I (Successfully) Pursued Wellness on a Party Island

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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Fogden

Confession: In the days leading up to my arrival at Phuket Cleanse – a renowned detox, fitness, and yoga retreated located on Thailand’s biggest island – I had committed just about every food sin known to man. Let’s recap. The night before I flew out of Dubai, I warmed up for my trip with sushi and a Nutella-stuffed cookie big enough to warrant its own zip code. At the airport the following day, I happily consumed both a Happy Meal and an Elizabeth Moss interview. Oh, and the four days I spent in Bangkok before boarding that domestic flight to Phuket? Forget about it.

If there was a street stall famous for its pad kee mao, an obscure eatery that specializes in mango with sticky rice, a dessert spot where bona fide foodies queue up for Shibuya honey toast, a pizza truck frequented by Bangkok’s most discerning locals, or a café boasting the city’s best skillet pancakes, I was there. Dairy, gluten, caffeine, white rice, white sugar, white flour, and even more processed whiteness – if there was a food group shunned by nutritionists, it had made its way into my mouth and down my digestive tract.

Needless to say, the experts at Phuket Cleanse had their work cut out for them.

Day 1

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Photo: Courtesy of Javardh

Arriving at Phuket Cleanse evokes a little of that first-day-at-school feeling – or maybe that’s just me. I expect to be greeted by a sea of tall, toned gym-bunny types. What I encounter instead is a diverse mix of guests alongside staff of the ‘healthy hippie’ variety, all slowly working towards their wellness goals. Somewhere between lunch (a vast and colorful papaya-salad station) and attempting to learn a handful of new names, I am handed what became my favorite tool of the week: a diary to plan, record, and reflect on each day.

After checking into my spacious and immaculately equipped room, I meet with resident nutritionist Nova Perry for an induction of sorts. Behind closed doors, we dig deep – I mean deep – into everything from my eating habits and wellness goals to the details of emotional trauma that I’ve recently healed from. I know that the more honest I am, the better she can advise me on what classes, workshops, workouts, and alternative therapies would suit me best. That’s the beauty of Phuket Cleanse: no two programs are alike.

I choose to take it easy on my first day, easing slowly into my surroundings with a Yin Restorative Yoga class and a particularly helpful session entitled Life After Phuket Cleanse. The idea here is to utilize the Wheel of Life to analyze areas like spirituality, finances, career, relationships, and home environment to evaluate what’s off balance alongside integrating the lessons learnt into life back home. Besides balance, the other theme of Day 1 is my dire craving for sugar, which I obviously don’t find anywhere on the premises. I go to bed early to both stop fantasizing about chocolate and get enough sleep for the next day’s hike.

Day 2

healthy chocolate truffles that healthy kitchen
Photo: Courtesy of That Healthy Kitchen

My day starts at dawn for a moderate-impact hike, and I excitedly return to a breakfast spread of fresh fruit, beetroot-cacao muffins, and smoothie cups. My sugar cravings subside (temporarily), only to be replaced with one for caffeine. Coffee is discouraged, so I try to make peace with the fact that I won’t see a double-shot mochaccino anytime soon. Drowsy from this new development, I sleep through two sessions that I had planned to attend: Aerial Yoga and a talk entitled Accepting Imperfections.

I reproach myself, but I’m reminded by one of the staff members to just listen to my body, even if that entails an ill-timed nap. That helps – as does the cooking class on healthy chocolate treats. I end up attending most of the cooking classes on offer. If there’s one thing that surprises me most about Phuket Cleanse (but in a good way) it’s how it manages to make vegan and vegetarian meals taste so, so good – and this is coming from an absolute foodie.

Next up is a talk by a clinical nutritionist by the name of Craig Burton. The first thing I notice about him? He clearly practices what he preaches. The session covers current diet conventions and common misconceptions about food, and I decide to set up a one-on-one consultation with him to discuss my newfound dairy intolerance. With my energy levels up again, I make my way to an Aqua Fit class. At just 22 minutes in length – only one percent of the day – this HIIT workout fast becomes my favorite. I must admit, however, that co-founder Stanton Procter teaching the class (read: his offbeat sense of humor) has a lot to do with it.

