Have you been cradled underwater as your body is gently teased in all directions? Have you been massaged by sound waves? Have you swapped caffeine for vegetable soups dressed up as teas?

I knew I was signing up for new experiences when I accepted an invitation to visit SHA, a wellness resort in Spain, at the start of the new year. Among other things, I tried Watsu for the first time—a form of aquatic bodywork in which a therapist stretches the participant in a warm-water pool.

From the very first hour of my five-day stay, I had understood that Watsu was in high demand. A Greek businesswoman who splits her time between Athens-London-New York, and happened to sit beside me at lunch, and a British singer both inquired after initial pleasantries: So have you had your Watsu session yet? When I did, I wasn’t let down. It felt like an ancient dance; not choreographed, yet familiar. I emerged from the pool feeling like I’d had a long massage, a late-night conversation with a long-lost friend and been lulled to sleep by my grandmother, all together. I’m certain my experience was nothing like that of the other two women, but like them, I too became a free hoarding for Watsu for the rest of my stay.

A Watsu session. Photo: SHA Wellness Clinic
A Watsu session. Photo: SHA Wellness Clinic

Watsu is essentially water Shiatsu—an ancient Japanese massaging technique ripened to perfection in the Californian sun by an American poet named Harold Dull in the early 1980s. Its East-meets-West origin story also resonates with how SHA came to be.

When I met Alejandro Bataller, vice-president and co-founder of SHA, for an interview in Mumbai in November, he said his father—SHA’s founder, Alfredo Bataller—had been diagnosed with colon cancer over 15 years ago. He was “always visiting doctors and never getting a solution" when a friend introduced them to Dr Juan Rubio, who had been a personal disciple of the Japanese macrobiotic diet proponent Michio Kushi. Alfredo was cured primarily by a change in diet and lifestyle. The Argentinian business family decided to convert their luck to fortune and their holiday home to a wellness resort in the charming little port town of Alicante on the Costa Blanca.

Bataller was in India to mark 10 years of SHA, which has had a sprinkling of Indian guests over the years. The next day, they hosted a lunch for editors, which I left famished owing to the size of the portions. So while I was enticed by the idea of being the first Indian journalist to visit this mysterious spot, I was worried I would stay perpetually hungry.

The energy in food

Nutrition is key to the “SHA method". Because I was on a short stay—the recommended duration of stay is two weeks—I had been asked to prepare by staying off alcohol, caffeine, sugar, meat, dairy and processed foods in the three days before arriving. With the easy resolve that comes with the new year, I added gluten to that list of my own volition. As a result, I found little to eat on the flight from Mumbai to Valencia via Frankfurt airport (if you want to test Yuval Noah Harari’s theory that wheat has colonized Homo sapiens, I recommend Frankfurt airport’s sandwich displays as a starting point).

I’m happy to report that after the Day 1 hurdle I had been warned about, my appetite and cravings more or less behaved. The SHA diet is an alkaline, energizing diet based on the principle of balancing yin and yang energies in food. Examples of extreme yin foods are alcohol and sugar and extreme yang foods are meat and salt. In the middle—and recommended for daily consumption—are whole grains, vegetables, legumes. Except for the Japanese influences of tofu and seaweed, the principle felt familiar. Dal-chawal-sabzi.

Mornings began with a warm bowl of miso soup, recommended for its probiotic properties. Breakfast comprised pots of whole-grain porridge (see recipe), fruit compote and hummus. At lunch and dinner, the supposedly limited array of ingredients was fashioned into a variety of fine-dine dishes like zucchini soup with algae and buckwheat crepes with beetroot cream. All meals ended with therapeutic teas assigned during a consultation on arrival. While I curiously eyed the teas made with lotus root and dried shiitake, I was grateful for the apple and kuzu tea on my agenda every night. It was liquid dessert.

“It’s part of macrobiotics but we took it to another level," Bataller had told me. “It is a plant-based diet but includes white fish. We have principles in common but our nutrition principle is much more adapted to a modern lifestyle…we recommend following this 80% of the time." Conventional allopathic medicine, Bataller pointed out, rarely comes with dietary recommendations. “Oncologists, cardiologists, neurologists….in most medical curriculums around the world, they study nutrition only for a few weeks over a five-year span."

