“What the hell is Ayurveda?”
In all fairness, I told people on Instagram to ask me anything about my Sri Lanka Ayurveda retreat so I don’t think they were necessarily being rude with this question, just curious. As was I.
To be honest, I had no idea what Sri Lankan Ayurveda or any kind of Ayurveda for this matter was about except that I had a vague notion, one could call it wishful thinking, that there would be massages involved. That was enough motivation to say yes when Neue Wege, a German tour operator for yoga and Ayurveda trips & retreats, invited me to Sri Lanka. That and of course my hope that hoppers would be part of Ayurveda in Sri Lanka too.
Once everything was booked and sorted I decided to keep an open mind and not do too much research about Ayurveda. Some may simply call me lazy (and they wouldn’t be wrong). Neue Wege sent me an impressively sized PDF with information about my upcoming retreat and how to prepare. I read that part and ignored the rest lest I get scared.
While I had no problems to cut out alcohol and meat for the week leading up to the retreat, coffee was a different matter. I hadn’t realized that I had become so in love dependent on coffee.
And then it started.
Sri Lanka Ayurveda Retreat – Dear diary…
I arrive at Villa Safira on September 29th. The staff greets me friendly, the doctors are putting garlands around my neck, and I am getting a glass of fresh papaya juice. Little do they know that I hate papayas. And little do I know that papaya juice will become my new best friend over the next few days.
I get an early lunch before I have my initial doctor’s consultation. My first surprise: yes, there are doctors here, real doctors who have studied over 5 years. We discuss my medical history, I am being asked various questions about my bodily functions, and have my blood pressure measured before Dr. Sarath, the chief doctor, concludes that I am a Pitta/Vata type. I am none the wiser with that information but happy to receive my extensive massage schedule now. I am even happier that while I have just had lunch I am already 3kgs lighter than expected when the put me on a scale. For now, I am off to enjoy my afternoon and do so with a spring in my step.
In the evening, dinner is being set up in front of my terrasse next to the pool. One of the guests is leaving which is calling for a goodbye feast. While I am in no mood for dining with strangers (have I mentioned that other German travelers really have the tendency to irk me?!) and talking about my life as a digital nomad, the food is amazing albeit lacking a cold beer to take the edge off the spicy rice.
But overall, I am starting to think I can do this!
Dear German guests, please don’t put the used flowers from your bath into the pool where staff has to pick them out…
The next morning I am less optimistic mainly because it is bowel cleansing time. I am given coconut water with salt and herbs and realize that I didn’t know coconut water could taste that vile. But after an hour it is all taken care of and while I will hear a lot of talk about bowel movements even during meal times for the next week, I shall spare you the details here.
Next up is a meager breakfast of rice soup which I refuse after a spoon. I feel incredibly picky and high-maintenance but I cannot get it down and settle for more tea instead. I always thought the notion of breakfast being the most important meal of the day was overrated.
In the afternoon, Malaga the tuk-tuk driver from Villa Safira takes me to the supermarket in Bentota. The wifi at the house is being temperamental and I need data to work. I use the time to share a sneaky cigarette with him while we sit in the pouring rain in his tuk-tuk in front of the supermarket. My nicotine cravings taken care of I dream of a pizza (hint: don’t go into a supermarket during an Ayurveda retreat!). Malaga tells me that he doesn’t like pizza and that his favorite food is red rice and chicken. Just as well that he works at an Ayurveda resort in Sri Lanka because there is no shortcoming of red rice unlike pizza which is most definitely not on the menu.
The next few days are irritating, to say the least. I have a headache in the afternoon and while I know this usually comes with a detox it doesn’t help to improve my mood. But what is even worst is my reaction to the massages. Ayurvedic massages are done with copious amounts of oil and especially the Shirodhara, a treatment where liters of oil are gently poured onto your forehead leaves my hair incredibly greasy. While it is considered the holy grail of Ayurveda by many, I am simply annoyed as no amount of shampooing and scrubbing my scalp seems to get the oil off. In addition, my entire body is lathered in a constant oily layer including the bottom of my feet and it drives me crazy. It doesn’t help that the hair oil smells like herbs and spices reminding me of curry.
While the food is delicious on all accounts, the fact that everything is cooked turning vegetables almost mushy makes me crave something I can chew. The lack of anything with bite, anything fresh or raw makes actually quite aggressive, an emotion I don’t know how to deal with and never expected. When I tell my doctors they agree that maybe some salad is in order. From then on I can forgo the soups, get a fruit plate in addition to the papaya juice for breakfast, and a small salad with lunch and dinner. I don’t think I have ever been that excited about eating raw cabbage and carrots!
