My Ayurvedic Retreat in Sri Lanka
In this age of FOMO*, my greatest fear is missing out on the best version of me, so a secluded forest retreat offering traditional Ayurvedic therapies is a very appealing prospect after months of travelling and two frenetic weeks here in Sri Lanka researching hotels. My mind is clogged with details, my smiling muscles are stuck, I really need a rest and 8 days of dedicated, unapologetic me-time seem necessary rather than indulgent.
Reached by a bumpy track used only by villagers who subsist by the nearby lake, the retreat reveals itself slowly amongst fields of ripening corn, high grasses. Spacious and airy, its grass-thatched pavilions blend with the earth from which they are made. Warm breeze is a backdrop to the shriekings, warbles, and twitterings of innumerable birdlife
It is an idyll, and my expectations are high.
On my wish list: eradicate all skeletal twinges, rediscover restful sleep, stave off impending disease with a strict vegan diet, and reaffirm at least a decade of abandoned new years’ resolutions.
I’ve arrived late (it’s 7pm, and tonight I’m the only guest), and being led along the lantern lit pathway to my pretty bungalow I’m relishing a big lie-in tomorrow after the last week of pre-dawn risings for safari drives in Sri Lanka’s many wildlife reserves. I’ve literally been fantasising about how much sleep I’ll get here ever since I discovered this place last week.
“Yoga at 6 am madam”.
More like a command than an invitation, and anxious not to miss out on anything, my first night was fitful, and like the next, interrupted by anxiety-filled dreams that woke me from a sweat. I was, however, on time for yoga in the candlelit pavilion by the swimming pool, which I was already making a mental note to head towards after breakfast.
Kingsley, finely-made and supple like a willow reed, assured me that the most effective pranic energy (the universal, life-giving energythat underpins all yoga), was to be gained “between 4.30 and 6 am”. I sensed a week of very early nights, and indeed, dinners are very low-key, so that turning in early feels like the natural order of things.
His yoga is oriented around traditional sun salutations in an unusually measured way, one which I’d not encountered in 35 years of yoga, and certainly a style which I believe I can readily incorporate into daily life. His teachings of mudras (hand-held postures for breathing and meditation), usefully repetitive, so now I think I can do those on my own too. For 2 hours he created a peaceful balance between restfulness and action, time went quickly and I walked to breakfast feeling flexed, but very tired.
Each morning there is a new adventure on the breakfast table created by Sunil, slow cooked in hand-made clay pots over wood-fired stoves.
It always begins with ‘herbal forridge’, a pale green coconut and rice soup flavoured with forest leaves and tasting like cream of grass, followed by a selection of deliciously spiced vegetables and pulses, mainly steamed, boiled or braised, and fresh juice from an incredible array of fruits I’ve never seen before - the pillowy softness of the anti-diabetic ambarella fruit, ‘cancer-killing’ soursap’s fibrous white nodules pulped to a tarty sweetness, the comforting taste of the wood apple. I’ve not had anything twice in a week and I love this start to the day, even if it wasn’t good for me.
Breakfast porridge, above, a coconut broth with softened rice and flavoured with a variety of wild herbs, below, and rather a lot of garlic.
Like all of the public buildings here, the dining room and kitchen are welcoming, shaded spaces, with minimal walls and mud floors. The steeply pitched rooves covered in untrimmed grass which dances in the breeze along the eaves create an un-selfconscious environment at one with the forest beyond, and a pleasantly surprising contrast to the discreet 5-star service and amenities. There is absolutely nothing one wants for here. Fresh linen napery each day on a perfectly set table, jugs of hot and cold water, crystal clean glassware, abundant fluffy towels, plenty of power points and lights just where you need them. This disarmingly exclusive forest retreat isn’t a bit like any of those institutions I’ve experienced in India, where an awkwardly clinical environment and the feeling of things being ‘not quite clean’ leave one with the impression that the experience is to be endured rather than enjoyed.
On entering an ayurvedic retreat centre, one becomes a patient.
