The Body is at Home: A comparison of Holistic Learning Centers

By Margaret Critchlow (formerly Rodman), York University, Toronto

Draft 10 Feb 2008 for comment prior to final revision for publication

On a broad, sun-drenched rock overlooking Cortes Bay, a day’s journey and three ferry rides from Vancouver, internationally acclaimed yoga instructor, Rodney Yee, assumes a triangle pose for the camera. In a DVD promoting Hollyhock, one of the holistic centers I’ve been studying, Yee says, ”Hollyhock is a special retreat center to come to for a yoga teacher. The body is at home right away. … For Hollyhock to have ongoing yoga classes and ongoing meditation really sets the fertile ground to give a person time to let all the busy-ness of their normal life drop away.”1

What makes the body at home at Hollyhock? A physician in the DVD says, “I think it’s because nature is part of who I am. So being here is like coming home.”  An author delights in ”The full moon when it comes shining on the ocean, and the old growth forest and the walks in the woods. But still, even though you can name the parts, you can’t name the magic of it.”

Here I want to explore the magic of places like Hollyhock, holistic centers that I have been studying since 2004. I have visited The Haven as well as Hollyhock near Vancouver Island, Mount Madonna, Spirit Rock, and Harbin Hot Springs in California, Omega in New York state, Naropa University in Colorado, and  Kalani in Hawaii. For this brief paper, I will focus mainly on Hollyhock, Mount Madonna, and Kalani. All the places in the study advertise simple but comfortable accommodation, nutritious and tasty food, spectacular scenery, and outdoor recreational opportunities. But their orientations are diverse: for example, Mount Madonna is centered on a yogic guru, while Kalani was started by two dancers to celebrate Hawaii, nature, culture and wellness.

These centers vary in size, longevity, community, spiritual practice, and clientele, but they connect and cooperate with each other. Most send representatives to the annual Holistic Centers Gathering, or conference, which I attended in 2006 and 2007. The centers are part of a holistic movement, seeing all beings, the planet, the universal energy as interconnected and interdependent. Holism, the idea that any system is greater than the sum of its parts and that the parts make sense only in terms of the whole, identifies both what these centers DO and what they ARE. What they DO is to offer a range of programs that integrate health, spirituality, consciousness, and social/environmental issues.  Some offer membership in a holistic residential
community. How they describe what they ARE is similarly holistic:

A “noble vision lives at the core of most centers and changes for the better the lives of the many thousands who attend their programs. Holistic centers always take courage, inspiration and insight from each other’s work. Ultimately they know that their very existence worldwide is powerful evidence that the awakening for which we all yearn is alive and well, and probably living in a center near you” (Ralph White cited October 19, 2007).

This evokes the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and 1820s which empowered individuals to save themselves and American society through spiritual action. A third era of unrest and reform, the cultural politics and intentional communities of the 1960s and 70s, helped shape today’s holistic centers. Now the centers have new and important roles to play in personal, cultural, and environmental transformation.  Each center is a contemporary version of the revolutionary City on a Hill, a beacon intended to enlighten and emanate positive energy in times of profound social change.

Positive energy includes pleasurable energy. All the centers recognize that play and creativity are important ways of creating positive energy. The prime mover at Mount Madonna, Baba Hari Dass advises, “Work honestly. Meditate everyday. Meet people without fear. And play.”2 The play of creativity, especially dance, is a powerful force at Kalani. Hollyhock’s mission is to  “inspire, nourish and support people who are making the world better,” 3 and this involves lots of walks in the woods, kayak trips, and time in the seaside hot tubs.

Space for Time

Social scientists have tried to name the magic that transforms clients at spas. Tom O’Dell  pointed to the importance of creating a disjunctive time and space, isolated from such outside disturbances as cell-phones.  “Lacing the presentation of their spaces with a degree of spirituality” heightens the magical quality of some spas (O’Dell 2005b:26) . He noted the importance of special waters, of healing touch, of ritual, of a sense of sanctuary. As we shall see, holistic centers manifest magical strategies similar to spas, but with greater opportunities for transformations that are more than skin deep.

