Desperately Seeking Shut-Eye

Writer Stephanie Shiu | September 9, 2019

I arrive a little broken. A hectic month of travel, looming work, lunchtime gym sessions and dinners wedged in between, has finally caught up to me. My flat, above Hong Kong’s bar district, can sound like a thumping club on weekends…hardly conducive to a good night’s rest, and I have a stinking cold to show for all of this. Thankfully I have come to the perfect place to come undone — Kamalaya Koh Samui, in all its swaying-palm tranquillity.

The award-winning sanctuary is one of the places in Asia for a wellness reboot, with its inspired retreats, fantastic fare and healing therapies drawing from East and West in a sublime tropical setting. I am here to try the five-night Sleep Enhancement programme (seven or nine nights are also an option), which begins with a bioimpedence analysis, to provide an estimate of body fat and muscle mass composition.

I’m almost instantly comatose when the nurse asks me to lie down to take my blood pressure. How embarrassing. I’m more rundown than I realise, I guess this trip couldn’t have come at a better time. The programme aims to re-establish healthy sleep by addressing issues and imbalances that affect its quality, using naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, massage and mind-body balance sessions. Designed to be therapeutic and preventative, acupuncture and foot massage are included, designed to ease stress and ramp up health overall.

DAY 1

I’m assigned to naturopath Leila, who explains that the programme isn’t designed to knock me out over the next five nights — but to help establish habits for better sleep which I can apply back home. She gives me a ‘sleep hygiene’ booklet with a pack containing an eye mask (darkness boosts melatonin production), essential oils to create a ritual before bed and a CD of binaural frequencies. The latter induces a brainwave state that promotes the onset of sleep, masked by sounds of nature, such as rain and ocean waves.

To be honest though, at 5pm when it’s time for my Traditional Asian Foot Massage, I can barely keep my eyes open through the pre-treatment herbal soak. Designed to draw energy downwards to quiet the mind, my therapist targets pressure points, which activate nerve reflexes that are believed to improve organ and tissue function. The serene experience is worlds apart from the fervid Hong Kong version I’m used to.

After pumpkin curry, detox cookies and mulberry tea, I start winding down on Leila’s orders, who tells me to eat dinner early and try to get to bed by 10pm (something I haven’t done since childhood). Common-sense tips like turning off devices two hours before sleep are easy here because phones aren’t allowed in public spaces. I don’t even make it through the first track of the CD before I am dead to the world.

DAY 2

I wake with a raw throat and streaming nose, my body obviously vengeful for its recent neglect. Slamming four veggie shots (kale, gota kola, turmeric and sweet potato) at breakfast, along with green tea, spicy wakame, avocado, eggplant and pumpkin dips with wasabi bread, and coconut, papaya jam with seed butter on rosemary bread (there’s bread!) feels like I am finally being kind to my body. Where else can you detox and hit up a buffet? Leila even suggests adding protein to each meal for the sleep-inducing tryptophan. She gives me vitamin c, omega 3, magnesium, Adrenatone to accompany each meal, a B complex to take with breakfast, and Omnium and 5HTP before bed. 

Two Mind-Body Balance sessions, counselling or life coaching if you will, are included as part of the programme. I meet with one of the resort mentors, Sujay, to discuss my patchy sleep. After filling him on my jetlag and general weariness, he emphasises the importance of the relationship between emotions and the physical body.

Sujay explains that for the most part, we are driven by the over-analytical mind, fuelled by fear and limitations—instead of the body—which operates from a place of joy and passion. “How would you treat an exhausted, rundown child? With care and love, isn’t that right? He says since I haven’t been listening to the signs my body has been sending, and so it is rebelling against me. I’ve been piling on pressure instead of love.

“Kids are simple”, says Sujay, “They thrive when nurtured, and we are no different.” Having an attitude of care, he tells me, is different from doing something with an agenda. Yoga for example, is one thing when done with the intention of improving flexibility and progressing, and quite another when you practice because it simply feels good.

My foot massage this afternoon, says Sujay, is the perfect opportunity to gift myself with relaxation. While my feet are soaking, I take in the islands on the horizon, which look like prehistoric giants napping and the beautiful light at dusk. I reflect on how lucky I am. This time I manage to stay awake and notice the blissful kneading of every last knot. I remind myself it’s deserved.

DAY 3

I’m hoping acupuncture with Bernie will cure my ails. In our consult, he goes over my chart from my previous visit, and in no time I’m on the table, the first set of needles immediately easing my nasal drip.

“Stress,” says Bernie knowingly as he prods the adrenal gland, “You’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Sometimes getting sick is good, it’s a reminder to take it easy.”

Recalling Sujay’s advice on the dangers of perfectionism yesterday, I start connecting the dots around my Type-A tendencies. He suggests I order chicken broth for dinner, to strengthen the liver, before sending me on my way.

I arrive to Mew’s yin yoga class prepared, tissue box at the ready. Today even gentle stretches take effort. She tells me to take care of myself as I pick myself, and my tissues, off the floor. Thankfully there is only one more thing on the schedule –– the Royal Ayurvedic Massage, in which Jose douses me in oil, as he uses rubbing, tapping, pinching and kneading techniques to release tension. A steam afterwards is “good for a cold” he suggests.

One of the worst parts about my cold is not being able to taste the delectable-looking kimchi pancakes at dinner, dressed in a fuchsia beetroot sauce, and vibrant on my plate. The Chinese medicine broth is comforting, exactly what I needed, just as Bernie said it would be.

