Mind, Body, Spirit

Say Hello to the Shiny, Happy People of Aspen City of Wellbeing

This posse of freethinkers is striving to reach official designation, one local at a time.

By Amanda Rae May 24, 2017 Published in the Summer 2017 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Yogi's at the first annual Aspen City of Well Being Lead with Love retreat. 

Image: Seth Beckton

Scott Mattice credits lunchtime at the Pitkin County Public Works headquarters with improving morale among his men. Every other Wednesday around noon, the road and bridge superintendent and his nine-man crew can be found outdoors in the grassy courtyard, stretching and doing breathwork for 20 to 30 minutes. Chased with a nutritional chat over a healthful lunch of whole foods and stevia-sweetened beverages offered gratis, the sessions comprise the independent, nonprofit Aspen City of Wellbeing’s (ACW) “Recharge” program, designed to improve health and happiness among county and city workers (employees in Aspen’s parks and rec department are also participating). On alternate Wednesdays, a licensed therapist offers chair massages.

“The crew is more … sparky,” Mattice says. “Conversation at lunchtime is about what they’re eating—good fats, bad fats, sugars. For a department on the road and working long hours, the quick-and-easy isn’t good for us, and a lot of people didn’t realize that.”

While it may be too soon to track increased productivity, feedback from the pilot program, which ends in July, has been unanimously positive. Anecdotally, road and bridge laborers report less pain and stress, and more flexibility, than they had before the sessions began. The most telling measure of success, however, according to meditation and yoga instructor and ACW executive director Jess Ewart, was observed organically. The guys overheard a radio host mention that Garfield County had received a workplace wellness grant—making it a regional “leader” in Colorado. Ewart got an earful from the crew: “We’re the first!” they exclaimed.

“Ownership—that’s the cultural shift we’re talking about,” says Ewart, touching on ACW’s core mission: to shepherd local citizens toward positive patterns using thorough R&D. “It’s bottom-up change, and not all at once,” she adds. “It’s one worker at a time.”

One research-backed solution, says ACW founder and co-director Gina Murdock: connection. Relationships are crucial to wellbeing, which she defines as “an awareness that you have a choice, and making the highest positive choice for optimal human potential.”

In addition to some half dozen public programs, offered at 12 locations in partnership with the valley’s five largest employers, ACW provides crucial outreach through its “Love Ninjas.” The volunteer posse, now at least 30 strong, was introduced during the theatrical Aspen Cares Fashion Show last March, an annual fundraiser for the Aspen Hope Center (also an ACW partner). There, Murdock led a crew of black-hooded models down the runway to a downtempo ballad. The message was clear: depression, suicide, self-harm, and suffering are ills of isolation, and Aspen—beneath its shiny, happy veneer—cultivates them in spades. The Love Ninja charge: smiles, hugs, and random acts of kindness around town.

Murdock is the first to admit that these dreamy concepts may seem difficult for folks to put into practice. She’s struggled to enact them, too. In fact, Murdock’s disillusionment following the divisive 2016 presidential election and her own seemingly Sisyphean efforts with Aspen bureaucracies bummed her out this winter, inspiring her to conceive the playful Love Ninjas campaign.

“When you have a community of other people making [positive] choices, it becomes easier, right?” she says. “I see us as warriors for shifting the paradigm toward the type of world we want to live in.”

What does that world look like, exactly? Does “city of wellbeing” conjure visions of patchouli-scented yoga fanatics slurping overpriced green smoothies and singing Kumbaya? None other than Deepak Chopra coined the term while here to speak at a mind-body-spirit series at the Aspen Institute in January 2014. Taken in by the stunning beauty, intellectual capacity of locals, and financial resources abundant in the land of the Aspen Idea, Chopra told Murdock (who also founded the Aspen Yoga Society) that our fair city could become a mecca, a replicable model even, for wellbeing. In fact, he said, it “should be the first official City of Wellbeing.”

At least 20 other influential leaders in the global wellness community—Goldie Hawn, Rod Stryker, and Seane Corn included—agreed, pledging support by participating in ACW’s kickoff fundraiser, Lead with Love: A Mind Body Spirit Rx Experience, held last fall at the Aspen Meadows Resort. The four-day festival drew an average of 200 guests daily and netted approximately $50,000 for the organization; Ewart hopes to triple that sum when the event returns October 26-29, 2017.

The big challenge: quantifying wellbeing. In addition to mining extensive data already collected by Aspen agencies, ACW has collaborated with the City of Santa Monica, which has its own open-source “Wellbeing Index,” to more accurately pinpoint progress here. ACW plans to install its own Roaring Fork Valley rubric next year. The ultimate wish: for the City of Aspen to adopt an official wellness department overseen by staff, similar to the Canary Initiative.

For now, it seems that some Aspenites may indeed be growing healthier from the ground up. Says Mattice of the Recharge program, “I have a feeling we’re gonna beg to do it again—or implement something on our own.” aspencityofwellbeing.org

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Letting loose at Lead with Love. This year's retreat is scheduled for October 26-29, 2017. 

Image: Seth Beckton 

Morning Routine

Start fresh this summer with a consistent beginning to your day. Aspen City of Wellbeing founder Gina Murdock says of her morning routine, “These three things are nonnegotiable. Then it’s about getting away from toxicity—in food, relationships, job—and making healthy choices about how you lead your life.”

1. Start with even just five minutes of a meditative or reflective practice.
2. Then, some sort of movement, such as yoga—sun salutations, cat/cow, child’s pose—or stretching.
3. Drink warm water with lemon.

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