Annabel, my dark-haired therapist, is enthusiastically cheering me on. Lying on my left side, my face to the wall, a long hose inserted into my bum as water is gently pumped into my colon, I refuse to look at my so-called ‘accomplishment.’ But Annabel is nonplussed.
“It’s a ten,” she sings. “The work your body is doing is amazing. Embrace it,” she is in full cheerleader mode now, and I laugh at her enthusiasm. “Gut health is so important.”
I am on day two of my three-day cleanse at We Care Spa in Hot Desert Springs California — renowned for its liquid detox (there is no caffeine, alcohol, or solid food — just oodles of hot broth, clear liquids, and green drinks to sip throughout the day), coupled with daily colonics, supplements, medicinal-focused spa treatments, infrared sauna, intensive nutrition classes, sound healing, and movement. The spa has long been a favorite of A-list celebrities (Gisele Bünchen, Reese Witherspoon, Gwen Stefani, and Heidi Klum to name a few) who come to flatten bellies before walking the red carpet, but mostly to reset their overall health and wellbeing.
This is not my first cleansing rodeo. Years ago I traveled to We Care Spa during a major life transition, and it has remained one of my all-time favorite wellness experiences. There is no other spa quite like it in the US — focused solely on gut health. But even more importantly, it works. Weight loss (one to three pounds per day), clearer skin and eyes (my eye color changed from blue to turquoise), and a new skill set to live healthier once home are among the takeaways.
Founder Susana Belan (now in her 80s) was in her own life transition when she serendipitously founded the spa in 1986. After arriving in the U.S. (from Argentina), newly divorced and with four children, stress took a toll on her health. Failing to find treatment in traditional western medicine, she sought alternative remedies including yoga, lymphatic massage, and colonics. In time, Belan (who continued to learn and train in the modalities) treated her first clients in the living room of her house, which today serves as the spa’s tranquil lounge, self-serve juice bar, and reception area.
While Belan remains active at the spa, still teaching several times a week, her daughter Susan Lombardi — who began working alongside her mother nearly four decades ago after her own health scare prompted her to leave her high-powered fashion career in New York and Paris — now serves as We Care’s owner and CEO. Lombardi’s design aesthetic — a fusion of marble, neutral tones, amethyst, and crystals created with renowned interior designer Debbie Fogel — is apparent in every corner of the 20-acre property, and most notably in the 28 new suites. Each suite comes with a deep-soaking tub (complete with a dry body brush and detox bath powder), cushy bed, and a range of amenities including a refrigerator stocked daily with fresh-pressed green, carrot, apple, and aloe juices, an in-room yoga mat, rebounder trampoline, circadian light system, air purifier, and diffuser with essential oils. Floor-to-ceiling windows spill onto an oversized patio framed by bougainvillea, lemon, and orange trees, which overlooks the surreal desert-mountain scape. While the property was completely transformed (in 2022), its original Bohemian spirit is still present in the winding gravel pathways, soulful prayer ties, Buddhist and Hindu statues, healing art installations, ancient labyrinth, and shaded meditation areas.
For all of the spa’s luxurious elegance however, it is not fluff and buff. The program is hardcore on many fronts, particularly for those reliant on coffee (i.e. myself), sugar, dairy, meat, and alcohol. Two women — one with whom I’d instantly connected with over a Detox drink (labeled the ‘scrub brush’ for its work at pulling bad toxins from the body) — left during the night in a blanket of darkness. But for those who stay — including a bevy of repeat guests who return twice annually — the long-term health benefits outweigh any initial discomfort (or fear of being hungry).
On my first morning, I awaken early to a spectacular sunrise over the desert, fill my water bottle with lemon water, pop two food enzyme supplements, and head to a 90-minute (7:30 a.m.) yoga class, featuring slow stretches designed to activate the colon. The session begins first with a meditative walk on the labyrinth where one by one, each person enters the circular stone-lined path, pausing in the center to reflect. Prior to the labyrinth walk, a few people share their intentions and reasons for coming to the desert. One is a first timer, here on the recommendation of friends “who come all of the time and swear by it.” Another has braved through stage four cancer and is coming to reset. Another is trying to have a baby and here with her partner, while still another is intent to quit smoking. I love too the story of a writer who checked in for three weeks (salads and smoothies were added to her menu) during which time she wrote an entire book, start to finish. Focus and enhanced energy are also key attributes of the experience.
While the program (and reason for embracing it) is different for each participant, its core components are the same be it a two- or seven-day stay. The cleanse itself features 12 different teas, pressed juices, soups, and shakes, along with loads of alkaline and lemon water.
“Fasting increases the efficiency of the digestive system, stimulates the organs responsible for cleansing and elimination, and triggers autophagy and antiaging at the cellular level,” says Lombardi. “Our fasting protocol provides all of the nutrients one needs while giving the five organs of elimination [skin, lungs, kidneys, colon, and liver] a rest to repair and rejuvenate tissues of the body and enhance overall healing.”
