Stylist’s beauty director Anita Bhagwandas visits the Tor Spa Retreat in Kent, in search of an authentic Ayurvedic experience.
I’ve always been a bit eye roll about Ayurveda – the ancient Indian system of alternative medicine that originated more than 5,000 years ago. That sounds sacrilegious being Indian, but it’s just that I’ve had it thrust upon me since birth – having gone to multiple Ayurvedic spas over the last few decades for family holidays in India. As a teenager it just felt too hippie and actually just too Indian.
And at that time (growing up in not-very-diverse south Wales in the Nineties) I just wanted to be like ‘everyone else’, including taking a dose of Night Nurse when I was ill – rather than having to down cups of cumin water or a spoonful of chyawanprash (vile-tasting fruit and spice supplement).
But while I was busy rejecting my heritage, the rest of the world caught up – turmeric lattes are available with relative ease in big cities, there’s a yoga centre on every high street and meditation is this year’s health buzzword – all core Ayurvedic practices. As is the spiritual connection to our health; ‘ayur’ literally means life, ‘veda’ means knowledge or science. And in Ayurveda that manifests as two main principles, firstly that the mind and body are interlinked and secondly, that the mind has the ability to heal the body through a balance of three ‘doshas’ (which are unique to each individual).
While it’s not so much a cure, rather a continuous way of living, in our current stress-addled climate it does seem like it could hold some elements of healing self-discovery.
That’s why I’m here – at the Tor Spa Retreat in Ickham, Kent. There are many Ayurvedic spas popping up, but in a quest to find something in homage to the ones I’d been to in Kerala, I chose this one – mainly because Dr P Jayalakshmi, one of the spa’s Ayurvedic physicians, is from Kerala and felt like the most authentic out of all I researched. (Always make sure there is a trained Ayurvedic doctor on site – it’s the mark of it being a proper Ayurvedic retreat.) My quest for authenticity does mean that I’ve forgone the perfect boutique spa escape.
The Tor Spa Retreat – 15 minutes from Canterbury West station – while quaint, isn’t classic girls’ weekend territory. But I’m here for expertise and actually, the facilities are far larger than they initially appear. There are multiple lounging areas inside and outside, a chemical-free oxygenated indoor pool (that feels like a warm bath) and an elegant garden complete with idyllic lily ponds. It has the air of relaxation without the ‘must relax or else’ pressure of other places I’ve reviewed.
I’m given a locker and a giant dressing gown – ideal because asking for bigger robe sizes at spas is my pet hate as I think it body-shames people (but also because nobody wants a tight dressing gown when they’re trying to get their chill on). I take a seat on one of the huge sofas in the main relaxation room, Pukka tea in hand, reading an ancient astrology book I’ve found, until my doctor calls me to the appointment. We sit in a gently lit, warm room that feels part-spa, part-clinic. After we exchange hellos, the very first thing Dr Jayalakshmi asks me is, “Are you intolerant to gluten?” I am. I don’t know what this sorcery is, but I’m in. I ask how she knows that, and she says it’s the fluid retention in my face. I’m less enthused now, though more determined to finally stop eating it.
Dr Jayalakshmi then runs a gauntlet of lifestyle questions: my stress levels (through the roof), my diet (a mess) and my exercise habits (all or nothing). We also complete a quiz designed to ascertain what dosha I am – vata, pitta or kapha. They’re ways of classifying us by a set of characteristics such as body type, body temperature and personality traits. She tells me I’m kapha, but need to balance my pitta for optimum health by switching to warm drinks and not having too many different foods at one sitting as it overburdens the gut (very important with Ayurvedic medicine – another thing western medicine is not adopting).
She prescribes a specific Abhyanga (deep tissue) massage for me targeting my energy levels. But the spa also offers other traditional Ayurvedic treatments such as Swedham – using a poultice of herbs to massage the body – and Shirodhara, which involves having medicinal oil poured across your forehead (third eye) for stress, migraines and insomnia. The treatment room itself is rustic and authentic, dimly lit with traditional Indian oil lamps. And after the incredibly invigorating massage (no chance of catching up on some sleep), I genuinely jump up feeling refreshed, before a steaming treatment, where I sit in a wooden box on a stool for 10 minutes of toxin removal.
The result? I thought I’d leave a British Ayurveda spa sneery about how it was nothing like the authentic treatments I’d had in India, but here the surroundings are a mix of east and west in a way that doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation. I’d never expected a retreat in Kent to help reconnect me to my own culture, but it totally has.
Treatment packages at Tor Spa Retreat start at £105 a day; torsparetreat.com
Images: Getty/Tor Spa Retreat