If I had a peso for every staff member at The Farm at San Benito who gave me some version of this advice, I’d be rich – at least in the Philippines. I arrived at this eco-luxury health and wellness resort in Lipa, a city 90 minutes south of Manila, at an interesting stage of my life. And by that, I mean the tail end of a seven-month period that entailed total sleep deprivation, drastic weight gain, digestive issues, frequent migraines, even more frequent breakouts, allergic reactions to foods I’d long consumed, a patchy skin condition on my left foot that no dermatologist could diagnose, an uptake of cigarettes as a coping mechanism, and severe job dissatisfaction. Did I mention said job was actually my dream job?
We all go through phases during which, for better or for worse, one person can singlehandedly take over our lives, be it a sibling, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a boss, or – in my case – a former colleague. For days that turned into weeks that turned into months, I took on the entire workload of another person, completely neglecting my own well-being and rationalizing criminally long work hours in the process. Cut to me sitting in Dr. Michelle Carbonel’s clinic.
‘Holistic Integrative Medical Services’, the first of the five “healing components” at The Farm, also form its core as no two guests arrive with the same health concerns. Over the past 17 years, the Holistic Sanctuary here has seen it all: families looking to rejuvenate over a plush vacation, public figures desperately seeking a medical diagnosis, patients battling terminal illnesses, people tackling lifestyle illnesses like diabetes and obesity, both men and women grappling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and those who have reached a point of utter and total burnout. Like me.
It takes a tremendous amount of vulnerability to admit that my life has started revolving around my job.
What we all have in common is the detailed questionnaire that kickstarts the healing process – it’s sent to guests before they even arrive in the Philippines and covers everything from your blood type to recent health concerns, symptoms that have made an appearance in the past six months, details on food intolerances, and so much more. Honesty is key as your answers will determine the 360º program tailored exclusively to you and executed by a team of licensed doctors and nurses, nutritionists, raw-food chefs, spa therapists, fitness coaches, and yoga teachers.
In my case, what I divulged in that questionnaire leads to an initial consultation and a truly eye-opening conversation with Dr. Carbonel around the stress of my job and the psychology behind it – it takes a tremendous amount of vulnerability to admit that my life started revolving around my job once the pressure of financially supporting my parents became very, very real. Having adequately unpacked the situation, I’m ready to take the 4.7km guided power walk around the breathtaking property and beyond, encountering the type of beauty that only nature can boast. I’m awestruck by the all-white peacocks who flaunt their beauty when they think no one is watching. And are those mountains in the distance? I’m starting to see why ‘Healing Environment & Heartfelt Service’ is another healing component.
Later that day, a copy of my program in hand, I’m slightly apprehensive (okay, terrified) at the prospect of Coffee Infusion Therapy once I’m told that it’s a colonic carried out using a diluted solution of organic coffee – and not an IV delivering coffee directly into my veins, as I had convinced myself. Dr. Carbonel immediately puts me at ease, reminding me that nothing on my program is set in stone. It’s rapidly updated to reflect a series of spa treatments curated to match my health concerns, and it’s at Healing Sanctuary Spa where things get so, so good.
‘Nurturing Spa Treatments & Hydrotherapy Water Wellness’ is another healing component at The Farm, so the spa borrows from the best of ancient and contemporary Filipino, Asian, and Western traditions, offering treatments that directly support the healing of the body. Some are designed to remove toxins from within the tissues and organs, while others provide nourishment through the skin, restore balance, decrease the body’s pH levels, and wash away stress like water and soap is all it takes. I arrive late and breathless (yes, I lost my way around the 48-hectare property twice) and with a bloody gash on my knee (having fallen on the stone steps by the entrance). To say I am in dire need of the prescribed ‘Relaxation Massage’ is an understatement.
Bright and early, I make my way to what will forever remain the most picturesque spot in which I’ve practiced yoga: the Amphitheater at The Farm. ‘Mindful Movement & Functional Fitness’ is another healing component, so the onsite activities help guests to leisurely “unleash blockages” in the body. Power walks and more rigorous workouts like circuit training and HIIT aside, the likes of vinyasa, vinyasa krama, hatha, and yin yoga are on the schedule. What’s impossible to forget, however, is the sheer tranquility that takes over when opening your eyes to blue skies, sprawling greenery, soothing water features, and towering palm trees after a guided mediation session. Downward dogging in a high-rise building in Dubai doesn’t quite cut it.
It starts with a closer look at the state of my health, which reveals essentially nothing to be proud of.
The seemingly endless roster of programs offered at The Farm (be they for weight management, pain management, mental health, cellular detoxification, stress reduction, or male/female revitalization) all revolve around returning a guest to their ideal balanced state through five pillars: Diagnose, Cleanse, Nourish, Repair, and Sustain. In my case, it starts with a closer look at the state of my health, which reveals essentially nothing to be proud of. A Live Blood Analysis session exposes cloud-like formations of clumping red blood cells caused by inflammation – and indicative of mental stress.
