In Koh Samui, a prototype for the future of ‘wellness’

In Koh Samui, a prototype for the future of ‘wellness’

A holistic retreat caters to burnt-out execs by combining age-old disciplines with science, art and film screenings
Pondering his hedge fund strategies? Kamalaya is known for helping stressed-out captains of industry unwind.

As a yogi connected to an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas, John Stewart and his cohorts spent seven years hauling rocks to build plots of land for vegetable gardens and fruit orchards on reclaimed riverbed.

All the work was done by hand. His guru and taskmaster, Babaji, said, “We don’t wait for miracles. We create them.”

Those experiences in India, where Stewart also met his wife and business partner, Karina, provided much of the heft behind the Kamalaya Wellness Retreat and Holistic Spa on Koh Samui.

Kamalaya's design is part earthy, part otherworldly. Set among the boulders and palm trees of the sparsely inhabited southeast corner of the Thai island, Kamalaya’s construction was a Herculean undertaking that dwarfed even Stewart's previous endeavors at the ashram.

The result illustrates the founders’ desire to create a nature retreat with upmarket designer smarts.

In my villa, an enormous boulder crouched behind the bed and merged with the wall. In the semi-al fresco bathroom, hemmed in by brick walls like the skeletons of Thai temple ruins, the shower nozzle gushed from inside a tree trunk while flowers and fronds sprouted from below.

The alcoves look like a hybrid of a temple roof and a silhouetted tree.

This motif, partly earthy, partly otherworldly, is repeated throughout Kamalaya.

Even the tiniest details at the sanctuary -- the menus made from mulberry bark, the light-bearing fish traps that illuminate the restaurant at night -- have been rendered in earth tones for visitors who not only want to reconnect with nature but their core values. 

'I’ve regained my appetite to compete'

Karina Stewart is the program director. As an undergraduate of Princeton University in the United States, she majored in cultural anthropology and minored in religious studies, specializing in Indian faiths.

A chance encounter with a Taoist master in Seattle inspired her to learn acupuncture and do another degree in traditional Chinese medicine.

John and Karina Stewart's experiences at an Indian ashram inspired them to build Kamalaya. “Ever since I was a young girl I wanted to make a positive contribution to people’s lives, but I came to prefer Asian and Indian medicine, which are more holistic and more in harmony with nature,” she says.

Her creation of nine core programs, launched in 2006, provided the anatomy for the sanctuary’s success: a 96-percent occupancy rate during the recent high season.

The detox, weight loss and rejuvenation programs are all popular, but more and more visitors come looking for a port of calm in a sea of stress.

One such captain of industry is Joseph McKeever. In Dubai, he is the owner and CEO of a flight simulator company.

Exhausted by months of overwork and a junk food diet, heavy on coffee and doughnuts, McKeever recently escaped to Kamalaya for his second retreat.

“When you’re caught up in a pressure-cooker at work day after day, you can’t see the situation clearly," he says.

"But here I’ve been working out every day and not reading the paper or going on the Internet, so the fog has dispelled and I’ve regained my appetite to compete.”

Over the course of a seven-day “Stress and Burnout Program,” which starts from 108,000 baht, the Irishman came up with a whole new business plan to manage his office.

“I need to reorganize myself and the office so I only have to put in a few days a week in the office, but I have to work smart instead of stretching the work out over an entire week, because I’ve been doing too much of the work myself and not trusting other people to handle the tasks at hand.”

Taking control over your life

Much of the stress that grinds people down is self-created, says Rajesh Ramani, a life coach and meditation teacher.

Kamalaya's overnight options range from hillside suites to two-bedroom beach front pool villas. Besides private consultations, the former monk who worked with the poorest of the poor in rural India for many years, gives workshops at Kamalaya where he pinpoints the underlying causes of stress and the ruptures in relationships from a layman’s perspective.

“We obsess over all these political situations and economic crises. We follow them constantly on the Internet and TV, but we have no control over them. This leads to overwhelming amounts of stress that are unnecessary,” says Rajesh.

His workshops and consultations are devoted to giving people back a sense of control over their lives. Self-empowerment, the Stewarts often reiterate, is the bone marrow of all the different programs at Kamalaya.

Erotic encounters, hedge funds and abs

For Amy Grossman, the owner of a real estate agency in Denver, Colorado, her Kamalaya stay was revelatory because, “We live in such a fast-paced world it’s difficult to take time out for yourself. I can’t believe that I could actually take a week like this away from my business and husband and kids to focus on such a personal and emotional experience.”

Kamalaya guests take part in an evening meditation session. Anecdotes like that are commonplace around the “community table” in the wooden restaurant, perched at the height of a hornbill’s nest in the middle of the jungle, where guests form an ad hoc support group every night.

Since around 70 percent of the clientele are women, I found it entertaining to feign listening to the boys talk about their hedge funds and ab workouts while pricking up an ear in the direction of the female posse as they related their beach hammock fantasies of erotic encounters with celebrity Casanovas.

The sanctuary may strive for purity in its organic menu and programs, but the atmosphere is far from strict or puritanical.

Overall, the Kamalaya concept is so vast and far-reaching, combining the age-old disciplines of yoga, tai chi and meditation, along with an art gallery, library and film screenings, juxtaposed against all the latest breakthroughs in science, nutrition and bio impedance analysis, that it defies any attempts to sum it up it in slogan-sized summaries or full-length features.

Far easier to grasp is that the retreat has few peers in the world of wellness and seems destined to become a prototype for the future of health-conscious, soul-seeking travel. 

Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Resort: 102/9 Moo 3, Laem Set Road, Na-Muang Koh Samui, Thailand. +66 (0) 77 429 800. Room rates from 6,900 baht/night, not including wellness programs.

A punk rock musician (if that is not an oxymoron) throughout the 1980s, Jim Algie has worked as a writer and editor in Bangkok since 1992. More bytes and pixels at

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