Will Smith captured the prevailing COVID-era mood when he recently shared a photo of himself on Instagram in black slippers, black shorts and an unzipped hoodie revealing a bare, small paunch. The usually buff action hero confessed in the caption, “I’m in the worst shape of my life.” It elicited more than 6.8 million likes and 103,000 comments.
The Bad Boys star’s viral post resonated because many have packed on pounds during the pandemic. In a March survey from the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of U.S. respondents reported gaining more weight than they intended over the past year, at an average of 29 pounds.
The stresses of the time also have manifested themselves in other unhealthy ways. For example, 67 percent said they have been sleeping too much or too little since the pandemic began, according to the survey.
If you are among those who have put on unwanted weight, lost sleep or had difficulty coping with stress (or all of the above), one hotel can help you reset your health. Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort is a secluded wellness retreat on Lanai, a small Hawaiian island that formerly served as a Dole pineapple plantation. Opened in 2019 by Larry Ellison, cofounder of Oracle, and Dr. David Agus, a professor at the University of Southern California, Sensei uses a scientific, data-driven approach to personalized wellness.
An admitted workaholic, I struggled to find a work-life balance even before the pandemic. Most of my days were spent shifting from long bouts of sitting behind a computer to long flights and hectic trips that kept me on the move from sunrise into the wee hours. When COVID-19 took me off of the road, my daily routine tipped to full-on sedentary. So when it became safe to travel again, I seized the opportunity to visit Sensei to kickstart healthier habits and a greater sense of well-being.
Preparing for the trip
The Lanai hotel offers a room-only rate and packages with tailored classes and services — I opted for one of the latter to make the most out of my time there. I filled out a comprehensive online questionnaire that covered my lifestyle, health history and goals. A specialist called afterward to gather even more details, homing in on my inability to find the time for wellness and my tendency to overextend myself. She built my itinerary accordingly and matched me with a Sensei (Japanese for “teacher”) guide to lead my experience.
Exploring the wellness resort
I instantly felt at ease after arriving and meandering the grounds. The white Hawaiian-plantation-style main building with a wraparound lanai (or porch) conceals an incredible sculpture garden. Peppered amid hibiscus plants, Tahitian gardenias, banyan trees and countless palm varieties is a world-class art collection, including seven curvaceous, body-celebrating bronze pieces from Fernando Botero. The centerpiece is Jaume Plensa’s Talaia, a stark-white, larger-than-life head of a woman who appears to watch over the garden, even though her eyes are closed.
I took every chance to immerse myself in the 24 acres of immaculate, idyllic gardens, whether it was strolling around the pond strewn with lavender leaves from the jacaranda tree and the reflection of Marc Quinn’s oversized red orchid blossom (the sculpture is named Burning Desire) or admiring the view from Sensei by Nobu. Every morning, I rose early to snag an outdoor table at the restaurant, which is surrounded by a koi pond. Peering at the verdant grounds as bright koi zipped around me set a relaxing tone for the day while I noshed on scrambled egg whites, coconut yogurt and local fruit.
A veritable Garden of Eden, the grounds were so tranquil and stunning, I didn’t miss the beach. Sensei sits upcountry away from the water (though if you must hit the sand, you can visit sister property Four Seasons Resort Lanai), which ensures solitude — the fact that it’s an adults-only hotel also helps.
Learning from the senseis
On my first day, I headed into a private orientation with my Sensei guide Marlee Finkelstein. All guides have a strong background in health; Finkelstein, for example, is a registered dietician nutritionist with a Master of Science in both nutrition and education, along with a bachelor’s in kinesiology.
Using a variety of equipment, she put me through a battery of tests to assess my blood pressure, body composition and functional movement, among other things. She then went over the results (and emailed a password-protected report, too). Hearing the cold, hard results of a pandemic locked into a sedentary existence was sobering. Finkelstein explained how all of this information forms a data baseline to help with my own monitoring and future Sensei Lanai visits.
She had reviewed my online questionnaire answers and probed more into what was blocking my ability to lead a healthier, more vibrant life. Her goal, she said, was to provide me with takeaways that I could implement at home.
I liked that her suggestions were steps I could take immediately. To break up long stretches of sitting at my computer (many times I’m so engrossed in work that I forget to take lunch), she recommended setting an alarm every several hours to get up, stretch and loosen my perpetually hunched shoulders. In addition, she advised structuring tidbits of activity into the usually jam-packed day.
She also decided it would be beneficial to have me see another guide, Marcus Washington. A sort of mind coach who specializes in the effects of stress on cognitive performance and sleep, he’s worked with high performers like professional athletes and those in the military.
To tackle my overworking, Washington shared that the brain functions like a body during a workout: after a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, you will have 30 minutes of optimal brainpower. Afterward, there’s diminishing returns. He understood that scheduling a break every half hour wasn’t feasible with my schedule, so he adapted it to taking a five- to 20-minute pause every two hours and getting a change of scenery, even if it’s only going into another room.
Also, he stressed that without eight hours of rest, the mind operates on a cognitive deficit. Set times for wakeup and sleep help the brain get on track, he said. And he suggested picking a work shut-off time, even if it’s late, and moving backward from then to plan dinner, lunch, etc.
“Our purpose is to make things more approachable and realistic,” Washington said. “You literally become proficient in these tools while you are here.”