There are a lot of drinks, but to make it easy, each guest receives a printed checklist, which I was never without. Morning drinks include lemon water (taken with food enzymes), a green food drink, a Detox drink (followed by a regulator and ‘chaser’ of aloe and apple juice), two to three thermoses of water (by noon), two teas (blood purifier and liver kidney), and one probiotic (to be taken after each colonic). At noon the (very similar) mid-day drink menu commences with fresh-pressed juices added, and in the evening, there is yet another round of drinks, along with a pureed soup (i.e. zucchini, squash). Rather than stress over which drink to consume when, I saddled up to the stylish Desert Bar overlooking the pool and shared my still-left-to-drink list with the barista.
Supportive Spa Treatments
In between libations, there is yoga, time in the infrared sauna (which detoxes deep into the cells), and truly medicinal spa treatments. Every one of the 40 treatments on the spa menu (most created by Lombardi) are specifically designed to aid in the detox and elimination process. Signatures include: the System Recovery Treatment (with castor oil), Magnesium Detox, and Colon Hydrotherapy.
On a heated amethyst mat, my therapist, Donna — following a gentle full-body brushing (to stimulate the lymphatic system) — is pouring warm castor oil over my body. “Grandma’s remedy,” she laughs. “Castor oil is the most penetrating of all the oils, and is extremely healing, especially on joints and muscle aches.”
It smells lovely too. After slathering me in the magic liquid, Donna cocoons me into a body wrap designed to reduce abdominal bloating and inflammation while activating liver and bowel detox — leaving only my head and feet accessible to touch. After an intoxicating full-on scalp massage with more castor oil (optional), she moves to my feet. Normally I avoid having my feet rubbed but Donna’s apt hands dig deep with the warming oil into my feet and I’m in heaven. The next day, I opt for the (90-minute) Magnesium Detox, a wrap in mineral magnesium and aloe paste to remineralize the skin, relieve and calm overactive nerves. And every day I indulge (shyly at first, and then with great zeal) in Colon Hydrotherapy, a series of 45-minute sessions to irrigate and flush out the colon as well as the intestinal tract by breaking down and releasing accumulated toxins and other waste (including bile, mucus, and debris that may be lodged). Note: a friend of mine, during his stay here years ago, confessed ‘passing’ a silver Monopoly game piece (the car if I remember correctly) that he’d swallowed when he was six. Spiritual offerings are yet another integral part of the experience, and range from shamanic healing to breath work to reiki to numerology (which I also tried). In a sequestered yurt, I sat face to face with Ronda, soft-spoken and instantly calming, who utilized the numerical sequences of my birthday and oracle cards to reveal my life purpose and destiny.
As my stay was brief, I did not try the other (36) spa treatments, but I did take note to next time incorporate the (90-minute) Lymphatic Stimulation, a delicate, light rhythmic touch encouraging lymphatic circulation, and the (30-minute) Micro-Bubble Immersion, a soak in oxygenated water (to improve the functioning of blood vessels and release toxins) in a freestanding tub hidden deep in the gardens. Although I did love the bathing ritual I created for myself of rising with the sun each day, making a cup of yerba mate tea (which I learned contains a small amount of caffeine), and then dipping into my in-suite, deep-soaking tub laced with Detox powder.
Breaking the Fast
While the goal of a We Care stay is not weight loss, it does occur (typically one to three pounds daily). I purposefully packed my tightest black denim jeans and was delighted that, while not bagging off of me, they didn’t cut off my circulation on the long flight home. On the morning of departure, I was sent off with a beautifully prepared, fresh leafy salad with cucumbers, carrot shavings, and a homemade tahini dressing. Breaking the fast (with smoothies, salads, and the slow introduction of grains and veggies) occurs over the same number of days spent at the spa. Once the fast is broken, Lombardi recommends a healthy, mostly plant-based diet, and advocates starting each morning with a vegetable-based smoothie. Throughout the day, she advises consuming an array of vegetables, gluten-free grains such as quinoa, brown rice, and millet, legumes like lentils, garbanzos, and black beans, a range of herbs including cilantro, oregano, and rosemary, small amounts of fruit, “good” nuts (almonds, walnuts, pine nuts), and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), and beneficial oils such as olive oil and unrefined coconut oil.
She also advocates avoiding microwaved and processed foods, GMO foods, preservatives, food additives, toxic oils, alcohol, white (and brown) sugar, and coffee. Good rules of thumb: the protein on your plate should never be bigger than a fist or thicker than a deck of cards. Vegetables should comprise three quarters of the plate; and always be able to pronounce (and purchase separately) every ingredient listed on a food label.
After only three days detoxing in the desert — eating no solid foods, begging for a last-day colonic before check out, buying green food and protein powders to bring home (even though it meant checking luggage which I never do) — I have already made major shifts. Weeks post stay, my coffee cravings and caffeine crashes are gone (along with my daily Starbucks run). I’m doing more yoga, drinking more lemon water, seeking out infrared saunas, and overall, feeling more energetic. I’ve not had a drop of alcohol, dairy, meat, white flour, sugar, or caffeine. Instead I’m happily soaking wild rice and garbanzo beans overnight, roasting heavy vegetables (sweet potatoes, butternut squash), getting creative with my salads, whipping up brownies from just three ingredients: medjool dates, almond butter, and unsweetened dutch-process cocoa powder. And dreaming of my detox-in-the-desert return. But for a week next time. Or better yet, three — and write a book.
Featured image courtesy of We Care Spa