Luxury Spa Finder, Nov/Dec 2005
SPA TREND - AYURVEDA
AMERICANS LIKE THE MASSAGE AND THE MASSAGE OF THIS ANCIENT INDIAN SYSTEM OF HEALTHY LIVING. THAT'S WHY IT'S TURNING UP ON SPA MENUS NATIONWIDE
by SUSAN CRANDELL
SCENE ONE The room, which has a clinical, white walled air, is silent, per Ayurvedic strictures. Two massage therapists apply herbalized sesame oil, formulated to correct imbalances in my physio-personality type, or dosha, which was determined the day before by an Ayurvedic practitioner. The massage therapists, who have been performing Ayurvcdic treatments exclusively for almost 17 years, go over my body with the classic circular and long-stroke motions of a synchronized massage. They follow that with another classic treatment, pindasweda, a rubdown with a cheesecloth-wrapped ball of rice, milk, and herbs, a sort of Ayurvedic bouquet garni.
SCENE TWO Soft classical music is playing in a room decorated with pretty block-print fabrics in soothing shades of blue. The two young therapists are Thai, trained in phuket in a variety of Asian massage modalities, not just Ayurvedic. They do a basic dosha diagnosis, then apply oil in a soothing massage. Ahenvard, they send me to the steam room for ten minutes, then rub me with an exfoliant.
Guess 'which treatment took place in India, where Ayurveda has been practiced for 5,000 years, and which one took place in the U.S., where this ancient system of healing and wellness has been on the rise for about five years. You'll be as surprised as I was. I had treatment one, the authentic experience, in Fairfield, Iowa, at the Raj spa, the American Mecca for Ayurvedic pilgrims. I traveled 9,000 miles to the Rajvilas, in Jaipur, India, one of that country's top resorts, to have treatment two, a Westernized (and very diluted) version of an Ayurvedic massage.
Ironic? Certainly, but it's also emblematic of Ayurveda's diverging paths. A few spas, most notably the Raj, are strict constructionists, carefully hewing to traditional practice while adding a few well chosen creature comforts like big fluffy towels and cushy robes. (The Raj is one of few spas that receives high marks from Ayurvedic experts for authenticity) Meanwhile. luxury properties worldwide, like the Rajvilas, a gorgeously landscaped architectural knockout in Rajasthan, are offering Ayurveda that is only skin-deep-excerpting a few elements and folding them into sybaritic mainstream treatments.
Whether the interpretation is traditional or more commercial, there's no question that Ayurveda is, suddenly, everywhere. There are
Ayurvedic skincare products such as the Estee Lauder-owned veda line and the Sundari collection founded by Christy Turlington (who is no longer involved, though she still appears on the website). A recent issue of The Nell' Yorker included an ad for an Ayurvedic clinic in Bangalore, India. Search Amazon.com for books about Ayurveda and you'll find 2,160 titles. Target sells candles using words like arormatherapy (a hallmark of Ayurveda) and yoga (a sister science).
And for Ayurvedic practitioners, business is booming. "I now have a two-week waitinglist," says Scott Gerson, M.D., who's practiced Ayurveda in New York City for more than 20 years. Ayurveda is even being taken up by modern Western medicine. Last fall the Clarian West Medical Center in Indianapolis opened with an Ayurvedic spa in the same building, and Indian doctor Navin Shah, M.D., a Maryland-based urologist, has proposed a 12-hour credit-bearing course on Ayurveda to about ten medical schools, including Johns Hopkins and Georgetown.
But spas are where the real action is. At the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami, the most popular spa offering is the Holistic Spa Treatment, which begins with an Ayurvedic massage, and last fall the Ayurvedic weekend sold out before it was washed out by a hurricane. "Fifteen years ago," says Tara Grodjesk, the owner and president of Tara Spa Therapy, in Carmel, California, a board member of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine and a leading Ayurvedic consultant, "I had 20 accounts doing Ayurveda. Now 70 percent of the top spas have it." Says Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, the former creative director for Rancho la Puerta and spokesperson for the Golden Door and current creative director at Jurlique USA, "It's now part of the vocabulary of spa experience.