DAY 4

Making healing a priority means skipping the morning beach fitness session to stay in bed another hour, and I feel better for it. Following a leisurely breakfast, I meet Sujay for our final Mind-Body Balance session. He asks me to lay back in the recliner and close my eyes — I sense we’ll be delving deep. He believes the root of all problems stem from childhood and asks me to revisit past hurt that may influence my relationships today.

Apart from the occasional question, Sujay does most of the talking, so the session has a hypnotherapy feel, combined with a touch of energy healing based on his natural intuition. He guides me through a visualisation—encouraging me to confront anger and pain experienced in youth—and to apologise to my eight-year-old self for suppressing these feelings so that I can move forward. His focus on developing a solid relationship with the self makes challenges seem more manageable, and I leave lighter.

I bump into Bernie at the Wellness Sanctuary, who asks how I am doing and offers to call the Amrita kitchen to see if they’ll make a chicken congee especially for me. Later as I sip lemongrass tea, the head nurse comes over to check if I need anything. I’m abashed to have this much attention over the most common of colds but moved at the same time. Still, I’m too bunged up to taste my lunch of salmon ka prow, dotted with red chilli and an oozing egg, atop brown rice.

The programme’s final Ayurvedic treatment is meant to be a Shirodhara, which involves a constant stream of warm medicated oil poured on the forehead. But as per Sujay’s advice, I now make decisions with an attitude of care. I decide to swap this to a Vital Essence Oil Massage instead as I’m in the mood for something gentle, and am too lazy to wash my hair afterwards. I do little else today and
it’s fantastic.

DAY 5

Some guests grimace and hold their breath while taking the shots at breakfast, particularly the green ones, but I’m delighted to discern their earthy bitterness today, as it means my tastebud strike is nearing its end. I don’t crave sugar as I usually do, and actually looking forward to spicy wakame and slathering detox dips on my veg-based ‘bread’. Let’s hope it lasts…

In our closing consultation, after filling Leila in on this week’s malaise, she points out that sometimes the mind thinks it can cope—but the body cannot—yet we force ourselves to trudge forward, unaware of what is happening internally. She explains that if this happens over a long period of time, the adrenals become taxed, and raised cortisol levels start suppressing hormones that the body perceives as secondary — sex, immune and digestive are usually first.

The best way to feed a nervous system that’s out of whack is through, you guessed it, a balanced diet and lifestyle. Leila recommends balancing blood sugar through protein-based snacks. She’s not judgmental about the fact that I don’t cook and suggests easy healthy options at Pret A Manger and Marks & Spencer, as well as supplements (like B complex and evening primrose oil) to add to my current line-up.

I have the sense Leila ‘gets’ me and isn’t trying to overhaul my habits too dramatically, instead highlighting key takeaways. Firstly, listen to your body. If you’re feeling run down, chances there is inflammation, and taking it easy with workouts will support the liver rather than depleting yourself further. Sounds obvious but I clearly need the reminder.

In other retreats, I have been advised to alter my routine to extreme: to cut out coffee completely, only workout in the morning, shut screens off two hours before bed. Leila’s tips are on things I can add, not just eliminate, to enhance shut-eye. Sleep-wise, she reiterates how winding down for the night helps to prepare the nervous system. Listening to binaural beats and dabbing lavender oil on pulse points can signal the body to prepare for rest. And in bed, taking a few deep breaths creates time that is truly for yourself.

My final acupuncture session is next. Bernie notices that the temperature of my head is hotter than my extremities — it should be the other way around ideally. “The blood goes where the qi goes,” he says, explaining that I’m too much in my head, which means that the energy isn’t able to flow. In my case, the diaphragm feels restricted. He uses needles and moxibustion on my front and back, explaining that the best way to curb overthinking is through physical movement. Pastimes like reading or watching a movie only use more brainpower, so rebalance calls for reconnecting with the body to induce calm.

Bernie tells me about one of his patients who suffered migraines as a result of mental overstimulation. He prescribed swimming as an antidote, but the woman, a classic overachiever, then made it her mission to see how many laps of front crawl she could muster between meetings. It took weeks to realise that she was taking the stress of the boardroom into the pool. After considering possible parallels in my own life, I understand his push to take training intensity down a notch. His message is clear — yoga, not circuit training, dance, not weights.

DAY 6

The final day. I remember this feeling. Just when you start to feel relaxed, recharged and reconnected, reality looms on the other side. At least I still have a final reiki session to look forward to. Jose, who performed my Royal Ayurvedic massage earlier, leads the way to the treatment room. He asks if I’m better, having witnessed my snottiness at its peak.

Jose asks after the quality of my sleep so he knows what to focus on. As he places his hands on each of my chakras, I experience a deep serenity and find myself in that sweet spot between daydreaming and wakefulness. Reiki usually heightens my self-awareness, so although I feel better, I vow to take it easy until I’m 100 per cent again.

My sleep, the reason I’m here, after all, hasn’t differed too drastically from the norm. The reverb of club anthems has been replaced with tropical rain and birdsong, which obviously helps. Perhaps my inability to sleep in is just one of the ‘joys’ of ageing? What is apparent is much-improved quality of slumber since I’ve been here; it’s a game-changer to have six solid hours of interrupted Zs.

The journey from empty to energised has been thought-provoking. While I received a torrent of sympathy for being poorly away from home, it was a far better option than being office-bound and guzzling Panadol. Rather, I have been nourished with healthy food, soothed by nature and surrounded by experts sharing tips on sleep, among many other things — particularly letting the body override the brain for more intuitive decision-making.

So this is wellness.

Recalling Sujay’s advice on the dangers of perfectionism yesterday, I start connecting the dots around my Type-A tendencies
~ Stephanie Shiu