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A Journey For The Senses

by Liz Vaccariello

What we see, hear, touch, smell and taste impacts our travel experience in untold ways—from our memories to our emotional and physical wellbeing. A comb through the research helps us understand the science of this exploding wellness trend, but a visit to Joali Being reveals the art.

I’m laying in a soundproof therapy room on what appears to be a massage table, immense instruments all around me. Gaa, an experienced sound healer, strikes a vibraphone with a soft mallet near my right ear. The sound is pleasant but I also feel fluid moving in a Eustachian tube that I hadn’t even known was blocked. Minutes later, I feel vibrations in my glutes, calves, shoulders back of the head, and hands because I’m actually laying on a one-of-a-kind Nidrantar sound bed, which has a guitar- like soundhole in the wooden platform. Gaa is playing the strings beneath me. She’s not making music, but rather creating the unique vibrations and tones intended by designer and NASA sound engineer Aurelio C. Hammer, who created this room and the one-of-a-kind instrumental bed. Later in the 90-minute session, Gaa will swirl a rope in a steel drum and I will hear—no feel—a deep, mellow rumble move through my body, filling me with what I can only describe as serene power.

Miraculous, I think, that I can feel this intentional manipulation of sound waves affecting me physically, mentally, even emotionally. But it’s not, really. The human body is 70% water, and so the sound waves must be moving through my cells the way a tossed stone creates ripples on a lake.

As I tune into what is happening to me during this treatment, I think two things: The sound healing experience is itself worth the trip to Joali Being, the wellbeing island in the Maldives electrifying the biophilic-design and wellness- travel worlds since it opened in November 2021. And second, for many of us in the Western world, our senses are an untapped tool for health, relaxation, joy and, well, wellbeing.

My Senses on Alert

This visit was a year in coming. In January of 2023, I had one of the most resonant experiences of my life during a visit to Sensei Porcupine Creek, where I took a guided, multisensory walk with a practitioner named Per. In all my millions of miles putting one foot in front of the other (whether for steps during a commute, renewal in the woods, or the daily treat of walking my dog), I had never tuned into the feel of my clothes on my body, the sounds of birds or traffic, the taste of my chapstick on my mouth, the colors and textures playing with each other in the landscape around me. I have since tapped into those prompts every time I set out, and the difference in wonder and peace I feel has been profound.

A month later, the esteemed Global Wellness Institute (GWI) named “wellness and the senses” one of its top trends. Neuroscientists have grown to understand the multisensory nature of the human mind at an accelerated pace, Ari Peralta, one of the world’s leading experts on sensory wellness design explained during the Global Wellness Summit. And the destination spa and luxury travel industries are incorporating that knowledge in everything from programming to the holistic designs of their spaces. Peralta’s GWI report noted that after three years of the pandemic, “people were tired of being in screen mode and wanted to be in feel mode.”

Of course, no sense works in a vacuum. Visual appearance helps our brain interpret a sound, the clip-clop of a horse hoof versus the tick-tock of a clock. The thickness (or feel) of some foods can affect their taste by slowing the rate at which the flavor and aroma emerge. And consider Mother Nature, who created the original, quintessential multisensory wellness destination—the ocean. The feel and sound of the waves, the smell of the salt and minerals that make up the sea, the blue of the water, the salty taste: Everything unites, then coalesces with our personal experiences and memories, to create a feeling that benefits each of us in unique ways.

For travelers and people interested in optimizing their health and happiness, tuning into our senses is the wellbeing hack of the decade. Washington Posthealth journalist Tara Parker-Pope said it most memorably in her podcast, when she interviewed journalist and happiness guru Gretchen Rubin about her new book, Our Life in Five Senses: “In a way, it’s a more accessible way for people to think about mindfulness.”

A summer visit to the nature-immersive Joali Being provided a next-level opportunity for me to explore all that I’d been reading and thinking about. I asked my husband, a professional photographer, to capture the essence of our experience in pictures. Then, I chronicled some of my “sense memories” as a sort of personal portrait of the trip, taking the idea from Rubin, who suggests making “5 senses portraits” to remember, celebrate, and live a richer life.