WHAT IS AYURVEDA? The word is a Sanskrit compound, ayu, meaning "life," and veda, meaning "knowledge." Sometimes translated as "science of life," Ayurveda lays out a complete mind-body prescription for healthy living that includes a dietetic regimen and a body of herbal healing techniques. Many of the dietary guidelines-for example, eating freshly prepared organic foods and varying the diet by including six different tastes-dovetail with modern nutritional thinking. Yoga, meditation, and massage arc key components, and there's even Ayurvedic astrology and Ayurvedic architecture (a la feng shui). Devotees believe that the system was intuited from the divine by rishis, or seers, five millennia ago. It remains India's traditional system of health care (and is oftcn the backdrop to Western care), with an estimated 80 percent of the population practicing it.
Balance is the keystone of Ayurveda. The philosophy holds that there are three doshas-vata, pitta, and kapha physical, mental, and emotional selves . One dosha usually dominates, but ideally the three exist in I healthy state. When the doshas get out of balance, illness can result. According to believers, Ayurveda’s lifestyle guidelines keep the doshas in equilibrium and the herbal remedies and proper diet realign them. It’s an approach that’s remarkably thinking about healthy living as well as increasing scientific evidence that that mind and body interact to maintain health and fight disease.
Because Ayurveda concentrates on wellness, it picks up another contemporary tailwind – skepticism toward and frustration with Western medicine. There’s tremendous interest in natural medicine, and Ayurveda is riding that wave," says Nancy Lonsdorf, The Raj’s former health director, who, with an M.D. from Johns Hopkins and Ayurvedic training in India, carries credentials in both worlds. "People who are intelligent and well educated realize that Western medicine is for when you’re really sick." Says Wynn Werner, the administrator of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, "People are becoming aware of the limitations of prevention in modern medicine. When it comes to chronic problems, there’s not a satisfying set of treatments."
THE TRADITIONALIST The Raj, America’s premier Ayurvedic spa, opened in 1993 and offers a full program of panchakarma to just 18 guests at a time. When I call to book, I discover that my three-day stay is the tip of the iceberg, the midpoint in a three/week detox regimen that begins before arrival at the spa and continues after departure. After quizzing me about my health history, lifestyle habits, and diet and exercise program, a Raj consultant mails me the dietary guidelines I am to follow the week before my visit. It turns out to be a nine-page document, with the word no prominent. As in: No cold food or drink, no meat, no cheese, no chocolate, no alcohol, no leavened bread, no tomatoes, potatoes, egglplant, bell peppers, or sprouts. And on and on.
I'm particularly anxious about the special restriction penned in: "No Diet Coke!" (I'm a two-cans-a-day woman.) I am to eat a third less than I normally do, mostly whole grains and well-cooked vegetables. Everything must be organic, prepared fresh at every meal. Four days before I begin the plan, I am to swig ghee (clarified butter) first thing in the morning, to loosen impurities in my digestive tract. Five days into the diet, I'm to swallow a big dose of castor oil. I recall something Dr. Lonsdorf told me about Ayurveda: "It takes commitment. It's not just buying the right jar of pills.
Why the big accent on the G I tract? Because, Dr. Lonsdorf says, "Food becomes the body," meaning the quality of what we eat determines our health. "For example, trans fats become cancer promoting and inflammation promoting in our cell membranes. Pesticides and toxins can promote cancer and disrupt our hormonal balance. There's a traditional proverb in Ayurveda: 'Without proper diet, medicines are of no use. With proper diet, medicines are of no need.'"
The Raj's guest rooms are in a handsome Norman-style chateau that also holds the treatment facilities. You're immediately put on notice that this is the company town of Transcendental Meditation. The walls are hung with big text-heavy posters explaining the synergy between the philosophy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, TM's leader, now 90, and quantum physics; outlining his quest for world peace through mass meditation; and describing scientific studies that have proved the health benefits of Transcendental Meditation. In the pleasant French-colonial-furnished guest rooms, one of the seven available channels is Transcendendental TV.
