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Soukya - Revolutionary Alternative Health Farm in Bangalore

by David Lowe(more info)

listed in retreats and travel, originally published in issue 98 - April 2004

Soukya – Brainchild of Dr Isaac Mathai

Hail yourself a rickshaw in Bangalore and the driver's conversation will no doubt turn to the city's meteoric rise in the 80s as India's IT capital. He'll gesture to the skyscrapers which now dot the horizon, shake his head at the throngs of people lining the streets, and perhaps even tell you that breathing the air downtown for a day equates to smoking 20 cigarettes.

Luckily Soukya, a new breed of health farm, opened 10 miles outside Bangalore in February 2003. With a revolutionary approach to alternative medicine, and the respect of health experts around the globe, it's a concept which could take off in the UK.

The brainchild of Isaac Mathai, a South Indian doctor who completed his MD at the Hahnemann Post Graduate Institute of Homeopathy in London, Soukya offers a range of alternative health systems. "This is preferable to traditional health farms and spas, such as those in Britain, where guests can only benefit from one particular branch of healing," he explains. "Here we utilize many different treatments, depending on the patient's individual needs."

Face mask

Tranquil Environment

The calm environment of Soukya's 30-acre compound comes in stark contrast to the city you leave behind. Jasmine flowers, floating in water vases, lend their beautiful aroma to the reception area. Fresh fruit hangs from the trees, which rustle pleasantly in the breeze, and the scent of organic herbs wafts from the perfectly manicured lawns. These same herbs make their way into the oils used during treatments and the food served at meal times.

Having 24 hours to sample as much as possible at this temple of healing, I was somewhat frustrated when my host showed me to my room and told me to relax until lunch. The accommodation is magnificent, comprising a variety of luxury rooms, suites and cottages. I request a newspaper, the perfect thing to help me wile away the hours in these comfortable surroundings. "No," comes the reply. "Television and newspapers are banned." However, there is a small library. Helping myself to a paperback, I return to wait in my own private garden.

Delicious Food

The dining area, complete with communal tables, is part posh restaurant, part holiday camp diner. Guests range from the old and infirm to the young and overweight. Amidst the stilted chit-chat, a waiter fills my glass with pink liquid. Is that raspberry, strawberry or perhaps even a fine rose? Alas, he informs me that herbs are the basis of this drink, which tastes something like a weak Lapsang Souchong.

The food at Soukya is presided over by executive director Suja Mathai, nutritionist and wife of Dr Mathai. There is no meat or alcohol on the premises and caffeine is frowned upon; however, the soups, salads and spicy vegetarian dishes are delicious. As everything is fresh, organic and full of fibre, it doesn't take long for the digestive system to respond. Cleansing begins with the very first bite.

Before starting treatments, guests complete registration at the male or female therapy centres. Following a probing questionnaire, the doctor leads me to a spartan room, in preparation for an Ayurvedic Synchronised Massage. Ayurveda is an ancient science, which forms part of India's tradition and philosophy. The system's unique massages and relaxation techniques are still widely used for their health-giving properties today.

Indian Massage

A suspect plastic package adorns the table, from which the doctor removes a miniscule thong. "Put on this panty, sir, and knock the door when you are ready." After struggling into my posing pouch I hit the door, and then the table, face down. Two masseurs walk in and move me unceremoniously to a chair. Positioning themselves behind me, they offer a prayer of healing to ancient sages. It does little to calm the nerves, but adds to Soukya's Indian charm.

Once again assuming a downward-facing position on the massage table, I get drenched in warm oil. The aroma fills the room and as the therapists work up and down in unison from toe to shoulder, I eventually begin to relax. Their unabashed attention to the buttocks makes for a very intimate experience. Next, on my back, the therapists unflinchingly brush past all parts of the anatomy. It's time to leave British prudishness at home.

Donning a bathrobe afterwards, I notice the feeling of weightlessness that has overtaken my body. As I glance in the mirror before showering, I see all four cheeks have a rosy tint. It's afterglow in its most innocent form. Beneath the jet of hot water, a dollop of yellow yoghurt-like gunk scrubs the excess oil from my skin. A treacly brown syrup, with a muddy aroma, does the same to my hair. Clean, clothed and short of breath I walk to the veranda, where a glass of fresh grape juice awaits. That felt good!

Rose Bindi
Rose Bindi

Meditation, Yoga and Therapies

In keeping with Souyka's ethos of combining alternative health systems, Dr Mathai recommends reflexology for the next treatment. This therapy involves the manipulation of nerve-endings in the feet to create a sense of tranquillity and invigorate the body's vital organs. "In places like the UK, where stress-related illness is rife, harmonizing the individual's physical, emotional and nutritional make-up through practices like reflexology would benefit public health immensely," he claims.

This is a rather more sedate experience than the previous massage. With flickering candles and haunting Indian music in the background, the therapist uses nothing but her fingers to knead both hands and feet. Her graceful movements have an hypnotic effect. Lethargy descends, as do my eyelids, and 40 minutes later I awake to the soothing sound of rainfall outside. While exiting the centre in a state of total calm, the doctor reads the next day's schedule. There's no time for a lie-in, with yoga at 7am.

Morning comes all too soon. As I trudge to the thatched gym hall, I notice several people already there, cross-legged and deep in meditation. Tip-toeing past the yoga die-hards I find a space for my mat. The teacher puts a finger to his lips. This isn't a good start.

Nevertheless, within minutes, my body is taking on shapes and stances I didn't believe possible. I'm even more impressed by the flexible antics of the people I watched wolfing down lunch. Impressed or disturbed? I can't decide which. When the class concludes I feel awake and rejuvenated, and I share this with the teacher. He tells me 7am starts and 30 minutes of yoga should become my daily routine. Bearing his advice in mind, I tuck into a plate of eggs for breakfast, and forego the coffee. Yoga is the new-age caffeine, after all.

With checkout at noon, there is time for one more treatment. It's an Energy Balancing Massage, involving one masseuse, and cream rather than oil. He spreads the rich vitamin-E preparation generously over my body, but I feel little of the embarrassment I did before. Each corresponding muscle on my left and right side is poked and prodded this way and that. It's a very thorough procedure, bordering on painful. "No pain, no gain," the therapist laughs. A few hours later I detect much less tension in my limbs and upper back, and I'm ready to leave Souyka feeling healthier and happier than I have in a very long time.

Truly Integrated Medicine

Dr Mathai is obviously pleased that one of the few Britons to visit the centre has had such a positive experience. He tells me that although Souyka is one of a kind, the idea behind it would work well in the West. "More and more developed countries are recognizing the limitations of conventional medicine, and extending health care to cover alternative treatments," he explains. "In the UK, you should have somewhere like this available under the NHS."

Great food, free massages and 5-star accommodation on the NHS? Smiling I get into the car, dreading the return to one of Asia's most polluted cities. Well, there's no harm in dreaming.

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About David Lowe

David Lowe is a travel-mad journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He enjoys good food, Harry Potter and the odd night out in Dublin, when he can afford it. He can be contacted on david_aaron_lowe@hotmail.com www.souyka.com

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