I’m not quite sure what happened, but these days, you couldn’t throw a crystal singing bowl very far without it hitting an ayurvedic spa. They’re everywhere. And inaccessible: Too many of them deal with the subject in a mystifying way with lots of coded words like virechana karma and kati vasti in the spa menu with vague explanations of what you’re signing up for.
As it turns out, having an ayurvedic treatment is a little bit more complicated than, say, booking a Swedish massage. The key to it all is to know what your body type is. Everything – from the oils used in the massage to the medicinal herbs you take, or even the actual treatment – hangs on it. Who knew?
All the more reason to applaud the good folk at the Anantara Spa at Anantara Peace Haven, a green-clad 152-room five-star resort that’s framed by the wild surfed coastline of Tangalle – a three-and-a-half hour drive south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.
Here, in a quiet, white-walled complex filled with light, air, and calming water features, I found answers to a lifetime of perplexed perusals of ayurvedic menus.
THE SCIENCE OF LIFE
At the heart of the spa is Dr Preethika, a sixth generation ayurvedic healer. Delicately boned and dressed in an immaculate sari, she radiates a soothing energy; her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile hiding the steely firmness of a Ceylonese Mary Poppins.
Every guest at the Anantara gets a free consultation session with her, and based on her assessment, specific ayurvedic treatments are suggested.
Ayurveda, she told me at our first meeting, came to Sri Lanka from India around 500 BC. Literally “the science of life”, its goal is promote a healthy long life. This is achieved internally (through medicines and tonics), externally (body treatments using herbal oils and compresses), and spiritually (yoga and meditation).
And at the centre of ayurveda is a person’s body type. There are seven in all. Each is the result of genes and karma, and a combination of one or more of three energy centres in the body – vata, pita and kapha.
A vata body type is symbolised by air, and is characterised by thin bodies, dry skin, prominent veins, and a nervous, moody disposition. Pita bodies are anchored by fire and they tend to have oily skin, with sensitive or emotional temperaments. Kapha bodies have more water in them, and tend to be bigger, taller and muscular, while being gentle and slow to anger.
After a combination of pulse-taking that’s similar to the TCM method and a probing discussion of my sleeping patterns, toiletry habits and diet, Dr Preethika announced I was a vata/pita combination body type with a touch more pita.
At a follow-up life coaching session, she proceeded to lay down guidelines prescribed by the ayurvedic masters. Sleep on the left side of the body. Wake up each day between 5.20 and 5.40am. “This is when the body’s vital energies are at the optimum.” Scrape the tongue and drink warm water. Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner.
For my vata/pita body type, wheat flour should be avoided, along with sour fruit, vinegar, shell-fish, strawberries and cooked tomatoes (arrivederci spaghetti marinara, I thought wistfully). Greens are good, especially spinach. Eat before 7.30pm. Eat fresh home-cooked meals and avoid warmed up leftovers. Spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander and cloves, she said, ticking off her fingers, are good, whilst some chili is excellent for digestion. And don’t eat till you’re full.
“Follow these simple things and you will lead a long healthy life,” Dr Preethika promised, her head tilting to the side.
“Life is too stressful today. People die of stroke and children have diabetes.” She clucked her tongue in sadness.
A NEW WORLD OF WELLNESS
In the days that followed, I was rubbed down with hot poultices stuffed with sesame seeds and grey nickarbean nuts. My hair, forehead and body were drenched in warm oil suffused with everything from bees wax and Indian gooseberries, to sarsaparilla, and the fruit of the avenue tree.
Nothing touched my body that hadn’t been specially prescribed by Dr Preethika according to my vata/pita body type.
And as I moved from one therapy to another – a morning session of shirodhara where warm oil was dripped onto the “third eye”, to an afternoon treatment of pizhichil where two therapists washed my supine body with a nutty-scented oil – I came to the gradual understanding that being rubbed down with the wrong type of oil or drinking the wrong herbal tea would have been like giving a cough drop as a cure to someone with a kidney infection: it won’t hurt, but what would be the point?
At the end of the three days – I was on an abbreviated ayurvedic programme, the spa normally offering a comprehensive 7-day experience that covers everything from deep sleep and natural weight loss to detox – I was left with the singular realisation that a whole new world of wellness had opened for me.
And I felt all the better for it.
Anantara Spa, Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, www.anantara.com