Tamsin Angus-Leppan embarks on a healing journey at a blissful Ayurvedic retreat in Bali where she balances her doshas, opens her chakras … and even gives up coffee.
I’ve mostly considered myself too healthy and too busy to do a detox retreat. But since my delightful but demanding three -year-old came into the world, my health has taken a nose dive. Poor sleep, too much coffee, and I have even resorted to a glass of wine to relax at the end of each tiring day.
I’m also pushing 50, and suddenly feeling my age. So, I felt it was time to break some habits and reset. When there was an opportunity to try out the new ONEWORLD Ayurveda Panchakarma Centre in Bali, and my husband agreed to hold the fort for a week, I was in.
There are lots of detox retreat options in Bali and around the world, but I felt especially drawn to an Ayurveda Panchakarma retreat. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word derived from ayuh (life) and veda (knowledge), and is also known as the ‘science of life’. Vedic medicine is considered one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world. In Ayurveda the five elements condense to form three bioenergies (called doshas): Vata, kinetic energy; Pitta; thermal energy/biochemical energy; and Kapha, potential energy/biocohesive force. An Ayruveda detox is called a Panchakarma, a group of five therapeutic procedures designed to remove imbalanced doshas from the body and to bring the doshas back into equilibrium. I had dabbled in Ayurvedic treatments before but had never tried a Panchakarma detox. The day I book in, ONEWORLD emailed saying they would provide clothes for treatments and après treatment wear and they would pick me up at Denpasar Airport. No need to worry about packing resort fashion and no need to organise transport to Ubud – check, check! Two days later I was on a plane, feeling excited and slightly nervous about how serious this detox would be. Would it mean no coffee?
I am taken by car straight off the plane in Denpasar, through the traffic to the oasis that is ONEWORLD Ayurveda, at the edge of the famous rice fields about 30 minutes outside Ubud. The centre supervisor, Tekok, gives me quick tour of the dining area, yoga shala with views over the rice fields, the treatment centre with rooftop herb gardens and water features and my spacious room set in lush gardens full of butterflies. I know I am going to be very happy here in this peaceful, beautiful place surrounded by trees, birds and water sounds. Tekok tells me before dinner he will take me to the local Pura Tita Empul Temple for a water purification ceremony. He shows me how to tie my sarong for bathing at the temple and provides a long white top for me to wear over the top of it. He prepares our temple offering of flowers and incense and leads me through the ritual of prayers and salutations under the waterfalls of spring water. The prayers are for gratitude, letting go of things we don’t want in our lives and opening the chakras. I am touched by the loving patience and attention to detail he shows, like a ‘spiritual butler’ of sorts.
Feeling remade in my sarong and shininess, I descend for dinner. At the long table with white table cloth and steaming rose-coloured drinks in tall- stemmed wine glasses, sit five glowing guests in white tunics. It is an elegant scene and I suddenly feel a little shy and conscious of the rice grains still stuck to my forehead, a remnant of my blessing by the temple priest. But I needn’t have worried because I am immediately welcomed by Sam from Australia who suggests the drink isn’t what I am thinking it is. She asks if I’ve just come from the temple or face-planted in my airplane food. I immediately relax. The drink is a delicious herbal tea.
Dr Ninnu arrives and Sam tells me this is the man who does nasty stuff to us. I wonder what she means. Dr Ninnu is the resident doctor who has been headhunted from where many say is the centre of Ayurveda: Kerala, India. He is a big smiling soft bear of a man, so I find it hard to believe he could do anything nasty. He does warn me that I won’t be able to do strenuous exercise whilst I’m being treated, so I promise myself an early morning swim tomorrow before treatment begins. Then mung bean soup arrives and everyone piles in, but Natalie from Canada seems slightly bored with it. She has been here for 28 of her 35 days getting treatment for a form of Crohn’s Disease. She says at first she was sceptical because she didn’t feel better for the first two weeks, but since then she has seen rapid improvement.
I like the soup. It has so many tastes, which later I discover is a hallmark of Ayruvedic cooking. The flavours include sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes in a single meal. Normally a fast, distracted eater, I find myself eating slowly, savouring each taste as it delights my taste buds. After an exquisite lasagna dish we receive our individual programs for tomorrow: I am thrilled to see mine includes an Abhyanga massage in the morning and an afternoon Sirodhara treatment. Abhyanga is a synchronised full body oil massage given by two therapists, and Sirodhara is where medicated oil is poured in an even stream across the forehead, said to be great for sleep. Along with my morning consultation with Drs Ninnu and Aparna, two yoga sessions and a guided rice field walk, it looks like a full and luxurious day.
