Writer Shilo Urban shares her journey to wellness with a trip to the Sedona Mago Center
Story and photography by Shilo Urban
Our writer’s path to wellness begins inauspiciously with McShame, but leads to healing at the Mago Retreat Center in Sedona, Arizona
“Shake HARDER!” A tiny Korean woman urges me to dance while drumbeats echo around the room. Laughter erupts from my eight classmates as we try to keep up with her. I twist my hips from side to side as fast as I can, attempting to release the stagnant energy in my abdomen. I don’t think about how silly I look; I don’t think about anything. I just shake harder.
I’ve never considered myself a crystals-and-chakras type. Yet here I am at a wellness retreat in the global epicenter of alternative healing: Sedona, Arizona. Travelers flock to this counterculture outpost for its fabled energy vortexes and their curative powers, along with spectacular red rock scenery and a vibrant artistic community. Holistic treatments proliferate, from aura readings and Ayurvedic medicine to yoga camps and crystal therapy. Fancy hotels offer extravagant spa salons and luxurious shopping packages.
But I’m not looking for a new hairstyle or an afternoon of retail therapy. I’m not seeking indulgence or distraction. I’m seeking wellness — real wellness — and a fresh perspective to fuel my healing journey.
My search leads to Sedona Mago Center, a high-desert oasis about 20 miles west of town. Encircled by mountains in Coconino National Forest, the non-profit organization has a simple mission: Love humanity and the earth by helping people create health, happiness and peace through ancient energy practices. After booking Mago’s Sedona Wellness Retreat, I’m excited … and apprehensive. I remind myself to keep an open mind.
Day 1: A Leap of Faith
My quest for greater well-being started inauspiciously: at McDonald’s. Running late at DFW Airport, I grab a fast-food breakfast and then assuage my McShame by reading a bio of Buddha on the plane. It’s all about balance, right? At the Phoenix airport, anxiety sets in. I know precious little about what awaits me. Will I be sitting in the lotus position with my eyes closed all week? Will we eat seaweed and tofu every meal? Did I pack enough chocolate … and should I buy a foot-long Toblerone at the duty-free store?
I arrive to find Mago Center in autumn splendor. Pomegranate trees bulge with fruit and pine needles crunch underfoot. Yellow flowers flash against indigo skies. Leaves seem to be changing colors before my eyes, green to gold to coppery brown. Fragrant rosemary bushes and burgundy berries abound.
Following the sound of rushing water, I come upon a small group of deer, three big ones and a little guy. They pause to check me out, unafraid, and return to lapping water from a pond. We’re in the Healing Garden, a serene sanctuary with gushing fountains and a wind-stirred weeping willow. Purple prickly pears grow beside wooly white scrub grass. I clamber up a nearby hill and encounter a stunning sight: sunset over Sedona. A fiery glow lights up the ruddy mountains beyond, now ablaze in brilliant pink and orange.
I’m so mesmerized I almost miss dinner. I need not have worried about the retreat’s pescatarian cuisine (vegetables and seafood), which flies high with fantastic flavors and natural ingredients. Every meal is cooked with finesse. We have pad thai, ginger-citrus salmon and cheese enchiladas. Salad dressings are scratch-made and even basic dishes like roast potatoes taste like something special.
At the welcome session, we receive an overview of the program and blank journals for the days ahead. I amble back to my “casita” accommodation, whose low-slung aesthetic evokes the area’s rose-colored landscape. My minimalist room is spic and span and somewhat Spartan, with no phone, TV or Wi-Fi.
The night is tranquil and dark, so dark. No children are raising a ruckus, no car engines humming, no slamming doors — there are only stars. The Milky Way splashes across the heavens like the dust of a half-remembered dream. I feel dizzy, almost high. Is Sedona’s famous energy sinking in? Or is it the immense natural beauty all around me? The fatigue from a long day of travel … or maybe just that third piece of garlic bread at dinner? I crash into bed.
Day 2: Physical Wellness
“I love you, my liver.” I’ve never said that before, or even thought it. We stretch by the pond in the morning sunshine and pat down our bellies, our legs and our livers. Such tapping is new to me, but people have been softly slapping their bodies for thousands of years in Asia. It’s a traditional healing philosophy that aims to balance one’s vital energy, also called chi or qi. When your chi cannot flow freely, pain and disease may result. It’s human nature to avoid pain, but it’s more than a symptom to overcome. It’s a message from your body. Take care of me. I’m out of balance.
Before today, I’d never given my gut much appreciation. I either ignored it completely or castigated it as too round or too weak for spicy food. But I was learning to love it — and learning a key energy principle at Mago: Keep your head cool and your abdomen warm. Water up, fire down.
