Como Shambhala’s oriental-led wellness retreat in Bali

Bid in our charity auction for a five-night stay and new expert-led oriental-medicine programme – the only one of its kind in southeast Asia – that has repositioned this Bali wellness retreat at the forefront of holistic health. Maria Shollenbarger reports

The pool at Como Shambhala Estate’s Tirta Ening residence
The pool at Como Shambhala Estate’s Tirta Ening residence

** To bid for the experience pictured in aid of Save the Children, visit Christies.com/HTSI. Online auction ends December 11. **

On the side of a hill near the village of Payangan, near Ubud in central Bali, there is a low but constant rushing sound in the air – the barest wash of aural colour on an otherwise pristine canvas of quiet. It is the Ayung River, Bali’s longest and most holy, which flows a hundred-odd metres below where I sit in a small meditation pavilion; and it’s something of a rarity to hear only this sound here these days. Along other stretches, the Ayung’s flow is drowned out entirely by the shrieks of white-water rafters, who barrel down its Class-III rapids courtesy of a dozen or so mass adventure outfitters. Fifteen years ago, I’m told, they passed once every few hours; now, in certain places, the cacophony is a 10am-to-5pm soundtrack. The genteel quietude of old is, apparently, a thing of the past.

A Balinese Taksu massage
A Balinese Taksu massage

But then 15 years ago, Como Shambhala Estate – the 23-acre wellness retreat I am staying at, whose lush grounds dominate the top of a sun-drenched ridge and then tumble picturesquely down into the verdant shade of the Ayung Gorge – was different too. Built in 1998 for the financier-philanthropists Bradley and Debbie Gardner, it’s a masterwork of the Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan (whose firm, Area Designs, has cast its flawlessly sleek aesthetic across more resort destinations than you could pinpoint on a globe) and was known as Begawan Giri. In 2004, Como hotels founder Christina Ong acquired it and reinvented it as the flagship property for her new wellness brand, Como Shambhala.

As said, times have changed – and so has the world of wellness. For a few years, the estate, under Ong’s aegis, was at the forefront of the industry. But nearly a decade on, health and spa trends and treatments, ranging from the genuinely paradigm-shifting to the shamelessly faddish, have proliferated, inundating the consumer with choice. Competition has proliferated as well, not least in southeast Asia. As a consequence, Como’s education-focused, holistic take on mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing faded, some felt, from the spotlight.

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In the past few years, however, the estate has quietly developed new programmes and enlisted a team of specialists from around the world to spend one or two weeks on site as resident experts, bringing with them serious bona-fide disciplines, ranging from yoga and body alignment to intuitive healing and psychological counselling. Another notable installation has been that of Paul Linder, who joined as general manager in late 2012. Linder spent the 11 years prior to his arrival in Bali running Chiva-Som in Thailand, where his traditional luxury-hotel experience (his CV includes stints at several venerated European and Asian five-star hotels) was augmented and enhanced to include a broad range of experience in wellness and holistic hospitality. He is smart in all senses: a polished presence with a sharp eye, a quick smile and a rigorous attention to the service side of the experience, which under his direction is close to flawless, while the estate is subtly but newly recognisable as a world-class resort.

But it is the recent collaborations and initiatives of longtime Como hand Monica Barter – who manages operations for the Como Shambhala wellness retreats around the world, including at Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos, and the Urban Escapes in London and Singapore – that underpin a quiet but significant evolution over the past two years. One of the most interesting of those initiatives is in oriental medicine, a major focus of her efforts, with the launch late last summer of a bespoke oriental-medicine programme. While elements of oriental traditions have been incorporated into various wellness regimens at the estate before – acupuncture sessions, meditation retreats – the new programme is comprehensive; and it is, Barter tells me, the only one of its kind on offer in southeast Asia.

Courgette carpaccio at Glow
Courgette carpaccio at Glow

I’m in the care of David Melladew, an American with a Masters degree in oriental sciences, national certificates in qigong and 15 additional years of formal training in martial arts, who has designed the programme with Barter. With a ready laugh and an endearing drawl, underneath which there’s the unmistakable suggestion of a steely demeanour (all those years in the dojo, I imagine), Melladew engages me in the most intensive verbal evaluation I’ve ever undergone. We discuss digestion and sleep patterns, exercise habits and menstrual-cycle fluctuations – but also my childhood, my parents and their health, my relationship, my travels, the cities and countries I’ve resided in (related, it turns out, to geomancy – in oriental tradition, the energy of the places we live can have either a salutary or detrimental effect on us), my reaction to different climates, even my history of sun exposure. My pulses are taken, multiple times and at various points on my body. Bits of my anatomy are intensely evaluated: my eyes, tongue, the arches of my feet, the veins in my hands – which give away my body type, I’m told; long, thin fingers and knobby joints, together with my skin tone and weight, indicate that I have an excess of “wood” element, one of the five that make up the pillars of Chinese medicine (the others are air, fire, water and metal). In between quick diagnoses, Melladew expounds on the state of my shen (the Chinese word indicating my energy field); how yin and yang balance – or don’t – in the body’s organs; how qi (my life-force energy, distinct from shen) affects blood flow and its stasis; as well as – rather randomly – how freckles like mine can be the result of said blood stasis.

