Sen Wellness review | holistic hideaway, Sri Lanka
Rejuvenating beachside wellness retreat with a heart
The Quick Read: Sen Wellness (formerly known as The Breath of Life Sanctuary) is a stylishly low-key, friendly, ethical wellness retreat next to pristine Rekawa Beach on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Founded by Sri Lankan-born Londoner Sam Kankanamage (who runs an integrated health clinic in London), it aims to offer a complete mind, body, spirit experience and support long-term change. Group and bespoke retreats led by visiting practitioners are on offer, or come for a few days or more for predominantly (but not exclusively) Kundalini-based yoga, ayurvedic consultations and treatments, osteopathy, ayurveda-inspired food, local excursions, and (for those staying a week or longer) ceremonial-style sharing in a stunning space.
Who it’s best for: The retreat would appeal to solo travellers as well as couples and friends who are exhausted and seeking a nurturing, healing experience, close to nature. (The beach is a renowned turtle nesting site and the sanctuary is surrounded by mangrove and a lagoon.) Yoga novices will be in safe hands as the sessions here cater to all. Hardcore, competitive yoga bunnies may want to abstain as this is a holistic wellness retreat with yoga rather than a full-on yoga retreat. The dining is communal and sociable, so this isn’t the place for a silent retreat.
What you can do: Whether you’re on a group or bespoke retreat, the day is framed by optional daily sunrise and sunset yoga sessions which take place on the quiet beach or in the wonderful, airy yoga shala. Depending on who the visiting practitioner is, you might also enjoy a soothing sound healing and gong meditation.
On the first day of your stay, you’ll meet the ayurvedic doctor who takes a medical history and plans a tailored programme to meet your health needs. On a brief stay the emphasis is on de-stressing and rebalancing while on a longer one detoxing, cleansing and the removal of blockages can be addressed. Treatment includes herbal medicines and pills as well as medicinal (rather than spa-style pampering) massages and therapies such as shirodhara, in which heated oil is poured from a pot in a steady stream onto your forehead. On the last day of your stay you get a closing consultation and nutritional advice as well as an individual blessing ceremony conducted by the doctor!
In between treatments, you might have an osteopathy or cranial osteopathy session (great for calming the nervous system), chill in your cabana or in the shared space, listen to birdsong or read a book from the carefully curated selection. Meals, prepared by a local chef are served buffet-style and are a communal affair.
Ceremony and ritual are valued here: on a recent visit, a shamanic cacao ceremony was offered, in which the brew, a form of spiritually charged plant medicine, was drunk. A guided meditation followed and insights gleaned were shared.
Daily complimentary excursions/activities can include a boat ride on the lagoon (a must), a cookery demonstration, or a visit to the school for the blind, which Breath of Life supports as part of its charitable foundation.
Where you stay: The main building offers a wholly original, becalming space. Inspired by the spirals in a conch shell, it’s designed in a conical, circular shape so as to sustain the free flow of energy. Open plan and partially open to the elements, the space is great for soaking up views of the mangroves or glimpsing monkeys at play in the trees – there’s plenty of space to lounge about with daybeds and cushioned areas. Evocative paintings by Sri Lankan artist Chamilla Garage hang on the walls and the long low dining table is adorned with locally hand-loom woven placemats. Lovely trinkets and objets d’art (including a lovely old gramophone) have been sourced at a local market by a Sri Lankan antiques dealer.
The yoga ‘shala’, a part of the main building, overlooks the treetops and it’s where classes and workshops are held. (It’s also a great place to chill in.) Guests sleep in stylish, en-suite cabanas, set off a suspended walkway, surrounded by mangrove, and just out of sight, the lagoon and the beach.
They’ve been cleverly designed to draw earth energy upward. Twin or king-sized beds are adorned with teak headboards intricately carved by local craftsmen. The rooms are luxurious in a low-key way and have plenty of ventilation as well as private balconies. Inside every room, there’s a daybed for lounging and ample storage space. Fixtures include pretty lamps and embroidered cushions. Complimentary filtered water (in re-usable glass bottles) is replenished daily. The rainforest showers in the en-suite bathrooms are heated by solar panels and ayurvedic shampoo and shower gel are from Siddhalepa, a respected Sri Lankan brand created by ayurvedic physicians. There are also a few, more rustic bedrooms in the main building if you’re happy to share a bathroom but most guests opt for the cabanas.
