Arriving at Sri Lanka’s Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort to the sight of guests wandering around wearing white linen turbans, I momentarily wondered if the 30-degree heat and insane levels of humidity had got to me.
In fact, the turbans signify that guests have had Shirodhara: one of the best known Ayurvedic treatments which mainly consists of a constant drizzle of warm oil poured onto the forehead’s third eye. Sounds strange but it’s much loved for treating stress as well and nerve and head disorders. As you’re required to keep the oil on overnight afterwards to absorb into the scalp, a turban seems a sensible, semi-fashionable solution. So in fact, this is a fitting introduction to the health resort dedicated to Ayurveda, the oldest system of natural healing in the world.
Barberyn pioneered the concept of the Ayurvedic retreat over 25 years ago and has two sites in Sri Lanka. Barberyn Reef, where I’ll be based for the next week, caters for up to 100 guests, treating ailments from general malaise and exhaustion to serious nervous and autoimmune conditions. It’s also a favourite destination for Panchakarma – a complete detox including fasting and enemas.
First stop is at the Health Centre is a consultation with the doctor who runs through my general health, any concerns and what I’m hoping to achieve during my stay. After a busy year, I’m mostly looking forward to some much-needed relaxation, tackling some back pain and to put the lustre back to how I look and some energy into how I feel. From this, she works out a treatment programme, daily schedule for medicine and a menu plan. Then it’s on to the treatment area where I’m greeted by my two smiling therapists who will work on me every day. We quickly build a rapport with as they lead me around by the hand – a good job as they’re going to be seeing a lot of me naked.
My daily treatments begin at 1.30pm with a seated head and back massage and four-handed full body massage, plus eye drops of medicated water which take a bit of getting used to. Then to the garden area where clients recline in a row after being covered by their assigned herbal poultices and packs as well citrus slices over the eyes and gauze covering the face. Upstairs next for a shower using a coconut flesh scrub before getting into a herbal bath where your attendant ladles water over you to let the warmth and herbs work their magic. I also have daily acupuncture sessions, which works on points that calm my mind and tackle ongoing laptop-induced shoulder problems. I ask too for lower legs and ankles to be included, knowing they are prone to swelling post-plane journey and when I get bitten.
Some top tips regarding treatments at Barberyn Reef. Bring a clarifying shampoo to help remove the oil from your hair if you don’t want to look like that Kim Kardashian magazine cover. Also, forget your modesty – you’ll spend most of your time in a sarong that your therapists will take off, move around and tie up as needed. Plus – as is traditional with Ayurveda – breasts and buttocks are massaged, plus the windows are often open so it’s best to avert your gaze when passing the treatment rooms. And finally, bring old underwear that you don’t mind being doused in oil, herbal poultices and coconut scrub on a daily basis.
The doctor also prescribes medication to tackle your individual ailments. These range from pills to powders to potions and there are so many, you’re given a daily timetable to remind you what to take when. I count ten doses, plus the sludgy liquid you imbibe a tablespoon-full of after lunch and dinner, which I’m advised helps you burn fat, aids digestion, reduces heat in the body and balances hormones. Sadly it tastes like sweet, spicy mud. Water to help you neck all these comes in a flask that you can refill as often as you want from the restaurant. It’s also warm to work better with the body and digestive system and in general you’re advised to avoid cold things, which also means no aircon – something that takes time to get used to. I takes me a few days before I can cope well enough with the climate to face 90 minutes of sunset yoga at 5pm, while sunrise yoga at 6am fits into my jetlagged sleep pattern better.
Diet plays a central part in Ayurvedic philosophy as it’s believed both physical and emotional wellbeing are affected by the gut. So you won’t find any meat or alcohol on the menu, little dairy and the only caffeine is mid-afternoon tea. Food is delicious and plentiful too at breakfast and lunch when there’s a buffet. Your evening meal is pre-arranged between the doctor and the chef. Each guest has a table allocated and your food prescription on the table, alerting waiters as to the specific juice, tea and soup they should bring you, as well your dinner. It’s also checked by the food monitors, ladies on hand to give advice on your buffet choices and eating habits. (At my first lunch I was admonished for reading a book, which ‘isn’t compatible with mindful eating’, although makes for rather speeded up and less interesting mealtimes.)
For breakfast I’m given papaya juice and a thin green soup beefed up with steamed red rice to gently kickstart my digestive system. The buffet offers up fruits, a small selection of cheeses, cereals and local dishes such as mung beans and chana dahl. A typical lunch begins with fresh pomegranate juice, celery soup and a green leaf salad. Moving on to the buffet, the selection can include pan-fried bean curd, dry green leaf curry, lentil dhal and maluwa curry made from pumpkin. There are also some sweet treats on offer including fresh fruits, crème brule and apple upside down cake. Of course, my doctor-designed dinner is along the lines of salad, soup plus vegetable skewers with grilled tofu. At every meal there’s also a specially selected tea to help balance hormones, ease digestion or, in the evening when the tea is fennel, to aid sleep.
The one evening exception is Sri Lanka Night on Saturdays, when a buffet of regional specialities is on offer and a local band plays traditional music. There are yam balls, hoppers (edible pancake bowls with a poached egg inside), summer squash-like snake gourd salad, and Aluwa, a biscuit-y fudgy sweet made from flour, treacle and cardamom.
If the schedule sounds demanding, that’s because it is. From the early start with the first hit of medicine at 6am, through the strictly kept schedule of treatments (if you’re even five minutes late, they will come and find you!) it’s a fairly exhausting regime. Combined with jet lag, lack of sleep and deprived of coffee, I spend the first few days feeling vaguely spaced out and not quite myself. Other guests reassure me that it’s normal and sure enough, after three days I feel brighter and more energetic. Adjusting to this new routine knocks you out at an early bedtime and also shocks you into taking in all the health and wellbeing benefits of the resort. Quite frankly, it kind of beats you into submission, so the only way forward is to embrace it whole-heartedly!
Barberyn Reef is digital detox too, so there are no televisions in the room and only wifi at reception. But there’s a peaceful saltwater swimming pool, you can visit the herbal garden where much of the ingredients for the menus, teas and medicines are grown, and see medicine being made at the pharmacy. There are short excursions to the local temple and turtle hatchery, a shopping trip and boat trip. The resort runs along a stretch of natural reef perfect for snorkelling and you can see the traditional silt fishermen practicing their art early in the morning. Many guests simply idle away the hours reading books and filling diaries.
By the end of my stay I’m sleeping soundly, my skin feels satin soft, eyes are white and nails are smooth and glossy. The acupuncture and yoga have separated my ears from my shoulders and tackled my predisposition to airplane ankles too. I also realise that I hadn’t taken any antihistamine tablets despite being bitten a few times, which my doctor now reveals was part incorporated into those pills and powders. Loaded down with instructions and medication to last for the next month, I’m wonder how I’d feel if I’d stayed the recommended ten days. We’ll see on my next Sri Lankan sojourn.
All-inclusive package prices at Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort start from £125/day. For bookings and more information, visit www.barberyn.com.