Most wellness retreats in India offer the full litany of Ayurvedic therapies — massage, nasal irrigation, and even intestinal detoxification via colon cleanses. Few have traditional Tibetan medicine, Sowa Rigpa. So when I was invited to Six Senses Vana in India, the brand's first wellness retreat and one of the few properties offering both Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine therapies, I jumped at the chance.
Because Ayurveda and Sowa Rigpa aim to correct each person's unique internal imbalances, my retreat began in the doctor's office, not the spa. My pulse was taken. My tongue and eyes were studied. My weight was recorded. Then, it was on to the treatment rooms.
Ayurvedic massage, by the way, is a vulnerable affair. After stripping down to my birthday suit, I was handed a cotton loincloth with apron-like strings. Therapists begin each treatment with ceremonial foot-washing and mantra chanting before laying you bare on the massage table. My first Ayurvedic massage was abhyanga, in which two therapists slathered warm sesame oil from my scalp to soles in a beautiful synchronization of long, sweeping strokes.
My first Sowa Rigpa therapy was ku nye, a deep tissue massage where a therapist applies herbal poultices to energy points on the body. Imagine a hot stone massage with bundles of aromatic herbs and a soundtrack of Buddhist chants.
Sensory differences aside, there is a profound distinction between these and traditional Western spa treatments: Ayurveda and Sowa Rigpa treatments are not merely physical. They include elements meant to transcend the body and touch the mind and spirit.
I asked Dr. Jitendra Varshney, an Ayurvedic doctor and director of wellness at Six Senses Vana, and his colleague Dr. Tenzin Sopa Bhutia, the property's Sowa Rigpa doctor, to weigh in on the traditions behind and differences between these two practices.
Dr. Varshney describes Ayurvedic medicine as a traditional holistic healing system focused on achieving balance in the body, mind, and spirit through natural remedies.
"The key to good health lies in understanding one's unique constitution or dosha," says Dr. Varshney. Your dosha is your distinct combination of three elements:
- Vata (space and air)
- Pitta (fire and water)
- Kapha (earth and water)
In Ayurveda, determining your dominant dosha helps guide the dietary choices, therapeutic practices, and herbal remedies necessary to "restore equilibrium," says Dr. Varshney.
In my case, multiple Ayurvedic doctors have said I am Vata-dominant. Having a strong space and air constitution means I should incorporate daily grounding activities (meditation, anyone?) and eat more warming foods like tea, broth, and freshly cooked whole foods to avoid illness-causing imbalance.
Sowa Rigpa 101
"Sowa Rigpa, the 'Science of Healing,' is one of the oldest healing traditions in existence, yet it remains fully alive and intact today," says Dr. Bhutia. Deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, Sowa Rigpa "emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things."
Like Ayurveda, Sowa Rigpa focuses on the three forces called nyepa, which are responsible for good health and development. Sowa Rigpa practitioners believe an imbalance of these nyepa leads to disease:
- Lung (wind)
- Tripa (bile)
- Beken (phlegm)
Equilibrium isn't the only requirement for good health, though. Bhutia says Sowa Rigpa has four objectives:
- Preventing imbalances
- Healing imbalances
- Extending lifespan
- Cultivating happiness
These goals are achieved through herbal medicine, diet and lifestyle recommendations, spiritual practices, and therapies such as acupuncture and moxibustion.
Comparing Ancient Healing Systems
Ayurveda and Sowa Rigpa don't seem wildly different to an outsider like me. And in many ways, according to Varshney and Bhutia, they're not. Both Ayurveda and Sowa Rigpa are ancient holistic healing systems. They both stem from the belief that emotional, mental, and spiritual factors influence physical health. Both aim to correct imbalance with herbs, physical therapies, and lifestyle changes.
The most significant difference between them is their geographic and spiritual origins. Ayurveda is said to come from the Indian Hindu god Brahma, while Sowa Rigpa is rooted in Tibetan Buddhism.
"In Sowa Rigpa, chanting of Medicine Buddha mantras and visualizations of Medicine Buddha before seeing the patients or before doing the Tibetan treatments is very important," says Bhutia.
From my perspective on the massage table, the different origins also result in different sensory experiences. My memories of Ayurvedic treatments feature marigold-graced foot baths and the nutty scent of sesame oil. When I close my eyes and think back to Tibetan medicine therapies, I smell apricot oil, high-altitude medicinal herbs like saffron, and the smoky notes of incense, the last of which Bhutia says is used before treatments to release negative energies from the body and room.
Where to Find Holistic Healing
If you're experiencing Ayurvedic or Sowa Rigpa massage for the first time, expect it to feel more spiritual than a standard spa session. There may be chanting, singing, or incense. Your therapist may take a moment to press oil or herbs on your "third eye," the spot between your eyebrows.
If you're interested in experiencing authentic Sowa Rigpa, you can find practitioners in the mountains of India and Nepal. My humble opinion? There's no place like Six Senses Vana for experiencing both Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine treatments.