, via the Ute Trail, for more than an hour. I know the top is near, but today, it can’t come soon enough. Step by step, it feels as though the route will go on forever, until I crest that last mound of tall grass, wild flowers, and conifers, and there is nothing more to see but open sky and mountains—everywhere, mountains. In Aspen, where the buildings, people, and priorities change with every generation, the mountains never do. In Aspen, the mountains remain the same. I close my eyes, breathe in the fresh air, and offer gratitude, with my mind, body, and spirit aligned.
“The mountaintops were sacred places for the Uncompahgre Utes,” says Skyler Lomahaftewa, the only known Ute Native American still residing in the Roaring Fork Valley, which stretches from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. This faction of the Ute tribe, led by the famous Chief Ouray, once called Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley its summer home, an area ripe with elk and edible plants. “My ancestors would hike to the top of Aspen Mountain, starting where the Ute Trail is today, and perform ceremonies on the peaks. I still go to the top of the mountains, and sometimes I make a small offering—whatever it takes to connect with the Creator. The peaks, the high places—to the Utes these places are holy and they have the power to heal.”
In our modern age, Aspenites trying to define and attain wellness may not have to look far beyond the ways of the Utes, who fostered a way of life rooted in connectivity with their land, its food, the spirits, and each other. Nearly 140 years after the Meeker Massacre and the forcible removal of the Utes from their primal lands, people in the Roaring Fork Valley have only now begun resurrecting Ute ways of life, and perhaps unknowingly, in our pursuit of wellness.
After the removal of the Utes, silver miners and ranchers took over the valley’s lands, and Aspen, along with the rest of the valley, became many things to many people. When Aspen Institute founders Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke came to the area in the 1940s, they propelled the image of Aspen as a place to elevate mind, body, and spirit. “The Aspen Idea,” as it is called, became the foundation on which modern Aspen was built. Today, we interpret that theory, the equal nourishment of mind, body, and spirit, in a kind of shorthand: wellness.
But true wellness is difficult to identify, because every person has a distinct sense of what well-being means and how it’s achieved, says Emily Hightower, an Aspen-based holistic nutritionist and master yoga teacher. But in the Roaring Fork Valley, a common denominator of wellness is the outdoors.
“One of the reasons the Roaring Fork Valley is a destination for wellness is that there is access to nature in a profound way,” says Hightower. “The whole Paepcke theory of mind, body, and spirit naturally includes that connection to nature.”
Her point speaks to how Aspen’s pedigree of wellness, and its availability to the outdoors, has attracted leaders in industry, Hollywood stars, and international tastemakers since the 1950s. Indeed, the streets of Aspen are graced with celebrity all year round—lately, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, super-producer David Geffen, cosmetics giant Leonard Lauder, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich have all made the valley their full-or part-time home—but little hype surrounds it. Everyone, together, is more interested in Aspen itself, what the calm and the mountains help provide: respite, whether temporary or permanent, and peace.
For Eaden Shantay, the owner of True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale, a campus focusing on the mind-body-spirit connection, his journey to wellness came to fruition only upon moving to the valley. “There is a sense of place and groundedness, energy, and vitality here,” he says. “Nature is such a big part of life. As a result, it has attracted a lot of people who have a real connection to nature, an adventurous spirit, and an athletic spirit.” For some, like Antonio Banderas, the valley actually forged such a connection where there wasn’t one before. Banderas first got on a pair of skis some 15 years ago, and quite reluctantly. Shortly afterward, he began feeling an intrinsic connection to the land and the sport (and immediately began looking for a house in Aspen). Today, along with actress Kate Walsh, another Aspen regular who grew up far away from snow covered mountains, Banderas is intimately involved with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, the valley’s oldest and largest youth nonprofit dedicated to connecting kids with the mountains that define this region.
“With the trees and the land, and the rivers and air, a huge part of wellness speaks to our connection with earth and Mother Nature,” adds Shantay. It brings us into balance and alignment. When you live here, you can find yourself in the natural rhythms of the earth.”