What follows on the schedule has me, a long-term resident of the desert, a bit terrified: a stint in Phuket Cleanse’s infamous ice bath. Stanton is an avid supporter of dipping into an ice bath to work out harder, focus better, and recover faster. Everyone in the Recovery Induction group alternates between the steam room and ice bath, with plenty of laughs in between. A dinner of Thai cuisine fuels me for a multisensory Active Breathwork session that is more transcendental than I expect. I sway throughout, but to this day, am unsure of whether said swaying was literal or more of a sensation. I’m also yawning constantly – a “release of dense energy” is how this is explained. Day 2 ends with an in-room massage; these are complimentary and offered four times a week, much to the delight of everyone’s sore muscles.

Day 3

Photo: Courtesy of Imleedh Ali

The third day turns out to be the most educational one this week as I enter the often-overlooked world of magnesium, but first: crossing aerial yoga off my bucket list. I’m not exactly what you’d call “graceful” in suspended hammock-style fabric – far from it, in fact. However, the whole point of being in a place like Phuket Cleanse is to experiment with what’s on the schedule. I doze off, once again, after breakfast (undoubtedly a caffeine-withdrawal symptom) and manage to miss both guided meditation and bibimbap for lunch. What I dare not oversleep for, however, is the Thai cooking class.

A complimentary 30-minute session of light therapy with shamanic healer Sebastian Tapia is offered to all guests, so I sign up with equal amounts of curiosity and cynicism. While there are plenty of fitness classes offered here – Muay Thai Skills, Cardio Blast, and Raw Strength amongst others – I figure I should try activities that may not be available in Dubai. Sebastian uses the Ajna Light to allow one to access their own intuition, even with no prior meditation experience, in order to alter limiting beliefs and deeply ingrained negative patterns. In this state of relaxation, I observe what I can only describe as countless star-shaped flashes and shades of brown and gold turning a vivid blue. What that means, however, is yet to be determined.

I return to Aqua Fit realizing that it is a workout perfect for someone like me – no to the gym, yes to the pool – before making my way to Body & Float. This wellness spa isn’t a part of Phuket Cleanse, but was highly recommended during my induction on Day 1 due to my long history with migraines and muscle cramps. My eye-opening visit starts with me realizing just how little I, like so many others, know about magnesium. I’m not quite sure of what type of magnesium supplements I take, and I’m appalled to hear how modern farming methods are depleting the naturally occurring magnesium in foods like leafy greens. Next, I float for 60 minutes on the surface of a dense salt-water mixture that is comprised solely of magnesium sulfate in a dark, soundproof “flotation chamber”.

My two biggest takeaways of Day 3? Magnesium oil is better than supplements as it absorbs more effectively into the body, and everything from migraines and chocolate cravings to osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and even depression can be caused by a deficiency in this mineral. Now in a state of utter relaxation, I walk back to Phuket Cleanse for dinner – raw pizza – where I gear up for Trivia Night. Testing my wits against fellow cleansers teaches me one last thing that day: my knowledge of geography is painfully sub-par.

Day 4

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Photo: Courtesy of Erol Ahmed

Day 4 coincides with International Yoga Day and, as a hatha-yoga enthusiast, I couldn’t be happier. It starts with a Sunrise Sun Salutations workshop on the beach, marking the occasion with 108 rounds of sun salutations, as is considered the traditional way to celebrate. I manage close to half of that – an accomplishment considering I’m used to doing about eight during my yoga sessions in Dubai. As I track my progress, I watch other cleansers take a stand-up paddleboarding class and mentally add this offshoot of surfing to my list of resolutions for 2019.

