Ayurvedic spa trend
Spas around the world have embraced Ayurveda therapies, which hark back to the origins of Indian medicine, writes Reenita Malhotra Hora
Julie Eyres has stayed in spas all over the world. But one place she returns to each year is the Ayurveda Spa in the Orange County Resort in Coorg, India. "The demands of travel mean my moods are always in a state of flux. But Ayurvedic spa treatments are specifically tailored to my needs," she says.
Ayurveda is the ancient medicine of India. Translated from Sanskrit as the "science of life" it empowers people to live in harmony with their natural environment, helps prevent disease and aligns the mind and body with the natural elements.
Ayurveda was unheard of in the spa industry 15 years ago, but today has found its way into resorts worldwide. Practitioners say the practice has been used in the Indian subcontinent for more than 5,000 years and is a pre-cursor to other Eastern health traditions. Similar to Chinese medicine, Ayurveda also seeks to harmonise the mind and body with the natural elements of the universe.
But why did it take so long for the system to make its foray into the international spa market?
The history of Ayurveda is tied to the political history of the Indian subcontinent. It was at the height of its glory in the 13th and 14th centuries, but traditional medicines - Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani - suffered setbacks during 300 years of British colonial rule. It was during this time that allopathic medicine was introduced and Ayurveda struggled to find its place. Following India's independence in 1947, however, the nation's traditional medicines began to flourish again.
Ayurveda has since enjoyed a renaissance after Westerners began to realise its potential in the mid 1980s.
The regional director of Hong Kong's Peninsula Spa, Sharon Codner, says awareness about Ayurveda's health benefits has grown as a result of increased tourism to India. Spa gurus, including Deepak Chopra, have also helped spread the word.
"Spas worldwide have incorporated a fusion of Western and Eastern therapies due to the potency of the traditional treatments," says Codner. "Ayurvedic therapies are destined to increase by 60 per cent as people become more aware of alternative health and well-being."
The Peninsula Spa in Kowloon has offered Ayurveda-influenced treatments since it opened in 2006. A fusion of Ayurvedic and Chinese practices, these therapies go well together given the strong overlap in the basic principles of each. The spa has seen a steady increase in the uptake of these treatments since last year and is now promoting its Ayurvedic half-day programmes.
Earlier this year, Spa Finder magazine identified authentic Ayurveda therapies as a top trend for 2013. But it's hard to understand how a 5,000-year-old system of healing is suddenly seen to be in vogue.
Lucy Kennington, spa director of the Spa & Ayurvedic Retreat at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, says a growing number of guests are arriving on the island with an increased knowledge and awareness of Ayurveda.
"They may not have experienced the treatment but they are more informed about the topic," says Kennington. "Once guests speak to our doctor, they see that it is not a fad but actually a way of life that they can easily adopt."
Dr Krishna Talavane, president of the Indus Valley Ayurvedic Centre in Mysore, India, has a bone to pick with the term "authentic Ayurveda" - an overused phrase which he insists has become a fad in the spa and resort industry because it can mean so many things.
After first appearing in India's ancient texts, the Vedas, Ayurveda was refined by various sages and writers, such as Charaka, Sushruta and Vagbhata. Such researchers were responsible for documenting the procedures of the medicine into the three main compendia that serve as textbooks in Ayurvedic medical schools today.
Recently, modern nutraceutical approaches have been developed using different formulations and new herbs. India's southern state of Kerala has added its own household traditions to the mix, branding its unique version of the medicine as "Kerala Ayurveda".
"Under such circumstances the word 'authentic' becomes quite distorted and confusing to the public," says Talavane. "However, practising Ayurveda within the boundaries of the Vedic concepts, and more recent evidence-based practices utilising the Ayurvedic tradition can be termed traditional Ayurveda."
Many healing techniques practised in the local tradition, after passing clinical studies, fall into this category of traditional Ayurveda. Talavane says they are traditional because they are in line with the spirit of the ancient seers who first transcribed the medicine in its ancient texts.
"Charaka said that new knowledge may come from any corner of the universe and if it is appropriate it should become part of Ayurveda. In that spirit, if the new additions are evidence-based, they could be added to Ayurvedic tradition."
Ayurvedic therapies stress the balance of the three bodily humours, or doshas: vata (air and space; that is, wind), pitta (fire and water; or bile) and kapha (water and earth; or phlegm).
Your unique combination of the three doshas defines your temperament and characteristics. The doshas become aggravated due to unharmonious lifestyles, environment and diet. Ayurvedic healing seeks to bring them back to balance by providing more of the dosha that is lacking. Therapies typically consist of a range of treatments with medicinal oils, including panchakarma (five detox actions), yoga, massage, acupressure and herbal medicine, to encourage health and well-being.
Popular treatments at the Peninsula Spa include the Shirodhara oil drip therapy on the third eye to calm the mind. At the Four Seasons in the Maldives the most popular treatment is the elakizhi, using cooked bundles of medicinal leaves, herbal powders and spices to treat sciatica, backache and arthritis. Most Ayurvedic spas have popularised the four-handed massage, conducted by two therapists simultaneously to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
But traditional Ayurveda is about more than merely balancing the doshas, which is why, according to traditionalists, like Talavane, such treatments must be kept pure rather than integrated with other spa methods.
"Ayurvedic treatments are steeped in the deep philosophy of cleaning the various types of blockages, at physical, astral and causal levels. These blockages are due to many reasons, including various karmic imprints accumulated during the sojourn of the soul," he says.
"When you mix Ayurvedic treatments with other spa treatments, it's hard to explain because other treatments do not have the same philosophy as Ayurveda. In addition, Ayurveda spa treatments are based on an individual's constitution and their present state of health.
"A trained Ayurveda doctor, upon consultation, prescribes the proper treatments, which may look and feel like any other spa treatments but are distinct in their approach to healing."
When administered by a trained Ayurvedic practitioner the therapies incorporate the use of powerful herbal applications that can be as potent as pharmaceutical drugs. Hence, Ayurvedic treatments must be treated seriously.
Ayurveda looks at prevention as well as cure, but if illness does strike, a wide range of natural treatments are used to enable the body to heal itself.
Since Ayurveda is unique in its application, it begs the question as to whether this kind of spa treatment suits everyone.
"Ayurveda is for everyone but not all treatments suit all guests. Some treatments don't complement your dosha type. The doctors will meet with the guests for a consultation and discuss what dosha type they are and what treatments suit them at that time," says Kennington.
Talavane agrees, adding that therapy is tailored to treat the mind-body constitution and rectify imbalances. "There are precautions to be taken based on the individual's age, sex, body and mind constitution [ prakruti] and the present physical and mental status [ vikruti] condition."
Simply speaking, it's all about knowledge and awareness. In the past 10 years, Ayurvedic spa offerings have morphed from simple "feel-good" treatments, such as the four-handed massage, or Shirodhara, to a deeper, more thorough holistic health offering guided by medically trained supervisors.
As the Ayurveda therapy revival continues the critical spa-goer will discern the difference between those spas offering a flavour of Ayurveda and those offering traditional therapies supervised by medically trained staff.
While the former can be found at spas across the globe, the latter are still typically found only in South Asia.