We arrived at Sen Wellness in the south of Sri Lanka in the late afternoon, deposited by a grumpy driver who was entirely unimpressed by the unpaved, bumpy dirt road that leads to the hotel. The retreat is very much a sanctuary from the moment you step inside. No shoes, minimal wifi (I opted to switch my phone off for 5 days to really get into it), open spaces and general peacefulness disseminates in the circular space. The air is humid, carrying the sound of the ocean, the trees, birdsong and the occasional monkey.
On the ground floor is the kitchen, communal dining table, some lounge areas, the Ayurvedic doctor’s room and the treatment rooms as well as, set back slightly, the private cabanas. If you want your own toilet you’ll need to book one of these. On the second level are the bedrooms, shared bathrooms, lounge areas and the yoga / meditation space that looks out into the jungle.
Shortly after arriving we had our consultations with the the resident Ayurvedic doctor. Dr Shamilka, was serene and gorgeous, always dressed immaculately with her beautiful long dark hair swaying in a plait as she moves about the sanctuary. She’s clearly an expert in this field and radiates, for want of a better phrase, girl power. There were many many questions asked during the consultation, including what were my favourite foods (how difficult I found this!! Is bread and butter a bad answer? Am I restricted by cuisine, meal, ingredients!?), when and why I became stressed, who is in my family, how fast do I walk and how is the health of my vagina. We covered all topics. She then read my pulse according to Ayurvedic principles with 3 fingers to determine my constitution. I was judged a ‘kapha’ or water-based personality. Soft skin, empathic and stubbornness are all characteristics of kapha people. Each person’s constitution determines their Ayurvedic treatment plan whilst at the sanctuary.
As the sun goes down, the Sri Lankan staff busy themselves lighting candles and then later burning scented smoked. Everything is very ritualistic. A gong sounds at 7pm, as it does for each meal. The dining table is communal and so over each meal we got to know others who were either staying at or working as teachers at the retreat. The yoga / meditation teachers live in another part of the sanctuary and do many of the activities with the guests. They were all lovely and I very much enjoyed hearing about their journeys; everyone from a Wall Street banker with his wonderfully tattoo’ed and bohemian Chilean wife to an 18 year old German yogi and meditation teacher fresh out of his Indian yogi school.
The food is Sri Lankan and lovely, definitely on the healthy side and guided by Ayurvedic principles. Dhal, potato curry, onion sambal, pittu, coconut sambal, kiribath, rice, hoppers, roti and herbal teas. And generally not all that much sweet.
At 9pm it’s bedtime and the lights everywhere are turned off.
The next morning we’re woken at 5.30am with a knock on the door and a warm cup of cardamon tea. We sleepily get up and make our way into the yoga room just as daylight starts to creep in. The morning yoga session is 90 minutes and is truly the loveliest way to wake up. I don’t know how I’d ever introduce a 6am class into my daily life where bedtime is rarely before 11pm, but I’m hoping I can do some (slightly less early) morning classes in the future.
The first morning, and every morning after, each class was partially disrupted by a gang of very wild monkeys throwing themselves between the trees and then only the roof, running like thunder over our heads.
Rekawa beach is a 2 minute walk; the beach is wild and not great for swimming, but deserted and incredibly beautiful. It’s a great place for a long morning walk post-yoga or an afternoon nap in the sun. They are in the process of building a salt water pool for the sanctuary which will be a great addition.
Breakfast begins with large pink coconut, fresh fruit, some sort of take on porridge (I was never sure if it was sweet or savoury) with either ground flour or grains or both. Followed by curry and traditional Sri Lanka accompaniments like hoppers, coconut samba and onions. And then finally comes your Ayurvedic medicine mixed up with plant-based ingredients with some very suspect smells and textures, not for the feint hearted!
The Ayurvedic treatment begins after breakfast, the descriptions of which were often in Sri Lankan (e.g. ‘Shirodhara’ and ‘Abyanga’) with no explanation so it was always a surprise when I entered the treatment room!
I had everything from face masks, to full body massages, chakra treatments and herbal baths. My most interesting and unusual treatment was Sarwangadhara. Firstly, I was asked to undress and lay naked on a big wooden bench. The table was built at a slight angle so liquid could run down into a hole. I was covered, no, smothered, in the most incredible way with a special oil. The giant drum of oil had my name on it, so I assume it was mixed with various things deemed beneficial for me. Words can’t accurately describe volume of warm oil that was poured over me, all the while the dexterous therapist rubbed it into me with her other hand. Very very relaxing, once I got over my bemusement. Until she asked me to turn over onto my back and I slipped around in the oil like a sardine in it’s tin until I’d come all the way around. Getting off the table was also no mean feat either.
Most days, there are activities in the afternoon – ranging from trips to a local temple, market visits, meditation with a monk and cooking classes. We did a temple visit and watched the sun go down over the jungles of the Southern coast. We also did a cooking class which I loved with a very handsome chef call Bony. I will share the recipes for Dal and Hoppers soon!
In the evenings there is a local turtle conservation project and if you let the sanctuary known they’ll tell you when you can go and watch the turtles lay their eggs. Otherwise no one is allowed on the beach after 7pm. It’s so inspiring to see these little grass roots projects and these people with very little themselves working so hard to protect the turtles. The sight of the 1.5m green turtle laying over 100 eggs in the dark was amazing.
You’re experience at Sen Wellness will in part be determined by what teachers are in residence at the time and what they are trained in. We had 3 beautiful women whilst I was there: a lithe young British/Indian teacher who had recently finished her teacher training in Rishikesh and specialised in Hatha, a gloriously fair British Kundalini master with a very cheeky smile but a fellow Virgo with a very warm heart and finally, an etherial Dutch woman who was mesmerizingly quirky and made you want to live a more peaceful life with her breath work and creativity practice.
We chanted, we meditated, we listened to the magical gong, we drew, we did sensory mindfulness, we did breathing exercises, we accidentally fell asleep sometimes, we almost did headstands, we giggled and we sent positive energy out. We learnt a lot from these three women.
Guests can opt to join a set 10-day retreat or just visit for a set number of days.
Thank you to everyone who made our 5 days so magical, and a special thank you to Sam, the lovely owner of Sen, who has truly created a sanctuary to heal both the spiritual and the physical self in beautiful Sri Lanka.