Ayurvedic retreats in Kerala, India, are like corner shops in London or New York: there’s one almost everywhere you look. So how to choose? Dr Unni’s fame spreads far. I heard about him first from Gudrun Jonsson, one of the world’s premier naturopaths. Then other devotees started to recommend him. On top of that, Dr Unni also lectures and treats everywhere from Scandanavia to the UK. So that’s how I came to opt for Dr Unni’s Agastyaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital, ‘near Light House Beach, Kovalam’, as his business card states so charmingly.
Welcome to Kerala, the home of Ayurveda, and to Dr Unni’s Agstyaa, a pocket-size retreat (just 30 bedrooms) set in an oasis of a quarter of an acre with jackfruit and mango trees and coconut palms. It’s situated in a peaceful enclave just two minutes from the bustle of the beach resort of Kovalam with its golden sands, waterfront restaurants with jumbo prawns the size of Chihuahuas, and hawkers flogging hand-painted cards of Indian gods on paper made from elephant dung.
My first impression is that Dr Unni’s Agastyaa is authentic and real, rather than swish and luxy. Its design is simple and un-fancy in a way that appeals (as the guest book testifies) to a steady stream of visitors from northern Europe, those folk from Sweden and the like with their good taste.
It’s done up in contemporary Indian style with a touch of traditional combined with some European touches. Everything is tactile and, often, earthy: from lights that hang like creeping flowers from the trees, to the giant bamboo bannisters juxtaposed with the black stone floor tiles; and the hanging wicker seats on the verandas overlooking, in the distance, the twinkling Arabian sea.
Dr Unni’s Agastyaa attracts a lot of northern Europeans. But it also lures Arabs, escaping the summer heat of the Middle East. It draws both those in search of serious health solutions for chronic conditions – from diabetes to post stroke, cancer and post-chemotherapy – and also those simply wanting detoxes and rejuvenation. Plus, it offers everything from weight loss to dealing with addictions. And this without the side effects so often suffered with western approaches.
If Ayurveda seems whacky to some – most only come to this ancient method of healing after trying other methods, although it’s very popular as a first point of call with Germans – it’s not witchcraft or quackery. After my first visit to an Ayurvedic retreat (a year ago), I enjoyed improved health and importantly, scientifically measurable results (gauged through blood tests). Additionally, since February 2018, Ayurveda has been offered at St Charles’s Hospital, an NHS hospital in London – paid for by the Indian High Commission – with a view to rolling it out nationally if it’s successful.
So let my Dr Unni’s Agastyaa journey begin. First off, I have a consultation with Dr Sultana, a pretty lady doctor from Kerala in a fuchsia-pink beaded traditional salwar. She takes my medical history. I won’t bore you with all the details. Suffice to say I’d like to deal with the repetitive strain injury in my arm (too much texting), to loosen my hip joints, and to stabilise my depressive moods a little more.
Afterwards I meet with Dr Unni (short for Unnikrishnan Kavirajan, so let’s stick with ‘Unni’), chief physician and managing director of Dr Unni’s Agastyaa. He combines charisma and confidence with a lot of Indian head wagging and jiggling and a regal and kind face. He addresses my medical background and considers my physical and emotional state and my Doshas, the three bio-elements.
Ayurveda means ‘the science of life’ and in this system, we are born with a unique constitution of bio-elements or Doshas: Vata (air), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (earth and water). The aim is to get them into balance alongside a healthy lifestyle – which includes everything from cleansing the body to regular sleep and eating well. All of Dr Unni’s treatments are personalised, there are no standard programmes, and little to read and decide about in advance of a visit.
After my consultation with him, I’m sent to a treatment room with wicker blinds in front of brickwork that’s open to the sky and with the sea breeze coming through, plus ochre polished plaster walls and cool ceilings that look like cement planks. Outside is the sound of bird song and crashing waves. I’m given a beetroot and gold coloured sarong which, like most of the guests, I live in for the next week.
So what of the treatments? To start with, while sitting naked and oily on a low wooden stool, I’m given an Indian head massage: bliss. Next, I have a one-hour massage – Chavutti Thirumai – in which I lie on a mattress on the floor and the saffron-uniformed therapist, holding onto a rope, uses her foot, kneading me with expert precision. This is deep-tissue massage with a difference – one of which is that she dribbles oil on me from a copper tea pot. And also that the treatment kick-starts the lymphatic system and helps the organs to detox. Verdict? 11 out of 10. Then there’s a face massage….ahhh more heaven….which relieves my aching jaw and leaves my skin tingly clean.
These treatments are followed, on some days, by my being scrubbed with handfuls of hot medicinal herbs like fine sand (good for getting rid of cellulite and for joint pain too) whilst I’m supine on an authentic wooden Ayurvedic table. And on other afternoons, three therapists sponge warm medicinal herbal water or milk over my body. Or press warm medicinal rice pouches into my skin and joints.
Most days I end my session by having a Shirodhara treatment – in which warm milk or medicated oil is trickled hypnotically back and forth, back and forth, baaaaaaack and foooorth (are you asleep yet? Zzzz ) onto my forehead. There’s little to beat it in terms of being relaxing. It also calms the nervous system and is excellent for depression.