And then just as it arrived my irritation is gone at my halfway mark. I endure one particularly irritable massage session which has me fighting back tears because I feel so frustrated (to no fault of my therapists or the treatment I should add!) but then it is all gone. I don’t know if it was a trip to the beach, a phone conversation with my mother or the fact that I get to change rooms and move upstairs where I have more privacy. The egg hoppers for dinner might have also helped.
After that, I am flying. I feel light and energetic and welcome both, the mushy vegetables and the oil on my skin. I have intense dreams but they don’t bother me but rather make me turn off the lights a bit earlier. I don’t know what has changed but I welcome the feeling and it is meant to stay.
A few days before my retreat is over I receive some rather shocking personal news. News that I would usually master with copious amounts of alcohol and probably a few anxiety attacks. I can’t resort to the former and instead, I chat with some of my girlfriends and agree to a Shirolepa. While I don’t quite see how wearing a banana leaf hat with herbal paste on my scalp will lessen my stress and anxiety as it is supposed to do, I don’t think I have anything to lose. I don’t feel very enlightened wearing my hat but I don’t get any anxiety attacks either. In fact, I calmly work through the news I have received like a grown-up and eventually at least emotionally, I simply move on.
My treatments get better every day too and even my hair is less oily. I discover my new favorite, a powder massage which is a mix between a scrub and a massage, leaving my skin super soft and most definitely not oily. My final bath is a flower bath, a welcome change from the regular herbal bath, and rivaling anything Instagram has ever seen in Bali. Chandima, my therapist tells me proudly that she has picked the flowers in her own garden. I am touched and decide to use some of them while taking pictures of the property and in the area so they too become immortal on Instagram.
Even more important than my photo assignment is planning my goodbye dinner with the chefs: egg hoppers with their delicious dahl and deep-fried bananas for dessert. I try to convince them that some champagne is in order and in the end, we agree on an additional pot of herbal tea for everyone. Have I mentioned that the warm water you drink every day is referred to as Ayurvedic champagne? As if!
For my goodbye dinner, I don’t mind the communal table and the staff has outdone themselves setting it up beautifully and the garden is decked out in fairy lights and candles.
One of the new arrivals tells us her Ayurveda story and it makes me think. She tells us how she suffers from a rare autoimmune disease and how western medicine has failed her. How she found Ayurveda and how the food and medicine have helped her every day. It is inspiring to say the least. I guess I still underestimated Ayurveda’s true potential. And hearing her story makes me grateful. Grateful that I don’t need Ayurveda but could simply use my time here to make me feel a bit lighter, a bit more grounded, and a bit more balanced.
The next day my inner balance wants coffee and gets it. It doesn’t taste as exciting as I remembered it (thanks fake airport Starbucks!). The meal on the plane to Bangkok has rice and mushy vegetable. Seems like the universe wanted me to have one more Ayurvedic dish for the road.
Some hindsight tips for a Sri Lanka Ayurveda Retreat
- Check what kind of retreat you want to do and choose accordingly. Neue Wege has 4 kinds of retreats which vary in intensity. Mine was an intensive Ayurveda retreat which meant it was a lot more focused on the medicine than on mere spa treatments. This might be great for you if you have some serious conditions to sort out, but might also be overkill if you are just looking for some healthy pampering.
- Write down any existing medical conditions and bring your medical history as well as any doctor’s notes you may have.
- You will speak about bowel movements a lot. Not only with your doctors. Just go with it.
- I would have preferred to expect those symptoms so here you go: Know that headaches, irritation or aggression as in my case can be completely normal. If it gets too bad, speak to your doctors about it so they can adjust your diet or treatments if necessary. Emotions are kept in various organs in our body and detoxing those organs brings up a lot of shit. It is good for you but it usually gets a bit worse before it can get better.
- Get out of the house! You are not sick (or you might be but do what you can) so prevent cabin fever and get moving.
- Villa Safira does provide Ayurvedic shampoo which did a better job of taking the oil out than my own but – pack a tangle teaser and conditioner for your hair. Yup, you will still need conditioner despite all the oil.
- Don’t worry about packing underwear or bikini bottoms for the oil massages. They will give you a fresh pair of funny-looking bottoms that do the trick. I wore an old bikini bottom for the first few days and it completely lost all shape thanks to the oil within 2 days. Unless you don’t mind throwing them out afterward don’t use your own!
- Just pretend the roti with curry is a pizza and the string hoppers with dahl are pasta when the cravings get too big.
- Add a Sri Lankan holiday afterward and see something more of the country. Need some ideas? Neue Wege offers short add-on trips and alternatively here are some of my favorite things to do and see in Sri Lanka:
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