Paradise in the digital age

SHA does not look like a classical spa with hot springs, it is instead a contemporary structure with sweeping views of the town and the magnificent Mediterranean Sea. Men and women lounge about almost exclusively in bathrobes and slippers, except at dinner time. There is not a velour tracksuit in sight. It has the trappings of a luxury resort.

A personalized agenda arrived via an app during my 2-hour drive from Valencia airport. “When we started 10 years ago, we decided we were not going to allow the use of mobiles or have TV in the rooms," Bataller told me, with a laugh. “Then we realized the kind of people who come to SHA are decision makers...they cannot live without their phones. We restrict usage in certain common areas though."

I found it easy to cut off because the routine and house rules were far removed from everyday reality. Here’s a sample afternoon: rushing to get my 5pm carrot and daikon radish tea in the library-art gallery area in between a moxibustion session, a detoxifying seaweed wrap and a BDR facial. Or this day: a sunrise walk to the town’s lighthouse, followed by a cellular bioanalysis session (where I studied the movement and coagulation of my blood cells in real time), an “energy health" analysis for which I was wired up, and an evening spent with the director of their cognitive improvement unit. Other highlights included a private yoga lesson with a woman called Nieve (snow in Spanish, rare in these parts), where we didn’t move our limbs, and a stress management session, which I left armed with adult colouring books. I’m still processing my Tibetan Singing Bowls session, which Sergio, the part Spanish-part Italian therapist, called “deep tissue for the soul". It was a massage with no touch, with Sergio now and then striking the bowls placed on my chakras.

But Bataller is clear that SHA is goal-oriented; it is not meant to be a pampering spa vacation. Guests fill a detailed questionnaire before arrival and first-time visitors are advised to come with a pre-planned agenda. While anti-ageing and anti-tobacco are becoming bigger areas of focus, the largest number of people continue to come for intensive weight loss and detox. Guests from Spain, the UK, Russia and West Asia top the list. Costs average €6,000-7,000 (around 4.7-5.5 lakh) per person per week.

As Bataller explained his expansion plans, I asked why someone from India or Japan—countries with age-old holistic systems—should travel to Spain to experience wellness. It’s the coordinated approach, he reasoned. “We bring together effective natural therapies and the latest scientific tools. We have 300 professionals, 30 of them are MDs, on campus full time. You won’t hear conflicting voices."

“Many times people call and say I want to lose 5 kilos or I want to stop smoking. Of course you can achieve that but first you have to adopt healthy habits in order to achieve optimal health. We are in the business of changing people’s approach."

It can take a lifetime to change one’s approach. During my time there, I was revisiting André Aciman’s incredibly erotic book Call Me By Your Name, meditating on pages laced with fervid passion in between sessions of yoga. Yin and yang. At SHA, I learnt that life, truth—and an optimal lunch—lie somewhere in between.

Porridge, please

Common in homes around the world as part of a balanced breakfast, porridge is usually made by cooking oat grains, rice, or other cereals and legumes. Here’s an SHA recipe for a simple rice and millet sweet porridge that you can incorporate into your breakfast routine

Ingredients

(1-2 servings)

1/2 cup rice, 1/2 cup millet, 1 tbsp pumpkin and sunflower seeds mixed, 1 tbsp roasted and chopped walnuts, 1 tbsp roasted almonds, 1 tbsp raisins or two dates or cranberries, 1 tbsp dried apricots, a pinch of salt, 1 flat tbsp of almond/hazelnut paste, 1 cup rice/almond milk

Method

1. Soak the millet and rice separately. The millet usually takes 20 minutes, and the brown rice approximately 40 minutes. Cook them in four parts water.

2. When the grains start boiling, add a pinch of salt and bring to low fire with the lid on. Let it boil until the water has almost evaporated.

3. Add the hazelnut paste and almond milk.

4. Add the roasted nuts, raisins and dried apricots. 5. Serve with the seeds on top. For more sweetness, you can add dates or 1 tbsp of rice syrup.

The writer was a guest of SHA.

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