Which is why I’m shaking harder. Harder! Master MJ Kim leads us in a vigorous round of “organ dancing” to stimulate warmth, circulation and energy flow. We have five instructors, but MJ is our main mentor. All of them radiate compassion and sincerity, whether they’re meditating beside us or guiding us through our pain.
Each day we practice qigong together, a gentle exercise of flowing movements that’s similar to tai chi. We breathe deeply and bring our palms close together. “Can you feel the energy between your hands?” asks MJ. My classmates nod and murmur their assent … but I don’t feel anything. It’s probably just their body heat, I think to myself. I’m disappointed. But I’m also reassured by one feeling that’s undeniable: Everyone around me is trying hard to create positive energy in the world.
Day 3: Emotional Wellness
Calming your mind through meditation is one thing; dealing with the difficult emotions that bubble up through the stillness is another. I stand at the bottom of a rock staircase that leads up the hill by the Healing Garden. It has 120 steps, one for each year of life. We’re asked to reflect on every year as we ascend, pausing whenever we need to. I’m taken off guard by the poignancy of my emotions as I connect with my inner child and climb through the teenage years. We move up the hill in fits and starts. Some steps are heavy with hurt, and I’m overcome with compassion and admiration for my sensitive younger self. My pocket fills with soggy tissues.
When I reach step 45, my current age, I turn around to contemplate my journey so far — and I’m shocked to see a two-story golden statue shining on a ridge nearby. How did I possibly miss it before? I’ve watched two sunrises and a sunset from this same hill, feasting my eyes on the view … yet I never noticed a giant, gleaming beacon in the middle of it all? Laughing in delight at my discovery, I continue up the staircase and picture a world of possibilities ahead.
We journal every morning and night, answering challenging questions. What do you want to change but find difficult because you keep repeating old patterns? To get through life, what kind of character did you build?
Exercises and mindfulness practices are also interwoven throughout our days. I realize I’ve been meditating the hard way at home, sitting frozen in total silence and blanking out my brain — or rather, trying to and failing.
At Mago, meditation and mindfulness take many forms. We walk barefoot on a sand path around the pond, stones balanced atop our heads to help us focus. We relax by waterfalls and imagine the sound washing away our negative energy. We wrap our inner children in loving light. We thank our bodies and feel the energy between our hands — well, other people feel it—and embark on dreamlike excursions into sound healing.
Day 4: Spiritual Wellness
The Mago Center attracts all kinds of people: young and old, couples and singles, newbies and returning guests, criers (me) and dry-eyed stoics. I meet women wearing purple and men watching football on their phones in the Wi-Fi lounge. Seekers, sufferers and the simply lost. We converge over breakfast in the dining hall. No phones are out on the tables; people are eschewing the scroll for the present moment. It’s ridiculously refreshing to see.
There’s a certain lightness in the air as our group starts the day with qigong on a waterfall-top platform. We can see the entire Healing Garden and its pond below. Yesterday, we reflected year-by-year on our lives, and today we’ll do the opposite by taking a big-picture perspective.
Our view expands even further at the labyrinth, a swirling stone pattern perched on a nearby overlook. Red-blue mountains stretch across the far horizon. What have you lived for thus far? We ponder the answer as we walk into the labyrinth, meeting Master MJ in the middle. She rings a bell and poses a new question for our outward trip. What will you live for from now on? One word bounces around my brain: create, create, create.
After lunch, we dance out any lingering self-doubt, beat our chests and scream “I am enough!” I’m long past the point of feeling self-conscious. I just feel good. Thankful, and excited about the future. Each day ends with a self-healing session, but this time we direct our energy outward toward a classmate. The nine of us are no longer strangers, but friends. Deep in meditation, I bring my hands together and sense something heavy between them. I feel it! I feel the cosmic energy! It’s not body heat at all. It’s electric, and it grows bigger as I focus. Is it all in my mind? Maybe. But the mind is a powerful thing, whether you’re pursuing your goals or healing disease.
Day 5: Release
Bright orange koi fish cluster in the pond before us as we stretch together one last time. Across the water, three big deer and a little one climb down to have a drink. They look familiar — it’s the group I saw when I first arrived. The deer are the same, but I am not. I’m more connected to nature, to my body and emotions. I feel like I’ve had several years of therapy in five days; I’ve gained confidence along with practical self-care tools to alleviate future stress. Will I continue the mind-body exercises and meditation? Only time will tell. But I will carry in my heart forever the deeper awareness and self-acceptance I have found out here in the desert under the red rock cliffs of Sedona.