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Journeys: Go Native

As I sit swathed in a loincloth, smoking a cigarette made from a mixture of turmeric and sweet flag powder, I realize the Tamara Ayurveda Spa at the Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin, India, is a total departure from the fluff-and-buff spas that have become required amenities for premium hotels and resorts. Buoyed by visitors interested in experiencing genuine healing rituals, Tamara Ayurveda Spa and a number of other new properties are offering therapeutic treatments that are unique to the spas’ locations and have been practiced in those regions for centuries or millennia. Regardless of whether you believe in the medicinal value of these exotic regimens, the experiences will remain with you long after you have returned home.

Tamara Ayurveda Spa is located in the southern state of Kerala, an exotic destination even by Indian standards. “You’ll know you’re there when you see the trucks and houseboats,” a friend had advised. Indeed, it is difficult to miss the canary yellow trucks—handpainted with intricate patterns and images of flowers, elephants, and Hindu gods and goddesses—hauling grain and rice and serving notice to visitors that they have arrived in a land where spiritualism prevails. Just as prevalent are the bamboo-covered houseboats, scores of which bob up and down in the states scenic backwaters.

En route to the spa, our captain steers one such houseboat gondola-style past rural villages. As we watch women washing clothes on rocks at the shore of the river, the chef on board serves us coconut-based curries, luscious flat breads, and prawns. Picturesque and serene, Kerala draws leisure travelers from all over the world, but the state is also the birthplace of Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old healing system, and home to the practice’s most accomplished doctors.


Dr. Hemalatha Ramesh, one such practitioner, begins our session at the spa by placing three of her fingers on the inside of my right wrist, as she takes a dosha, or body constitution, reading. According to Hindu philosophy, a person is comprised of a combination of three doshas: vata (air/space), pitta (fire), and kapha (water/earth), one of which is dominant. Illness occurs when the equilibrium among the three is disturbed. Treatment to restore the balance includes ahara (dietary recommendations), vihara (exercise regimen), and dinacharya (a cleansing of the mind and body, which must be maintained on a daily, or at least a weekly, basis). Although these treatments can be administered any time, the skin is considered most receptive to the oils during the cooler monsoon season, from June through August.


Unlike in the Western world, guests here do not choose their therapies; instead, treatments are prescribed. And massage is not a matter of working out knotted muscles; it involves the application of copious amounts of custom-blended oils that are intended to nourish and detoxify the body.

After holding my wrist for several minutes, Dr. Ramesh determines my dosha (pitta/vata) and prescribes my treatment: “Rise before the sun to meditate, practice yoga daily, and eat only foods compatible with your dosha.” She provides me with a detailed list that includes fish, melons, cucumbers, and lots of water.

The doctor also recommends that I undergo a mind and body cleansing treatment in the spa, and that I continue to practice this regimen when I return home. Latha, a soft-spoken woman dressed in a lavender sari, leads me into a treatment room brimming with bright, sculpted bottles of exotic oils and jasmine. She smiles shyly before handing me the paper loincloth that will serve as my spa attire. I undress and position myself on the neem wood table that is designed to absorb oil.

Because of my contact lenses, I decline the eyedrops—made from a mixture of cooked coconut water, honey, raw camphor, and seven herbs—but accept the other Ayurveda requirements. I gargle with sesame oil and cinnamon to disinfect my mouth. I then inhale a mixture of turmeric and sweet flag powder through my nose, and then smoke it like a cigarette to clear my sinuses, before Latha applies a powder of neem tree bark, cinnamon, and herbs to my teeth to whiten them. After this series of preparations, I am ready for the massage. Latha rubs fragrant thriphaladi (coconut) oil into my hair and scalp, and then she generously applies a warm medicated oil prescribed by Dr. Ramesh. A foggy steam bath—fragrant with jasmine—follows, after which I am shepherded into a hot shower.

“Am I really expected to do this every day?” I ask incredulously. Latha merely smiles. But Dr. Ramesh confirms: “Ayurveda is a way of life—a message, not a massage.”

While the vast majority of spa clients seek no more than an indulgent massage—a rejuvenating respite from the stress and strain of everyday life—this new genre of spas purports to have a higher purpose. Ikal del Mar, located on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, emphasizes authentic Mayan healing practices and traditions. Indeed, when construction began on this 29-villa hideaway just north of Playa del Carmen, every piece of timber was cut during the full moon, which, the Mayans believe, brings good luck.

