There was a time when “wellness” and “mindfulness” were part of a lexicon used only by vegan hippies and spiritual eco-warriors. In the last decade, however, these terms have bulldozed their way into mainstream thinking as people wake up to the benefits of incorporating healthy practices for mind, body and soul into their daily lives.
According to wellness consultant Ekraj Gajurel, this increased awareness is a natural reaction to the stresses of modern life: “Our working life has changed a lot. Everybody is so busy, especially now, after global recession and times of economic hardship. Companies don’t want to hire more people, they want to cost-control, so they give you more work, and higher expectations, and this inevitably causes mental stress.”
Of course, while we may embrace the idea that a kale smoothie and Ashtanga yoga session are the best start to the day, the realities of a hectic work schedule leave many of our health ambitions as, well, just that – ambitions. For business travelers in particular, crazy timetables play havoc with the ability to hold down a regular exercise routine, long periods away from home can be depressing, and let’s not get started on dietary habits on the road. Cue the “wellness retreat.”
This voguish term covers all manner of offerings, from intense retreats that combine hardcore detoxes with military-style boot camps, to luxury resorts with dedicated spa facilities and healthy cuisine. “It’s no longer enough to escape the demands of life,” says Karina Stewart, co-founder of Kamalaya Koh Samui. “People are looking for meaningful holidays that can support them to improve the way they experience life.”
For my debut into the world of wellness, I headed to The Andaman, A Luxury Collection Resort, Langkawi, which has partnered with V Integrated Wellness to offer guests a complete solution.
Force of Nature
I thought I knew what to expect: essentially a bit of R&R with a side order of healthy living that would let me escape the drudgery of real life for a while. And to be sure, this was delivered in spades thanks to an idyllic location on a sweep of golden sand surrounded by jungle and five-star facilities. But there’s a difference between a luxury vacation and a wellness retreat.
For starters, I’d completely underestimated the healing power of nature. The first day of my tailored wellness experience began with a rainforest awakening – a guided tour of the jungle environs, spying on local wildlife such as rare gliding lemurs and learning about local herbal remedies.
We also visited the unique onsite marine lab and coral nursery where guests can help to rebuild the reef that was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. Even when left to one’s own devices, the spectacular beauty of the natural world was all-encompassing. At breakfast, I watched a water monitor lizard haul its fishy catch onto the beach, while at lunch I shared some fruit with a family of monkeys who came to investigate my balcony.
Surrounded by such delights it was easy to forget the pressures of modern life and be lulled by the unhurried pace of nature, the simplicity of it all putting things in perspective and offering a healthy reality check: Is it really worth worrying about that one e-mail in the grand scheme of things?
Feeling relaxed and peaceful, I entered the second phase of my retreat: A Holistic Lifestyle Assessment with onsite wellness guru Ekraj Gajurel. We began with a Biologicial Impedance Analysis at the V Fitness studio, a painless machine (barring the results) that assesses biometrics such as body fat, water retention, muscle mass and cell vitality.
I was also hooked up to the sensors of an emWave machine that measured my stress levels, visually denoted either by smooth curves (zen) or sharp, jerky lines (frazzled). Despite my newfound sense of calm, the display of erratic lines revealed I had a long way to go to achieve true serenity.
Next was a seriously in-depth consultation on factors that could be affecting physical and mental health, from sleep patterns and water consumption to recurring dreams and sex life. Such topics wouldn’t normally be up for discussion with a stranger, but Gajurel’s friendly, therapist-like approach encouraged the details to come tumbling out, allowing him to hone in on problem areas and begin to tailor a personalized plan.
Like 95 percent of the people Gajurel sees, neck, back and shoulder pain is a recurring gripe. During a one-on-one master class, Gajurel demonstrated a series of 10 simple yoga exercises, easily replicable at home, to alleviate the symptoms. To address my apparent inner turmoil, we practiced deep breathing exercises – which made an immediate difference – while Gajurel gently chattered away, letting his lifelong learnings wash over me with hard-to-defy wisdom.
“People always think they can control everything, but it’s not like that. Don’t try to control the situation, just do your part as well as possible; the result is not in your hands, but doing your best is. So don’t divert your energy towards worrying about the result and you will release the stress.”