The first element of the magic is making space for time. Pleasure, at all the centers, is predicated on slowing down, and thus on experiencing time very differently to the rapid pace of most of the guests’ daily lives. All of these centers make space for time a priority – time out from work or school, time to reflect, time to heal, time for new possibilities.  For those on personal retreats, there is even plenty of time to do absolutely nothing, but most guests come for programs: examples from Hollyhock include, puppetry, celtic voice, media that matters, or the social change institute as well as yoga. Mount Madonna’s programs include yoga, ayurvedic medicine, and popular spiritual presenters like Adyashanti. Kalani offers a wide variety of dance and yoga programs, some specifically for gay men and others aimed at women and heterosexual couples. A sampler of 2007 workshops: creative writing, couples in paradise, contra dancing, yoga and salsa, tantra, belly dancing, and nude yoga.

Ironically, even such programs as meditation retreats structure time carefully to make space for slowing down. A highly structured time-table and the internalized discipline to show up are essential to achieving goals of relaxation and stress-reduction in programs at holistic learning centers, as at spas (O’Dell 2005b:30). Like some tourism, spas, and the “slow food” movement,4 holistic learning centers market the pleasure of “slow experience,” the sensation of slowing down the passage of time and the pace of life.

Staging Pleasure

Holistic learning centers are a growing part of what Pine and Gilmore identified in 1998 as the “experience economy”: They wrote in the Harvard Business Review “An experience occurs when a company uses services as the stage–and goods as props–for engaging individuals in a way that creates a memorable event.”

Holistic learning centers offer rich experiences, creating a “sweet spot” according to Pine and Gilmore’s criteria. A sweet spot is where four realms intersect: entertainment, education, active participation, and the esthetic experience.  Pleasure is as central to holistic learning centers as it is to the experience economy more generally. Pine and Gilmore (Ibid.) spell out five design principles “that drive the creation of memorable experiences. First, create a consistent theme, one that resonates throughout the entire experience. Second, layer the theme with positive cues–for example, easy-to-follow signs. Third, eliminate negative cues, those visual or aural messages that distract or contradict the theme. Fourth, offer memorabilia that commemorate the experience for the user. Finally, engage all five senses–through sights, sounds, and so on–to heighten the experience and thus make it more memorable.”

Do holistic learning centers exemplify these principles? Hawaiian paradise is the overarching theme at Kalani.5 The name means harmony of heaven and earth; it is Hawaiian “heaven so sweet” as the song on a promotional video suggests. Explicitly offered is the Kalani Experience, “six nights of heaven.” The pleasures of refuge and renewal are signposted with daily opportunities for yoga, healthy eating, all sorts of dance, excursions (e.g., to the volcanoes), and a wide variety of water-related activities and therapies (e.g., watsu). The body is at home at Kalani, too. As one enthusiast says, “You can feel beautiful when you’re here.” Volcanic energy tempers heaven with hellfire but no damnation: instead the place, I was told, churns fire within one and encourages rapid personal transformation. Negative cues are screened at Kalani, sometimes literally by fences or shrubbery hiding “backstage” areas. Isolation eliminates the obvious negative cues of paradise lost to mass tourism that would make a Kalani experience nearly impossible on the dry, Kona side of the island. The Hawaiians on the property support the Kalani experience (e.g., teaching hula) and, again, isolation minimizes negatives cues of indigenous poverty and social problems. Memorabilia is available in the Hawaiian-run gift shop. The senses are amply engaged by the tropical ambiance, the good food, the water, and the body work.

A key element in creating pleasurable experiences at holistic learning centers is to nurture a sense of coming home and yet of being away from home. Kalani does this through the Hawaiian concept of ohana or extended family. This delicate balance conveys comfort, ease, and belonging while also valuing the “awayness” of travel and breaking everyday patterns in ways that encourage personal change, and growth.

