We know that a day spent outdoors can leave us feeling calm and centred. But more than a mental reset, the health benefits of soaking in greenery, documented in Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki’s Shinrin-Yoku, are backed by science. His book created a buzz in wellness circles, showcasing a study on physiological changes brought about by walking unhurried through the woods on lowering stress, supported by later studies which underlined our biological need to be in nature, and its capacity to prevent disease.
Though age-old, the forest bathing concept continues to gain momentum, and forms the basis of the inaugural Ayus Wellness Experience in Sarawak, Borneo. The programme is co-founded by the owner of Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa Dato’ Robert Geneid (where the retreat takes place) and Professor Gerard Bodeker, a Harvard-trained public health specialist, wellness expert and chair of the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute.
Where better than a 60-million-year-old rainforest and UNESCO World Heritage site to combine indigenous knowledge with nature as medicine? Mulu National Park, surrounded by 52,000 hectares of primeval woodland and ancient caves, is one of Southeast Asia’s most important sites. The launch merges wellness and the wilderness based on medical evidence of how a mindful connection with nature can increase immunity, while lowering stress and blood pressure.
A blanket of tree canopies on the descent into Mulu National Park sets the scene. We are in for something special. A rickety bus takes us down a narrow path, minutes from the airport, to Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa, a place where time seems to slow. That is the purpose of the Ayus Wellness Experience — to unlearn our city-dwelling habits and get back in tune with nature and ourselves.
The excitement surrounding this induction is palpable among guests and staff. We receive a backpack of essentials for the stay containing bug spray, trail mix and a poncho. More obscure items are an empty glass bottle and packet of rice. The latter has been integral to Malay, and indeed Asian, beauty rituals for generations. Rice field workers noticed the youthful look of their hands compared to their relatively weathered faces, and they believed that the fermentation which takes place when rice is soaked in water has an anti-ageing effect. Professor Bodeker has sworn by it for years, and he encourages us to wash our faces with rice water twice a day to tone our complexions, and to take the local ritual home with us once we leave.
It’s not the only new practice we adopt. Shilpa Ghatalia, yoga teacher and founder of Yogshakti School in Kuala Lumpur introduces ‘integrated’ yoga, her own version combining elements of yoga, qigong, pranayama and meditation. Our first class unifies and grounds as she introduces gentle hip openers, emphasising joint mobility for better spinal health, and also great for those of us who sat sardine-like on the plane a few hours prior.
Shilpa’s class allows us bountiful opportunity to take in our lush surroundings, most of which is spent prone amongst blankets and bolsters as we stretch and meditate. She urges us to go inwards and connect with the part of ourselves that never changes wherever we are. We may have a come a long way to find ‘home’, but it’s comforting to think that it has been there all along.
It’s 6.30am and longboats await on the river’s edge to take us to Clearwater Pool. We motor past a few stilted houses, but mostly it’s emerald water and vegetation interspersed by craggy cliffs. It becomes apparent where the pool’s name comes from. Water is so glassy you can see every rock and log beneath the surface. Mats have been laid out for what may be my most scenic yoga class yet, and arriving early means we have the place all to ourselves.
This pristine setting is ideal for performing kriyas to clear our nasal passages with pure air says Shilpa, awakening our systems with kapalabhati breathing, where emphasis is placed on the outbreath. She leads us through a qigong sequence, which is meant to be less about the movement, and more about getting out of our heads. We learn to connect with the dantian, located two inches below the navel, a focal point considered to be the centre of the universe within us –– where our power comes from.
After a quick dip and some tropical fruit and bircher muesli transported by longboat from the hotel to be savoured in this leafy haven, it’s time to head back for yoga nidra, which Shilpa explains restores and revitalises, especially before eating. All meals are vegetarian –– and delicious. Lunch each day is four indulgent courses and typically looks like papaya salad, pumpkin soup, sweet potato satays and gula melaka. Dinners are buffet style, where you’ll find everything from curry to tempura and desserts (they are made with coconut palm sugar, which has a lower GI than other sweeteners).
Shilpa’s last class of the day picks up the pace. It’s still her own style with foot mudras adopted from qigong, and rapid transitions of elbow pulses into backbends and “wiggling” into wheel pose. There’s a stark contrast between the gentle stretches of the previous session to this flow, which requires concentration and coordination to follow and is more suited to those with an established practice. I’m glad to work up a sweat.
In the evening, Professor Bodeker provides insights into the science behind the retreat. For example, the menu has been thoughtfully crafted, including the herbal gotu kola drink (known as pegaga in Malay), which is packed with anti-inflammatory turmeric, longevity-boosting goji berry and unpolished rice, containing nutrients needed for optimum brain function. The programme ticks all the boxes for a long life well lived: healthy diet, movement, rest, social connection and a sense of purpose –– in this case immersing ourselves in the forest.
It’s tipping down in the morning so our Mulu National Park excursion is shortened. We wait out the rain in the Discovery Centre, where photos of indigenous people taken in the 1970s adorn the walls. We’re lucky enough to have the grandson of one of the chiefs depicted guiding us on a medicinal walk. Also a traditional herbal doctor, he identifies local plants and their healing properties along the way, from ginger, which cures nausea and neck aches, to pepper, used to treat bee stings.
