Finding Serenity with Chiva-Som’s Emotional Well-Being Retreat
The daily massages are just a bonus.
Celebrating 21 years as the authority on health and wellness, Chiva-Som sharpens its competitive edge with new launches to enhance its position as one of the wellness originals.
I’m here for an abridged version of the Emotional Well-Being Retreat, which tackles stress and re-energises through a holistic approach to therapies, nutrition and fitness and, lucky for me, with the addition of the latest spa treatments adapted from other programmes.
What sets this health sanctuary apart is its individualised approach which incorporates a detailed consultation to assess objectives and select treatments, private fitness classes and a specifically tailored nutrition plan. Situated in Hua Hin, a two-hour drive from Bangkok, Chiva-Som is nestled in a former oceanfront estate with a serene koi-filled pond framed by picturesque bridges and manicured gardens.
There’s little more welcoming than a spa initiation, and the Chiva-Som Signature Massage, which improves circulation and lymphatic drainage, dissolves the last traces of reality and city life, followed by an indulgent dinner (knowing the restraint required in days to come) of pad Thai, vegetable stir-fry and mango sticky rice.
As part of the cleansing diet, breakfast is a delicious raw cereal and almond milk with flaxseed, sesame and almond (FSA) and Ayurvedic powder, served with green juice and mushroom tea. After an introduction from CSR Manager Brian Anderson on Chiva-Som’s energy efficiency, waste and water minimisation and community education initiatives, we visit Krailart Niwate. To promote science education and ecotourism in the area, the Mangrove Ecosystem Preservation & Science Education Centre is a collaborative effort with staff and their families rolling up their sleeves to plant trees in the swampland.
Next stop is the organic farm located in Hua Hin (they have another larger farm further afield where the climate produces a complementary array of produce) where the chef guides me through a greenhouse filled with honeydew melon, a covered area with hand-sprouted beans, oyster mushroom huts, dragon fruit trees, and all the basil you could possibly dream of. As much as 80% of the produce used in the restaurants, and some spa treatments, come from their own gardens.
Back at base, the probiotic salad, comprised mostly of cauliflower, and steamed vegetables served with tamarind dressing, garlic oil is more than enough on a hot day, and with the wheatgrass shot and green smoothies between meals, completely manageable.
A facial consultation is complimentary for all guests, where the dermatologist takes photos of every angle of the face, to produce a report with percentile score depicting your rank relative to others of the same age, gender and skin type. My scores are decent (the higher the number, the better) for red areas, pores, brown spots, UV spots and wrinkles, but lower for texture and porphyrins.
“As much as 80% of the produce used in the restaurants, and some spa treatments, come from their own gardens”
Onto the sleep-inducing Back, Neck and Shoulder massage, a streamlined version of the Deep Tissue Massage, to loosen tightness around the neck and shoulders, particularly for those who spend the best part of the day sitting in front of a computer. The Gyrokinesis mat class to follow was highly complementary, blending gentle movements of yoga, tai chi, gymnastics and dance through flowing sequences. A traditional Thai massage with emphasis on pressure points, stretching and bending, was a blissful way to ease any lingering tension.
The “liquid“ day of the cleansing diet starts with potassium broth, livened up by miso paste and herbs and spices to add colour to the bowl, along with a green juice and ginkgo biloba tea. I meet naturopath Tal Friedman for a consultation. Having experienced the usual neck and shoulder pain that comes with too much time spent sitting, Tal demonstrates a chest stretch (for a minimum of 90 seconds to have any effect) and a scapular push-up to try before or after a workout to help maintain good posture. In terms of diet, he suggests upping protein, especially in the morning, accompanied by vegetables and healthy fats.
With sleep my other main concern, Tal recommends putting at least 10 to 15 minutes aside each day to focus on internal dialogue, to avoid it arising when your head hits the pillow for example, with quiet reflection free from phones, TV and music. He suggests planning the day ahead, using good old-fashioned pen and paper to free the mind of thoughts before unplugging for the night, if not meditating or journaling. I enjoy hearing Tal’s thoughts on the perception of stress, and the need to be mindful that our attitudes and beliefs create realities. For the most part we have little control of a situation, only the way we manage our response.
I have heard a lot about Chiva-Som’s speciality Chi Nei Tsang abdominal massage, which focuses on the navel and surrounding area where stress, tension and negative emotions tend to accumulate. It’s also ideal for anyone suffering from digestive problems, encouraging the elimination of toxins in the gastrointestinal tract. Having internal organs massaged is more pleasant than it sounds, quite gentle actually, to the point that you may feel like dosing off.
After a lunch of emerald soup, it’s time for a private pranayama class with Preeda, which proves challenging with a cold. We practise ujayi, a short breath to the chest, ribs and belly; breath retention where the inhale and exhale are equal in length; and the energising kapalbhati breath which is perfect for mornings. For relaxation, nadi sodhana or alternative nostril breathing calms the mind, while bhramari, also known as the bee breathing technique helps release agitation, frustration, anxiety and anger.