Luis Nah, a 56-year-old chilam—the highest order of healer in the ancient Mayan culture—advises the spa on every herb, flower, and chant used in its treatments. Nah can trace his family’s healing tradition back 17 generations to an ancestor who was a chilam for the king just before the Mayan civilization disappeared. Although Nah does not work at the spa, a consultation with him can be arranged.

Like Dr. Ramesh, Nah reads the health of clients by tightly grasping their hands in his. “I can tell immediately if the energy of a person is positive or negative,” he says. “When there is dark energy, the individual’s quality of life is diminished. I use music, chants, and special herbs to remove the negative and transform the energy.”

Nah collects all of his medicinal plants (including chaya, bitter orange, albahacar, and ruda) in the jungle. He cuts root plants only during the heat of the day, when the nutrients are at their peak; flowers are cut only at dawn for the same reason. These medicinal herbs and flowers are used in the spa, where offerings include a traditional Temazcal (sweat lodge) ceremony, a Mayan Bath, and Crepuscular Maya Massage.

Much like a chiropractic adjustment, the Crepuscular Maya Massage is designed to straighten your spinal column. The ritual is performed, in accordance with Mayan tradition, outdoors at dusk, with the recipient lying on the ground on a serape. The therapist (or therapists upon request) stretches and maneuvers the person’s body and then—with twists of the serape—gently lifts the individual to a massage table, where Mayan herbs are applied. A full-body massage follows, and the treatment concludes with the application of Mayan volcanic muds.

The 90-minute Mayan Bath—honoring the long-standing Mayan tradition of physical and spiritual cleansing prior to celebrations—takes place in your own private steam chamber. Cora, a tall beauty from Mexico City, leads me into the steam room, fragrant with herbs. Inch by inch, starting with my feet, she scrubs my skin with a damp cloth, using tiny circular motions. Cora then applies a mixture of warm almond soap and fresh-picked basil, rosemary, and eucalyptus to my body. “Healing herbs,” she says quietly, before spraying me once more with warm water and then applying what she calls “Mayan tea” (a blend of fragrant leaves, rose petals, and milk extract) to my body and mescal to my hair.

Rather than emphasizing the use of cleansing exotic oils and elixirs, Polynesian healing philosophies stress the rejuvenating qualities of massage. On Tahiti and its islands of Bora-Bora, Moorea, Huahine, and Taha’a, female healers, affectionately referred to as “aunties,” practice the ancient massage rituals of lomilomi and petrissage at their village homes. Lomilomi is a gentle massage that the aunties say is “given from the heart.” The technique, which is passed down through generations, involves the use of elbows and forearms to rub the body. By contrast, in petrissage, the hands are used to directly knead muscles.

Because the aunties historically have not shared their healing knowledge with outsiders, spas featuring these Polynesian treatments are still a rarity here. An exception is the new Manea at Le Taha’a Private Island & Spa, which opened recently on lush Vanilla Island.

Polynesians have always relied on monoi (coconut oil) and fresh fruit and nuts in their healing rituals, and Manea draws upon this tradition by using only natural and local products of the fenua, or countryside. Monoi is used in every single treatment, while fresh bananas, avocado seeds, and nonu (or noni) fruit are used heavily to exfoliate, hydrate, tone, and purify the skin.

One of the spa’s signature healing treatments is the half-day-long Poe Manea, which includes reflexology, a detoxifying banana-leaf and vanilla-essence body wrap prepared from the resort’s homegrown vanilla beans, and a full-body lomilomi.

Though medicinal in its purpose of breaking down fat and toxins and restoring equilibrium among the body’s seven chakras (energy centers), the ritual is undeniably indulgent—this is Tahiti, after all. For the ideal experience, have the lomilomi performed in the lagoon at sunset, and then wade home to your over-water bungalow, where you can awaken refreshed and relaxed the next morning to breakfast delivered by outrigger canoe. But temporary rejuvenation is only one of the benefits of this and these other unconventional spa experiences, which challenge preconceived notions of self-indulgence. 


Ikal del Mar, 888.230.7330, www.ikaldelmar.com

Manea at Le Taha’a Private Island & Spa,

800.735.2478, www.letahaa.com

Taj Malabar, 800.448.8355, www.tajhotels.com

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