We have already seen that Hollyhock invites the body as well as the spirit to be “at home.” At Hollyhock, the five design principles shaping memorable experiences are clearly present. Coincidentally, Hollyhock used “sweet spot” as a self-descriptor in promotional post-cards in 2005.  Hollyhock’s programming provides “positive cues” that draw guests and staff who, in trying to make the world better, identify more as social activists than those at other centers. Ironically, they are willing to come quite a distance to Cortes Island to feel revitalized by a sense both of “getting away” and “coming home.” Promotional literature tries to make getting there part of the positive experience. Some negative cues that Hollyhock tries to minimize are the downside of exactly that journey, such as ferry delays. Hollyhock’s gift shop, like Kalani’s, is adjacent to where guests check in and out. In addition to memorabilia, it features local arts and crafts, and a book selection related to program offerings as well as an excellent cookbook. Like Kalani, Hollyhock engages the senses with beautiful tastes from the kitchen, a fragrant garden full of color, the sound of the sea, the sensuality of the hot tub, and walks in the rain forest.

Mount Madonna differs from Holyhock and Kalani in important ways, while sharing a focus on offering programs as well as personal retreats, and a concern with both personal and global transformation. There is no promotional video, the web site is basic, yet Mount Madonna succeeds in filling programs and renting its facilities, both central to a center’s financial success.7 The programs are residential, like Kalani and Hollyhock, but it’s not so far for participants to travel. Mount Madonna’s location is closer to large population centers (San Francisco – Santa Cruz) than are Hollyhock or Kalani, but it achieves the requisite isolation, perched atop a mountain adjacent to a wilderness park.  The name sounds like a Catholic school – it doesn’t put people off as  “woo, woo,” New Age-y —  but in terms of the Experience Economy, its theme is unique: experience the guru Baba Hari Dass, his teachings which include a particular form of ashtanga yoga, and his students who have lived in community at Mount Madonna since the 1970s.

Interestingly, the positive cues that reinforce this theme are subtle. Mount Madonna must have looked unremarkably secular before the construction of the temple (completed in 2006) where the deity Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god is installed. Hanuman is also the name of the Fellowship that is the parent organization for Mount Madonna Center and two educational institutions – a preschool-through-grade-12 school and an advanced institute – as well as other non-profit businesses. Before the temple’s construction, even having an Om symbol on the property was controversial. The center, I was told, wanted to gain public acceptance and not display symbols that might seem to exclude other spiritual practices or that visitors might label as “weird.” Mount Madonna’s guest accommodation is generic but very comfortable motel-style with expansive views over Watsonville and Monterey Bay.  First impressions are of a rural conference center but gradually visitors become aware that it is also a residential community.  The scattering of housing on the land reflects the individuality of members, who came together not as an intentional community of like-minded people but as followers of Babaji. Some have financed the building of their own homes and may live in them indefinitely, but the community collectively owns the land and buildings.  The scattered housing also reflects the zoning of the property as a camp, such that many residences are allowed to have only pit latrine “outhouses” and no kitchens. The cues are subtle but gradually one realizes that living in peace is the point. I have a bumper sticker from the Quakers that reads, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” This is also the goal of Babaji’s teaching, of the residential community at Mount Madonna, and of the kind of personal transformation that can lead to living differently on the earth. The negative cues are the news of the world.9

Yes, there is a gift shop at Mount Madonna, too. But it is not in the same building as registration, and when I was there it had very limited opening hours. In a sense, the real gift shop connected to Mount Madonna Center is Gateways Bookstore in Santa Cruz, also part of the Hanuman Fellowship.

Finally, Mount Madonna engages the senses through rich connections with nature that are nearly as spectacular as Hollyhock and Kalani, but it doesn’t set out to pamper or sooth the body to the same degree (though it does have spa services). It doesn’t promise guests any magical experiences. Instead, and perhaps just as transformatively, it offers glimpses of humans trying to lead peaceful lives amidst the demands of running a conference center and other businesses. Mount Madonna offers a supportive environment for programs and facility rentals and for personal retreats, but that’s it. Ironically, the place that actually is home for more people than any other center in my study, makes no promises to guests about a sense of coming home.