I go to bed the first night hoping for my first uninterrupted sleep in years, but I wake at 3am, my body still on Sydney time. I’m at first disappointed, but then I remind myself, what do I have to do today apart from relax and be treated? As the wake-up gong sounds at 6am, I am swimming delicious laps of the pool under the full moon. After a gentle yoga session with Tekok, I have my pulses taken with Dr Ninnu. I sit, eyes closed breathing in and out while he listens, looks and feels. He asks me, “Madam, do you have bloating or something like this?” “Madam, do you have constipation?” “Madam, do you have shoulder and lower back joint pain?” “Madam, do you have some stress with your work?” Yes, yes, yes, yes. We will meet again that day for a consultation. I sit down to porridge for breakfast and lovely ginger rose tea … coffee is already banned. Back home, by this time I would already have had two large coffees. I feel mellow sipping my herbal tea. The sun is out, and I’m curious about what today’s treatment brings.
What happens next is astonishing. I dress in my sarong and gown and am escorted into a treatment room and gently directed to a chair where Wati guides my arms out of my robe. At my feet is a large copper bowl holding flower petals floating in warm water. Ratna kneels and gently and wordlessly takes one foot and then the other into the water and begins to scrub and massage my feet with coarse salt grains. She then squeezes limes over my feet. The aroma and the sensation is intensely refreshing. Next, these two Balinese beauties take incense and a plate of flowers with a lit lamp wick and perform puja, a prayer or blessing, circling the ‘offering’ around my body. They assist me onto the abhyanga massage table, an ornate solid wood table imported from India. What follows is a mesmerising, synchronised flow of oil and hands. Having the oil trickled on my forehead is incredible, like all these new or old thoughts are peeling away from my forehead on the inside. I feel like a princess being prepared for her wedding night.
After the massage I am brought to the balcony where I sink deep into the deck chair, sip more delicious tea and watch kingfisher birds swan dive the rice fields. I am in a state of divine contemplation when I have my consultation with Dr Ninnu. After a long history-taking and observation, and many questions (particularly about my bowel movements), Dr Ninnu declares I have too much Vata and that I have a predominantly Pitta constitution. That means I am a naturally grounded, pragmatic and energetic ‘can-do’ person who has burned out and sleeps poorly because my digestion is screwed up. The next few days are about calming and relaxing me, the Purvakarma or preparation phase of a Panchakarma treatment. I think I will feel a new woman with a good night’s sleep. Under the surface, Dr Aparna tells me, Purvakarma also remobilises the deepseated toxins from the tissues to the gut, and these toxins are later thrown out during detox or Panchakarma.
By 6pm I have a slight coffee withdrawal headache, I’m wearing a funny headdress and I am starving. I think the treatment is working. Dr Aparna gives a talk on Ayurveda and says the key is preventing the build-up of Ama or stale energy in the digestive tract by making sure the Agni, digestive fire, is strong and you feel hungry before eating. No snacks, no coffees, just light delicious meals that now do not contain any gas-forming properties – no broccoli, potato or chickpeas. I feel lighter already.
Dr Aparna tells me, “I wanted to work at this centre when (founder) Claude said it would be authentic Ayurveda. That’s brave of him. He could have done a day spa – not everyone can handle the treatments we prescribe.”
That night I start a pattern of sleeping for nine hours every night. I am so relieved. The penny drops for me that I can cure my poor sleep with better eating habits. I am gearing up for my detox, two days of herbal enemas, which Dr Ninnu says is the best detox treatment for anyone, but particularly to balance my condition because one of the main locations of Vata is the colon and large intestine. The next day I reap the benefits of the treatment as I wow myself in the morning yoga class with a suppleness in my body that I haven’t experienced in 20 years.
I can’t stop smiling, and I realise that I have not felt this relaxed for many years – a feeling I embrace with joy.
As my week comes to a close, I receive advice from the doctors on post-treatment care, the third and final phase of Panchakarma called Paschatkarma, or rejuvenation. Seven days feels too short and I can now see why they recommend at least 10 days here, but am encouraged when Dr Aparna asks me to follow up with her when I’m back home. I am inspired to keep up my new program of self-care and now, two weeks later, both my husband I have broken some bad habits and are sleeping deeply every night. Thanks ONEWORLD for bringing Ayurveda to me.
*This article first appeared on the May/June issue Australian Yoga Journal magazine