I confess I’ve never been a fan of chickens. They always seem like nervous, high strung birds, and their pecking and quick movements are unsettling to me. I would never have imagined that these creatures could be used in the realm of animal-assisted therapy. Dogs, yes. Horses, sure. But, chickens? They couldn’t possibly bring a sense of calm and comfort to people. Then I was introduced to Blanco and his gang and something special happened.
At newly-opened Sunrise Springs Integrated Wellness Resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sister property to the venerable Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs & Spa, animal interaction sessions are just one of the many experiential activities offered aimed at fostering optimal health and well-being.
Currently, these interactions involve canines and chickens, both of which reside on-site. Canine sessions are with adult service dogs and puppies-in-training from Assistance Dogs of the West, an agency the resort has partnered with to help guests learn canine handling techniques and practice specific training activities to prepare the animals for being future assistance dogs, take walks with the dogs or simply enjoy an opportunity to cuddle with them. During my stay, I had the pleasure of spending time with a passel of five-week-old yellow Lab pups, who loved to play and then promptly curl up in my lap for a nap. Being around these adorable bundles of joy brought me enormous contentment, as well as channeled my inner child.
As for the chickens, the resort has about two dozen Silkies, who have taken up residence in a spacious covered enclosure. This breed is characterized by silky feathers, which make them appear like miniature fluff balls with tiny Uggs on their feet. They are very soft to the touch, have five toes, turquoise colored earlobes (how Santa Fe!) and a “walnut” comb. Silkies are known to be gentle birds who love company. They like to chatter and to also make sweet purring and vibration-like noises when they’re calm. This type of chicken loves nothing more than to raise a clutch of eggs, and as they are a magnanimous sort, they’re not picky about whose eggs they are. There are documented cases of Silkies raising other types of poultry, including ducklings and goslings, taking care of them as if they were their own.
I admit I was initially a bit apprehensive about entering the Silkies’ arena, but with encouragement from the resort’s horticulture and nature-based specialist Daniele Simmons, I gamely headed inside. Twenty-five chickens greeted me. Some came right up to me and curiously moved around my feet, as if sizing me up. Others were busy eating either their feed or some veggies brought in from the garden.
Simmons invited me to sit on a chair and observe the creatures, while she talked about them. I learned about Blanco, the main rooster, who assumes the duty of keeping the others in their place. He thinks nothing of pecking at them if they are disturbing him or if they are trying to eat food he has claimed as his own. Then there’s Wilbur, the smallest of the bunch. As the runt, he was named after Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. Lemon Drop is appropriately yellow in color. And Princess, who is always exquisitely groomed, has a royal moniker.
I began petting the Silkies, enjoying the feel of their soft feathers. I laughed at their antics as they comically scratched around the dirt, then fed them a fresh cucumber, which they adored. Watching their behavior, I was able to pick up on some of their cues and subtleties relating to communication, teamwork and leadership. Finally, I let several take turns sitting on my lap. Their docile nature had a soothing effect on me and I could see how such an experience could lower stress and anxiety levels. Being with these chickens provided me with an opportunity to slow down and reflect, something I need to do more often in my hectic life.
You’ll find serenity is a commodity in spades at Sunrise Springs. Nestled amid seventy acres of breathtaking natural beauty with towering cottonwood trees and spring-fed ponds, the resort’s setting is ideal for nourishing body, mind and spirit.
The emphasis is on giving guests a place to relax and decompress in an authentic wellness environment, which blends both Eastern and Western therapeutic practices, and Native American teachings in its approach to well-being. Through a variety of experiential activities, guests can become more self-aware, while learning new skills and mindfulness techniques that help cultivate greater connection in their lives. The hope is that individuals will develop sustainable healthy living practices which allow them to thrive and experience life differently.
To assist you in these endeavors, the resort has a highly-credentialed team comprised of medical doctors, behavioral health counselors, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, fitness and movement instructors and experiential programming staff. I offer kudos to these folks, as they are among the most compassionate and giving people I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with at any destination spa. They are knowledge and passionate about their work, and generous in their willingness to share it with others. During my stay, I sensed they really cared about me as an individual. It was akin to having a warm and benevolent light shined on me.
When guests arrive at Sunrise Springs, they are typically welcomed with a Native American traditional ritual that involves the use of sage. It’s a ceremony that helps to cleanse and clear, while harmonizing and energizing oneself. Niccole Toral, who has both Native American and South American roots, is Director of Experiential and Psychological Services at the resort. She explains how sage ha a lot of “ju-ju”– medicine healing energy.
