Ayurveda in Sri Lanka dates back thousands of years. It is an ancient practice of health and wellness that has gained significant attention as tourism explodes in Sri Lanka. With the sudden rise of interest, how do you ensure that you are getting the authentic treatments and not some watered down tourist bait or westernized resort spa? Recently, we visited Mahagedara Wellness Retreat and experienced authentic, high quality, holistic Ayurvedic treatments that included:
- Ayurveda Doctor Consultation and Personalized Treatments
- Award Winning Yoga Retreat in Sri Lanka
- Ayurveda Massage
- Farm to Table Natural Foods on an Authentic Sri Lankan Meal Plan
- Authentic Ayurveda Herbal Baths
- Immersion in the Jungles of Sri Lanka
- Ayurvedic Meditation and Mindfulness Exercises
- Cultural Excursions in Central Sri Lanka
- Attentive Staff
- Avoiding the Ayurvedic Hustle
- Key Takeaways from Ayurveda in Sri Lanka
Whether you choose Ayurveda from Mahagedara Retreat or another provider in Sri Lanka, looking for these features will help you get the most out of your experience.
Ayurveda Doctor Consultation and Personalized Treatments
One of the first indicators of high-quality Ayurveda treatments is if you get a personalized consultation with a doctor. In Ayurveda, everything is medicine and everything is poison at the same time. What is important is identifying our doshas, or key constitution. There are three primary Doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Most People have one primary Dosha with influence from one other. Poor Jenn had was fairly equal in each Dosha. She has a very difficult time balancing all three energies simultaneously.
Vata, the element of air, is characterized by breath, movement, and lightness. Pitta, the element of fire, associates with heat and digestion. Kapha, the element of water, brings cold, nutrition, lubrication. Excess of these Doshas can bring nervousness, indigestion, or lethargy. They also contain healing energies. Prana is your lifeforce that springs from Vata. Tejas is inner radiance from Pitta and Ojas is the ultimate energy supplied by Kapha.
Once the Ayurveda Doctor has identified your constitution, they seek to balance your energies. Balance comes from a combination of the food you eat, meditation, exercise, massage, and many other factors. In the end, everything you do in life is from your Doshas. Everything you do either balances or disturbs your energies. The ultimate paradox from Ayurveda is that everything can be either medicine or poison, depending on what you need for your balance.
Our Ayurveda consultation happened on the third day at Mahagedara Retreat. We were curious about the timing so we asked. It turns out the answer was simple and intuitive. They waited three days so we could recover from both our long fight and initial detox. I certainly didn’t feel balanced after traveling for over 24 hours to reach Sri Lanka so how could I expect an Ayurvedic Doctor to diagnose my constitution?
Award Winning Yoga Retreat in Sri Lanka
There are distinctions between yoga and Ayurveda, but the two are almost inseparable. Yoga balances and transforms your prana (energies of the psyche) to promote health, energy, and creativity. There would be something missing from a wellness routine that didn’t include some elements of working out and stretching and it would be a shame to travel all the way to Sri Lanka and not practice a little yoga. Mahagedara is an all-inclusive wellness resort. You pay one price for the entire experience, which includes daily yoga classes.
It seemed like Mahagedara was crafted out of the jungle itself. Great care was taken at every turn to include and preserve nature. The yoga studio was no exception. It was outside under a thatched canopy with an ornately decorated cement floor. Just imagine your practice surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of the jungle. Every cleansing breath brings nature deep into your system.
One great way to judge the value of a service is to see what the industry experts have to say. In their first full season, Mahagedara won the World’s Luxury Hotel Awards for Luxury Cultural Resort and Luxury Eco/Green Hotel for Sri Lanka. They also have been shortlisted for the World’s Spa Award for Sri Lanka’s Best Retreat. There is more to a great retreat than bringing home hardware, but it’s a good sign of quality for a savvy consumer. For more information check out Justin Plus Lauren’s fabulous write-up about Mahagedara (and thank you Lauren for letting us use some photos).
Per her Ayurveda consultation, Jenn received frequent Ayurvedic Massage during our stay at Mahagedara. There are some key elements that separate Ayurvedic Massages from the more common western modalities. It follows a regimented, time-honored protocol that’s very specific. You might notice this in how they apply their oils or finish their strokes. These traditions have been passed down for thousands of years. The oils they use are infused with essentials oils and natural herbs that might have been tailored specifically for you during your consultation.