The Raj attracts a mixed bag of guests: Some are here a chronic condition, like irritable bowel syndrome or MS others just want to shed some stress. My fellow travelers are all in the latter camp: a couple from Minneapolis, both Tibetan Buddhists, here for the first time: a macrobiotic woman from Chicago who flies in for tune-upthree or four times a year on her Gulfstream IV; a day-spa owner from Clorad; and a man in his 80s from Florida who doesn’t look a day over 70. Theirs are all garden-variety complaints, from hot flashes to insomnia. At the end of their stay, they all report feeling relaxed and recharged.
“About 60 percent of our clients are women between 30 and 60 who are looking to reduce stress, recover from divorce or family losses, improve a chronic health condition, or deal with menopause.” Dr. Lonsdorf says, “But we just had a former rock star who got into drugs and has been in recovery for six months; his uncle paid for a week to boost his chances of success. We advertise for patients with MS. We certainly could for fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, things for which Western medicine doesn’t have much to offer.”
The Raj transformed the life of Mani Windkelman, who suffered for 20 years with chronic fatigue syndrome so severe that on many days she couldn’t’ get out of bed. Her first visit “improved my condition 30 percent. I went back a year later, and that took me up another 25 percent; the next year, another 20 percent.” She says. Now she’s planning a two-month trip to Thailand and India a journey she couldn’t have conceived of four years ago. Pancharkarma or placebo effect? Until double-blind studies are done, we can’t know for sure, but half the Raj’s clientele are repeat visitors, who consider panchakarma an indispensable part of staying wel1.
Whatever the guest's ambitions, the first step is a consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner. I met with Dr. Lonsdorf (still there when I visited), who has been practicing Ayurveda since she was a medical resident 20 years ago and looks more than ten years younger than she is. (Regular panchakarma or good genes, I wonder.) After reviewing my health records and hearing my goals-sounder sleep, fewer hot flashes, joints limber enough to support cycling and hiking well into the second half of life-she lightly places three fingers on my left wrist, leans over to take my pulse, and closes her eyes. Then she raises her head a minute later, she identifies me as pitta-dominant, with some imbalance in my pitta and vata doshas. My load of ama, or impurities, isn't too bad-1.5 on a scale of I to 4 -but she's detected some disturbances in 3 of the IS subdoshas. All this from assessing me swoosh and "whoosh of blood coursing through my veins. From this analysis, she prescribes my Ayurvedic treatments. At the end of each guest's stay, Dr. Lonsdorf reassesses dosha balance and ama load and recommends diet and herbal supplements.
Life at the Raj is a routine: meals at set times, a two-to-three- hour treatment, a gentle yoga class, after dinner lectures on Ayurveda. The treatments are the highlight of me day, beginning with abhyanga, a soothing synchronized massage performed by two therapists. Shirodhara, the pouring of warm oil on the "third eye" on my forehead, doesn't send me, but I'm in heaven on day three when two attendants perform pizzichili, pouring warm herbalized oil in waves up and down my body (The Raj buys oil in 55-gallon drums and sells the used oil to owners of biofuel cars) The last treatment each day is a basti, or enema, to rid the body of ama.
In between, there's a good deal of free time. My fellow guests, their hair heavy with herbalized sesame oil, use the free hours to walk the grounds, relax with family or friends who've come with them, read, and meditate. (According to Dr. Lonsdorf, half of Raj guests already meditate and another third learn it mere) Our diet is simple and bland, dal or lentil soup, well-cooked vegetables, grains (quinoa, basmati rice), flat bread, and stewed fruit, with a herbal-concoction garnish from one of three dosha-pacifying formulas. (Other guests rave about the food) Before each meal, we down a shot glass of a ginger drink to aid digestion and help the daily basti do its work. I'm bored, but there's no question that I'm ridding my body of something. When I step on the scale on my last day at the Raj, I've lost seven pounds.