I return to the property and have a chat with Stanton to better understand Phuket Cleanse and its seven-year history. “It all started with Melanie Procter and her blender,” he says, referring to his fellow co-founder. A well-used Vitamix led to the acquisition of a gym (that was also used to host raw-vegan cooking classes) and 15-room boutique hotel that now forms the core of Phuket Cleanse. The program has hosted everyone from broke college students to business owners from the UAE, Singapore’s richest man, a gold medal-winning diver from Australia, and a 70-something woman with Stage 2 Parkinson’s. The common denominator? They’re all on a mission to “straighten up their act”.

According to Stanton, plant-based nutrition – and educating people on it – still forms the heart and soul of Phuket Cleanse, with fitness class and wellness sessions only complementing it. Next on the agenda here: a Himalayan-salt cave, floatation therapy, and a healthy eatery centered around Indian food. I continue with today’s theme – yoga – by attending a talk on the philosophy of this 5,000-year-old practice, followed by a wholesome take on spaghetti with meatballs and a cooking class on Indian cuisine.

There’s a Hatha Yoga class that I skip in favor of Bikram Yoga – big mistake. Some like it hot, but I don’t. I find it nearly impossible to maintain the postures through a runny nose and complete inability to breathe with ease while sweating profusely. I reward myself with a pit stop at a local fruit stand, sipping on coconut water to replenish lost electrolytes. Dinner is Mexican enchiladas, while dessert is a Yoga Nidra class covering the art of yogic sleep. Between this passive session and another in-room massage, I’ve found bliss.

Day 5

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Photo: Courtesy of Steve Halama

Most cleansers manage to complete the biweekly 4km Big Buddha Hike up to one of the most revered landmarks on the island – and today is my turn. I haven’t hiked since March owing to this region’s climate, so I make a deal with myself: make it to the top and reward yourself. Translation: coffee. Cut to me four hours later, relishing a cafe mocha at Wilson’s Cafe (yes, named after the volleyball in Cast Away). I’m disappointed to miss the Intermittent Fasting talk as a result of my lofty breakfast in town; I’m a big advocate of this pattern of eating, provided it’s done correctly. I’m also too full for lunch now – a fusion of Turkish and Lebanese – and decide to skip it and the proceeding cooking class on juicing in favor of my appointment with Craig.

Nutrition is my key concern, but guests can also access experts in fields like hypnotherapy, addiction counseling, reiki healing, life coaching, personal training, and more. Craig and I talk at length about my allergic reactions to dairy as well as the overall discomfort that frequently accompanies them. Stress, naturally, plays a role in this recent development – 2017 had stress in spades, and it seems I’m still reeling from its effects. I’m guided on the details of a 30-day paleo reset, covering everything from what foods to avoid and eliminate completely to which enzymes and probiotics would get my digestive system back on track. I’m also asked how I’m reacting to the food being served at Phuket Cleanse – and this turns out to be rather eye-opening.

I hesitate for a second before admitting that while I feel great, I’m perpetually bloated and “backed up” (to put it politely). “Completely normal,” says Craig, going on to explain that someone in my situation ought to aim for a ratio of 80:20 in terms of cooked versus raw vegetables. Another Aqua Fit class and some laps later, I head to dinner – this time, an extensive salad bar – and brace myself for the whimsically named session, Breathe Your Way into the Vortex. I have quite literally no idea what to expect, but that’s part of its appeal. The circular set-up alone is breathtaking – think: twinkly lights, sheer drapes, crystals, cushions, candles, and a mash-up of tribal and sitar music set the tone for what turns out to be one of the most unique sessions I participate in.

Attendees are asked to vocalize what they “release” and “call upon”, and we’re instantly unified as a result of starting on a vulnerable note. This is obviously a judgement-free zone, and it fast emerges that guests are here to detox so much more than just their bodies. I feel shaky at certain points, I feel myself smiling at others. By the end of the session, I have no idea whether I was fast asleep or in a deep trance – and everyone around me seems to share that sentiment. I also reflect on the sheer volume of toxic energy that had taken over my life in the past year, and vow to educate myself further on the Law of Attraction.