I may have been reading about the science of sensory wellness, but at Joali Being I came to understand the art.

Left and center: Photos courtesy of Joali Being. Right: Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello. 

The Sense of Sight

Beds that look like they’re floating. Ceilings that soar in every built space. The flowing lines, textured wall treatments and muted colors in our villa, everything inspired by the shorelines, sea waves, shells and blue-greens of the Indian Ocean.

A Window to Wellbeing: Sight is one of the most powerful and versatile of the senses. It shows us the world, helps us identify (and even start to digest) the food we eat. It can even indicate other people’s intentions or feelings. Our color perception, too, can have a powerful effect on mood, motivation and creativity.

When we look at something, whether it’s a city skyline or a colorful painting, information from nerve cells in the eye’s retina travels to the brain’s occipital lobes to process what we have seen. If we find these sights beautiful, the brain is flooded with pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters.

Beauty is inexorably linked with pleasure. But so, scientists have found, are vast spaces, views of nature, and sights that change often and in interesting ways. For most people, symmetry and order, flowers and animals, the blue ocean, a green forest, all trigger feel-good hormones. So does the sight of a loved one—the happier they are, the better. Studies have even shown our happiness centers light up when we see attractive human-built structures, such as bridges and interesting architecture. In the world of wellness travel, architects and designers know that the mind and body go into alert mode when we see hard edges, and that expansive spaces and high ceilings make you subconsciously relax. (See The Profound Beauty of Biophilia on page 90 for more on this idea).

Left: Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello. Center and right: Photos courtesy of Joali Being

The Sense of Touch

The long, flowing strokes of my massage. A chair called “The Cube” in our room—a solid block of wood, its top covered with wooded keys that depress under my weight to balance and compensate for pressure points. The four pillows of varying firmness on my side of the bed because I couldn’t choose from the “pillow menu” in advance. And of course, the heavenly watsu treatment, with its gentle stretching and movement in chest-deep thermoneutral water.

A Window to Wellbeing: Studies show that social touch is essential to even our most basic mental and physical health. Much of the power of touch therapy in massage and bodywork is its influence on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the healing, regeneration, rebuilding, and immune functions of the body.

In the spa world, touch transcends. Everything from the feel of products and the pressure of massage (which has been shown to lower cortisol) to the temperature and flow of therapies that call on water. Hot or cold, steam or liquid, just being around, let alone immersed in, water triggers the release of hormones that lower stress.

Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello

The Sense of Smell

My husband, Steve, and I are sitting in Aktar, Joali’s herbology center, taking a perfume-making class. Staff herbologist Marina is explaining that we all have an olfactory fingerprint based on our memories, meaning no two people experience an aroma the same. That makes it all the more remarkable that after 25 years of marriage, Steve and I are reacting in almost the exact same ways to the essential oils presented to us separately, our beakers at the ready to ultimately concoct a pleasing take-home personal signature scent of our own. I guess when you share so many memories, your smell sensations start to align.

We smell potential top notes. We both assign the scotch pine, which is giving me energizing vibes, a top score. I also like the sweet orange, a scent I have long worn in perfume form.

We move on to middle notes. I decidedly do not like black pepper, feel meh about the clary sage (supposedly good at rebalancing hormone levels) and perk up happily at the geranium.

For base notes, I give vetiver a 1, as it brings up cigarette smoke, a constant in my childhood home. Then all my happiness centers light up at cedarwood, the scent of a tree so strong it was once used to make ships. To me, cedarwood says sauna, vanilla, nature. To Steve, it reminds him of camping, hiking and forests.

A Window to Wellbeing: All senses are idiosyncratic. And smell—the sense that triggers the most powerful emotions— exemplifies this perfectly. My work studying spa and sauna experiences, plus a recent week in British Columbia sailing down the fjords lined with old growth cedars, can perhaps explain my attraction to that cedarwood essential oil.