Ayurveda massage focuses on releasing your energy to flow freely through your bodies along passageways called meridians. This is is similar to the Chi that flows during Tai Chi. Another difference with the massage at Mahagedara was that the treatment rooms opened into the jungle. This is an amazing experience to relax into nature, but it might make the modest a little uncomfortable. On that note, we were always paired with a same-sex therapist, but they were not shy about applying oil liberally across our chests, even for Jenn.
The oils in Ayurveda do more than allow strokes to flow. They are designed to balance the energies within you and enhance your natural doshas. The oils get applied liberally, even to your scalp and hair and you are instructed to let them soak in for at least an hour. Your body absorbing the essential oils is a significant part of the treatment.
Farm to Table Natural Foods on an Authentic Sri Lankan Meal Plan
Every villager in Sri Lanka has a vegetable garden next to their house. Anything but farm to table would be somewhere between absurd, to unthinkable, to practically impossible. You simply can’t buy all of the ingredients for traditional Sri Lankan cooking in the grocery store, even in the major stores of Columbo.
Farm to table is an integral part of the culture and extensively practiced at Mahagedara. This includes from fresh vegetables to herbs for the Ayurvedic treatments. About the only ingredients not grown on the property are some fruits they purchase from the staff, meat, and rice. They actually have rice paddies but they refuse to use crackers (large fireworks) to scare away the elephants. As a result, the local elephants have a feast a week before the rice is harvested. And yes, this is the sort of place that wild elephants will wander through – so cool.
Our days started with the long honored Ayurveda practice of drinking hot lemon water before any food. This aids in digestion and helps rid your body of toxins. This was done even before coffee. In fact, as part of our cleanse, we stopped drinking coffee altogether (except for one cheat day when the headaches were getting bad). We also cut back on raw sugars, fats, carbohydrates, salt and who knows how many other western toxins.
The first couple of days of our cleanse combined with jet lag made things a little rough. About day three, our energy picked up and we felt amazing satisfied with considerably smaller portion size, minimal meat, carbohydrates, and sugar. We also were coming out the other side of our caffeine withdrawal and we weren’t craving coffee. One interesting note about an Ayurveda diet, you are not suppose to eat anything dead. No frozen or canned food and no dried plants either.
Every meal was served buffet style with at least a half-dozen different options and flavors. The ones the doctor recommended were a little rough, but everything else was a real food adventure. The tastes were unique and distinctive. There was more bitter than my American palate was used but we found that eating very flavorful foods satisfied our mouths and our minds. Pretty soon, our stomachs followed suit and we ate substantially smaller portions.
We also learned a lot about Sri Lankan cuisine. Over the course of a week, we ate about twenty meals at the retreat with about six dishes each. Since each meal was mostly unique, we probably had about fifty different Sri Lankan dishes. By comparison, we spent another week in Sri Lanka as tourists and only were able to taste ten dishes. The variety and authenticity of the food at Mahagedara gave us insights and memories to the real culture of Sri Lanka.
Herbal Baths in Ayurveda
Absorbing nutrients and healing properties from nature is fundamental to Ayurveda. This can come from oils used during massage, the food you eat, herbal teas, and also soaking in herbal baths. Ed’s consultation revealed skin irritation that was being exasperated with both the hot and humid climate of Sri Lanka and sitting on the long flights. The skin was rashed and irritated all around his beltline. Treatment for him was two-fold.
To start with, a bright green paste made from herbs from the surrounding garden was concocted. The paste was applied liberally head to toe with a brush made from the bark of a tree. After application, Ed looked like a walking green mud bath.
The next step in the process was backing in the sunlight to let the herbs sink into the skin as well as pull the toxins out. Cooking time was about 30 minutes, during which time the balm hardened a little, but remained surprisingly pliable.
While Ed was cooking in the sun, the staff was also preparing an herbal bath. The would pick fresh leaves from the garden from the margosa trees and well as turmeric and other medicinal herbs. The pot boiled over a wood fire creating a wonderful smell like somebody was roasting chicken marsala over a campfire. Ed soaked for about ½ hour in an outdoor tub with the leaves and dark water covering him up to his face.