To varying degrees, these three holistic learning centers and in fact all the centers in my study do exemplify the five design principles of the experience economy – pick a theme, accentuate positive cues that reinforce the theme, minimize negative cues, sell memorabilia, and engage the senses. I have no evidence, however, that any of the centers are familiar with the idea of the experience economy. Nor are they simply market driven. While financial solvency is important – and, for some, a challenge — it is not the only bottom line. Mount Madonna, Kalani, and (since 2006) Hollyhock, are non- profit organizations. They pay attention to a triple bottom line – financial but also social and environmental – now often merged with “sustainability” issues.

While magic is part of what Kalani and Hollyhock are “selling,” I believe that they are appealing to a sense of open-mindedness, or what Buddhists would call the “Beginner’s Mind” rather than to a desire for entertainment. The experience economy’s notion of setting a stage suggests a falseness or at least a fantasy world that sits uneasily with my experiences researching holistic learning centers. Authenticity is a suspect word in anthropology these days, but it is a term widely used in centers along with alignment and integrity. And they mean it. Perhaps mindful of the charlatans and corrupt spiritual leaders too often associated with spirituality in North America, these centers really try to practice what they preach. The personal integrity of staff is notable as are the cooperative relations amongst centers who would be competitors in a conventional business model.

O’Dell’s (2005b) study of the magic of spas highlighted the disjunction between the “magicians” — stressed out, expendable spa workers — and the affluent rejuvenated clients.  The resident staff in the holistic centers may be similarly poorly paid, and some feel overworked, but their commitment to conscious living is distinctive. This commitment is not universal – for some staff, especially in the lowest paid positions, a job making beds or cleaning toilets is just a job.  But for others the same job is karma yoga or “selfless service,” an integral part of a balanced life.

The vast majority of the staff I’ve interviewed were nudged or jolted into visiting, working at, and ultimately living at a holistic center by a sense of emptiness at the core of mainstream society (Rodman 2007). Many would say they were drawn energetically to the centers.  Earning less money and greatly simplifying their lives seemed a necessary step toward becoming more awake, more fulfilled, and, at a deep level, happier. The Buddhist principle of “right livelihood” views work as nourishing and enlivening.  Buddhist economics diverged from mainstream economics, of the sort that led to the idea of the experience economy, beginning in the 1960s (Schumaker 1966).10

Individualism at holistic centers also diverges from mainstream notions of individualism and from earlier notions of self-actualization, in that the context for individualism is holistic. The individual exists within and develops attunement to a spiritually and ecologically holistic universe11 Personal transformation, then, is seen as contributing to planetary transformation. Yet these centers and their clientele, are also very much still part of mainstream society. The clientele in particular runs to a type: mainly white, middle class, North American women over fifty, except at Kalani which attracts more men and younger people.12

The illusion, then is that the Centers seem to market experiences, like the rest of the experience economy, to people who are part of that economy. But what they are offering, in fact, is just different enough to be potentially much more valuable. Participating in two annual Gatherings of Holistic Centers, I learned that Centers know they can frame experience — that’s what looks like the design principles in action — but they also know they can’t and shouldn’t try to control the experiences of guests or staff. The centers are simply a framework – many call it a chalice or container that is held for others. This framework supports “the work” – ranging from personal
experiences of growth to transformation at a global level. Presenters, the stars like Eckhart Tolle or Andrew Weil, are important, but the centers hold the space for presenters and guests. Each center, whatever its spiritual base, is a sangha in the sense of trying to be an authentic, supportive, educational community.

