MIND, BODY, SOUL AND...COVID

So, in early 2020, I stayed at the Sangha wellness resort just outside Suzhou in China.

A mere eight-hour drive west of Suzhou is the city of Wuhan, from whence Covid-19 seemingly came. A wellness story from close by the epicentre of a worldwide pandemic? Yeah, nah. Here it is anyway. I hope you enjoy it.

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I KNOW it’s childish, but you’ve got to love a toilet that opens automatically as you approach it. I even video it, with a voiceover: “Luke, the Force is strong with this one.”

I’m not quite as enamoured of it when it tries to close on me before I’m done but you can’t have it all. After all, this is one of those lavs that tickles, whooshes and blows from every conceivable angle. It does pretty much everything but plait your hair.

God forbid, though, that they might make the flush button a little more obvious.

I’m at the Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute, on the outskirts of the famous canal city of Suzhou (itself on the outskirts of Shanghai), a purpose-built wellness resort dedicated to the integration of Eastern holistic philosophy and Western health and science.

There are special crystals under my bed that have to be re-energised at a full moon when there’s an A in the month, I think, (or was it an eclipse?) and the ceiling is rounded at the corners to something something something circadian rhythms. I confess that, as someone who drops off as soon as his head hits the pillow, I zoned out a bit at all the room’s sleeping aids.

The brainchild of Fred Tsao, a Thai-born international shipping company billionaire, this $500 million, 47-acre resort sits in lovely and leafy isolation on the edge of Suzhou’s Yangcheng Lake.

It’s pretty much a rich man’s folly at the moment, with a low general occupancy rate, but after spending a few days there last year during the retreat’s second annual At ONE Festival, you’d be hard pressed to deny that Tsao is on the right track – and he has deep enough pockets for the rest of the world to catch up. Though if I never come within cooee of another sound healing workshop, I’ll be forever grateful (the sound was great; it was the snoring that did me in).

As the Sangha website says: “Our holistic approach to well-being incorporates the mind, body and spirit, setting SANGHA Retreat apart from other wellness destinations. Beginning with a comprehensive medical assessment by the accomplished team of international doctors and medical professionals, each guest is provided with a personalized wellness plan designed to help reframe, rewire, reskill and renew. The result is an ongoing foundation for growth toward a purposeful life, mindfully lived.”

As far as travel is concerned, wellness is where it’s at, and it’s showing no signs of going away any time soon (coronavirus notwithstanding). According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism is now a $639 billion industry – a figure that’s expected to grow to $919 billion by 2022 (coronavirus notwithstanding). In 2017, says GWI, travellers worldwide took 830 million trips that included a wellness component, with most growth happening in developing markets in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and Middle East and African regions (coronavirus notwithstanding).

At first glance, Sangha Retreat isn’t much to write home about. It’s difficult to see from the road and as we pull up at the front, first impressions are of a sleekly low key, expensive and terribly discreet residential rehab in the countryside for over-indulgent rock stars.

Once inside, though, the meticulousness of design becomes clear. Here is a place which is tasteful, unobtrusive and designed to marry quiet luxury with a soothing minimalism. From the neutral but not dull colour palette to the clever use of natural and reclaimed wood, the place positively reeks of comfort and calm.

These attributes are echoed in the accommodation, too. Again, there’s nothing here in the 68 lake view suites and eight villas to jar the mind or the senses. Spacious and modern, the rooms have private balconies and those crystal beds. I can neither confirm nor deny this crystals lark as I couldn’t prise the base apart without tearing the thing to pieces.

The At ONE festival, which took place in November last year [2019] is an annual event that “brings together thought leaders and holistic practitioners from around the world to address scientific discoveries, the re-emergence 

of ancient practices, and humanity challenges of the 21st century”.

This includes conferences, panels, discussions, 

masterclasses, workshops and demonstrations. These

include energy calligraphy, Ayurveda cooking classes, Wim

"I also undergo acupuncture, cupping and a couple of massages – one from someone called Peter, whose forearms were obviously made in the Number 23 Forearm Factory just outside Beijing."

Hof deep breathing sessions, meditation, yoga and a dance-based workshop called gyrokinesis. There’s even a mindfulness food fair.

It’s a good opportunity, though, to road test a few of the workshops and classes that are available throughout the rest of the year.

In my case this begins with a trip to the retreat’s holistic wellness centre, which turns out to be a modern-looking clinic attached to the hotel. There’s nothing invasive about the procedures, no blood is taken, and the tests consist of being hooked up to various machines that measure autonomic balance and stress (no, I had no idea either), body composition, artery health (something called an accelerated photoplethysmography) and run-of-the-mill stuff like heart rate and blood pressure.

According to my holistic wellness assessment my blood pressure is too high (161/84), I am over-muscled but also overweight and need to lose 5kg off my trunk. I have a resting pulse rate of 54 bpm and should do more slow cardiovascular exercise, such as tai chi.

In November last year Sangha announced 21 new wellness programs to “help guide guests on their personal journeys of awakening to achieve mind, body and spiritual wellness”. Ranging from two to seven nights, each program includes the wellness assessment at the AT ONE Clinic, access to the 12-step hydrothermal spa circuit, sound healing meditations, a calendar of daily scheduled fitness classes, cooking demonstrations, mindful workshops and three meals a day linked to your personal health program.

Among the programs on offer are Ancient Chinese Wisdom (acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine), Traditional Spinal Alignment (customized vertebral therapy to correct tension, poor posture and inflammation), Relax and Reconnect (destress, reconnect with yourself and learn to be at one with your environment), Sleep Recovery, (discover the roots of sleep disruption through traditional Chinese medicine, sleep lab study and massage) and Mindful Weight Management (break unhealthy habits with food and learn to eat mindfully with the help of a nutritionist and life coach).

In my three days at the retreat I attend 7am Wim Hof breathing exercises in the meditation dome, check out the cool hydrothermal spa circuit in the basement (swimming pool, sound ‘bed’, salt cave, steam room with Chinese herbs) as well as try gyrokinesis (relaxing, physical and intimate) and energy calligraphy with Hong Kong artist Ricky Vilas.

I also undergo acupuncture, cupping and a couple of massages – one from someone called Peter, whose forearms were obviously made in the Number 23 Forearm Factory just outside Beijing.

It’s quite a revelatory few days and does much to change my mind about what Englishman Richard Ayling, who led the Wim Hof method breathing sessions, called “woo-woo bullshit”. Some of it might be (forest bathing, I’m looking at you) but a lot of it most certainly is not.

Oh, and by the time I left my blood pressure was down to 152/82 and has continued dropping ever since. Be well, people.

Keith Austin was a guest of Sangha Retreat.