Since there are no double-blind studies to prove that Ayurveda works, adopting the lifestyle requires a leap of faith, as does using Ayurvedic products, which, as dietary supplements, are not subject to FDA scrutiny. A survey in the Journal of American Medical Association last December found that one in five Ayurvedic remedies sold at Boston-area health food stores and South Asian markets contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. Dr. Lonsdorf assures me that the Raj uses no heavy metals in its treatments or herbal supplements, all of which are manufactured under the Maharishi Ayurveda name.
THE MODERNIST The Mandarin Oriental, Miami offers a good example of an international luxury hotel's take on Ayurveda, one much closer to that of Rajvilas than the Raj. The Asian-accented spa is sensual and serene, with little oil lamps floating among rose petals in broad stone bowls. The six deluxe treatment suites have whirlpool baths, roomy glass-walled shovers, massage tables that adjust like Craftmatic beds, and views of Biscayne Bay so alluring it's hard to close your eyes during a massage.
"We wanted to offer something a little more therapeutic, that has more long-term benefit, rather than a quick fix," says spa director Osa Mallo, explaining why a hotel with roots in China would base its spa on a healing tradition with roots in India. "I believe a lot of guests are getting tired of gimmicks. They realize you have to start within yourself."
Ayurvedic treatments at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami begin with "footbath during which the therapist asks a series of questions to determine your dosha. Are you competitive or creative or nurturing? Do you have trouble sleeping? Is your skin sensitive? My attendant concludes that I'm a vata-pitta combo, which is half right, according to the pulse diagnosis I received at the Raj. Based on this, she gives me a long, soothing massage, followed by a salt scrub and a detoxifying body wrap,
Purists might scoff at the quick-and-dirty dosha diagnosis and the limited choice of massage oils (three-all tri-doshic-produced by Espa). By comparison, the Raj has a staffer who does nothing but prepare fresh herbalized oil every day using 9 standard recipes and 21 others for special circumstances. That said, at the end of a two-hour treatment at the Mandarin Oriental, I glide out of the room,
skin glistening and smooth, muscles utterly relaxed.
The next day I sample the spa's best-seller, the Ayurvedic Holistic Body Treatment, which I find energizing rather than relaxing. Again we begin with a footbath then move to the massage table. Again I leave the spa without a care in the world.
(Call me shallow, but I'm in heaven here: The first night, I sink into a tub of decidedly un-Ayurvedic suds to watch Will & Grace)
Mallo says the hotel gets two kinds of guests: "those who come for relaxing, who may wish to have the same experience again, but they don't go farther. Then there are guests who want to enter into natural medicine. We've Westernized the experience in that we don't induce purging. We serve dosha-specific teas to calm or energize, do massage moves slower or faster depending on the dosha, select different marma [energy] points, use heat or its absence."
LOOKING AHEAD I ask Mallo if the Mandarin Oriental, Miami would ever hire an Ayurvedic practitioner as a therapist and do pulse diagnosis. "That's something we'd be interested in having, but those things take time," she says. Ayurvedic consultant Grodjesk hopes to guide her clients in that direction:
"We can take certified Ayurvedic practitioners and plug them into internship programs, so a destination spa like Miraval or Canyon Ranch could offer nutritional counseling or lifestyle consultations. Then Ayurveda becomes much more than a skin treatment." Ayurvedic yoga, which customizes sequences to an individual's needs via private sessions, is another trend Grodjesk sees. "We're dying to offer this to spas. It's only a matter of time before they jump on it."
As I talk to more spa executives and experts in the field, one word keeps coming to mind: convergence. Luxury spas are going to become more comprehensive and authentic in their approach, while clinical settings like the Raj are going to ad luxury touches. "I've just been asked to serve on the board of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine," Grodjesk tells me, "because I'm able to help Ayurvedic practitioners understand how to reach out to a larger audience, the spa audience." Spas are becoming more clinical, the clinics more spa-like, as both chase this affluent group of Americans who believe that how they treat their bodies can shape their whole lives. But there's no doubt where the trail starts. As Vasant Lad, founded the Ayurvedic Institute in the U.S. two decade ago says, "The spa opens the door."
Having downsized her career from editor in chief of More magazine to freelance writer, SUSAN CRANDELL is now working on a book on how boomers are reinventing middle age, one life at a time.