By the second treatment, Ed’s back was clear. Not only had the pain and swelling subsided, but all traces of redness. It was so successful that we started researching if we could grow our own margosa trees in Florida.
Immersion in the Jungles of Sri Lanka
Ayurveda is about finding balance. Urban life is filled with concrete, noise and artificial lighting. We are desperately out of balance with nature. Immersion into the jungles of Sri Lanka was a perfect way to restore balance.
Lakmali, the owner of Mahagedara, choose the location for two reasons. She wanted it near the culture of Sri Lanka (it’s about 5 miles from Sigiriya Rock). Second, she wanted a location that had mature jungle all around it. Culture and nature were planned from the very beginning.
After picking her site, she selected where the roads, paths, and buildings would be placed based on jungle itself. They are built around the jungle which makes it look like each secluded bungalow sprang from the forest itself. Nature surrounds you everywhere you go at Mahagedara.
Through the course of the day, you walk through jungle paths to reach the dining hall or treatment rooms. At dawn, you can hear the forest wake up around you. At dusk, you can hear the chanting emanating from the neighborhood temple. One night, we took a night hike and saw the eyes of a jungle cat hanging out at the massage huts. There is a peace that comes from being in harmony with nature and your surroundings.
Ayurvedic Meditation and Thoughtfulness Exercises
In Ayurveda, everything can medicine and you are seeking balance. This holds true for the physical as well as the mental and emotional. Your mind is your greatest ally in health or enemy in sickness. Everything can also be poison when you are out of balance. Naturally, meditation and thoughtfulness play an important role in Ayurveda.
Mahagedara Retreat offered focused meditation on overcoming your obstacles, achieving your intentions, mindfulness and sleep therapy. To overcome our obstacles, we first identified everything that was holding us back. This process took several days of meditation. Then, we wrote everything down on a piece of paper (or two) and brought it to a special purging ceremony. The ceremony was very simple. We cast our papers into the fire and said: “be gone”. Perhaps that is all you need to do to move on but I think the real work is to keep from filling up another sheet of paper with a whole new set of things holding you back.
We had a lot more help and ritual devoted to achieving our goals. We mediated and created our five intentions that we were setting. Mahagedara brought in the neighborhood monk and everybody, including the full staff, gathered under the Bodhi tree on property. This tree is sacred to Buddhism because it’s where Buddha found his enlightenment. We were hoping for just a shred of the same wisdom.
The ceremony started with lighting seven candles underneath the Bodhi tree. The monk began to chant prayers and blessings. Then we knelt before the monk for his blessing. Everybody was chanting to increase the power of the prayer. The monk tied a simple ribbon around our wrists and prayed for us. Then, we circled the tree three times. Each time we poured water seven times onto the tree. With each pour, we recited our affirmations. It was beautiful, powerful and moving. We were also given the homework assignment of repeating our affirmations every morning.
For mindfulness, all we had to do was make a cup of tea for each other. You would think this would be so simple it would be meaningless, but it was neither simple nor meaningless. We sat out in a hut across from the rice paddies. Our first obstacle was a very old school tea strainer that looked like something you would make sock coffee out of. The second was that you couldn’t talk or instruct your partner while they were making your tea.
The equipment was hard to handle. How many scoops of tea make a tea bag? How long do you leave it to steep? How does your partner make take their tea?
You are also thinking about the test itself. What would my partner say to me if they could? What would I be saying? The results: Jenn’s tea was too strong. Ed’s was a little too weak and Jenn couldn’t stay quiet. It was a fascinating experiment that we learned a lot from.
The real irony of the Ayurvedic meditation was our sleep therapy. We kept trying every night to work on sleep therapy but every night we got tired and had to go to bed before we could get to it. I am a believer in sleep therapy but it certainly wasn’t needed after our jetlag and caffeine cleanse.
Cultural Excursions in Central Sri Lanka
We were torn about how cultural excursions fit into Ayurveda in Sri Lanka. They did kind of reset the sensory deprivation that comes from seclusion in the jungle. We also felt like we were on a diet cheat day when we ate lunches out on field trips. On the other hand, we made it all the way over to Sri Lanka and we didn’t want to miss out on anything. Mahagedara was recognized with the World’s Luxury Hotel awards for Luxury Cultural Resort, so it seemed like it would be a real shame to not take cultural excursions.
