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Top 8 wellness experiences

Tired of yoga? Finished with facials? Take an alternative route to health and happiness, from a gentle forest bath to a Mayan sweat lodge

By Julia Buckley
Published 6 Jul 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:46 BST
Balian healers

Balian healers

Photograph by Alamy

1 Forest bathing 
Forest bathing — simply being in the presence of trees — is a cornerstone of wellbeing in Japan. Shinrin-yoku, as it's known, has been part of a public health programme since 1982 thanks to its ability to lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones. Whether or not you believe trees have auras, the stillness of the forest can't help but calm your thoughts.
What next: One of Japan's 48 government-labelled trails, Okutama-machi, near Tokyo, features five 'therapy routes'.

2 Sound baths
A full-on sound bath treats you to a concerto of noise — from singing bowls and gongs to crystals and chanting — in a room full of other people. All sound baths differ, but they work on the idea that being drenched in the experience promotes relaxation, clarity and a profound sense of wellbeing. King of the scene is the vast Integratron, in California's Mojave Desert, originally built as a meeting point for aliens.
What next: The Integratron's 25-minute sound baths are performed on crystal bowls, and the perfect acoustics make it almost physically overwhelming. From £23.

3 Silent retreats
This'll be easy, you think, as you take your vow of silence with a smirk. Then the voices in your head pipe up, and soon you're dying for someone to say something. There are many forms of retreat, with silence spanning from mealtimes to weeks, but whatever your level, expect the pace of life to slow, food to grow tastier, your mind quieter and your pulse slower. 
What next: The 'monastery'-style hotel Eremito, in Umbria, offers silent dinners — although, with its spellbinding location, the silence often spreads. From £143 per night.

4 Singing bowls
Besides being a great souvenir from a trip to that Himalayas, Tibetan singing bowls, can also be therapeutic — played at certain frequencies, they can slow over-active brain activity and help stress and even chronic pain. Used properly, they also have a profound calming effect. Experienced practitioners tailor the sounds to particular health needs; some move the bowls around you as they 'sing', others place them on your body so you absorb the vibrations, like a massage.
What next: The raved about Sound Planetarium in Kathmandu offers tailored treatments. It can get powerful — you may even find yourself sobbing. From £19.

5 Balian healers
Bali is near the top of the list for wellness holidays, and Ubud is awash with yoga studios and western-style healers. But if it's traditional healing and medicine you're after, balians (Balinese healers) are a great starting point, as their practices are usually less extreme than those in other countries. Approaches differ, but most will offer some form of (often painful) Balinese massage.
What next: Munduk Moding Plantation works with Ketut Suwitra, a real-deal healer specialising in internal issues. From £28.

6 Transformational breathing
Controlled breathing sounds airy-fairy but this practice gets intense: LSD pioneers like Timothy Leary used to use breathwork as a way of getting high. Essentially, it's a form of controlled hyperventilation, monitored by a professional, which, in conjunction with meditation, leads to an increase of blood pH, as well as dizziness, spasms, and even hallucinations. However this sounds, done properly it isn't frightening, and while it's usually emotional — you'll cry, and long-buried memories may pop up — it can be genuinely transformational.
What next: Alan Dolan's Lanzarote retreats are the gold standard, with one-on-one and group sessions where you can choose the intensity. Four-night retreats from £940.

7 Cryotherapy
Stripping down to your underwear and striding around a room at -110C is nobody's idea of a fun time, but brave
a cryotherapy session — essentially three minutes in the freezer — and you'll see why devotees do it. Athletes use it for physical health (it's thought to speed up injury healing), but it's also said to improve sleep, blitz jet lag, reduce stress and increase relaxation. It can be claustrophobic and panic-inducing if you have those tendencies, but you'll feel a real buzz afterwards. 
What next: As it's potentially dangerous, choose a good place to do it. Practitioners at the Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo consider your medical history and supervise you to make sure you don't faint. From £46.

8 Temazcal rituals
A type of Mayan sweat lodge (temazcal means 'house of heat'), temazcals aren't for the faint-hearted; stripped down to swimwear, you'll enter a round adobe structure (like a pizza oven), the door is closed and water's poured over heated volcanic rocks, turning the dark room into a steam bath as you pound yourself with herbs to exorcise bad vibrations. Yet devotees swear by it — not only do they cleanse you physically, but they can be transformative experiences as, guided by a shaman, you go deep into yourself, tackling hang-ups and fears.
What next: The Ceviarem Temazcal in Oaxaca City is run by a family of healers. Group sessions tend to be more health-focused but private sessions go deeper. From £14.

Published in Experiences 2017, free with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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