A rejuvenating visit to a Vermont retreat

‘We’re the best, most affordable spa in the country,’ says Jimmy LeSage.

Vermont 311 (photo credit: Stacey Morris)
Vermont 311
(photo credit: Stacey Morris)
KILLINGTON, Vermont – Twenty-one hikers are snaking through the winding, uphill path of one of Vermont’s fabled Green Mountains.
Some are sweating a bit as they cautiously negotiate a mini-staircase of tangled tree roots that have adhered themselves smack in the middle of the trail.
Others at the head of the pack bounce along effortlessly, chattering away as they make the ascent. And some stop to have their photo snapped – forensic evidence that they indeed walked a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
The hikers have one thing in common: The mission they’re on doesn’t center around reaching a mountain top as it does getting into better shape and cementing healthy habits into place. When the group reaches the summit it’ll enjoy a panoramic view of unspoiled mountain ranges, followed by an apple break. Then it will be time to head down to the base of the trail and back to the Inn of the Six Mountains.
During summer months, when ski season in Vermont is a distant memory, the inn becomes the base of operations for the New Life Hiking Spa, run by Jimmy LeSage, who founded it 32 years ago, the result of his own lifelong quest for better health.
“I’ve always been a hippie who was into health food and new-age philosophy,” said the 60-year-old LeSage with a smile. He combined his career as a restaurant chef with emerging trends he saw coming out of health food stores in the late 1970s.
“I figured it out the way Nathan Pritikin figured it out,” he said. “I looked at recipes that were appealing and reworked them so they had less salt and fat.”
When LeSage opened his operation 32 years ago at nearby Stratton Mountain, it was called the New Life Health Spa. There was no hiking program; only yoga, some organized walks, calisthenics classes and an austere meal plan of fewer than 1,000 calories a day. When he moved his business to the more mountainous region of Killington, LeSage renamed it the New Life Hiking Spa. The diversified terrain, he says, allows for beginner, intermediate and advanced hiking, which is the core of the spa’s fitness program.
“It’s a great cardio workout in a beautiful setting,” he added. “The key is, we make it enjoyable... people eventually forget that they’re exercising and just drink in the experience.”
LeSage has been a certified yoga instructor since 1977, when he studied at the Sivananda Yoga Center in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. Yogic principals of stretching, breathing, and quieting the mind are woven throughout the rest of the spa’s fitness regimen.
There are pool classes, Pilates, strength training, dance classes and cooking demonstrations, but the stretching, yoga and meditation are a key focal point on New Life’s fitness menu. Mornings begin with stretching and Qi Gong, followed by breakfast and a hike. After lunch comes a rotation of exercise classes followed by the pre-dinner ritual – yoga and meditation.
“I just believe that when yoga is practiced regularly, very powerful things happen,” said LeSage. “It has changed my life tremendously. I’m a Type A kind of guy and regular yoga has helped me focus and achieve my goals in life. All the stretching and breathing really builds something up.
It can’t be quantified, but it’s there.”
From his own experience in transforming his eating habits from fast and processed foods to whole foods, LeSage has come to realize that counting calories and being more vigilant with food choices are only part of the equation.
“In terms of weight, I feel the real issue is emotional,” said LeSage, who has a counseling degree. “It’s important to address what someone is eating, and also the psychological issues behind it. This isn’t the place to deal with issues with your mom, but the seed is planted.”
And seed planting is an integral part of New Life’s mission.
“It’s great that clients lose weight while they’re here, but we also give them tools to use when the leave,” he said. “Just the act of buying groceries requires education. We teach people to visit the grocery store as if it were a museum. Explore the choices so you can pick what’s real. Do you want peanut butter made with sugar or without? A whole-grain cracker or one made from white flour?” As a self-described emotional eater, LeSage says he lives by the advice he gives to his guests.
“If I stayed a chef, I’d be dead,” he says.
“Now if I graze, I choose an Ak-Mak cracker instead of a Triscuit or I’ll have an apple.
I’ve always been a seeker, and I want people on the path of better health to be seekers, too.”
New Hampshire resident Heather Stocks visited New Life for the first time last year.
As a result of adopting New Life’s nutrition and exercise principles, she dropped 75 pounds. When Stocks returned to the spa a year later for another 11-night stay, she had to reintroduce herself to LeSage when she arrived.
“I said hello to Jimmy and knew he didn’t recognize me,” she recalled with a laugh. Stocks credits LeSage’s pragmatic advice and encouragement for helping her to overcome a longtime weight issue, which she says crept up gradually during her adult years after back surgery.
“For me it was an emotional experience, going from the couch to fitness,” recalled the 40-year-old Stocks. “I sat down with Jimmy and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ He said to take it one baby step at a time.”
With some solid mentoring from the staff, Stocks went home with an exercise plan and a clear idea of healthy food choices and recipes. She used on-line resources such as www.fatsecret.com to gage proper calorie intake as her weight decreased, continued walking and hiking throughout the year, and during winter months raised her heart rate on the elliptical machine.
Karen Dalury is the spa’s general manager and a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor. She advises clients to ease away from the “all or nothing” philosophy that’s intrinsic to the dieting mentality.
“Some people come here and want the quick fix. They want fast results so they do every class; I tell them they’re not going to do all that at home,” she said. “In the long run it’s about finding balance. If someone drinks five cups of coffee a day and it’s going to make them sad to cut it out completely, why not cut back to three cups a day?” Dalury says that though New Life’s underlying message of balance runs counter to the alluring quick-fix promises of dieting, many clients find it a welcome relief from the cycle of extreme methods and hollow promises.
“We want you to be able to feel good and know what’s right for you, so you’re not dependent on diets or gimmicks,” she said. “You want to be able to check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling right now, and know how much you want on your plate, or see if it’s time to take a walk or take a nap. That’s a skill that’s going to save you in the long run.”
And Dalury said that it’s the practice of yoga and relaxation techniques that are just as crucial to the process as cardio and clean eating.
“That’s why I love yoga, because it lets you get in touch with yourself. Change isn’t going to last if you don’t peel away those coverings that keep you from feeling what’s going on. Weight loss or a new hairdo is meaningless if you don’t have peace of mind to go with it,” she said.
Not that a little external pampering is out of place at New Life. What would a spa experience be without it? For every three nights a guest is at the spa, they receive a free service. Guests booked on the 11- night weight loss retreat receive three services, which range from hot-stone massage and reflexology to cranial sacral therapy.
“We’re not fancy-schmancy... you can’t get pedicures here, but during the 18 weeks we’re open, we’re the best, most affordable spa in the country,” said LeSage.
“Back in the ’80s I wasn’t ‘in’ because I wasn’t expensive. Now we get both types of clients; people who can afford the $7,000-a-week spa and those who are looking for something they can afford.”
The cost of the 11-night weight loss retreat is $2,519, and includes accommodations, classes, three spa services and all meals. “I’ve had the same message and same price point for 30 years,” he said.
“Now we have guests from as far away as Guam and Nigeria.”
Stocks says she’s making the visit to New Life Hiking Spa an annual ritual.
“I went back again this year to get remotivated and I’ll go back next year,” she said. “The cost is economical and the quality of fitness instruction is great. There’s something about being surrounded by beauty and fresh mountain air. It’s like a vacation, and one where you come out feeling so good about yourself.”
Jimmy LeSage’s New Life Hiking Spa is open through October 3. At The Inn of the Six Mountains in Killington, Vermont. For more information on the 11-night weight loss retreats, including special discounts during certain dates, visit www.newlifehikingspa.com.
The writer is a freelancer based in Lake George, N.Y. www.staceymorris.com