This is pleasurable: for staff (at least when things are going well, as right livelihood) and for guests because the centers are beautiful and harmonious. They integrate quiet minds, healthy bodies, and spiritual growth. Not surprisingly, then, it is pleasurable to study these places and people. Pleasure is not what causes transformation, but it works in dynamic tension with the crisis and suffering believed to catalyze transformation at personal, and ultimately planetary, levels. There is a growing
sense that holding this space, holding the chalice, is crucial.  These centers, “cities on a hill” in the utopian sense, hold myriad spaces for shaping personal and societal change, fostering an openness to new possibilities in part through play and pleasure that contrast with pain and suffering. Potentially, in what could be dark days ahead as the planet grapples with climate change, declining oil reserves, overpopulation, economic instability, and environmental degradation (viz. Homer-Dixon 2006), holistic centers can be sanctuaries and repositories of wisdom for those people, already central to Hollyhock’s mission, who are trying to make the world better.

References Cited

Dass, Baba Hari  2000 Everyday Peace: Letters for Life. Santa Cruz, CA: Sri Rama Publishing.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas 2006 The Upside of Down. Toronto. Alfred A. Knopf Canada/ Random House Canada.

O’Dell, Tom 2005a Experiencescapes. IN Peter Billing and Tom O’Dell, eds., Experiencescapes. Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School. Pp. 1-31.

O’Dell, Tom 2005b Meditation, Magic and Spiritual Regeneration: Spas and the Mass Production of Serenity. IN Orvas Lofgren and Robert Willim, eds., Magic, Culture, and the New Economy. New York, Berg. Pp. 19-35.

Persson, Asha  2007  Intimate Immensity: Phenomenology of Place and Space in an Australian Yoga Community. American Ethnologist 34(1):44-56.

Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore 1998 Welcome to the Experience Economy. Harvard Business Review.  Jul-Aug;76(4):97-105. Gale Document Number:A20916746. YORK UNIV LIBRARY (CANADA). 14 Nov. 2007.

Prince, Ruth and David Riches  1999 The Holistic Individual: Context as Political Process in the New Age Movement. IN The Problem of Context, Roy Dilley, ed. New York: Berghahn. PP. 167-185.

Rodman, Margaret 2007  Privileged Time: Volunteers’ Experiences at a Spiritual Retreat Center in Hawai’i.” IN Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, Vered Amit, ed. New York: Berghahn. Pp. 144-158.

Schumacher, E. Fritz  (1966) 1999 Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Hartley and Marks.

Twist, Lynne  2003  The Soul of Money: Transforming your Relationship with Money and Life. New York: Norton.


Hollyhock Retreat Centre DVD. 2005.
This quotation appears on the Mount Madonna Yoga, Service and Community Program page Baba Hari Dass has not spoken since 1952 but his writings include Everyday Peace (2000) and nine other books.
3 Nov. 15, 2007.
Pleasure is highlighted in the philosophy of the slow food movement, which started as a reaction to fast food in Italy in the late ‘80s and now a world-wide movement with some 80,000 members: “We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible.” Nov. 15, 2007.
5 Nov. 15,  2007.
In The Haven’s promotional video, “There is a Place” (2007) an important theme is a sense of coming home.
Programs are sponsored by Mount Madonna Center which advertises them of the Center’s website,
handles registration, etc. Facility Rentals also may offer programs to participants but involve little input from Mount Madonna.
An Australian study of a yoga community suggests how yoga practice itself can enact embodied space, balancing groundedness and expansion (Persson 2007)
I visited Mount Madonna in April, 2007 shortly after the killings at Virginia Tech. Security concerns were a topic of conversation and a focus for action both at Mount Madonna School, which advertises itself as a “safe and caring college preparatory school, and at Mount Madonna Center, where some families have chosen to live in part because of the safe yet free environment it provides for children.
Now, popular New Age writers such as Lynne Twist (2003) argue that wealth is spiritual; it’s even your destiny. (viz., the film and book, The Secret). But this is not Buddhist economics.
Prince and Riches (1999) introduce this idea of the holistic individual in the context of Glastonbury New Agers.
Some non-residential centers in urban areas (e.g., The New York Open Center, and Spirit Rock outside San Francisco), are more successful in outreach through their programming to larger numbers of people from a greater variety of socio-economic backgrounds.