“I enjoy hearing Tal’s thoughts on the perception of stress, and the need to be mindful that our attitudes and beliefs create realities”
The day’s highlight is a session with Satoshi Hashimoto, a Japanese acupuncturist and all-around miracle worker who, after I complain of soreness on the left side of my neck, takes one look at my ankle (mildly sprained the week prior) and can instantly tell that the energy blockage there is the cause, which makes complete sense in hindsight. He uses the Seiketsu-Shiraku treatment, a bloodletting method where a needle is inserted at a specific point at the tip of the hands or toes and tapping between 30 to 40 times, and the stiffness dissipates almost instantly.
I tell Satoshi I’m getting over a cold, with a stuffy nose the last noticeable symptom. With another flick of the needle in my toe, I can breathe clearly again straight away, perhaps the most obvious fix. But he has more up his sleeve. Observing that my breathing is shallow, possibly stress-related, he opens the heart meridian with another prick, none of which is painful, and an amazing sense of calm washes over me. I mention a slight feeling of lethargy and he manipulates the balance of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems with more needling, and it’s as if I have knocked back a double espresso. The 90-minute session is mind-boggling and worth making a special trip for.
Before the last liquid meal, detox tom kha and raspberry sorbet, I'm treated to an Oriental Scalp Massage to release neck, shoulder and scalp tension with deliciously nourishing coconut oil. Using a fusion of Eastern and Western therapies combines deep-tissue massage and myofascial pain release techniques, so I can sleep soundly, dreaming of solid food tomorrow.
Knowing the reward of a chewable breakfast of scrambled tofu, avocado and spinach to come, I make it to the morning bootcamp session. Challenging on an empty stomach but the squat jumps, springs, push-ups, planks and lunges bring a sense of reward. And after the highly anticipated refuel, it’s time for my first Gyrotonic class with charming Pur, which uses the resistance of a handlebar and pulley, similar to reformer Pilates, though movements are more undulating, flowing and dance-like.
The ’Less’ day lunch consists of mushroom broth, sprout salad and potato noodles, which after yesterday feels comparatively like lead in the stomach, before heading to the vague but agreeable- sounding Stress Release Therapy. Created with the desk-bound executive in mind, myofascial and soft tissue relief techniques are used to ease the upper back. A paraffin wax is applied to the hands first to encourage circulation and ease tension, and the 80 minutes of sheer bliss concludes with a spine tingling scalp massage.
“Dim lights, soothing music and a therapist who knows her way around pressure points is the ultimate bedtime preparation”
A few hours later I am back at the spa for a Relaxing Foot Massage. Lying flat is a welcome change from the usual foot soak while reading a magazine experience that is quintessentially Hong Kong. Dim lights, soothing music and a therapist who knows her way around pressure points is the ultimate bedtime preparation. As is the delectable Saturday seafood barbecue of prawns, mussels, squid, seabass in banana leaf and desserts like dumplings in coconut soup and sago coconut pudding, which proved too tempting and admittedly my scheduled salad and fish dinner was never to be.
With the cleansing diet a distant memory, today is about trying as many classes as I can fit in while actually having energy. A private morning session with Ann is a treat, a blend of vinyasa flow with hatha and restorative yoga. She emphasises the power of the ujayi breath to invigorate, and it’s unbelievable how much deeper and longer a challenging pose can be held using vigorous throat breathing as force. She leads me through sun salutations, standing and seated poses before camel back bends and the shoulder stand inversion to close. I can’t think of a better way to set the tone for the day.
With just enough time to change into gym gear, Arocha’s Abs, Butt and Thighs class awaits where we squat, lunge, plank, leg lift, bridge and bicycle crunch our way to, with any luck, a more toned version of ourselves, given plenty of encouragement and corrections along the way. I have a final consultation with my advisor to assess whether the problems I came in with – neck pain, cold, difficulty sleeping – has eased off, which I'm pleased to say they have. Of course it’s easy to feel better in a tranquil environment, and the staff here are aware of the stresses of city living, making ongoing support a priority with resources just an email away.
To alleviate neck pain, I was recommended the Cranio-Myofascial Release which targets the fascia, particularly shoulder blades, neck and head to unknot the effects of poor posture and tension-induced injury with a vibrating machine used along the muscle fibres, ligaments and connective tissue, activating the muscles to contract and release themselves for relaxation. Nothing beats the hands of a skilled therapist however, and my favourite part was the manual techniques used on the bands of the torso, for that warm, fuzzy feeling only a tactile massage can bring.
The final class of the day was Fitball and Free Weights with the zealous Nuttapol. With only one other guest present, there was zero opportunity to slack off, though it would have been hard anyway with him barking – “Five more reps!” “Lift it higher!” and “Keep bouncing!” What began as a rather comical session of us bounding on the spot quickly escalates into countless reps of chest presses, tricep kick backs and extensions, walk-out planks, rolling side lunges, hip raises and crunches. We were in hysterics for a good portion of the time, and I was inspired to dust off the fit ball that has been taking up space in my flat.
Aside from the innovative spa menu, the selection and quality of classes were superb with up to eight a day, and for all fitness levels. Getting through some of them may have been ambitious on liquids only, but the reward of a spa treatment as a dangling carrot certainly helped. With any output at Chiva-Som, the payback seems infinitely greater. My last day closes with the signature massage, the same one I was indulged with upon arrival, to come full circle. And aptly so, as I feel rather whole again.