Emma Whitehair embarks on an Ayurvedic journey to balance her doshas at Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort
What is Ayurveda?
In the last decade, there has been a seismic cultural shift towards natural medicines. And it seems more people than ever want to explore one of the most ancient and exotic of healing modalities – Ayurveda. Ayurvedic medicine is said to treat the body, mind and spirit of a person as a whole, and the basic principle is that you can fine tune your holistic health and happiness by balancing your three doshas, biological energies which govern all physical and mental processes, and provide an individual blueprint for health and fulfillment.
The practice of Ayurveda is the stuff of myths and legends, and to fully understand the subtleties of the three doshas takes many years of studying. However very loosely speaking, you could say that Vata is a dry dosha, linked with the nervous system; Pitta is hot and responsible for digestion; while Kapha is heavy and muscular. And although some of the typical Ayurvedic treatments involve an intense cleansing process with purging (both ends), the ones I have experienced were ‘rejuvenating’, and mostly based around the use of medicated massage oils. Not with your usual spa massage either – these are carried out on traditional hard wooden tables with a little waterproof padding, while you slither around in more oil than you’ve ever known.
One of the aspects of Ayurvedic medicine I appreciate the most is that seemingly petty health concerns, that would usually be dismissed by Western doctors, are taken very seriously. Anything from stiffness in the body to itchy skin can help to identify your dosha, and there’s a herbal concoction that promises to reduce everything from inflammation to blood pressure.
Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort
Said to be one of the first Ayurvedic resorts in the world, Barberyn Reef opened in 1984, and fast became the pioneer of Ayurvedic tourism for the Western audience. The resort is situated on Beruwala beach, on Sri Lanka’s west coast, and has a reef running the length of the property that forms an ideal natural swimming lagoon. Sheltered from the forceful currents of the open sea, it’s full of marine life, and I highly recommend borrowing one of the snorkels (stored at the pool area) to explore underwater. But that’s not why so many regular customers have been coming to the resort for 10 years and more.
Barberyn Reef is an old school, functional clinic, with an institutional feel. If you’re looking for some luxury spa pampering, this resort is not for you; but if you’re serious about Ayurvedic healing, you’ll be right at home. Prioritising prevention as much as cure, programmes are bespoke to each patient.
The Ayurvedic Treatment Programmes
All patients kick off their stay with an assessment with one of the resident Ayurvedic doctors. Where, after going through a general lifestyle and health questionnaire, weight, pulse, blood pressure and tongues are checked. This then informs a prescription of powders and tablets that are pounded into their various forms, freshly on site, while funky-smelling medicated oils are warmed in ancient looking caldrons, to be used for body work treatments. Daily acupuncture sessions are also on offer to complement the healing process.
I must confess, at first, the no-frills practical approach to treatments at Barberyn made me feel a little like I was on a conveyor belt. As I was led from the curtained-off massage room to ‘herb garden’, where I was lined up on a lounger alongside fellow patients, smothered in paste, and left out to marinate, before being packed off to be bathed in what feels like herbal tea. But you soon notice the therapists build genuine caring relationships with their patients as the days, and treatments, go by. Wearing 1950s nurse-style pinnies, the therapists really are the soul of the resort. With a no-nonsense, matronly approach, they made me feel like a little girl – in a good way.
Most days my treatments were pleasantly repetitive, and my body began to look forward to the work. One herb garden session, however, involved having a Shirolepa treatment (a hair treatment to combat hair loss and greying) where a green sludge is applied to the crown of the head and kept in place with a kind of head dress for about 45 minutes. Said to stabilise the nervous system and improve concentration, I must say that although I am usually quite hot headed, the Shirolepa left me feeling physically and emotionally cool for the rest of the day.
Every afternoon a fresh batch of Ayurvedic medicine is left for collection on a shelf in an old wooden medicine cabinet, marked with your room number. Mine included a corked stopped glass bottle of what tasted like pond water, a wrap of a much more pleasant tasting power to be mixed with a little water, and another wrap of dark brown pills. Aside from instructions on when and how they should be taken, there’s nothing by way of information about what you are taking – but I just trusted in the mystery of it all.
The medicinal aspect of the treatment also extends to the dining room, where you can dine for your dosha at the buffet. All the dishes are labelled with its Ayurvedic qualities, and a physician is always on hand to answer any questions. Guests are also served individually made juices, soups and salads at the start of each meal – upon doctor’s orders.
At the end of the stay is a final session with your medical consultant. Mine was pleased to see an improvement in my low blood pressure. She also observed how I seemed calmer, compared to my – let’s say, more resistant disposition – in my first few days. She then went on to finally prescribe my dosha: with a low level anxiety, sciatic pain and sometimes dry skin (amongst other things), I was mostly Vata, with some itchy and fiery Pitta. Finally, I was discharged with a month’s supply of pills, along with an information sheet including a long list of the kinds of foods to eat and to avoid, and some helpful lifestyle advice, such as eating little and often, and others I might choose to ignore – like avoiding coffee. It was on the Pitta food sheet anyway, and what harm is a little fire? Sorry doctor.