The full-body Bio Med Scan that follows seems to agree. An Energy Pyramid depicts that my energy resources are “less than normal”. A Psychoemotional State Index illustrates a brain splashed with shades of neon green to indicate “accumulated tiredness”. A Gerontological Curve warns that my biological age is two years older than my calendar age of 36. I didn’t actually need an incredibly advanced diagnostic device and undecipherable medical jargon to tell me that I am a rapidly aging, sleep-deprived editor with a semi-decent endocrine system, I think as a I laugh resignedly.
One reality check later, it’s time to return to the spa. For the aquatically inclined, the Acqua Sanctuary here is a veritable adult playground, marrying spa treatments and hydrotherapy to offer everything from a Vichy shower and Japanese onsen bath to Kneipp therapy, flotation therapy, and even blind shower therapy. I try a bit of everything after indulging in the 60-minute ‘Little Yin Yang Dry Brushing’, a lymphatic treatment because of which I now swear by dry brushing for healthier skin and better blood circulation. The fact that my program then directs me to an ‘Empress Facial’ is very telling.
This is an immensely popular treatment that takes into consideration the anatomy of the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for 50 percent of the stress in the brain. I’m in the very capable hands of Dr. Conrada Apostol who, to my delight, is a plastic surgeon advocating for a holistic approach to beauty. The ‘Empress Facial’ features acupressure massage to loosen up muscles alongside mild LED photo rejuvenation to boost blood flow and trigger collagen formation as well as the elimination of dirt and toxins with a vacuum.
It all ends with a cooling contraption that I’m told is an ice roller from Korea to close the pores, and I now look like I’ve been well-rested for months. My conversation with Dr. Apostol through it all is just as telling. Not only does she notice a heightened tightness in my body, but also that my breathing is shallow – both reflective of chronic stress, she says. I’m deeply alarmed (but also armed with knowledge) by the fact that my sudden weight gain can be attributed to what is commonly known as “central obesity”. It’s not rocket science, to be honest. Increased stress leads to high cortisol levels, high cortisol levels lead to weight gain.
Again, I’m awakened at 7 a.m. with a turmeric shot and another juice arriving at the doorstep of my villa – as part of a flawlessly orchestrated program, the past two days have consisted of drinks with names like ‘Ginger Zinger’ and ‘Alkaline Booster’ appearing out of nowhere. In the spirit of self-care, I’m comfortable enough with Dr. Carbonel to request to be taken off the juice fast and onto normal food, but more on that in a bit. I return for a session of hatha yoga because of the promise of what’s to come.
I’m deeply alarmed (but also armed with knowledge) by the fact that my sudden weight gain can be attributed to what is commonly known as “central obesity”.
Like spas everywhere, Healing Sanctuary Spa is a haven of R&R, but so many of the sensory experiences here are truly one of a kind. Case in point: the ‘Tres Banyos Lunas’ ceremony that combines the five elements of earth, fire, water, wind, and wood, bringing together some of the most healing herbs in the Philippines for a herbal bath designed to awaken one’s senses. A delicious, lingering soak leads nicely to an indulgent warm glass-bottle massage and a body wrap filled with medicinal herbs to encourage the release of excess heat. ‘Tres Banyos Lunas’ is especially effective in treating energy stagnation while improving vitality. It also releases impacted toxins that are commonly attributed to fluid retention.
The best of what nature has to offer seeps into my evening as I sacrifice a round of Intravenous Infusion Therapy in favor of touring the property’s vast organic garden with Executive Chef Francis Tugnao who, much to my relief, is vehemently against the demonizing of entire food groups. ‘Plant-Based Whole Food Vegan Cuisine’ is another of the five healing components, so despite the recent opening of pescatarian restaurant PESCE, signature eatery Alive! is where the farm-to-table philosophy reigns supreme. This award-winning restaurant once catered exclusively to cancer patients and, today, is considered one of Asia’s finest vegan spots.
I find that my energy levels have tanked as a result of the juice fast and switch to regular meals at Alive! And boy, am I glad I did. The dishes here are culinary masterpieces, plated beautifully to boot. And despite leaving the nourishing juices and fermented vegetables behind, this is the cleanest I’ve eaten in months. Everything you’ll dine on is organic, loaded with fiber, rich in antioxidants, and designed to purge toxins and optimize nutrition. It helps that everything I sample over the next three days wouldn’t look out of place in a fine dining institution. The ‘Coconut Pad Thai’ is ingeniously made of coconut meat, the ‘Pomelo Salad’ is a perpetual crowd-pleaser, and the ‘Fresh Salad Rolls’ are drizzled with just about the best almond-butter sauce I’ve ever tasted. But my inner child would argue that the ‘Chocolate Coconut Overnight Oats in a Jar’ is the one to beat.