You can walk the sacred medicine wheel, a grass and stone circle, in the center of the property, where the four quadrants represent the holistic self, invoking different qualities to emerge. Toral will also engage in some drumming, which she notes is the heartbeat of Mother Earth and keeps us in rhythm, reminding us of our ancestors. In closing, she asks guests to offer a bit of tobacco to the land, encouraging them to put an intention in their offering. The tobacco is viewed as a messenger or a transmitter.
Each guest works with staff to determine a schedule of focused experiential activities that are personalized to his/her therapeutic goals. Options include sessions in mindfulness meditation and yoga, animal interactions, therapeutic gardening, culinary classes, expressive arts, fitness and cultural and adventure activities. As nature is an important ingredient in the resort’s integrative wellness philosophy, you will also be encouraged to participate in some “nature bathing,” a practice inspired by the Japanese custom of “forest bathing.” Research suggests that spending even a few minutes walking among trees or in green spaces can improve mood and energy levels, while calming the nervous system.
Many of the resort’s guests lead busy and intense lives, often working high-power jobs that consume them with technology. When they arrive at Sunrise Springs, they are encouraged to unplug so they can take an active role in their well-being. Overuse of electronic devices has been shown to contribute to social isolation, sleep problems, depression, anxiety and other health-related issues. For some, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to check phones, email, texts, etc. But, after a day or two, the urge subsides, as the focus moves to tuning in to one’s senses and self-awareness.
As with all wellness-oriented properties, a spa is essential. The Integrative Therapeutic Spa (ITSPA) at Sunrise Springs combines the expertise of an integrative medical clinic with the rejuvenating and restorative practices of a wellness spa.
Services range from nurturing massage, hydrating skin care and body treatments to nutritional assessments, behavioral healthcare, spiritual counseling and acupuncture and chiropractic sessions. I had an amazing “Ancient Echoes” treatment during my stay that utilized a variety of modalities and techniques. The therapy is based on East Indian head massage and is drawn from the ancient healing system of Ayurveda. I left feeling invigorated and knot-free after my session. It was as if my body had been brought back into balance after having been off-kilter.
As for accommodations, you’ll have your choice of either a resort-style guest room with a balcony overlooking the sacred medicine wheel or one of the resort’s twenty spacious and well-appointed casitas with their own private courtyard and gas fireplace. Rooms are decorated in a Southwest style, yet retain a minimalist feel without unnecessary distractions (no TVs or phones). The point is for guests to spend the majority of their time outside of their rooms, participating in the many activities available to them.
Dining at Sunrise Springs is a high point. Executive Chef Paul Novak, former Chef de Cuisine of the prestigious Geronimo Restaurant in Santa Fe, works closely with local farmers to source seasonally available herbs, fruits and vegetables grown using organic practices.
He uses as many ingredients as are available from the resort’s own greenhouse and gardens, which are expected to expand in the coming year. Dishes include traditional New Mexico favorites plus a variety of seasonal selections. The focus is on providing nutrient dense food that’s also flavorful. Meals are healthy, not necessarily vegan or vegetarian, though if guests have specific preferences, the chef will gladly oblige.
A typical lunch would be fresh spring rolls filled with veggies or shrimp, accompanied by a bowl of delicious greens and a bowl of hearty soup. Dinner might be smoked salmon on pumpernickel toast, cumin black bean soup, organic baby spinach salad, roasted root vegetables, Zuni chicken and carrot cake with lemon caramel sauce. You won’t go hungry, and more important, you’ll get to learn the health benefits of the food you eat.
Evening activities can include such offerings as stargazing with telescopes, music performances and interactive wellness lectures, such as one I attended entitled, “Food as Medicine,” with holistic health coach and nutritionist Nikki White. White, who is author of Upgradeology: Upgrade Your Food, Upgrade Your Life, advocates choosing “clean” foods, which are not processed or altered from their original state. She emphasizes eating what you love while opting for nourishing ingredients. And she believes it’s essential that people understand what’s in their food so they can engage in “mindful eating.”
When your visit concludes, know that you are not being set adrift without ballast. Unlike some other destination spas, Sunrise Springs believes that support is key both during and even more important, after your stay. Their hope is that you can take what you’ve learned from your experience and integrate the knowledge into your daily life. They provide an assortment of tools to take back with you and will continue the connection, if so desired, once you are back home. If you have questions or concerns, they want you to know they’ll be there for you to help you on your ever-evolving journey.
For more information: www.sunrisesprings.com