Karen Chambers from Fierce Wellbeing was desperate for a reset and needed a particular kind of retreat that would dig deeper than she had experienced before. So she booked a flight from London to Sri Lanka to stay eight nights at Sen Wellness Sanctuary, one, if not, the best Ayurveda health retreat in Sri Lanka, set in the village of Tangale in the southern province of the Island. The retreat, with beautiful views over the Indian ocean, offers Ayurveda retreats with Kundalini yoga and traditional Sri Lankan food for healing of body, mind and soul all year round.
“I had been on a roller coaster of deadlines, stress and feeling like I was navigating through the mud for a while. There was light at the end of the tunnel and mentally I held it together – functioning at work in a demanding job in broadcasting and fulfilling the end of three years of part-time study to change careers as a nutritional therapist and naturopath. However my body was showing signs of unease; broken sleep, a clenched jaw, digestive issues, racing thoughts and low mood. Switching off in the evenings with a glass of wine to chill out and waking up again the next day to do it all again.
I was desperate for a reset and detox. To get away and start chipping away at the protective armour that I had developed for emotional, mental and financial survival through the few years of juggling the demands of work, study and life. The only way I knew how was through a deep dive into yoga and spiritual practices, but I knew already that I lacked the discipline to implement this alone. I craved strong and healing arms that would reach out and catch me and guide me through the healing process. My nutritional and holistic knowledge pointed sharply to the fact that I was experiencing a mild burnout and I needed to intervene before it got worse – the road back to recovery would be so much harder.
Often in college during a class in herbal medicine I often would daydream of travelling to India or Bali and stumbling across a wise and kind holistic mentor, someone who had life etched into his face and studied at length ancient healing holistic practices. Someone who lived and breathed these experiences in their homeland and would share these ancient secrets with me so I could heal and share this healing with others. So a luxury Ayurveda retreat, one stepped in ancient healing traditions dating back to Asia thousands of years ago felt right.
In keeping with the theme of keeping it old school, I chose Sen Wellness Sanctuary, voted by The Times as one of the “10 best yoga retreats in the world” for its policy on no more than two hours of wifi a day, no caffeine and lights out at 8.30 pm with 5 am wake up calls. I am already someone better at returning to bed at 5, not rising at that time. Discipline has long been a struggle in my life, I knew as soon as I booked the flight, this was what my soul had been asking for.
The Weekly Ayurveda Retreat Schedule
I love a long-haul flight with trashy films and wine on tap. This flight was no different and I savoured the last few drops of wine before beginning my personalised ayurvedic programme at Sen Wellness Sanctuary. Upon landing, feeling somewhat very tired and weary and having slept on the overnight flight poorly I was collected by a friendly driver and we began the journey to the retreat….five hours drive away! I was warned from the start it’s a heck of a journey and that wasn’t a lie. I travelled alone, lost myself in my thoughts and stared out at beautiful Sri Lanka. I wondered a thought I often do when travelling abroad and into the bosom of strangers at the retreat – ‘will I be the only person of colour there?’. As a black yogi I have found myself in situations back home in London (yes, London!) being the only person of colour in the room and in some cases, starred and leered at. A very uncomfortable experience.
Bleary-eyed and 5 hours later and now in darkness, I arrived in the remote village of Tangalle on the coast and was greeted by a warm smile and a hug from Ana, the resident Kundalini yoga teacher. A fellow Londoner, Ana hailed from Eastern Europe and spent her summers teaching at Sen Wellness. Straight away I was introduced to the group and my nerves eased straight away. I was prepared to dine alone and wallow in my tired mood but instead, I ate my first ayurvedic Sri Lankan meal of curry, red rice, hoppers and various delicious vegetables with faces from all over the globe. They hailed from Italy, Spain, UK and Australia, curious to know about me, my journey and give me guidance on what to expect over the coming days. I exhaled straight away.
The structure of Sen Wellness is unique in that it has both a sheltered and an open roof and is situated in the r￼ainforest. You are asked to walk barefoot on-site and share all your meals as a group. My room was comfortable, with carved wood decor and next door to Ana’s and we had a shared bathroom. As someone who lives alone, I was scared about this aspect, I needn’t have bothered as standards are high and the bathroom was spotless. My room was beautifully set out and I could hear the sounds of the jungle into the night, soothing and reassuring in the fact that the room is secure and animals are at a safe distance. I slept like a log.
Quite soon I got into the flow and an average day at Sen Wellness was shaped something like this:
A 5 am wake up call! I knew this was coming and cursed under my breath….every day I was to be awakened by a lovely Sri Lankan lady who greeted me with a warm smile and a cup of beautiful smelling herbal tea, a sort of mother figure who I grew to appreciate more and more daily.
This was the start of action-packed yet supercharged self-care days.
6 am is Kundalini yoga, a full 60-90 mins every day twice a day. Each focusing on a different chakra or blockage. Ana worked us hard and I was surprised I struggled to keep up with the class, but it wasn’t a competition and I had to learn to hush my ego.
7.30 – Shower and beach walk. A beautiful stretch of shoreline lies right next to Sen Wellness. The Water is stunning but wild, we were all advised not to go into the sea. The danger of the water, the waves crashing was stunning to watch and this became my daily meditation after yoga. We would, during free time, visit the beach often alone, respecting each other’s alone time. We spread out and walked barefoot at our own pace, acknowledging each other with a smile, aware that this time is sacred and a welcome break from our lives. A chance to reflect on what brought us here and assess what more work needed to be done.