Jumping into activities
I worried that I’d be thrown into rigorous bootcamp with people who don’t break a sweat and rock Suicide Squad-era Will Smith’s eight-pack physiques. Meanwhile, I’d feel every slice of homemade sourdough bread I ate during lockdown and verge on collapsing.
My first class was a full-body strength circuit. An encouraging, cheerful instructor led an hourlong workout in a studio lined with window walls overlooking greenery. Among the three students was a super-fit type who effortlessly worked the kettlebells and resistance bands. But I surprised myself by keeping up and finishing on an invigorated note.
Another surprise: I found meditation more difficult than the exercise classes. I’ve always struggled with meditation. Any time I try to clear my mind, my thoughts turn to my languishing to-do list and I end up feeling more stressed than before. But during a silent meditation session on Sensei Lanai’s scenic lake deck, it was easy to focus on the chirping birds and gushing waterfalls as I sat on a chair with my eyes shut. Even still, the whirring of a landscaper’s tool took me out of my meditative state. After the class, the instructor said that my reaction is one that even experts like herself have, but they just persistently try again.
I came closer to that ideal during the Being Peace Walking Meditation class, when a teacher led three of us across a patch of garden at a snail’s pace. While we probably looked odd to passersby as we walked barefoot slowly while staring at the ground, I was able to concentrate on the plush, thick blades of grass and the surrounding nature. The stroll was calming.
Coincidentally, I also felt more at peace during a two-hour e-bike excursion through the red-dirt mountain roads. Feeling the sun on my face as I pedaled through barren trails with patches of Cook pines gave my brain a break. I realized that I could meditate my own way.
Recovering at the wellness spa
This Hawaiian wellness haven has a must-visit spa made up of 10 one-of-a-kind hales (“ha-lays”). Each spacious hale functions like a standalone spa rather than a run-of-the-mill treatment room. Inside the impressive Japanese-inspired space, you’ll find an infrared sauna, a steam room, a sitting area, a bathroom, a shower and an ofuro tub. Outside is a private paradise with onsen pools and a small waterfall built into rocks surrounded by palms, ferns and exotic flora, as well as a hidden shower.
I headed to my assigned hale for the Nourish treatment, a candle oil massage and wrap. My therapist melted a fragrant wax made of shea butter, vanilla, coconut oil and oud (which she said was “essence of the forest floor”) into an oil. She used it to facilitate her myofascial, shiatsu and rhythmic techniques to unfurl my tense muscles. Then, she wrapped me up like a swaddled baby, letting the rich, warm oil seep into my skin.
The service comes with hale time, which means I was left to enjoy this luxurious mini spa by myself. While I intended to use all the amenities, I ended up splitting my time between the leafy refuge outside and the elegant ofuro. The Japanese wooden tub is a rare perk — traditionally, it’s used not to cleanse the body but to unwind with a soak. The ofuro is deeper than Western bathtubs, and its thick walls keep the waters toasty. My therapist filled it before I arrived, and the water stayed steamy until the end of my 150-minute session. I left feeling replenished and utterly relaxed.
You also can experience repose outside of the spa. A series of 10 hot onsen pools is carved into a Japanese rock garden. Available to all guests, the spaced-out pools are shielded by tropical foliage. Reserve plenty of time to rest your weary body in the enticing waters, preferably at night under the stars.
Then you can retreat to a bright, modern room that’s bathed in white and cream hues, from the plantation shutters to the textured wallpaper. It’s decked out with state-of-the-art amenities (like electronic Toto toilets, bedside tablets and doors that open with wristband fobs) and a roomy lanai overlooking the gardens.
Did the wellness retreat work?
Sensei Lanai is ideal for those seeking to reset their health, but who need a final push. It forced me to concentrate on my health, something I consistently put on the backburner. I didn’t go into the experience expecting a dramatic transformation, but I aimed to learn strategies for sustainable improvement.
A month after my visit, I’m continuing to implement those small but hopefully lasting changes. I’m taking more breaks during long workdays and making time for short bursts of exercise, including brisk walks and morning stretches. I also recently signed up for a cardio class. Of course, I’m not perfect — my breaks are never 20 minutes long and there are harried days where they are nonexistent.
Sensei Lanai’s top-notch facilities and personalized programming gave me the jump-start I needed. The luxury hotel creates a welcoming, supportive environment that encourages you to go at your own pace. It also doesn’t bombard you with restrictions. Sensei by Nobu serves clean food alongside grass-fed burgers, decadent desserts and potent cocktails. And most of the guests I met weren’t ripped Will Smith types; they were pandemic-era Smith — busy professionals looking for self-care.
While weekend stays are common at the hotel, a longer visit allows for a deeper dive into your wellness goals. The five-day-minimum Optimal Wellbeing Program is a more fitness-focused option. You’ll receive wearable devices two weeks before your stay so that your guides have access to more thorough data upon arrival (you get a one-year monitoring subscription). Plus, the program gives you more one-on-one sessions with the knowledgeable guides, thermal body mapping (which reveals your body’s asymmetries, muscle tightness and points of pain so that a therapist can tailor a massage to those areas) and more.
Whichever path you choose, whether it’s a more relaxed itinerary or an intense fitness regimen, the key takeaway of this wellness retreat is awareness. As my mind coach Washington said, “When awareness precedes a behavior, a change can occur.”