In a quiet valley surrounded by the Santa Catalina Mountains, there’s a 25-foot pole with a disk at the very top. I’m climbing up at a snail’s pace to the encouraging sounds—You can do it! One more step—of 14 people whom I just met, including the belay team holding the safety rope. As I put my left foot on the disk, a gust of wind hits me squarely in the face and sends a shiver down my neck. All of a sudden I am shaking like a leaf, covered in goose bumps and terrified. I try to recall the instructor’s words—It’s as easy as climbing up on a chair—butthat seemed well and good when I was down there, standing on firm ground. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?

It’s been less than 24 hours since I arrived at Miraval, a luxury health resort tucked away in the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson, Arizona, where the modus operandi is balance and the goal is living in the present. The elegant casitas spread over 400 acres of manicured lawns with flowering succulents, prairies of wild flowers and gushing rivulets aren’t enough to keep guests lounging about once they consider what’s on the activities menu. Prior to my arrival, I had a number of phone conversations with the resort’s fitness manager, nutritionist and spa director to come up with a customized program of seminars, activities and physical challenges that, according to their splashy website, would allow me to connect with life, meaning and purpose.

Somewhere in their colorful brochure I read that the Miraval experience creates awareness and heightens the senses so that you can appreciate the moment and bring life into balance. Sounds good to me.

With a plethora of activities to choose from including meditation, rock climbing, hiking, nutrition and photography classes, guests are free to design daily agendas to suit their moods and goals. Without a moment’s hesitation I signed up for a five-day retreat.

A veteran spa visitor, I was looking for more than yoga and mud wraps. Though certainly Miraval offers plenty of spa services and meditation classes, what intrigued me about the resort was its Life in Balance programs, which are designed for guests with a specific goal or focus. Whole Person Healing, for example, helps individuals who are recovering from an illness, surgery or injury readjust to a balanced life by taking into account not just physical healing but also emotional, psychological and spiritual recovery. Other programs include Smoking Liberation, Stress Management and Love, Sex and Energy and each combines exercise and healthful eating with an emphasis on the mind-body connection.

My goal during my stay is not only to put to the challenge some perceived physical and mental tolerances but also to figure out how to prepare for an upcoming biking trip in Ireland. With that in mind I sign up for the Focused Athletic Training, a program that aids guests take a sport to the next level. Over the course of my stay, I meet with fitness manager Mary Horn to come up with a systematic training plan and learn about sports nutrition and hydration. Herself a triathlon and Ironman athlete, Mary has helped seasoned and beginner athletes reach their full potential, whether they’re training for their first 5K race or their tenth marathon. Mary says she loves hearing about guests who thought they’d train for one event and end up making a lifelong commitment to staying active. “Sometimes I go out to watch a 5K race and I see a woman in her sixties or seventies crossing the finish line. It’s the most beautiful thing,” Mary says. “I cry every time.”

After determining my fitness level, we discuss my goals and timeline and then she designs a program that includes endurance and speed workouts. “Being fit and healthy is not just about losing weight,” she says. “It’s also about having fun.”

Which brings me to Quantum Leap, a challenge course for adventure seekers like myself looking to explore the limits of their comfort zone. Having taken an earlier seminar on “mindfulness”—the practice of approaching life with self-awareness and self-acceptance to promote physical and mental health”—I realize that my biggest obstacle goes beyond the 25-foot pole and my fear of heights. With the little voice at the back of my head whispering things like “Oh, I hope I can climb better than him” or “I bet I look fat in these shorts,” I grasp that my mind is rarely in the same moment or “place” as my body. Instead of just being, I often worry about the future, dwell on the past or think about the moment in an abstract way. “With intention,” the mindfulness coach explained, “we can train ourselves to be more fully engaged in the now.” So I force myself to quiet the chatter in my head, I take a deep breath and become still; suddenly the astounding mountains in front of me come into focus. I acknowledge the strength it took me to climb up, smile and leap. For the next few days, whether I am doing yoga, getting a hot stone massage or lying by the pool, I focus on experiencing the moment-to-moment with receptiveness and openness.

I attend a guided meal with a nutritionist, where we’re asked to really taste our food, the textures, the flavors and the aromas to determine if we truly like what we selected from the buffet. This is Mindful Eating, a class offered by the nutrition department, which approaches healthful eating and weight management by stressing a nurturing way to connect with ourselves. The emphasis is on becoming our own best experts about what our bodies really need and want. Most hands go up when the nutritionist asks how many of us eat lunch at our desks or dinners in front of the TV. “Sometimes we just shovel food in our mouths without really paying attention,” she says. After spending 10 minutes eating in silence we talk about our discoveries. “With no distractions I just realized that I really don’t like scrambled eggs,” one man says. Another person was able to notice the point at which she became full—and she stopped eating. By setting the fork down between each bite, I was able to pace myself and appreciate the meal. “Eating is something we sometimes do because we have to, but what if we took the time to really enjoy it?” the nutritionist asks.

On my last day at Miraval I sign up for a rock climbing class. Like other challenge activities at the resort, this one integrates elements of trust (on yourself and your safety team), balance and breathing and allows you to discover how mindfulness can change your life. I fall in love with it immediately and find both the physical challenge as well as the creativity involved exhilarating. If only for a moment, I am so focused on climbing that I feel calm and fully present. There’s no chatter, no analysis and no judgment. I am here now.