Communal breakfast, vegetarian hot foods including curries, rice, all Sri Lankan dishes all with ayurvedic properties to balance our individual doshas. Even a die-hard meat-eater like me didn’t miss cooked and seasoned flesh, the food so was delicious. Meals were shared, the option to eat with your hands if you wish, some guests excelled in this skill. Each dish had a dosha property and guests were directed to dishes that they should avoid depending on their dosha. Melas were large, I ate loads every time, felt full and each meal was finished with a healthy sweet. I felt content, had no cravings for anything, no sugar, no wine no caffeine and began to feel lighter and smaller with each day.
The Best Ayurveda Health Retreat in Sri Lanka
The beauty of Sen Wellness Sanctuary is the personalised approach to health. During my ayurvedic consultation which would form the basis of each of the treatments and herbs I would have daily, the doctor told me Dr Shamika gave me my correct dosha – Pitta/Vata, a combination of passionate and intense fire and creative air. It clicked and all made sense. I was prescribed a combination of various herbs, teas, tonics all grown locally to soothe and balance my doshas which were unbalanced. To complement this cleanse I would have daily ayurvedic treatments from various massages, oil treatments, herbal and flower and steam baths. I can truly say it was the most indulgent yet humbling health experience I have had. Highly skilled masseuses lifted deep-seated tensions and knots in my back I could never get rid of. On average most clients have 3 treatments a day, I racked up 4 a few times. In between I went on walks with my fellow guests, walks alone to the beach, journaled and feasted on the wonderful local cuisine all in line with traditional food and ayurvedic practices.
I knew then I was truly peeling back the layers and getting into the groove of the healing I had been craving and then my back gave in, an old crushing sensation that I hadn’t had for a while. The pain was excruciating – so no more morning yoga for me. I did take part in some evening sessions and kind Ana adjusted poses to suit. In the end, I decided to journal each day and walk on the deserted beach right next to this beautiful Ayurveda resort. It was breathtaking. I realised that I need THIS. To see giant turtle tracks in the sand, hear the waves roar and walk barefoot in the sand. Just me, just walking, listening and appreciating. I continued to rise at 5 am and enjoy my tea and went straight to journalling, peeling back more and more layers. My body started to ease, but my back killed me. I started to realise through talking with Ana this is linked to my unbalanced root chakra, which is linked with survival. I had been in survival mode for years. This sensation was all part of the healing process and she gave me a personalised session to tackle this.
A large part of the Sen Wellness experience is communal life. I grew to truly love sitting down to eat three meals a day with my fellow guests. A beautiful addition is that the owner/founder of Sen Wellness is a Sri Lankan Osteopath called Sam Karanage, who ate with us too. He was a diner at his own retreat and told us stories of how he set it up in his home village, his ethos on employing local people in particular women and paying fair wages. He also runs his own osteopathy practice in Harley Street, London called Sen Wellness Clinic. He joined us for yoga, meditation and gong sessions with a local monk. Our experience also became Sam’s experience, this wasn’t just a moneymaker, it was him healing with us in his home.
Each day with or without back pain, just like that, I felt my ego battling in kundalini. I felt old and outdated beliefs washing over me and I battled to keep them at bay. Ana advised me that this is all part of the healing process. I continued to journal my feelings and saw patterns – I had been in survival mode for so long without even realising and this couldn’t continue once back home.
Day 4 was my ultimate treatment – panchakarma. A very physical and purging of the stomach, My more formal nutritional training told my brain ‘this shouldn’t work’ but it did. Dr Shamika gave you a very bitter tasting herbal preparation, 2 litres of hot water that I should sip slowly and I was moved to a cabana which had its own private bathroom, The latter is key. After a morning of purging (essential 10-12 bowel movements) and hourly check-ins from Dr Shamkia, I looked reborn even younger and people noticed it too. I woke up the next day full of energy and vitality, I felt 20 years younger. Over the coming days, my skin continued to glow and my energy levels increased as my mind slowed down. I upgraded and decided to stay in this larger cabin room, with its own bathroom and was pleasantly surprised in the mornings to be greeted by a family of monkeys outside my door who quickly ran away but were beautiful to watch.
I wasn’t the only one having a moment, guests opened up to me about the reasons that brought them there – grief, soon to be mother, separation, life changes and feeling burnt out. The list went on. Each had their good days, sometimes tears in yoga, other days uncontrollable laughter. We all understood and held each other in our small unit without questions.
As the week rolled on, one by one, guests said goodbye, there were tears, and lots of smiles and new faces joined. I stepped up to become one of the welcoming voices, just like those I had when I arrived.
On the final evening for myself and many others, we attended the fire ceremony. After meditation and thanks, we lit a bonfire and threw into the flames a piece of paper with what we came to let go of into the flames. We all stood in silence and watched the flames roar next to the beach as the sunset.
I have been on a few yoga and wellness retreats but Sen Wellness Sanctuary really showed me something different. The strength of a genuine community, a different way to exercise. I am still in touch with some of the people from the retreat and for each of us, Sam and his team cemented something unexpected and welcome into our lives.”
For more information about Sen Wellness Sanctuary, please their website at www.senwellnesssanctuary.com