There’s Something About Harbin …with contributions from Rob Sidon

Posted on February 19, 2013

HarbinCenterIf you’ve visited Harbin Hot Springs, the retreat center north of Napa’s historic wine country, up the winding road on Mount St. Helena, you’ve likely felt that magical, compelling … something. This ineffable feeling is what brings 70,000–100,000 guests annually and catalyzes many to take up long-term residence in the community that has built up around the healing springs.

Harbin’s majesty is neither hidden nor vague, but both breathtaking and breath-inducing. What’s not to love? A 5,000-acre retreat center sits naturally amid an exquisite array of trees, flowers, rolling grassy hills, and sacred structures. Harbin Hot Springs is enveloped by the pristine beauty of tree-covered mountains and expansive open vistas.

If the surroundings represent the body and the limbs, then the hot springs represent the heart and soul of the place. These mineral-rich waters have called visitors for thousands of years. Originally a site revered by American Indians, the therapeutic springs became Lake County’s first resort 125 years ago.

Harbin being a pilgrimage destination, I’ve celebrated birthdays there alone, come with larger groups of friends, and experienced near-breakups with a boyfriend — twice. This year, I celebrated both the new year and a new love at Harbin. My mom visited with me once and still talks about the windy mountain ascent as a death-defying feat.

During a recent 2½-day visit, I indulged in favorite Harbin rituals like moving blissfully between hot and cold plunges — excellent for the circulatory system. And in a quest to uncover what else makes Harbin so special, I was fortunate to meet with residents and managers, and even had the honor of connecting with Robert Heartly, the founder of Harbin Hot Springs, who long ago retired his original first name in favor of his yogic name, Ishvara.

By way of history, after the springs had been a healing and gathering place for American Indians, the area was commercially developed by settlers in the 1860s. Successive lodges were rebuilt as they burned down over the years, due to the location’s fire-sensitive surroundings. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was advertised as an upscale resort, but by the 1960s had morphed into a hippie commune named Harbinger that attracted the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who were rumored to have gone there to party. The commune antagonized locals and ultimately didn’t survive. In 1972, when Ishvara purchased the land, the buildings had been vandalized to the point that each contained as much as eight inches of debris and glass; every window had been shattered.

From these humble beginnings, a community of self-described “societal dropouts” formed around the springs. By 1976, tired of being the sole owner and landlord, Ishvara envisioned a more-collective model of community living based on the New Age principles of universal spirituality and holistic practices — all part of the human potential movement of the times. He donated the land and reorganized the property under the umbrella of the Heart Consciousness Church, a nonprofit that now houses 185 full-time residents. The governing principles of Harbin are decentralized and eclectic.

On this visit I arrived, as many do, tired, overworked, and sorely in need of deep relaxation. After dragging my belongings to my comfortable room and my body to the warm pool, I experienced my first “ahh” as my body unwound into the warm waters, gorgeously surrounded by fig trees and sweet evening air. On this first plunge my awareness focused on how my body felt unusually depleted, and for some reason I felt slightly less than my usual comfort level around being nude.

The bathing area of Harbin is clothing optional, a feature well-known among patrons and
perhaps non-patrons. And yes, I too was nude.

While the nudity is comfortable for some and a potential deterrent for others, Ishvara shared with me that creating a community where people had a choice was the first issue for which he advocated. He explained confidently that “people just open up three to four times as much if they’re all naked.” While true for some, it is reasonable to assume that not all share this point of view. Whether visitors feel freed by disrobing or not, I imagine that most work through personal edges in the process, wiggling out of the pervasive body self-consciousness that dominates our media culture.

Personally, my ease around nudity can fluctuate, but mostly the clothing-optional experience at Harbin feels comfortable, curative, and liberating. Over the years, the management has become successful at protecting the meditative sanctuary of the pools. Signs around the bathing areas outline appropriate pool behavior; the protocols are enforced by a trained and sensitive security staff on-hand 24 hours a day. Sexual and predatory activities and, thankfully, alcohol and illegal drugs are strictly forbidden, thus ensuring a safe place for guests (even a young woman such as myself) to peel their layers.

Eventually, after being surrounded by bodies of all shapes and sizes, a simple human common denominator becomes obvious: We are all given bodies and each is unique. So what?

Though I felt depleted and imbalanced upon arrival, the recuperative qualities at Harbin had taken hold. The time in the baths followed by a deep sleep, the overall immersion in nature, and delicious healthy food had restored a sweet sense of well-being. This is why people keep coming back to Harbin.

But there is much more to explore at Harbin, particularly at the social level. Through my interactions, I began to realize that the Harbin community offers you exactly what you are open to receiving. If you like, you may opt for a quiet experience centered on solitude, reflection, and personal healing. Or you can choose an experience focused on meaningful interpersonal contact, available in multiple settings, such as the communal kitchen, a quaint cafe, a delicious restaurant serving omnivorous breakfast and dinner, a cozy movie theatre showing two films nightly, concerts, a large library, and a well-stocked health food store.

There is also a professional conference center on the property that hosts a wide array of activities and workshops from all over the world A dynamic peripheral community has also sprouted, outside of the resort’s confines, in neighboring Middletown. Many attribute much of Harbin’s magical qualities to its community — a place where you can experience a profound sense of connection with others, with yourself, and with nature. All of this is positively amplified around Harbin, as the ethos there encourages repose and personal transformation in a context of healthy boundaries.

In juxtaposition to our frenetic lifestyle, Harbin is a retreat center, a place to unplug. Very deliberately, the management determined that Internet connectivity and cell phone connectivity are best left to the outside world.

To help ease the withdrawal pains of Web and cell deprivation, Harbin, which has long been a pioneer of the healing arts, is the home of Watsu. This wonderful healing modality was created by Harold Dull; it is shiatsu performed in water. During my visit I had the pleasure of receiving a session with Andre Schaart, who assists Joyce Reim in operating the shiatsu and massage school that runs separately, certifying practitioners right on the property. During my session with Andre, I was floated, opened, stretched, and cradled by this large and strong grandfather..

In addition to Watsu, Harbin is home to some of the most adept massage therapists the world over. Many people come to Harbin and swear by its 45 talented body workers. And while I am someone who is used to receiving professional massage, as luck would have it on this visit, I experienced the single most therapeutically transformative work I’ve ever received. This by a woman named Bess Donahugh, who was deeply intuitive and connected. I walked out of the massage soft and open, and then entered the pools for one final soak.

I finally needed to get head back to San Francisco, but in stark contrast to how I arrived at Harbin — agitated and depleted — I now felt wonderfully revived and grateful.

On the beautiful ride home, the world seemed to sparkle. Through the mountain roads that Mom labeled death-defying, I found myself mumbling the words, “There’s something about Harbin.” And again it occurred to me just how fortunate we are to live in the Bay Area.

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