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Offbeat

What It’s Really Like to Stay at a New-Age Wellness Retreat

At Aja Malibu, a new high-end wellness retreat in the Californian hills, JS correspondent (and spa skeptic) Jenna Scatena endures a technology-free week of breathing exercises, raw cuisine, and serious chakra fine-tuning.

It’s a balmy 77 degrees at the top of Latigo Canyon—one of those perfectly clear Malibu afternoons when the view extends all the way to the Channel Islands. For the last three weeks leading up to my stay at Aja Malibu, a new wellness retreat near California’s southern coast, I’d envisioned drifting across an ozonized swimming pool, reading book after book on a bench in a garden, and watching time pass from a crochet hammock overlooking Malibu Beach.

Instead, I’m sitting at a bonfire, passing around a black coral skull and sipping from a Taiwanese tea cup filled with rose petal, mugwort, and guava leaves. A Mayan shaman is leading us in a fire ceremony, tossing kindling and colored wax candles into the growing flame. His wife, seated next to him, is in labor. Her water broke on the way over, but today marks the biggest super moon in 68 years, and they want to finish the ceremony before going to the hospital. So, for the meantime, she’s sitting on a meditation cushion, rubbing wide circles over her belly as we chant together. Is this part of a new level of experiential travel? Or just another average day at Aja Malibu.

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“Ritual allows us to exit conventional time and enter sacred time,” says Inannya Magick, the Australian-born owner and brains behind Aja (and yes, that’s her real given last name), as we sip an herbal blend the next morning during the daily tea ceremony. "It’s like a magic trick in that way."

After decades spent studying plant medicine and spiritual texts, Magick began combing California for the perfect spot to start her boutique sanctuary before stumbling upon a century-old mansion, once owned by Teddy Roosevelt, on the Internet. “It had been on the market for 12 years," she says. "No one wanted it because it was a money pit." And they were right: what she thought would take two years to transform ended up being nearly eight, but Aja Malibu finally opened its doors this summer.

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Coming to Aja means surrendering to the Magick Process, the trademarked name for her week-long program, which is structured into seven 13-hour "bootcamps" that each focus on a single chakra (an energy point on the body believed to affect one’s psychological, emotional, and spiritual states). You might liken the Magick Process to LA’s signature brand of nondenominational spirituality in that it pulls together wisdom from Eastern and Western religions, and practices of indigenous and shamanic traditions, all in one elite, opulent setting—the price tag for which requires a formal inquiry, an interview, and a cool $10,000 a week.

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The cost is steep, surely, but the grounds look well invested in. The redone mission-style home, with its terracotta roof and stucco walls draped in tangled passion flower vines, now houses seven guest rooms, a boutique spa, a meditation room, and a farmhouse-style kitchen while also acting as Magick’s own residence. You’ll find no concierge or check-in counter; instead, arriving guests are handed a whicker basket and gardening sheers, and told by one of the zenned-out staff to wander the grounds and snip flowers and sprigs for their room’s bouquet.

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Throughout the week, I catch fleeting glimpses of Magick floating through rooms in ethereal linen skirts and bright Mexican panchos. Of the seven guests here during this session, one is her father, a Sydney-based business man in the lumber trade. Clad in a polo shirt and cargo shorts, he fits right in with the rest of us—which is to say a bit out of our element.

“When we first heard about her project eight years ago, we wondered if she’d lost her marbles,” he says with a chuckle. He’s here to experience the entire week as any guest would, having no real background in the concept and struggling with the rest of us to decipher just what this is all about.

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Between hours spent in classes and ceremonies led by lauded LA meditation teachers, herbalists, sound healers, nutritionists, and bodywork therapists, you’re treated to meals built around the philosophy of "living food": nearly all of the 200-plus plants on the 23-acre property are edible—fig, guava, rosemary, mint marigold, lemon balm, olive trees, juniper—while the kitchen menu focuses on raw and vegan dishes aligned with the chakra of the day.

There’s also a strict "no tech" rule—no Internet, no cell phones, no taking photos—which proved to be the hardest practice for guests to follow. One of the guests confides in me over breakfast on our second morning. “Last night, after everyone went to bed, I snuck into the apothecary to try to hack into the office’s WiFi, but I needed a password,” she confesses, shoveling another golden spoon of chia pudding and bee pollen into her mouth. “I tried everything—zen123, chakragoddess, magicktime—none of them worked.”

But by the third day, I’m feeling proud of myself. Sitting in the garden, I’ve managed to avoid turning my phone on at all (except to check the time—they keep a tight schedule) and instead appreciate the serenity of it all: watching hummingbirds spear hibiscus disks, inhaling fragrant kumquat blossoms, listening as the olive leaves scratch together in the wind. But as I look up at that majestic view of Malibu, I remember what one of the other guests had said the day before while contemplating sneaking a photo of the sunset. “They don’t own the view. I mean, I want to remember this place.” In a moment of weakness, I snap one.

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That night, as we gather in the library, Magick looks upset. “I see over everything here at Aja,” she says, her gaze searing into me.

Later, in the fire-lit Om Room, we lay in a circle like spokes on a wheel and practice breathing rituals until we’re lightheaded. A pranayama breath coach stalks the room, offering words of encouragement. “Take the 50 deepest breaths of your life,” he says, the flame reflecting off his stacked silver and turquoise rings. But just as I begin questioning his motives, I feel an unlocking in my chest and a flood of euphoria rush through my body—as though, in seconds, every stress, resentment, and anxious thought has left me for good.

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At Aja, everything is a variation on the theme of opening yourself up by doing—even feeling—something outside your comfort zone. As I realize midway through the week, this kind of elation can’t be achieved through a 60-minute power yoga class or by listening to a 10-minute morning meditation app. Instead, it’s the result of drilling down into the deeper layers of yourself day after day. For me, it took four 13-hour days of unplugged focus to reach a place of peace and tranquility—four full days merely to reach the starting point.

The end goal of these philosophies isn’t new—striving to live in the present, to stay centered, to connect with oneself—but the path to get there is becoming increasingly more difficult in the wired age. The costs we pay to achieve it are in many ways higher, too: in the age of technology, our greatest luxury has become the privilege to disconnect from it. By the end of the week, I can’t help but think that sacrificing technology is merely a prerequisite to experiencing this stillness, that to give up your iPhone is not the point but a requirement for what’s to come.

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It’s the end of the last day, at our tea ritual for the crown chakra (the center of peace and bliss), and everyone is sitting on meditation cushions when Magick’s father sprays a mist of lavender essential oil into the air and closes his eyes. As his muscles relax into a smile, I ask how he feels now that he’s reached the end of the week. He takes a long moment to inhale the lingering aroma before replying, eyes still closed, “Nothing has ever smelled better.”

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