Sheila Cluff


It was something that came out of desperation. I wanted my teaching career to last more than a year! I couldn’t get girls to come to my classes, they were too boring.
I play Mrs. Claus on ice every year, and we’ve raised thousands of dollars for Christmas gifts for foster kids. I’m fully booked next season.

Founder and Owner, The Oaks at Ojai

Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you meet someone so inspiring that you find yourself saying ‘wow’ whenever they finish a sentence. We are especially fortunate in the spa world: it seems to be full of those kinds of people. None more so than Sheila Cluff, Founder and Owner of The Oaks at Ojai. Not just because of what she has done, but also because of what she continues to do.

To try to put Sheila’s life and work into some kind of perspective, next year she celebrates 40 years of spa ownership. When she opened The Oaks at Ojai in 1977, it was one of only a handful of spas in California, a state that now has thousands. But if that was the highlight of Sheila’s career, it was the culmination of two decades of pioneering work in wellness and health. Work which included the small matter of inventing aerobics.

“It was something that came out of desperation. I wanted my teaching career to last more than a year! I couldn’t get girls to come to my classes, they were too boring. So I persuaded my school principal to buy a piano and hire a piano player – there was no easily portable music technology back then – and I started what I initially called cardiovascular dance”. By plotting positions around the gymnasium and using popular music, Sheila was able to get girls not just to participate in her classes, but to love them. And so aerobics was born.

Before she knew it, her students’ moms were demanding to know why their girls were doing better in class, and were fitter and healthier. “It was a case of ‘I’ll have what she’s having!’ This was in the early 1960’s, when women had almost no exercise options. Before long I was hiring church halls for classes and giving classes to men as well.” That classic aerobics instructor look, the baggy vest over a leotard, was also invented by Sheila: “Well, I couldn’t have my boobs bouncing in front of a class of men. So I covered my leotard with one of my husband’s vests!”

Aerobics really became what we know it as today after Sheila’s family moved from her native Canada to upstate New York as her husband’s career progressed. Sheila was not registered to teach, so she pitched her cardiovascular dance classes to the local YMCA, and they bit. “We ran a lot of different classes, from baby swim, to get fit for skiing, to aerobics, which by then I was calling slimnastics. I’m glad that name didn’t stick!”

As her fitness business progressed, she moved on to offering what we would now refer to as wellness – a combination of exercise and diet that people could adapt for their everyday lives. For its time, revolutionary. “It was an alternative to fat camps, which to me were nothing short of torture. It was about changing lifestyles. Since then I’ve been blamed for a lot of people turning their lives around. I’m very happy to take the blame.”

Now past her 80th birthday, Sheila continues to inspire. After a 45 year break she took up competitive ice-dance again nearly a decade ago, and continues to perform despite her busy travel schedule: “I play Mrs. Santa Claus on ice every year, and we’ve raised thousands of dollars for Christmas gifts for foster kids in California. I’m fully booked next season.”

She is also looking forward to the ski season (“I intend to do it into my 90’s”), partly because she gets a free ski pass now that she is over 80. They don’t make too many of those free passes. They don’t make many like Sheila Cluff either.


It was something that came out of desperation. I wanted my teaching career to last more than a year! I couldn’t get girls to come to my classes, they were too boring.