Menus and Massages
Clients come to Gajurel for help with all kinds of ailments, and though he can’t quantify success with scientific results, he claims to have helped people with all manner of things, from diet to quitting smoking and battling cancer. He is well versed in nutrition, lambasting the effects of soft drinks while championing the benefits of balanced pH levels, and his focus on a healthy diet is reflected throughout the resort.
All-day dining Tepian Laut restaurant, for example, offers a V Integrated Wellness health cuisine menu. Rather than having one or two healthy dishes added as a footnote, the entire menu incorporates gluten-free, macrobiotic, vegetarian and sustainable options for delicious, guilt-free dining. Over at the beachfront restaurant Jala meanwhile, the focus is on sustainability, where fresh “catch of the day” is provided by local fishermen.
Massage and spa are also key elements of most wellness experiences, with treatments customized to achieve different results. At the open-air V Botanical Spa, which offered breathtaking views of the bay from its clifftop position, I indulged in the three-hour V Signature “Song of the Malay Rainforest” Ritual treatment. This involved a foot scrub, body wrap, cleansing bath, traditional Malay massage, hair treatment and a soothing facial that left me in a blissful, meditative state.
My wellness journey continued on the other side of the island at The Westin Langkawi Resort & Spa, which focuses on “Six Pillars of Wellness” – eat well, move well, sleep well, work well, feel well and play well. There was a far less structured program here – that many may prefer – and what’s particularly useful is that the Pillars concept is replicated throughout all of Starwood’s Westin properties, meaning business travelers can reap the benefits during work trips to city destinations as well.
I got the most from the “move well” pillar, which saw me embark on an invigorating bike ride exploring the surrounding area, join a morning jog led by the dedicated running concierge, and enjoy a yoga session at the beach pavilion – all complimentary activities. The focus is on facilitating guests to achieve a healthy state, with helpful touches such as providing gym kit and trainers on request.
After a few days in paradise, it’s easy to feel revitalized. But the key factor was that the experience gave me deeper insights into my current state and left me feeling empowered to make changes back in the everyday world. And this, ultimately, is the point.
Kamalaya’s Stewart agrees: “For long-term benefits, a wellness retreat is a great opportunity to really immerse oneself in an environment where the old ways can be set aside in order to learn and engage in new activities. Guests leave with the resources to establish these changes in their daily lives, and long-term benefits come as a result of these take-home tools.”
This year, luxury hotel group Aman launched its Aman Wellness concept across its global portfolio, with a few select resorts handpicked to deliver “Individual Wellness Immersions” and group retreat experiences. One such resort is Amanbugh in India. Drawing on local heritage, guests can select from four- to 21-day Ayurvedic programs. These include daily spa therapies, expert yoga and meditation classes, one-on-one consultations with an Ayurvedic physician, cultural experiences and dosha (Ayurvedic energy)-specific meal plans. Internet rates for a seven-night stay in a Courtyard Haveli Suite with breakfast and daily yoga in mid-January start from $7,882. aman.com/wellness
Chiva-Som in Thailand’s Hua Hin was one of the earliest players in the wellness sphere, launching 21 years ago. It offers a holistic combination of rejuvenating treatments, focused nutrition, personalized programs and an onsite naturopathic doctor who can help with specific health conditions and scientific information. Popular programs include detox and weight management, but more niche options available include a “Cranial Relief Retreat” for those suffering from migraines and an “Emotional Wellbeing” program that involves things like yoga, acupuncture and naturopathic consultations. A three-night stay starts from THB99,000 ($2,800). chivasom.com
Como Shambhala Estate
The Bali-based resort is the flagship of Como Hotels and Resorts’ wellness brand. Guests are in the hands of onsite experts including a yoga teacher, Ayurvedic doctor and resident dietician. Personalized programs follow an initial consultation and combine elements of detox, fitness, spa, meditation and outdoor activity to help guests achieve goals ranging from stress management to weight loss. Wellness programs last from three to seven nights. Daily rates start from $850 for a double room. comohotels.com/comoshambhalaestate
By Tamsin Cocks