How was it for us: When I arrived I was exhausted following an intense period of work, injury and illness. Luckily then that I was welcomed by Natasha Tillie, the Sanctuary’s ‘Mother’, and a fantastically gentle and caring hostess. Being able to kick off my shoes and then not put them on again until it was time to leave was liberating – I loved the footloose feeling. Nature is my inspiration so walks on the exhilaratingly empty beach, the lagoon boat ride (more like a canoe paddle) and quiet time sprawled in the yoga shala, doing absolutely nothing but gazing at the trees was hugely restorative in itself. Thanks to a bad back, I’d not done yoga for a while and had never tried Kundalini so I was feeling bit tentative about the sessions. Happily, Fiona Raymond, my teacher was both enthusiastic and reassuring. I loved her sunrise beach yoga and her sound healing and gong meditation in the yoga shala: it shifted my energy. Communal mealtimes were a real high point. Not only because of the lovingly prepared food but because it gave me a chance to connect with other guests and swap notes on treatments. Ultimately, the peaceful, healing vibe, kind-hearted staff and beautiful setting are what swung it for me.
What we took home: I left with my blood pressure the lowest it has been in years (serious result) and a feeling of serenity – I don’t say that lightly – as well as a timely reminder about how to flow with life in a more harmonious, trusting way.
Would we go back: Yes, at a slightly cooler time of year!
People watch: Fiona Raymond, the charismatic Sri Lankan Kundalini yoga teacher was brilliant. Founder Sam Kankanamage is a remakable osteopath and healer, so if he’s in residence, you’re in luck. Dilanthe, the female therapist, has a gentle touch: her face pack (with papaya and sandalwood) left my face glowing. Dr. Harshi, the resident ayurvedic doctor was perceptive and full of great advice.
Food watch: Food is home-style Sri Lankan prepared by a local chef (and two hardworking local women) and with fresh, seasonal ingredients and spices bought in the local market. Inspired by ayurvedic principles it’s delicious and predominantly vegan though meat and fish occasionally put in an appearance. Dishes include pittu (steamed rice flour and coconut cakes), egg hoppers (egg cooked into a bowl-shaped crepe), coconut curry, jackfruit curry, manioc, a broth called kola kanda made with gotu kola (medicinal greens). Desert is fresh papaya and watermelon. This is an alcohol and caffeine free zone, though herbal teas and juices are served.
What’s lowly: Weather-wise it can get extremely hot and humid and though the beach is beautiful, the sea is too rough to swim in. Thankfully plans are afoot to build a much needed swimming pool.
Insider tip: Leave your hairdryer at home: the vibe is casual and come as you are. Bring cool, cotton clothes and be sensitive to the local culture: unless you’re on the beach it’s not really appropriate to hang out in a string bikini.
Price: Rooms are priced separately from the wellness programmes.
The majority of guests travel independently and room rates are priced accordingly. A luxury en-suite cabana costs US$180 per person per night with full board for a solo traveller and US$135 per night per person with full board if you’re sharing with a companion. A standard bedroom in the main building with shared bathroom facilities costs US$125 per person per night full bed and board US$90 per person if you’re sharing with a companion. Note: there’s a 20% surcharge on bed and board between 20 December and 10 January.
Rates for the programmes and content vary depending on length. The rate for a 7-day wellness programme, for example, costs US$850 per person. This is inclusive of twice daily yoga classes, one private yoga session, an ayurvedic consultation on arrival and before you leave, a tailored program of daily treatments, the prescription of herbal medicines, dietary advice, an osteopathy or cranial osteopathy session, a ceremony (fire ceremony, or intention setting, for example, which are offered for 7 day stays or longer) and any local excursions.
Value for Money: Very good. Once you arrive everything is included. And the nurturing is priceless.
Sister retreats: Breath of Life occasionally runs retreats in Ibiza and the UK, and the owner runs a clinic in London. More info can be found on the website.
Reviewed by Jini Reddy
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