The spa and wellness industry lost one of its pioneers with the passing of Oaks at Ojai founder Sheila Cluff. An inspiration for everyone who breathed the same air as her, Sheila’s passion for fitness, health and diet contributed to improved health and vitality for generations of people. In the summer of 2011, writer Nora Zelevanksy sat down with Sheila for Self Magazine, to share Sheila’s tips for health, wellness and vitality. In honor of Sheila, we wanted to share her words.
When it comes to fitness goals, often we’re working towards a bikini body for a Caribbean vacation or toned arms for a class reunion. We’ve got the immediate future on the brain.
Rarely do we decide to get in shape, so that we can still go hiking at 80 years old. And even less frequently do we say, “I wish I was as fit as a grandmother.”
Well, we should be so lucky to be a spry as 75-year-old Sheila Cluff, owner/founder of heavenly wellness & spa retreat The Oaks at Ojai. And I don’t mean when we’re her age. I mean now.
For the record, Cluff has dedicated her life to exercise, so her amazing shape isn’t quite as much of a surprise as it is an amazing accomplishment. She grew up in Ottawa, where, as she says, “Little girls either ski, skate or hibernate.” She was of skating variety and competed at a national level as a teenager, eventually going pro as a member of a performance troop that was the on-ice incarnation of The Rockettes.
The Tip: Start young!
You may not be able to go back and change your upbringing, but if you can make exercising as integral as brushing your teeth, you’re more likely to keep it up.
When she left skating behind for college at Magill, the adjustment was difficult. (See? Even fitness marvels like Cluff have shaky moments!) Depressed over missing exercise and skating, she put on weight and got mushy. It took a while for her to realize why she felt so disconnected and down, as she’d never really thought of her ice skating training as “exercise” per se. She realized that fitness was key to happiness, especially for her.
The Tip: The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection
Cluff believes strongly in the Mind-Body-Spirit connection, which is what the health programs/vacations at The Oaks at Ojai are all about. “You can’t separate what happens from the neck up from what happens from the neck down,” she explains. Exercise can make you happier, but also you perform to your highest potential when you’re in the right frame of mind.
Pioneering Physical Fitness:
Back in the day, exercise was not the accepted priority that it is today. Cluff became a high school gym teacher, interested in what motivated kids (and adults, for that matter). She saw her students were less than excited about PE class. “I decided to make it fun and interesting,” she explains. “I started a program called, ‘Cardio Vascular Dance.’ At that time, there weren’t even boom boxes, so I had to convince my principle to buy a piano and hire a pianist. All of a sudden, the girls were having fun. One student’s mother came in and said, ‘What are you doing to my daughter? Her grades are better, her skin cleared up and her attitude has improved. Whatever it is, I want it, too!”
The year was 1960 and what started as a school-mandated class became an adult fitness program in a rented church hall. Soon, she started a program called “Wellness In The Workplace,” subcontracted by various businesses. “This was before corporations recognized that productivity would improve with exercise,” she explains. Even the YMCA didn’t have a gym! She even hosted a fitness TV show called “Now.” Even through personal rough patches, spreading the word about exercise became her anchor.
The Tip: Exercise wasn’t always so pervasive in our culture.
The industry grew as it became clear that fitness could help motivate people in all different arenas. As Cluff asserts, “Fitness is a key tool for success for everything in life.
In 1970, Cluff got the opportunity to move the operation to California, where she quickly fell in love with Ojai, a somewhat hippie community that was open to healthy lifestyle ideas and alternative perspectives. There, just seven years later, she opened The Oaks at Ojai, as a replacement for the old standard “fat farms.” “We wanted to wipe the word ‘diet’ out of the vocabulary,” she enthuses. “We wanted to take punishment out of fitness and make it fun. From the beginning, we used fresh and healthy foods. We still offer a variety of options in terms of calorie intake (if people even want a limit), suggesting that people add to their menus if their physical activity is rigorous for the day.”
The Tip: Eating healthy, fresh foods is the key to a balanced diet.
“Diet” foods aren’t necessarily any better, if they’re packed with preservatives and jammed with fillers and sugars, especially if you aren’t eating the correct portion sizes.
Then & Now:
Cluff and family make sure that the classes onsite are the newest and most up-to-date from hula hooping to yoga and even dance. But, in some cases, while the names have changed, the classes have stayed related, if not the same. “I used to teach modern dance, ” she recalls. “Well, that’s really Zumba with a different beat. The thing that hasn’t changed is that we have to stay creative to keep people motivated.”
The Tip: Treat your joints with care
Cluff’s one concern about modern fitness arose during the aerobics era, where heavy jumping was en vogue. “I became concerned about knees,” she explains. “Hopefully we will all age — the alternative is rather deadly — and that’s why low-impact exercise is preferable. That way you stay fit and nurture your body at the same time with exercises like stretching, water workouts, relaxing and massaging the muscles, and yoga to improve balance.” There’s a constant change in this industry, but the thing that hasn’t changed is that we have to keep being creative to keep people interested.
As Sheila Cluff has just handed over the operations to her daughter, she’s returned her focus to competitive ice skating, after all these years. “I’m not retired,” she quips. “I’m reinvented.” In fact, she’s the oldest person who competes in her advanced category.
Although she guides multiple rigorous hikes and teaches classes in everything from yoga to “Strengthen & Stretch” that’s designed to combat repetitive computer use, her skate conditioning is the main focus. At last year’s Adult National Championships, she took home 4 gold medals. Her husband is still a black diamond skier.
So, how does she do it? “I do a lot of stretching and core strength straining and I have stepped up weight training,” she says. “Every other day, I do 150 to 200 push-ups (without stopping). I’m about 14% body fat. For figure skating, I need to have a lot of power in my shoulders and arms to spin fast and a lot of power in my legs to jump off the ice.” And she always reminds people to check their posture.
The Tip: Keep moving!
“It’s not always easy — sometimes I would just as soon sleep in instead of leading a hike,” she admits. “There’s no such thing as an instant fitness program and no one can do it for you. If you’re going to get the results, you have to do the work. Get a buddy, find the program you dislike the least, get a dog — there are all sorts of little tricks to motivate yourself and we need to use them all.” One ever important issue: posture.
From now on, when it comes to fitness questions, maybe we should just ask ourselves, “What would Sheila do?” Keep moving!