Another treatment that not-so-coincidentally ends up on my program is the ‘Purification Treatment’, utilizing sea salt, which is high in minerals. I’m told that salt solutions have long been known to absorb negative energy in ancient healing traditions and, therefore, come highly recommended for the stressed and distressed in modern times. A coconut oil massage and subsequent body wrap is a decadent accompaniment to the sea salt scrub – good for the skin, good for the scalp, good for the soul. The ‘Purification Treatment’ is applied to the body using special strokes known as Yin Yang rhythmical movements in order to energetically balance the body, and only available at The Farm.
My perpetually aching neck and shoulders surrender, and I lie there like a limp rag doll while a therapist uses all her extremities to pull, pat, stretch, rub, and contort me.
In contrast, the ‘Hilot Pandanggo Massage’ is an entirely dry treatment that feels like a cross between a deep-tissue massage and a stretching session at a yoga studio – except that you’re not doing any of the work. Hilot in Tagalog translates to ‘healing’, so this Filipino take on a Thai massage is excellent for sore muscles and follows the energy line to help bodies loosen up. My perpetually aching neck and shoulders surrender, and I lie there like a limp rag doll while a therapist uses all her extremities to pull, pat, stretch, rub, and contort me. I squeal a little, but I feel fantastic afterwards. A word to the wise: ask to have this massage in the Bali Lounge, if possible.
Another proverbial hard pill to swallow is handed to me as I familiarize with The Farm’s recently opened Aesthetic Center. The menu here spans everything from acne-scar treatments to anti-aging facials, mesotherapy to the removal of stretch marks, hair restoration to laser hair removal. What catches my eye are the many alternative offerings intended to “beautify the soul” – think: a Pinoy take on laughter yoga, aura cleansing through the use of crystals, and a treatment designed to heal personal and family patterns. A consultation with beauty entrepreneur Ross Licup later, I find myself at the receiving end of an ‘iLipo Xcell’.
Not only does this non-invasive treatment employ FDA-approved technology targeted at shrinking fat cells beneath the bra line, love handles, and thighs, but it also requires zero incisions as the fat is removed through the body’s lymphatic system. A total of eight sessions are spread out over one to two months (with an average loss of 2cm per session), but my one go serves as a harsh reminder of the fact that I still have a size 00 pair of jeans from Zara stashed away somewhere in my closet. My pre- and post-iLipo measurements are thrust into my hand, and I’m both baffled by the immediacy of the results and attuned to why such treatments quickly become addictive. Somewhere between my vanity taking a hit and working for a fashion magazine, I feel like a total hypocrite for preaching the importance of body positivity. Long story short: I go to sleep a conflicted woman.
A good night’s sleep has done wonders for my mindset, but just as I’ve learned how to find my way around the property and relearned how to relax, it’s time to pack up and say goodbye. I end on a high note. A very high note. Day 5 consists of alternating between an infinity pool with killer views and a waterfall pool that feels like a secret only few are privy to, and I try my best to take it all in one last time.
I walk barefoot around the majestic mango tree that is hundreds of years old and said to have healing powers. I dine on the Alive! terrace that overlooks the beautiful Southpark Lagoon, knowing that it’ll be a while until I’m in the vicinity of ducks waddling around. I discover an orchidarium, several meditation nooks, and even more photographic opportunities as I take a stroll. Camera in hand, I run after the peacocks, attempting to capture one with its feathers fanned out (and failing miserably). A final follow-up with the staff entails yet another round of body measurements, but more importantly, inside jokes and countless hugs are exchanged – I can vouch for why the aforementioned ‘Healing Environment & Heartfelt Service’ is considered a healing component.
From time to time, I still think of Dr. Carbonel asking me, “Do you think staring at the ceiling is a complete waste of time?” Hint: it’s not. In fact, it’s practically how I spent an entire morning once the grind of Fashion Month (read: working seven days straight for four weeks in a row) ended. But don’t get me wrong. The phrase ‘9 to 5’ still means nothing in my world. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. Heck, my shoulders are sore from being slumped over my keyboard even as I’m typing these words.
What has changed is that I now hold myself accountable.
What has changed is that I now hold myself accountable, and I needed a stint at the “Best Medical Wellness Resort in the World” to come this far. I’ll put a deadline on pause to water the plants on my office desk. I no longer wolf down my meals like an apocalypse is imminent. My skin has cleared up, I’m a regular at my yoga studio, and everything in my closet is starting to fit slightly better. Oh, and I’m glad to report that I haven’t stood at a supermarket checkout holding a box of dental floss instead of my wallet due to sheer exhaustion for a second time. None of these lifestyle changes sound drastic, but they’re drastic for me and require a daily effort.
After all, self-care isn’t a destination – it’s a journey.