Aryuveda, which means ‘Knowledge of Life and Longevity’, is an ancient and complex system of medical knowledge that has been extolling the virtues of balance, since the time of the Buddha, some 2500 years ago. With its roots in even older classical Hindu mythology, and its very own god, Dhanvantari, its methods can seem at once practical and arcane. Food and medicine are one and the same, so every aspect of what one eats here is part of the therapy - as is what one doesn't.
Diagnosis is approached, and treatment assessed, though a comprehensive understanding of the five senses and during my initial consultation with the resident doctor I answer many specific questions concerning my physical and mental state. Pronouncing me a ‘Pitta’ type, verified by a blood pressure reading which she diagnosed as “a bit low”, my daily prescription is written on a piece of recycled brown paper, which I hand to Manil, the woman charged with my recovery in the treatment centre where I spend the next 4 hours after breakfast of every day.
Hotel spas throughout the subcontinent routinely offer Aryuvedic therapies - perhaps the most picturesquely iconic being the Shirodhara oil treatment, where a stream of herb-infused warm oil is run continuously onto one’s forehead for 40 minutes or so, in an effort to calm the nerves, balance the mind. My last experience at a place in the Nicobar Andaman islands saw me jumping off the table in impatient irritation, unable to cope with such an excess of calm, but during the similar treatments which were prescribed for the first two days here, I fell into a drifty, wafty twilight space, no doubt lulled by the secure warmth and safety of Manil’s firm head and body massage and divine, repeat divine, foot reflexology massage which lasted for 2 and half hours.
All of my massages concluded with a herbal steam bath in a wooden cabin whose wood-fired steam puffed up through fresh-cut leafy branches strewn across the floor. I had the cabin to myself, and was extremely relieved that the awful alternative experience of being encased in a steaming horizontal casket with my head sticking out one end was not to be repeated. This is often the format in Indian clinics and some more homely places I’d seen elsewhere in Sri Lanka, (they have been designed after the ancient stone baths found in the Sivikasotthi-Sala, or 'lying-in hospitals' created here by King Panakabhaya (reigned 437 BCE to 367 BCE), in various parts of the country, see below). INTERESTING FACT: Sri Lanka is the first place known to have hospitals!
Thankfully the steam cabin can’t be locked from the inside, so falling asleep here, not necessarily advised, but an unstoppable force on nature on these first two days, isn’t as dangerous as it might be.
Lunch, another herbal feast, beautifully served by the dedicated staff who are so happy to show you the leaves and barks and berries garnered from the property’s organic gardens to create the meals, slips one effortlessly into the afternoon where naps are encouraged, and surprisingly necessary after such an enervating morning of treatment. When you tire of snoozing by the pool there are gentle activities to wrest you from delicious boredom.
Each day, a small and gentle adventure beckons. The lotus filled lake is a heavenly destination in the late afternoon when waterbirds return to fish and small groups of men or women gather to bathe discreetly amongst the reedy shallows, and as my energy returned over the ensuing days, I’d set off in a rattling tuk tuk to explore nearby ancient ruins, being sure to return before 4.30 pm when it was not unusual for wild elephant to stalk through the forests and surprise one by the side of the road.
My first day, however, left me feeling lifeless, wilting, utterly exhausted and entirely lacking appetite, so I retired early to ensure I wouldn’t miss yoga.
By Day 2 I had a raging, nauseating migraine. It really could only be one of two things - either an excess of garlic, which made its presence felt in everything from morning porridge to supper’s soup, or, a lack of caffeine, which I’d given up along with dairy, wheat, white rice, refined sugar, eggs and meat 2 days ago.
Fortunately the doctor didn’t object to my self-diagnosis, telephoning for a pot of coffee to be brought immediately. It’s effect was deliciously immediate, and henceforth became a part of my daily therapy - a cup of steaming hot coffee brought in on the hour, every hour, throughout my morning treatments - even whilst soaking in my bathtub.
As strange as this might seem to the purist in me, within the ayurvedic scheme of things, balance was being restored, my humours humoured, an urge balanced by moderation, could this be the very essence of Ayurveda’s ancient wisdom?
