"If you can't be a king, be a healer" is what Sri Lanka's ancient sage-physicians advised, indicating the power behind the world's oldest medical system, Ayurveda. Birthed in India more than 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda quickly reached Sri Lanka's shores. Since then, this system continues to be the primary means of healing throughout the island nation, and practitioners undergo six years of rigorous education (including a year of allopathic study and a year of residency) before they are certified as doctors.
In recent years, Ayurvedic medicine has spread beyond its homelands, gaining ground in clinics and on spa menus in Asia and the West. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I experienced first-hand some of Ayurveda's principles in practice.
Ayurveda is based on the principle of doshas or mind-body types (see dosha sidebar). Doshas are related to the elements of fire, air, earth and water. We are all born with a mix of these, but for each of us, one or two doshas predominate. As we go through life, stresses can cause dosha imbalances. These imbalances lead to physical and mental ailments, which Ayurveda cures through a variety of methods.
A full Ayurvedic program is a complex affair, involving a doctor's assessmentfollowed by treatments lasting from days to months. Therapies include purging processes collectively referred to as panchakarma, a dosha-defined diet, herbal supplements, massages, steam baths and other physical regimes.Panchakarma is probably the least appealing, and can include things like vomiting, bleeding and "purgation" (think: out the bottom end), in order to cleanse the body of toxins. Physical therapies, on the other hand, are much more pleasant, and it is these which are often being incorporated into day spas.
At the Wallawwa Hotel, Spa manager Marjorie ("Maggie") Roman and I discussed how she is incorporating Ayurvedic concepts into Z Spa's menu. Not a Doctor herself, Maggie has ingeniously applied her knowledge of Aromatherapy and Shiatsu to the dosha principles. She has arranged the spa's three rooms according to pitta, vatta and kapha energies. In the pitta room, a cooling mint fragrance fills the air. Calming orange blossom is used in the vatta room, while the kapha room offers the stimulating smell of rosemary.
"Here at Z Spa we offer a simple introduction to the principles of Ayurveda" explains Maggie. "Our aim is to give our guests some basic knowledge of their mind-body type while focusing on scent and touch as used in other systems," she adds.
"A spa is something different than an Ayurvedic clinic," explains Dr. Dinesh. For those wishing to experience authentic Ayurveda, clients should consult with a doctor first, he argues. Dr. Dinesh oversees both the Island Spa and dedicated Ayurvedic Center at Jetwing's Vil Uyana Resort. Sitting above one of the properties two man-made lakes, the Spa is delightfully small and inviting, but belies serious care. "We offer many types of Ayurvedic treatment here, but guests must first consult with me," says the doctor. While our other spa offerings can be safely selected according to the guest's desires, even a seemingly harmless Ayurvedic massage, according to Dr. Dinesh, should suite a persons dosha."
The doctor shared several examples of Ayurveda's unique therapies including the pouring of warm milk over arthritic body parts, the use of hot ash for swelling and paralysis, and the range of natural oils suitable for different dosha types. "Humans and natured are linked," adds the doctor. "With Ayurveda, we rely on natural herbs, oils and massage to heal human ailments."
The Six Senses Spa at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel currently offers only one Ayurvedic treatment, anAbayanga rhythmic massage done with a neutral mix of medicinal oils. But Spa Manager Dewa Ambara is planning more. With an increase in demand for Sri Lanka's native treatments, Dewa recognizes the need to expand Six Senses already impressive menu. To be added soon will be kathi basti (heated oil used specifically for lower back pain)and shirodara (warm oil poured over the head). "We'll slowly increase our Ayurvedic offering," says Dewa, "but we want to be sure our therapists are fully trained before they begin."
Dr. Fernando overseas Ayurvedic care at the Amangalla's exquisite Baths Spa. After my conversations with Maggie, Dr. Dinesh and Mr. Dewa, I was eager to experience Ayurveda for myself, and scheduled a consultation during my stay. As the doctor carefully reviewed the form detailing my health concerns and lifestyle habits, he'd ask me questions from time to time.
He took my pulses and blood pressure, checked my joints for flexibility, examined my ears, nose and throat, finally proscribing a shirodara treatment, then encouraged me to avoid "heating" foods such as citrus, red meats and fishes, alcohol, chili, sweets and - much to my dismay - coffee.
Shirodara treatments are ideal to counteract too much vatta. It helps ease the mind, relieve headaches and reduce insomnia. Laying beneath a vessel filled with herbal oil, I spent 30 glorious minutes as a my therapist guided a steady stream of the warm unguent over my third eye. My mind and body instantly relaxed, and my sleep improved in the days ahead. But I confess, I didn't heed the doctor's warning about changing my diet, and soon enough, I'd pay the price.
By the time I met with Dr. Wijayasinghe of Madushani Ayurveda Spa I was in genuine need. Dr. Wijayasinghe and his wife, Dr. Prasadani run a small clinic near idyllic Mirissa Beach. Idyllic though my surrounding were, I arrived feeling pretty bad, with a soar throat, accelerating case of insomnia and terribly achy joints. Dr. Wijayasinghe took my pulses as he asked me questions about my diet and lifestyle.
"Too much fire," he said gravely. "You must reduce your pitta right away." And how to do that? Change my diet, just as Dr. Fernando had advised. "You have to think of your health first," he urged when I cringed at the thought of giving up my favorite (and as it turns out, "heating") vices. The good news (sort of) was that "cooling" foods are best for my dosha balance. So lately I've been doing my best with the likes of bland brown rice, plain water, and un-spiced veggies. But I must admit I do feel better, sleep better and have more energy. The achy joints and soar throat departed along with the firey chilies and red meat as well.
Perhaps the sages of old had it right. While most of the world's kings and kingdoms have long-since turn to dust, Ayurvedic doctors have consistently harnessed nature's power through this ancient practice, healing human ailments across five millennia.
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The Dosha Types (in brief)
Pitta Dosha is associated with the element of fire. When pitta types are in balance, they are good decision-makers and leaders with bright dispositions. But when they are out of balance, they can become irritable, critical and easily angered. Physical symptoms of an out of balance pitta can range from skin rashes or acne (red, hot and ‘angry' looking) to indigestion (too much heat ‘drying' up the innards).
Vatta is associated with the element of air. When in balance, vatta types are lively, creative and adaptable. When out of balance, vattas suffer from insomnia, nervous energy and digestive troubles such as gas and bloating.
Kapha is associated with the elements of earth and water. Kaphas are generally heavy-set with a calm, grounded demeanor. A balanced kapha is steady, loyal, strong and supportive. When out of balance, kaphas can be needy, inert and overweight.
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Wallawwa Z Spa
Marjorie Ramon, Spa Manager
email; Website; +94 (0)77 386 4384
Jetwing Vil Uyana Island Spa
email; Website; phone: +94 (0)66-492-3583-6
Amangalla The Baths Spa
email; Website; phone: +94 (0)71 404 5149
Six Senses Spa at Heritance Kandalama
Dewa Ambara Jaya, Spa Manager
email; Website; phone: +94 (0)66 555 5099
Madushani Ayurveda Spa
Dr.'s S. Wijayasinghe & D. Prasadani
email; Website; phone: +94 (0)71 553 9604
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