They were able to arrange visits that originated from the resort. More often than not, they utilized the staff driver. This was essential so we wouldn’t have to worry too much about logistics and to minimize the interruption of our energy reset. We visited Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya Rock, Dambulla Cave Temples, Megalithic Burial Site, the ruins of Polonnaruwa to learn its rich history, and an elephant safari in Kaudulla National Park. We ended up seeing three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and experienced elephants in the wild. These are memories that we will never forget and help strengthen the experience of Ayurveda. Every time we remember these places, we also remember our lessons.
There is no way that we could have taken our journey in Ayurveda without the staff of Mahagedara. They attended to every detail so we could focus on our journey. From keeping the jungle paths clean, to preparing authentic meals, to joining in on the ceremonies. Their energies and efforts were essential, and we can not thank them enough for their help.
Anywhere you go, service is appreciated. Clean towels and toilets make for a great hotel stay. For proper Ayurveda, the staff is essential. They are preparing the treatments and your environment for the journey of a lifetime.
Avoiding the Ayurvedic Hustle
As wonderful as we thought Mahagadera was, we didn’t feel that way with all of the Ayurveda we experienced in Sri Lanka. Tourism is an up and coming business in Sri Lanka after the Tamil War so you would expect there to be some growing pains. It’s no different with Ayurveda.
Our experience started with one of those “package city tour deals” from a beach town in Southern Sri Lanka. We stopped by a bunch of little shops who each tried to get us to spend a little extra. I don’t mind entrepreneurship, but there is a certain decorum and level that crosses the line.
The shop we entered was nice enough at first. We toured a herb garden and saw many plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. For some reason, each plant corresponded to an ailment common to Western Culture. Red Pineapple was touted for weight control. Red pepper could be used for muscle soreness. Herbs for hair removal or hair growth, cholesterol control to diabetes. Nearly every common ailment was permanently “cured” by ayurvedic herbs that somehow, modern medicine didn’t have knowledge of.
You could guess what’s next, there was an overpriced shop that had every miracle herb you just saw available in some fashion. No money – no worries. The proprietor knew every hotel in town. In fact, I think the prices depended on which hotel you were staying at. There was even a “student” (who happened to be wearing a “trust me I’m a Jedi Master” shirt) that showed up to give you a complimentary ten-minute massage than the Dr. demanded more than an hour of massage in Thailand would cost you from a professional shop for payment for his student.
Lakmali, the owner of Mahagedara Retreat, said it best when she said Western Medicine is for when you are sick and Ayurveda is for keeping you healthy. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ayurveda involves discipline, self-reflection, and work. It balances you from the inside out. I would be leery of anybody touting a miracle cure that modern medicine hasn’t yet discovered.
You also want to pick a location that complements your practice. If jungle, culture, and nature speak to you, Mahagedara Retreat could be perfect. If you can’t give up your western comforts, there are other options available. You should doubt the authenticity of Ayurvedic diets that include bacon for breakfast instead of Sri Lankan porridge but you don’t have to go fully authentic to gain benefit from the experience.
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Key Takeaways from Ayurveda in Sri Lanka
Ayurveda is an ancient practice from the Indian Subcontinent that focuses on balancing your energies or doshas based on your individual constitution. There is no one size fits all answer or quick fix patch you can pick up. It’s a lifelong practice of self-discovery, removing the poisons from your life, and pursuing health in all its forms.
Sri Lanka is a wonderful country to discover Ayurveda in or continue your journey. Ayurveda has been part of Sri Lankan culture from the very beginning. The herbs, food, religions, and people of Sri Lanka work together to enhance the experience.
When going to Sri Lanka, or any place, do your research before you go. Look for a service that is reputable and doesn’t overpromise. Understand that you play a key role in finding your balance. Don’t expect to sit still and have other people solve your problems. Ayurveda just doesn’t work that way.
Disclaimer: A big thank you to Mahagedara Wellness Retreat for hosting us and setting up such a wonderful experience and itinerary! Although our experience was complimentary, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, regardless of who is picking up the tab.