“I would like you to eat a lot while you’re here,” Dr Peeyush Kumar tells me. “Try everything and really taste it and enjoy it.” This is my kind of medical advice. We’re sitting in Dr Kumar’s swanky clinic in the heart of Velaa Private Island’s all-new Eveylaa Wellbeing center, and I’m having my first in-person consultation (the first happened via video call a week before I arrived) ahead of a four-day-long prescribed treatment plan.
Admittedly, a wellness retreat isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Maldives. That powdery sand, so white it’s almost snowy; perfectly clear waters brimming with sea life; brilliant, blinding sunshine; and maybe a trip or two to the spa — that’s the paradisiacal Maldives we know and love. A wellness regime? Not so much.
Fortunately, like with most things at Velaa, the program I’m here to try out is different from most. Dr Kumar heads up the Ayurvedic portion of the new Eveylaa Wellbeing center that opened in early May as the latest addition to the resort’s innovative Wellbeing Village. In line with the principles of Ayurveda — an ancient Indian medicine system that promotes holistic health — Dr Kumar addresses each complaint by treating the cause rather than just the symptom.
A central pillar of Ayurvedic medicine — and one of the first points that Dr Kumar gets to with me — is dosha, a fundamental type of body constitution, by which most other ailments can be treated. Far from just a personality type, a dosha encapsulates every part of your being, from your likes, your dislikes and your physique, to your temperament, your temperature and your mental state.
There are three types of dosha — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — and people are often combinations of them all, with one being prominent. The key to achieving emotional and physical well-being, according to Ayurvedic teachings, is to balance the presence of these doshas.
“What about the gym?” I ask after being given my generous dietary instructions, thinking about Velaa’s impressively high-tech setup and my preconceptions of what a health retreat looks like. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” is the reply.
Dr Kumar has marked me out to have a prominence of Pitta, a fiery dosha that requires calming rather than overexciting, so one of the goals for my time on the island is to rest (and to eat, of course). My plan does include some exercise though.
First is an 8am wake-up call for a Reformer Pilates session with resident instructor Polina, where muscles I didn’t know existed are carefully but oh so firmly put to the test. Then, there’s a taster session at the Velaa Golf Academy, where I not so expertly traverse the nine-hole course.
The bulk of Dr Kumar’s personalized plan for me, though, is daily Ayurvedic treatments, the majority of which take place in one of two of the new Eveylaa Wellbeing treatment suites (the second is for more modern Western practices and has an osteopathy clinic).
The word ‘suites’ feels like an understatement: The one dedicated to Ayurvedic practices has three private rooms and includes a pre- and post-massage relaxation area, a mini steam room and traditional steam chair, a shower and changing space, and a twin treatment room, all flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lush jungle foliage beyond.
The most common form of massage in Ayurvedic medicine is Abhyanga — a head-to-toe massage using a dosha-specific oil. Treatments are undertaken by two skilled practitioners at a time, with two sets of strong hands teasing out knots and working away tensions from your feet all the way up to your scalp in perfect, staggered unison. I have several of these booked, and with each, my body feels looser, more supple, and with fewer twinges and pains.
A second and more immersive (and easily my favorite) treatment is Shirodhara — a traditional healing technique where warm, almost hot, oil is gently poured from copper bowls across your forehead. To those who haven’t had it before, this experience can sound daunting, even torturous; it’s not.
Focusing on what in Ayurvedic medicine is called the third eye — a spot in the middle of your forehead — Shirodhara can put you in a dreamlike, almost lucid state, with the unfamiliar sensation intended to aid relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety, and even improve intuition. It’s an entirely unique experience and, surprisingly, one that is yet to be replicated in Western therapies.
One day, I head to Velaa’s overwater spa — the resort’s original wellness enclave, if you will — for a change of scenery. The massage I have here is obviously brilliant (Velaa doesn’t do anything by halves), but it’s different — it’s more about blissful relaxation, soundtracked by the waves lapping below, than the dosha-calming and far more intensive Ayurvedic treatments I’ve become accustomed to back at Eveylaa.
I also have regular catch-ups with Dr Kumar. Sometimes he’s just checking in to see how I feel post-treatment and to hear how I’m getting on. On other occasions, I’m scheduled for an emotional well-being session, where I’m guided through a Smriti session — a therapeutic meditation intended to uncover underlying mental obstacles.
Like Shirodhara, the effect is almost trancelike, with patients encouraged to delve into their innermost thoughts and bring them to the surface to help unpack and combat them, resulting in a calmer, more tranquil state of mind. It’s an intense experience to begin with, but with time and regular sessions (which Dr Kumar teaches guests to practice alone at home), it becomes simpler and more approachable.
And so, in line with that very first bit of advice Dr Kumar gave me and, on top of my regular massages and Smriti sessions, I do eat a lot. Over my four days, I make the absolute most of Velaa’s vast dining options: There’s an evening of Euro-meets-Asia fine dining at the overwater Aragu restaurant; a theatrical Teppanyaki experience at Tavaru (which sits at the top of the highest building on any resort island in the Maldives); and all-day snacks, sandwiches and salads at the beach-front Athiri.
Accompanying all of this are bottles of champagne and rich, delicious desserts. Even the more health-conscious Faiy, which overlooks the golf course, still serves fine wines and indulgent desserts. Am I really on a health retreat?
The crux of what Dr Kumar, Eveylaa Wellbeing and the wider Wellbeing Village at Velaa, are trying to do is create a health retreat with a difference — one that invokes meaningful lifestyle changes that are actually possible to sustain at home.
Radical detox retreats that cut alcohol, ban caffeine and demonize sugar might have some immediate effects, but they’re hard to maintain and, most important, they’re not much fun.
“To some people, well-being is a glass of wine after work,” Velaa’s general manager Wayne Milgate tells me over dinner on the island one evening. He’s completely right — the idea of wellness means something different to everyone, and stripping people of their pleasures can only do so much.
“You do look well,” announced my skeptical boyfriend over our final lunch. Mission accomplished, I suppose.
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fall 2023