Robb Report Singapore
A Long Shot
With private helipads, NASA-backed technologies and clientele ranging from elite sports stars to high-powered CEOS, wellness retreats are big business right now. But can they actually make us healthier? Lizzie Pook dons a robe and slippers to investigate
I’M SITTING IN a darkened cinema hall. The seats around me are empty, a carton of ionising mineral water rests in the drinks holder at my arm, and on the screen in front of me, emblazoned as high as a house, are my brainwaves. They rise and fall like excitable children: blue, purple, red and yellow. Above them looms a graph of the electrical activity taking place within my head.
I’m at the brain-training unit at SHA Wellness Clinic, a sparkling, clean-lined medical spa in the foothills of the Sierra Halada mountains in southern Spain. The clinic has been operating for a decade, drawing in billion-dollar business owners and high-powered politicians who want to detox with colonics, acupuncture and cactus-strewn mountain views. But it’s the clinic’s new cognitive performance technologies that have intrigued me. Positioned as a sort of ‘brain boot camp’, the unit has just introduced two pioneering treatments, namely Transcranial Current Stimulation (used by Navy SEALs to ensure
their brains are in enemy-defying condition) and
Brain Photobiomodulation (a treatment NASA developed for its sunlight-starved astronauts). It may sound outlandish, but retreats across the world are rolling out programmes like these to support our seemingly endless pursuit for wellness. Six
Senses’ new retreats in Turkey and Portugal claim to help you ‘grow a new body’ in just a week; Healing House at Londolozi’s Varty Camp in South Africa offers ‘vision questing’, sound therapy and biophony (a neuroscience technology which stimulates the body into a pre-sleep state of deep relaxation); and Shillim in India’s Western Ghats uses retina and oligo scanning – used by NASA to find traces of toxic metals in the body – to assess its clients’ health. The profitability of these retreats is not to be scoffed at, either. Globally wellness is a US$4.2 trillion industry, with US$639 billion allotted to wellness tourism, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
But wherever we are travelling to get our health kicks, the question remains the same: do these retreats work?
Sure, it’s easy to switch off your phone and eat like a Goop devotee when it’s all available at your fingertips, but how exactly do we inculcate these regimes into our daily lifestyles on our return when things like work stress, anxiety, grief and the general tests of everyday life threaten to throw us off course?
“Here, we can see your brain is in complete overdrive,” says neuroscientist Dr Bruno Ribeiro do Couto, as he gestures to my brainwaves on the screen. “You are obviously more relaxed than when you are busy but these gamma waves,” he points to a big block of orange twitching frenetically, “they suggest to me that you are someone who suffers from a very busy brain and compulsive, sometimes intrusive, thoughts.”
I shift in my seat and adjust the Velcro strap around my forehead. A bead of sweat dances its way down the back of my neck. I feel as if I have been cut open like a tomato, my inner workings ripe for examination.
I find myself battling daily with brain fog and exhaustion that take hold of my head and leave
me with a thousand-yard stare in meetings.
He’s right of course. The evidence is there, after all, dancing cartoonishly large on a cinema screen.
The truth is, I am mostly well. I rarely get ill, I exercise just enough to stay on the right side of healthy and while my diet could certainly do with less alcohol and the two chocolate bars I eat a day,
I’m doing all right. But my brain is a different story. Strafed by anxiety, constant worry about my loved ones’ health and a tangled knot of grief that’s never really worked itself out since my father died when I was a teenager, it’s something of a wasp’s nest in there. As such, I find myself battling daily with brain fog and exhaustion that take hold of my head and leave me with a thousand-yard stare in meetings. Still, I’m hopeful SHA will heal me.
It turns out that there’s a lot to be said for simply switching off, even if only for a short while. At
SHA I’m massaged, buffed, wrapped in seaweed compresses and stuck with acupuncture needles. I take yoga classes, cooking classes, I swim, I stretch. These are all things that would dwindle to the bottom of my priority list back home, when inevitable deadlines, work meetings and supporting family and friends with their own struggles are the main focus. To do something for myself for once feels nice. Really nice. “At these wellness retreats, you are surrounded by people looking for the same thing and who are happy to help each other,” says Tom Jenane, a nutrition and fitness expert at Nature’s Health Box. “Think about it. How often do you get the chance to truly switch off, to give your brain a break and focus on ‘me time’?”
There’s a communal focus at SHA. People trade ill-health stories like battle scars over cooking classes and discuss fitness regimes over apple cider vinegar and miso soup at breakfast. But the whole time I’m there, I can’t help fretting about how I’m going to integrate all this into my busy life back home.
“It’s great that we’re speaking more openly about the stressful lives we lead, but going away on a one-week retreat is not going to suddenly cure your stress levels or the way your body reacts to stress,” says Dr Aishah Muhammad, a medical doctor, personal trainer and weight loss coach based in the UK. “Retreats can often come across as a quick fix, however the factors causing us stress will still be there when we return home. Instead, we have to work on managing this on a day-to-day basis, improving our mindsets and implementing small changes that help us lead happier, healthier lives.”
Psychotherapist Helena Lewis agrees that retreats are a short-term solution. “We have the tendency to look outside of ourselves for something that will help us,” she says. “But retreats aren’t consistent. You may feel great afterwards, but it’s a temporary fix. Good
How often do you get the chance to truly switch off, to give your brain a break and focus on ‘me time’?
therapy, change and self-development comes from consistency and learning to implement change. It’s the same as fitness training; you can learn the techniques and moves you need, but you won’t see results if you don’t go on a regular basis or practise them yourself.”
A bioenergy therapist takes a reading of the electrical impulses in my body. She leans back in her chair and sighs. “Jeez. Hyper, much?” Hours later, after dinner, I lie awake reminding myself that this is my sole chance for relaxation, my only chance to achieve peak wellness before I go back to my frenzied
life. In the end though, I do feel well. My brain fog has lifted, I feel energised yet calm, my skin glows and after a brain-training session where I’m fitted with a rubber cap which delivers a low-key electric current into my prefrontal cortex (sounds scary, but it feels like little more than an itch on the scalp), I am focused, motivated and thinking clearly for once.
Does it continue back home? Not entirely. The problems that I left behind are still there. But I do feel slightly better equipped to deal with them, like I’ve been fortified, in a way.
The diet is possibly the hardest thing to maintain. While I was plied with seaweed, sauerkraut and all sorts of fermented goodness at SHA, back home it’s a different story.
Our anniversary rolls round and my husband buys Prosecco to celebrate. I venture into a health food shop and become overwhelmed by the forest of supplements, powders and superfoods on offer. But I do know now, on a basic level, what it takes for me to feel good and I will always have that knowledge. Ultimately, this is a case of willpower. Wellness retreats when taken, say, once or twice a year, offer a glimpse of the very best version of you. They shine a light on how you could feel on a really good day. That’s quite hard to resist. But you have to really want to change to make the most of it.
For the most part, the people I met at SHA really do want it. They are people who have struggled with chronic stress, with addiction, with pain, with unexplained illnesses.
Regardless of whether or not they are sustainable, these sorts of retreats get them through, give them hope and plump them back up when their lives have deflated. That’s worth a lot.