According to Ute elder Kenny Frost, sacred Ute places can be found throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, from the Maroon Bells to the most important site in Ute culture, the hot springs in Glenwood. Frost himself visits Glenwood Springs once a month to lead traditional sweating ceremonies. “Glenwood Springs was the heart of Ute country because of its hot springs and vapor caves,” he says. “This was a sacred place to heal physical ailment and sickness, and it was a place for spirituality.” Ute tribe members would often sit in sweat lodges in or around Glenwood, he says, or go on vision quests in the mountains. Today, Frost travels from his home in Durango to lead monthly “sweats” at the Yampah Vapor Caves. He hopes that by reintroducing Ute traditions, the history and ceremony of the area’s native people will be perpetuated. “Sweating is for healing, for finding peace within [one’s self], for fostering a special connection to the spirit and the Creator and to good will, and for the cleansing of one’s body,” he says.
Aspenites achieve mindfulness via hatha yoga on the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain.
In Aspen, caring for the body and the spirit are often one and the same. This connection to a higher power comes in many forms. For some it is skiing or hiking. For others the connection happens through the practice of yoga. “Wellness is an energetic and emotional satisfaction and physical vitality,” says Gina Murdock, founder of the Aspen Yoga Society, who, along with her husband Jerry, sponsors the Mind, Body, Spirit Series at The Aspen Institute. “A lot of the work I’ve been doing is about self-inquiry and healing unresolved issues that block the divine light of who we are as beings.”
The Murdocks started the Aspen Yoga Society first as an addendum to The Aspen Institute’s summer programming before expanding it as a way to further knit the Aspen community together. Fortunately for Murdock, and the valley at large, the Aspen community includes wellness advocates like part-time Aspenite and Academy Award-winning actress Goldie Hawn. Hawn was the keynote speaker at a Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series event last December, where she discussed her MindUP initiative, a social and emotional literacy curriculum and training programming serving children across five continents. Such social-emotional learning has already been adopted in schools throughout the valley.
“My dream was to integrate this ‘Aspen Idea’ more into what [the Institute] was doing,” says Murdock. “[During its programs,] I found myself mentally over-stimulated, physically under-stimulated, and not connected spiritually. The Mind, Body, Spirit Series and [yoga offerings during the Ideas Festival] have been very successful at expanding and integrating the spirit element.”
To help launch the series, Murdock called on author and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, whom she brought to Aspen to introduce the Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative, which measures the effects of body-mind practices, such as yoga, and the food we eat on genetic activity. The initiative will use these measurements—the products, essentially, of a kind of wellness algorithm—to help define wellness in Aspen, and work to increase it. It was Chopra—a board-certified internist and author of more than 80 books, including 22 New York Times bestsellers—after all, who first challenged Aspen to become “the City of Well-being,” an identification Murdock has since continued to promote.
“Aspen is special in that it has this history of being cultivated as a cultural center, a place where the human spirit can flourish,” she says. “Aspen is not just a ski town. It attracts people who are adventurers, broad thinkers, and influential world leaders. Aspen is one of those unique places in the world that’s got ‘it’—intentionality that is beyond the physical. It’s as if the place is urging us to elevate ourselves as beings.”
“I want to solidify Aspen as a healthy and beautiful mecca for this mind-body-spirit exploration,” Murdock adds. “‘The City of Well-being’ is something that [can] create resources for people, [to engage] in a more vibrant, thriving city.”
Michael Fox, CEO of The Aspen Club & Spa, is betting on Aspen growing as a wellness destination by creating a resort and residence club focused on health and well-being. Professional athletes as well as big-and small-screen icons—from professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez and Olympians Chris Klug, Bode Miller, and Gretchen Bleiler to journalist Katie Couric and actor Will Smith—already flock to the Aspen Club for its brand of holistic wellness. “We want to help people feel better, perform better, get younger, and activate their dreams,” he says of the soon-to-be-upgraded health club and spa, which will add 20 new residence-hotel units and is set to open in 2017.
“I am fully convinced there is a special magic in Aspen—a special energy here,” says Fox. “Every time I fly from somewhere else, I take that first step toward the tarmac, and I get a rush. It just feels different. That’s the energy of Aspen that compels people to think about health and how to live exceptional lives. We are building on that energy—adding a layer of health, performance, and wellness programming.”
Whether it is the energy of the mountains that fuels the spirit, the local, organic food that fuels the body, or the practices of mindfulness, yoga, and meditation that soothe the mind, bringing these three pursuits together, in balance, is what Aspen is all about.
photography by gareth MccorMack (hot springs); courtesy of aspen skiing company/daniel bayer (sundeck)