My excess of wood manifests, I’m told, almost entirely in my liver and gallbladder and, to a lesser extent, my kidneys (a key organ in Chinese medicine). The liver, of course, processes all the toxins in the body. It’s the organ most directly affected by stress (Melladew on my habit of suppressing emotion and then having minor meltdowns: “Oh, yeah. Super liver-y behaviour”). So the target of all my efforts here will be to “move” my liver qi.

Jeffrey Bomes (left) and David Melladew doing qigong
Jeffrey Bomes (left) and David Melladew doing qigong

There’s a rigour to the programme that I find deeply appealing. It is tempered by the surroundings, which are the very essence of geographical gentleness: Bali’s indiscriminate beauty is everywhere, saturating the field of vision and washing the spirit’s unease away. Yew Kuan’s clean architectonic lines for the public spaces and residences frame this beauty flawlessly; it is architecture supremely attuned to place. The programme, on the other hand, is calibrated to push my limits: I learn quickly that shifting energy at its most profound level to directly alter my body chemistry, moods, digestion and immune system requires no shortage of physical and mental output. Melladew rapidly drafts a comprehensive schedule of private qigong, acupuncture, cardiovascular training (quite a bit of that, which the estate’s myriad trails and steep stone paths lend themselves to perfectly) and Taksu massage (not the gentlest form). He also indicates events on the main calendar – Hatha yoga, a longevity lecture – for me to attend. My days are filled in just minutes.

Herbal supplements are prescribed and blended for me to take for the duration of my stay, and for several weeks after. Within a couple of hours, a customised menu is delivered to my suite. It’s annotated with both educational asides for me and explicit instructions for the chefs at each of the estate’s two restaurants – Kudus House, which serves light interpretations of traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine in a traditional Javanese setting, and Glow, Como Shambhala’s signature café with raw-food options. Melladew has selected the dishes most appropriate to my programme and tailored them for spice, salt, fat and nutritional content. (It transpires that the liver loves lime – which astringes it, keeping it moist and healthy – and also, rather surprisingly, pork and duck. It does not, to my acute disappointment, love chilli.)

An Una Bona residence suite
An Una Bona residence suite

Much of the programme’s efficacy is down to the degree of attention focused on each guest. Though he was never intrusive (no one on the superlative staff was), Melladew shadows those under his care closely; I had access to him at almost any time of the day or evening. He administered all my acupuncture treatments, amiably articulating the effects of his actions as he deftly needled points on my ankles and shins, or set beads of dried mugwort alight in small rows along my spine to stimulate meridians. He hand-delivered my herbal supplements, explaining their content and purpose. He led my one-on-one qigong sessions early in the morning in an airy teak pavilion set just above the residence that housed my suite. (Called Wanakasa, meaning “forest in the mists”, it’s the most private of the estate’s five residences – and closest to the river.) My experiences of qigong were upended by the intensity of Melladew’s practice, which was faster and more intricate than any I’d ever done, and which specifically targeted my liver and gallbladder meridians. (Again, that same day, a sheaf of notes explaining the sequence of poses and movements we’d just performed was delivered to my suite.)

Melladew is a new ace in the estate’s pocket, though also an embodiment of its longstanding ethos – namely, that education is as important as immediate results. And he is increasingly in good company, as Barter and Linder direct the estate’s focus to growing and showcasing a new roster of masters and teachers. Case in point: Jeffrey Bomes, a preeminent structural-integration specialist and rolfer who treats private clients around the world, including at Como’s Urban Escape in London, was in residence during my stay (he is based in Tabanan). Melladew incorporated time with him into my programme (physical manipulation of the tissues constitutes one of the eight branches of Chinese holistic health; the idea is to prevent illness by fostering fluidity and awareness).

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Bomes’ mind moves from question to joke to anecdote to diagnosis; time with him was crammed with insight, drawing my attention to new ideas and away from the intensity of sensation in my body as he pulled, twisted and kneaded. There was nothing tricksy about it, just as there had been nothing gimmicky in the entirety of my stay.

A month on, my editor asks me how I feel. The rolfing has released the tension across my shoulders and chest that no previous amount of massage or yoga had truly touched; for two weeks after, I have mobility where stiffness reigned – and I’ve booked more sessions with Bomes at my own expense, during an imminent trip to Bali. My sleep patterns have settled, and I’m getting six or seven hours a night (miraculous, given my travel habits). Green tea with lime is a daily ritual and I’m sourcing more of the herbs Melladew prescribed. Now if only, I tell her, I still had the gentle rush of the Ayung, low and easeful and balanced, to meditate on.

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