Shilpa treats us to healing of a different kind with her afternoon meditation. She explains the importance of diaphragmatic breathing and shows us how lying on our bellies, propped up on our elbows, makes it easier. “Qi goes where the mind goes,” she says, explaining why steady breathing can still the mind. Correct posture and sitting comfortably also helps us drop into silence, where with concentration and awareness, time becomes imperceptible.
The cool air enlivening your senses on the longboat ride to Clearwater Pool is the best way to wake up. It only takes a few rounds of kapalbhati breathing with Shilpa to ground as, as we ease into her qigong movements, playing with an imaginary ball of energy powered by our dantian. As the sequence becomes familiar, we shed self-consciousness and find a space of inner strength.
Following another breakfast in our ‘secret’ spot overlooking the serene lake, we brave the 200 steps up to Clearwater Cave, the longest of its kind in Asia at 107km, yet easy to navigate with plank walks and paths. Our guide knows the ins and outs, shining his torch on rock formations, which at the right angle, cast a shadow of a lady’s profile or lovers kissing.
We break off into smaller groups for forest immersion during the stroll from Clearwater Pool to Wind Cave. Professor Bodeker reminds us to walk slowly and observe sights, sounds and smells as we make our way, in silence, back to the longboats. ‘Lush’ becomes nowhere near descriptive enough to convey multiple shades of green, from muted moss to bright lime sprigs.
Zero expectation of conversation brings relief, but the slothful gait I find most challenging. The idea is to walk no faster than 2km an hour for an optimum metabolism reset. Yet this enforced snail’s pace also means I spot geckos, spiders, stick insects and mushrooms sprouting from tree trunks I may have missed had I been walking with purpose.
Silence is broken upon reaching the Mulu Skywalk. The world’s longest tree-based canopy walk requires a little explanation, as the imposing 480m planks are so delicate that only three people are allowed on each segment at once, and a maximum of five people at each precariously perched platform 20m above the forest floor.
Those with a fear of heights may struggle, but as with anything slightly terrifying, the payoff is worth it. I’ve never felt so connected to my surroundings, nothing but a few ropes and planks of wood separating me from untouched wilderness. Peering down at the placid river below and majestic limestone cliffs in the distance, I feel small, but filled with wonder.
The day’s exhilaration is balanced with pampering respite back at the resort’s Mandara Spa. Its menu features time-honoured Asian therapies. Of the treatments, the Balinese Massage is most relaxing with long strokes to enhance circulation, while dissipating stress and tension. At just the right time, the heavens open up, treating us to a symphony of tropical rain, possibly the most tranquil sound in existence.
Shilpa’s afternoon class focuses on chakras, and she teaches us sounds to chant that corresponds with each centre as we bring our attention to them. She explains that the bottom chakras relate to discipline and material possession, while the upper three are more about creativity and expression. They should be balanced, so we are neither too flighty and in our heads, nor rigid and out of touch with our needs.
Beginning the day with kapalbhati breathing and qigong has become second nature. In just a few days, Shilpa helps us establish a morning ritual we can continue back home. We pile into longboats for the last time, watching local kids splashing about on the river’s edge in front of their wooden houses, as we make our way to our final forest immersion.
Heading for Lagang Cave, we traipse silently through sodden leaves releasing their earthy perfume after the rain. We ogle at a gargantuan fig tree trunk sawed in half to liberate an iron tree imprisoned at its centre. The 1km-long cave is pitch black, and our flashlights expose bats hanging from the ceiling, dangling stalactites and rounded stalagmites that, at times, resemble a lost civilisation.
The cave leads out through Batu Bungan Cliff. Our group treads softly, silence no longer forced, but savoured. The death of chatter makes it easier to focus on the communication of forest life, instead of
our own. When passing a captivating flower or insect, we subtly gesture to draw attention, our collective energy subdued and respectful. On the boat ride back,
sitting in stillness the sun and breeze on our skin is bliss.
Cooler afternoons in the rainforest are soothing. Samin Pourkhalili, Ayus wellness experience leader and an experienced yoga teacher, takes our last class. She emphasises the importance of warming up, and being aware of physical limitations to avoid injury. With poses like wild thing and crow pose her class invigorates and she offers modifications for all levels. With the yin yoga and gentle ambles of the last few days, moving dynamically is a treat.
On our last night, we gather to share thoughts and feedback as guinea pigs of the retreat debut. Many found that forest rambles enhanced sleep and energy levels, and that moving silently bonded us as a group. Professor Bodeker comments on our more radiant (rice water-induced?)appearances, while Dato’ Geneid notices we are in sync, having settled into a rhythm.
Some of us are now yoga and meditation converts, while others have developed a pegaga dependency. Everyone is inspired by the energy of Mulu, and we promise to make time for forest bathing back home in a city park or hiking trail, the next best thing. Gratitude for soul nourishment in this special sanctuary emanates from our group. And for learning together the difference between living and thriving.