Sceptics scoff and point to recent data that says there’s no scientific evidence that any ayurvedic medicines are effective as currently practiced, politely calling it out as pseudo-, trans- or proto- science. However, there are more than 20,000 registered practitioners in Sri Lanka, following the establishment in 1980 of a ministry of Indigenous Medicine to revive and regulate Ayurveda, with under- and postgraduate courses as well as an MD course at The Institute of Indigenous Medicine (affiliated to the University of Colombo). Sri Lankans routinely consult the 67 ayurvedic hospitals across the country, and from my many conversations it is clear that it doesn’t just appeal to those who couldn’t afford Western healthcare.
My treatments didn’t include any oral medicine, and I opted not to undergo the famous panchkarma or ‘5 actions’ purging treatments. Knowing that within 4 hours of swallowing the innocuous-looking herbal pastilles after dinner I’d spend the rest of the night in the bathroom and the next day exhausted again, I opted to continue along my regime of massages which varied subtly from day to day as my system strengthened. The reflexology intensified, pressure points were more strongly activated with precision and by Day 4, I was feeling energised enough to tackle a bicycle ride in the afternoon.
And my skin ! Wow! I now really know the meaning of ‘satiny skin’. Over the final 4 days, my beauty treatments which are also said to strengthen the skin (after all our largest organ), began with an aromatic and antiseptic scrub of fresh tumeric, sandalwood and ghee (clarified butter), followed of course by a steam bath, and a refreshing soak in a herb-infused tub from where I could languidly watch birds twitter amongst the dark leaves of the huge mango tree shading the tucked-away bathing area.
The following day after the usual herbal massages, I was vigorously pounced with a fist-sized muslin bag oozing with a medicated hot rice pudding mixture, which was subsequently smeared all over me and left to dry. Thoroughly starched, the next 20 minutes in the steam bath turned my crunchy carapace to glue, but the after-effects were truly gorgeous - glistening, taut, smooth skin … all over.
By the final day I couldn’t imagine what else might be brought from the kitchen to enhance my mind, body and beauty - I was feeling fabulous. Sleeping well, eating lightly, feeling limber and finally, joyously, back to yoga with Kinglsey, who wasn’t a bit put out that I’d taken a few days out to sleep in.
In the chronicles of Sri Lankan kings are written the beauty secrets of their queens. How fitting then, on my last day, the queen of treatments - a hot milk massage by Manil who excelled herself with lavish care and gravitas. If at any stage in my existence I could say that “my body is my temple’’, this was it. There is something utterly extravagant about using food to anoint one’s body in the pursuit of beauty and there is only one thing to do - give into it with abandon!
My entire week was crowned by a long soak in a pink lotus flower-filled bathtub as the long rays of the setting sun reached through the forest surrounds. My ayurvedic experience was complete.
If I judge my own results against the entirely empirical parameters of pain and fatigue, I can only say the outcome was a real success. My specific pain points were addressed with elaborate treatments that including pouncing with hot oil pressed through heated pouches filled with steamed leaves and building a ‘dam’ over the persistent tendonitis behind my knee, into which this same medicated oil was poured and left to cool.
While it could be that my own doctor’s assessment of its cause as ‘age’ was correct - the fact is, one doesn’t have to live with it, and that along with my long-standing hip flexor issue which no physiotherapist has been able to alleviate for years, was, by the end of 8 days, just a memory.
Today, 3 weeks later, my body remains pain free, my appetite has normalised, and the 3 kilos which I effortlessly (and unintentionally), shed haven’t piled back on. I’m noticing a greater sense of selectivity in what I want to eat, an intolerance to oily and processed food and I’m drinking lots more water.
Apparently it takes ten days for one’s body to eradicate all traces of adrenalin created through the stresses of living, and patients who check in for long periods will be able to undertake more challenging therapies, and I would definitely persevere with the caffeine withdrawal, but I spoke to several guests who came and went during my stay, and all agreed that even 2 days of treatment created a beneficial feeling.
I've still some work to do on all those missed New Years' Resolutions, but certainly this year's is still hanging in there by a thread...
With wellness becoming an increasingly important reason for travel its places like these which will fill that unique niche between resort, retreat and clinic. I’ll definitely be back.
*FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
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