When inhaled, scent molecules in essential oils travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain and especially impact the amygdala, its emotional center. Scientists have learned that when you first encounter an aroma, the emotions you are feeling will be stored together with that smell as a bundle in your brain. That’s why, decades later, the smell of your grandmother’s body lotion might fill you with a feeling of warmth and comfort.

Of course, aromatherapy is used in a wide range of settings, from spas to hospitals. While there’s not enough research to prove aromatherapy helps with any specific medical condition, studies have linked it to reduced blood pressure, lower heart rate, and feelings of calm, with lemongrass, lavender, jasmine, chamomile, and geranium in particular helping in stress reduction.

Whether it’s the aromatherapy used in your spa treatment or the scent of marine algae that evokes a particular beach, scent is a passport. Tuning into it can make your travels more immersive—and your memories richer.

Left and center: Photos courtesy of Joali Being. Right: Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello

The Sense of Taste

Our tea tasting ritual with Paulina, the island’s resident tea master. The decadent homemade dark chocolate in our “wellbeing” (not mini) bar, which is made from organic cocoa beans sourced from India, jaggery instead of sugar, and coconut milk. A cooking class where we made Northern Indian curry using fresh herbs and local fish.

A Window to Wellbeing: When we talk about the taste of food, it’s not just about what we sense in our mouth. Taste is a combination of different things, how it smells, how it feels, and even if it makes our mouth or nose tingle in a certain way. Scientists are still learning a lot about how our body detects these taste and flavor signals, from the moment they touch our tongue to how our brain processes them into a conscious experience. Taste signals also travel to parts of our brain that control hunger and fullness, meaning they can influence how much we eat as well. And, as with all the other senses, not everyone experiences taste the same way. It can vary due to genetics, our environment, even certain health conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, or cancer.

Integrated nutritionists often encourage clients to focus on bitter and sour tastes because these, by far, have the most health benefits. Sour foods (lemons, limes, cilantro, rhubarb, cherries, berries, vinegar, and fermented foods such as kimchi, miso, kombucha, and sauerkraut) help us digest and absorb the nutrients we eat. Bitter foods (including most dark leafy greens like kale, collards, swiss chard, spinach, mustard and dandelion greens, and some of the bitter lettuces, like arugula, and radicchio) send a message to the liver to wake up and start bile production, which aids in the digestive process by speeding up the metabolism, preventing bloating and helping us maintain regularity. A diet rich in bitter foods also aids in weight loss and has been linked to the reduction of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Left: Photo courtesy of Joali Being. Right: Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello

The Sense of Hearing

The oversized swinging chimes, plate bells and storm drums in my sound healing session. The metallophone in our villa, tuned specially to the frequency of the planetary location of the island. The trickle of the water in the gardens and pools outside our villa, and the swoosh and sweep of the ocean. I will never forget the intense, evocative vibrations in Seda, the sound healing space.

A Window to Wellbeing: With every crashing wave of the ocean our brain waves synchronize, gently guiding us to a state of tranquility. Birdsong has shown similar effects on the brain, boosting serotonin and inducing a state of calm. And consider the obvious: music. Voice and instrument playing have been used throughout civilization to heal and improve mood.

Healing therapists, however, are more likely to use tuning forks and gongs to deliver specific, impactful vibrations. Neuroscientists credit a myriad of benefits to sound healing, from pain management and improved sleep to emotional regulation. Sound has been shown to affect levels of serotonin (happiness), melatonin (circadian rhythms and sleep) and motivation.

In addition to creating the 12 healing instruments I experienced in my sound treatment, Hammer also created a self-guided Sound Discovery Path, a meditative musical garden tucked inside the island’s lush interior. The nine instruments—which range from a listening spiral to sound stairs—allow guests and staff (it’s a favorite spot for many) to fully interact with the ideas of sound, alone or with a partner, tuning into the rhythms and tones being created.

Undeniably, hearing was the sense most noticeably activated during my Joali Being stay. But I’ll take, and remember, them all. 

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