Every day I’m given herbal medicines to complement my treatments. Mostly these are bitter brown liquids in recycled bottles or teeny brown pill balls. They’re all made by hand in the Sri Krishna Pharmacy, the manufacturing plant of Dr Unni’s mother, Dr Lalitha Kavirajan – a place that has government certification to boot.
She started making Ayurvedic remedies as a cottage industry on her kitchen table – she was formerly District Medical Officer of Ayurveda in the Trivandrum district – and now manufactures up to 400 kilos of medical oils, ghee and herbs every day, using organic herbs and leaves: authentic Ayurvedic medicines without preservatives or chemical colours. Authentic versus meds with chemicals is a bit like the difference between Fanta and freshly- squeezed orange juice.
It’s weirdly tiring having treatments for two to three hours a day. Yes, I know, your heart bleeds for me. But it’s hard work detoxing in the heat, knocking back Ayurvedic remedies and having deep bodywork – sometimes so intense it feels as if it’s releasing years of tight muscles and joints. So, afterwards, I spend a lot of time lolling under my bedroom fan (air conditioning is not recommended when having treatments) whilst looking beyond my terrace at the bluest of blue skies and the palm trees moving gently in the breeze. And having showers. It’s so humid on my visit in April that I feel that I need another shower after taking a shower.
Meals are taken at regular intervals (my usual sporadic eating pattern is discouraged in Ayurveda) and al fresco in the balmy air – overlooking mango and papaya trees – or in a dining area with one side open to the garden. There are only a handful of people here at the end of the season – during peak season they treat over 100 clients a day. So the dining area is unusually quiet.
All the meals are buffets and the food is organic and freshly prepared: home-cooked vegetarian, usually with a choice of three mildly-spiced curries or grilled vegetables, plus Indian breads like chapatti, a soup – say beetroot and ginger – and a fruit or rice pudding. Dishes like chickpea curry in pumpkin sauce, aubergine in coconut, lemon rice with spices, vegetable masala and quinoa speckled with unusual Indian vegetables.
It’s all knocked back with a glass or two of warm herbal water; nothing cold can be drunk during treatments. It’s important also to avoid coffee, carbonated drinks and heavy, fried food. “Once the body and mind are in balance, almost anything can be eaten in moderation,” explains Dr Unni. “But when there are imbalances, the diet needs to be controlled to prevent aggravating health issues.”
Yoga and Ayurveda were developed together, as a complete system of health. To this end, there’s also hatha yoga at 7am every day up on the flat roof. Our Suryanamaskara (sun salutations) are accompanied by a ‘soundtrack’ better than any meditation recording: that of the waves of the Arabian sea reaching the beach in hypnotic swooshes in the distance, the wind rustling through the leaves and birdsong filling the air.
It’s up on the roof that we do Vrikshasana (tree postures). “Fold the right leg and place at top of left thigh…” instructs yoga master Sajith. And where we do other (unnatural to me) asanas (or postures), all with exotic names: think Trikonasana, Eka Pada Uthanasana, Dwipada Uthanasana and Setubhandasana – respectively triangle posture, single straight leg raises, straight leg raises, and bridge posture….Not to mention shoulder stands and fish postures. My ‘tree’ is wobbly and my bridge could be of Italian construction, so likely to fall is it. But I persevere.
As we contort and stretch our bodies in the early morning sun, day by day I become more and more flexible, my muscles already loosened by the intensive massages. After the postures, we do rapid abdominal breathing and alternate nostril breathing and slow abdominal breathing. By the end, my mind is calm and my body stretched.
Many clients spend just a couple of weeks at Dr Unni’s Agastyaa for what Dr Unni calls, ‘a feel-good boost’. (I just do a seven-day ‘taster’.) But for serious health issues, a visit of over three weeks is recommended. Dr Unni’s aim is to help clients achieve sustainable wellbeing, and he seems to be succeeding. In my case, I’m far more supple than when I arrived, my RSI and neck stiffness much improved, and I feel calmer.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a mission to spread yoga, Ayurveda and naturopathy to the west. And aiming to make India the centre for affordable, holistic healthcare for the world. If you’re reading this, Prime Minister, I have a word of advice. Affordable, holistic healthcare? You need look no further than Dr Unni’s Agastyaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital.
Dr. Unni’s Agastyaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital, VP 1/1730, Near Light House Beach, Avaduthura, Kovalam, Kerala, India.
Tel: +91 956 740 4028
Fly to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and they will arrange the 20-minute car transfer for you to the retreat.
Type of Hotel: 4-Star Retreat
Number of Rooms: 30 and 5 more bedrooms in the nearby guest house, including complimentary Wi-Fi.
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Book a panoramic (4th floor) sea-view room. Choose the adjoining guest house if your budget doesn’t stretch to Agastyaa.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8.5/10
Caroline Phillips is an award-winning freelance journalist based in London.
Photographs courtesy of Agastyaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital