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Thai Transformation

by Liz Robins

A profoundly effective program for detoxing, de-stressing, relaxing and re-engaging

You know you’re getting into the groove at a spa retreat when a sarong becomes everyday attire, your purposeful gait slows to a leisurely stroll and your attention shifts away from your e-mail inbox to the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounds you. That was me by day three of a recent six-night stay at Kamalaya Koh Samui, an award-winning holistic spa resort and wellness sanctuary on the idyllic Thai island of Koh Samui.

Nestled into a lush hillside overlooking the tranquil blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, Kamalaya is a tropical haven tailor-made for relaxation, reflection and rejuvenation. I’d taken a break from my busy Melbourne life to savor just that—and it’s what founders John and Karina Stewart had in mind when they envisioned the retreat they would one day create.

John was living a life of service and spiritual studies as a monk in a Himalayan community when he and Karina met in 1982. She continued her study of Asian spiritual and healing traditions back in the U.S., earning her Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and going on to practice in Kathmandu, Nepal. Once married, they set out to realize John’s vision of translating ancient Asian traditions into a contemporary setting that was authentic and relevant to them—a place where guests could pause, learn, go inward and reconnect to their essential selves.

“We wanted to make a positive contribution in people’s lives and share what had been inspiring and had an incredible impact on our journey,” Karina explains. “We didn’t want to just bring the different things that we believe. We wanted to look at, ‘What was the essence of philosophy from all different traditions that actually spoke to each other? What’s the thread that binds us all together rather than all of the things that separate us?’ So we really focused on bringing all of that together in a neutral place.”

John knew he’d found the right spot for their passion project when he happened upon a centuries-old cave while making his way down to the beach from a nearby hilltop lot they’d bought in Koh Samui. Buddhist monks had used the cave for meditation and spiritual retreat, and John, who spent his first year in India living in a cave beside a Himalayan river, experienced something profound here that sealed the deal. He and Karina abandoned their original plan to build in Nepal and instead created Kamalaya on this swath of sacred land.

Kamalaya’s renowned wellness programs attract guests from around the world seeking guidance with detoxification (the most popular program and an area of deep expertise for Karina), stress and burnout, weight control and fitness, emotional balance, and sleep enhancement. Karina herself developed the programs, combining the best of Eastern and Western healing therapies to yield powerful results. Guests can also choose from a wide array of à la carte therapies and treatments, from craniosacral therapy and naturopathy to emotional and spiritual healing.

I opted for Asian Bliss, one of the Stress & Burnout Programs that included two insightful wellness consultations and a combination of Ayurveda, traditional Thai and Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments. A full-body Thai massage incorporating an herbal compress dissolved my pent-up stress and muscle tension not long after my arrival. And a decadent Ayurvedic massage with fragrant oil left me practically floating out of the sea-view treatment room. The Indian Head Massage was heavenly, too, whereas Chi Nei Tsang (a form of abdominal massage) took a little getting used to. Knowing that it was intended to relieve stress, promote healing and help my internal organs work better, I relaxed into the sensation as the session went on and even looked forward to my second one later in the week.

Equally rewarding was my one-on-one meditation session with Sujay, one of Kamalaya’s Life Enhancement Mentors. (All of the mentors are experienced teachers with backgrounds in ancient Asian philosophies, and all, like John, have lived as monks in India for more than a decade.) The heart gratitude meditation and pranayama breathing practices Sujay taught me were simple, incredibly calming and easy to continue when I returned home.

I found the perfect complements to my program in the herbal steam caverns, hillside plunge pools, al fresco yoga classes and a beach hammock gently swaying in the sun. Each morning I awoke to gorgeous sea views, and I relished the absence of a TV in my room. (Guests are encouraged to truly unplug.)

Winding paths lead you through the tranquil grounds, over and alongside gently gurgling streams. Smiling, attentive staff members greet you warmly in passing. The faint scent of incense drifts from spirit houses, which, like the Buddhist temples on-site, honor ancient traditions and invite quiet contemplation. At the heart of the property lies the monk’s cave, still visited by the monks for ceremonies throughout the year and available for guests to use for meditation.

By dinnertime each day I was ready for company, so I dined at Soma Restaurant’s convivial community table. My companions (including many returning and solo guests) and I enthusiastically recounted our favorite spa treatments, mentor sessions and island excursions over flavorful meals that had us radiating good health. Even the detoxers were enjoying three meals a day and sipping smoothies from a vast array of vetted menu options.

Kamalaya offers myriad optional activities throughout the week, and the overachiever in me wanted to do it all: healthy cooking classes, evening meditation, a sunset cruise, private sessions with visiting practitioners and more. After a few days, though, I was learning to go with the flow instead of trying to fit everything in. Slowing down, refocusing on my health and eliminating distractions had me feeling more balanced, relaxed and present, more truly myself—which is the idea, says Karina.

“If guests feel that they’ve gained a deeper connection with themselves at a core level and are leaving with that more present, and with the desire to take that and connect more deeply with their loved ones, their communities, their families back home… That, to me, is a really significant gain.” kamalaya.com

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