Day 6

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Photo: Courtesy of Joanna Kosinska

With insomnia, leg cramps, and a runny nose striking in the middle of the night – my body is obviously demanding a rest day – I vow to spend the rest of my time slowing down. My presence at Kundalini Yoga replaces my plans for Aerial Yoga, and I’m hooked. For one, the session entails a lot of stretching and various breathing techniques, which is perfect for the pain in the my calf muscles. This type of yoga is also a lot more centered around awareness and part of this awareness, according to the instructor, is acknowledging that my body is actively in the process of releasing toxins – hence the restless night.

Nova is hosting a Gut Health Explained session just after lunch, and the room is understandably packed. Good bacteria versus bad bacteria, the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, the journey of a meal from start to finish in the human body – it’s all covered. I’m amazed by how little I’ve known about this area until now, and take some time to curl up with the cooking books placed around the property – turns out ‘healthy curry’ isn’t an oxymoron after all. With some more free time in the afternoon, I sign up for the rather girly Bodycare Class and spend the next hour playing around with sea salt, black sesame seeds, ground coffee, coconut oil, and more essential oils that I can count. I now know my rose from my rosemary, and make two different DIY body scrubs to bring home.

Another Yin Restorative Yoga class does the trick in easing my leg cramps, which I hardly notice at this point considering my anticipation for the Special Masterclass with Phil Anthony M. He’s somewhat of a legend around here, having transitioned from a suit-and-tie guy to Director of Phuket Cleanse to TEDx speaker and now a personal coach. He essentially chats – brutally honest anecdotes and all – with a group in an intimate setting, but it’s evident that the burnout caused by his former life resonates with many in the room. I wrap up Day 6 with a Reiki Share session, which is similar to last night’s vortex session, but a little more hands-on. Two sets of “healing hands” are gently placed on each attendee’s body amidst calming scents and sounds, a theme that continues with my third massage.

Day 7

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Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Dorweiler

I sleep in today and, at Phuket Cleanse, that means skipping breakfast and waking up in time to show up for the 10:15 Deep Stretch session that takes place on a generously sized balcony. My week at the retreat is coming to an end, and I’m already nostalgic. Between the continuing leg cramps and my relentless potato chip cravings, I’m now convinced that my body is crying out for salt – and lots of it. Could my sodium levels be low?

A Guided Meditation session later, I’m prepping for the weekly boat trip to a local island that staffers and cleansers alike rave about, only to find out that rain has caused its cancellation. I’m already in my swimsuit and now have a couple of free hours at the my disposal, so I muster up the courage to get back into the pool to swim some laps. And here’s what I can personally vouch for when it comes to straining already strained muscles: a banana and some magnesium oil go a long way.

I get to talking with a couple of people and realize that just about everyone around me has managed to tear a ligament, dislocate a shoulder, or worse – we’ve all overdone it in a quest to make the most of our time here, which is exactly what is discouraged. “Most people bring two or three books to Phuket Cleanse, and leave with them untouched. In an attempt to try everything on the schedule, they forget to relax and even sleep well, which is the whole point of being here,” says one of the yoga instructors. Guilty as charged.

Dinner is served early to accommodate those headed to Phuket Town’s night market, and the city girl in me is irrationally excited about this one. I must confess, I skip both the raw pizza and the last of my four massages in anticipation of the cheat meal I’ve been fantasizing about all week long: local street food. One look at the countless stalls, and the counter-intuitive side of my brain takes over (cue the vegetable dumplings, deep-fried shrimp balls with yakitori sauce, and coconut cake reminiscent of a flattened Bounty bar). The sharp stomach pains that follow are real, but far from concerning. All this is simply a shock to my stomach, but it’ll adjust once I return to the real world – albeit begrudgingly after what can only be described as the single most enlightening week of my life.

For more details or to book a stay a Phuket Cleanse, click here.

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