Thailand's Chiva-Som is unique in Asia--it puts alternative healing in a resort setting
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A Temple for the Body
By Gary Walther
Photography by Sanjay Kothari
January / February 2006
The treadmills in the small gym at Chiva-Som look straight across to an open-air Thai-style sala (pavilion) that sits high on a stone plinth. Early each morning, while running, I watch a private stretch session taking place on the pavilion's smooth teak floor. It's just something in my field of vision until, on the third morning, I suddenly see the connection. My treadmill and that sala--within a Frisbee throw of each other--represent the two poles of fitness, Western cardio and weight training here, Eastern balance and flexibility over there. Moreover, I realize that a stay at Chiva-Som is essentially a mental and physical journey between the two, from gym to sala, from heart rate to breathing, from cushioned sole to natural sole. Like all journeys, it begins with a first step: That same morning, I trade in my running shoes for flip-flops, which I wear for the duration.
Chiva-Som, whose name means "haven of life" in Thai, is unique in Asia, a resort that combines healthy eating, Eastern and Western exercise from cardio to tai chi and Thai kickboxing, all the major (and some minor) Asian massage modalities, alternative medicine, and just plain chilling out by the pool. The property is located 130 miles south of Bangkok in Hua Hin, a small city on the Gulf of Thailand. The city is scruffy in the center and glamorous at the edges because that part is the summer haven of the royal family--and Thailand's Hamptons for a slipstream of well-connected court and society figures. American guests (about 5 percent of the clientele) almost always bill Chiva-Som the same way: the Golden Door or the Canyon Ranch of Asia. The former is accurate as far as individual attention and cloistered atmosphere go; the latter in the emphasis on holistic and other medical treatments. In size, Chiva-Som, with 57 rooms, falls between the two American properties. However, the longer you're here, the more the Thai vibe and tropical setting inflect your stay. "You put a Chiva-Som in the U.K. and it wouldn't work," says Sue Davis, a naturopath and alternative-medicine counselor, and she's right.
As my four days unspool here, I elaborate on my gym-to-sala insight, and I come to see that Chiva-Som is a parallel fitness universe to the one I inhabit in New York. One night at dinner, I jot down the means and ends that Western fitness emphasizes and then, drawing from my stay here, try to find their Eastern correspondents. There's a dash for every dot, a head for every tail, a North Pole for every South.
In short, "No pain, no gain" versus "no pain, no flexibility," as Preeda, my power yoga teacher puts it at the end of one session. Like all comparisons, this one isn't airtight--and granted, in the past five years, West has gone East a lot. But it does snap my experience into a new (at least for me) perspective--and isn't that what travel is supposed to do?
The weekly activity schedule at Chiva-Som is an enormous buffet drawn from both worlds. You could turn it into a four-box grid with Eastern and Western along the horizontal axis and physical and spiritual along the vertical one. There's "Flow Yoga" and "Abs, Butt, and Thighs," "Fun Aerobics" and "Muay Thai" (kickboxing), "Introduction to Emotional Freedom" and "Chakra Sound Meditation," "Breath Work" and "Let Your Belly Tell Your Story." That last one sounds very American to me, but in fact it's taught by a specialist in Chi Nei Tsang, the Chinese art of abdominal massage.
The day kicks off with a 7 a.m. tai chi class taught by a diminutive dynamo named Jinnapat. I love the way she trills her R's and rolls her E's, and I note that she has developed a dialect of exercise English that uses three-word declarative sentences to very good effect. "No move back." "Knee coming up." And the frequently repeated "Not doing this." She splits the word buttock into two very distinct syllables, heavily stressing the second so it comes out like tock in tick-tock. Late in the week, I find the pronunciation has rubbed off on a few class members.
What I learn through classes is how much my body has been shaped--or, rather, limited--by isolation exercises. Body Balance--a series of poses done while standing on one foot--looks easy, but in ten minutes my forehead is a pavý of sweat beads. Each time I swing my torso and one leg parallel to the floor, my standing foot begins to teeter-totter and I flail my arms to find my center of gravity. Gyrokinesis, which consists of stretching, twisting, and turning motions done while perched on a small folding stool with a round seat, is a torment. There just doesn't seem to be enough slack in the line of my torso--and the teacher and her assistant make matters worse by trying to push me into the postures. (This is the only subpar instruction I experience at Chiva-Som.) But I find myself on the glide path late in the week in tai chi, balanced around my core, slicing the air smoothly to the right, staring before me without seeing, absorbed in the flow-moment.
The fitness instructors are all poster boys and girls for the Eastern approach to the body: They're light, lean, and sinewy; powerful without being muscular; agile and limber as orangutans. When Preeda, the flow yoga teacher, demonstrates a jump-back, her torso and legs just ribbon out parallel to the floor; then her toes float to earth, seemingly immune to gravity. Sanjay is literally a poster boy: "Have you seen the guy in the book?" everyone asks. They're referring to a photograph in a Chiva-Som brochure, in which Sanjay's legs are bent behind him, running up his back, so that his heels are beside his ears, while he supports his entire weight on his palms. "No compare flexibility to me," he says at one point in a stretch class. As if.
Going to Lourdes
A stay at Chiva-Som starts with a health and wellness consultation, during which you plan your program and find out about services that aren't included in the plethora of packages the resort offers (seven categories, 12 packages). Davis, my counselor, mentions Dr. Phil during our get-together (and shows no knowledge that there's an American TV personality of the same name). This Dr. Phil is from Wales, a former stockbroker who, after making a bundle, dropped out and became a chiropractor. He now devotes himself to humanitarian work in Chiang Mai, with one of his specialties treating autistic children. "He's the sort of chiropractor you only need to see once," says Davis. I barely catch a smirk of disbelief before it goes public, but I decide to book a session and see whether he can exorcise the chronic twinges in my upper back.
Philip Parry turns out to be quiet and unassuming, "a functional neuropathologist," in his words. "I don't do bones at all," he tells me, and it's clear that he doesn't think much of those who do. Rather, he's a disciple of the McTimoney Chiropractic technique (named for the college in Oxford that teaches it), which gently shoehorns bones back into their correct position, thereby restoring the nerve circuit and the flow of information to the brain. Parry says he "re-affronts nerves." (At this point, I'm wearing my best journalist's poker face.)
It takes him only ten minutes to treat me. He applies very light pressure behind my ears and at various points on my skull. There comes a moment when I feel my breathing downshift, becoming not only slower but lighter, and then the twinges disappear and my neck feels as if it can swivel rather than crunch from side to side. For some reason, I tell him I was a Caesarian birth, and he says, "Oh," as if that clarifies everything. All Caesarian babies end up with neck and shoulder problems, he says, because the blood and nervous system of those areas aren't stimulated by the pressure of passage through the birth canal, as they are in natural birth. (For the record, Bruce Flamm, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said, "I've never seen any scientific data supporting this. I've never even heard of it before.")
It's gotta be temporary, I think as I leave. That was a Saturday. On Monday I write in my notebook: "I have no back pain. And there are two spots where it feels like bolts have been unscrewed." Those twinges haven't returned since.