Though I admire Gwyneth Paltrow for her dedication to all things natural, healthy, and detox-worthy, my own routine falls far, far on the other end of the spectrum. If Gwyneth—regal and chilly—were the North Pole, you could place me somewhere near the bottom tip of South America, fumbling around in my own, not-quite-gluten-free diet and once-a-month barre workouts. That isn’t to say I don’t try—in fact, tell me about a natural detox or cleanse that promises to reset your body, and I’ll be the first to volunteer.
(“There’s a Goop person inside me just dying to get out!” I exclaim when my friends raise their eyebrows at whatever new cleanse I’m trying.) Which would explain why I found myself in the hills of the Pacific Palisades on a Sunday afternoon, getting sticky red Amish milk bounced off my naked body in little sacks. Oh, and then there was that chlorophyll enema… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I got invited to try a treatment at Surya Spa, a retreat created by Ayurvedic doctor and healer Martha Soffer, I eagerly accepted. I’ll admit knowing Gwyneth had once tried the week-long Panchakarma detox at the same spa and deemed it “no joke” did pique my interest—but so did the promise of leaving feeling refreshed, renewed, and reset. What happened in the next six (yes, six) hours was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before—and I left feeling like I had been inducted into the small and quiet group of Ayurveda believers.
From pulse reading to four-handed massage, keep scrolling to read about my experience at Surya Spa!
Surya Spa is an airy, eclectic space, feeling more like a home than an office or spa—which is a good thing, when you take into account the fact that most people who meet with Soffer spend most of their day (or rather, week) there. Her Panchakarma treatment—an ancient Ayurvedic detox used to reset and rebalance the body—is well loved in Hollywood, with clients ranging from Julia Roberts to Kourtney Kardashian, as well as those with the time (most treatments are recommended to be done over a three- to five-day period) and money (one day of personalized treatment starts around $500) to go on the whole-body cleanse.
I was told I would be getting a mini Panchakarma treatment of my own that day, which started with Soffer taking my Ayurvedic pulse. Ayurveda, to sum it up in the simplest way, is a thousand-year-old system of healing and medicine, started in India. Recently, it’s gone through a sort of re-emergence in the Western front, partly due to dissatisfaction with Western medicine and partly due to a desire to restore our bodies using a more natural approach. Soffer explained to me that Ayurvedic teaching states there are three doshas (biological energies) in our bodies: vata, pitta, and kapha.
“Vata is the air—that is what is imbalanced when you can’t go to sleep—and pitta is fire, which creates heat in the body, and kapha is sluggishness, which causes you to move slow, gain weight easily … all the water parts of the body,” she explains to me. “When any of these gets imbalanced, there’s a physical manifestation.” For example, if there is a pitta imbalance, Soffer says this means there is too much heat in the body, and when that heat keeps going and going, it turns into high blood pressure, problems with your heart, acid reflux, anger… The list goes on.
By calming your imbalanced dosha through treatments and cleanses like the one I was about to experience, Soffer explained, you can actively avoid these types of reactions in the body. It made sense logically, whether you're a believer or not—but would it work?
After a few minutes of taking my pulse and jotting things down, she brought me into a little room and told me my diagnosis. Overall, she said, I was healthy. (I smiled smugly on the inside and gave myself an imaginary pat on the back.) However, she detected excess heat in my body—was I experiencing this in any way? As a matter of fact, I had. In the past few months, I hadn’t been sleeping well, partly due to anxiety-riddled dreams and partly due to random night sweats, which I had never experienced before.
I told her about this, and she nodded along, seemingly unsurprised that she had uncovered this random fact about me just from taking my pulse. She asked me if I had any problems with my joints, which I didn’t. After a few more questions (Was I on any medication? What was my daily diet like?), she said wanted the focus of my treatment to be on drawing the heat out of my body. She also gave me a list of foods to avoid (i.e., no mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, all of which contribute to excess heat in the body), and a mini detox plan for after the treatment (tongue-scraping and oil pulling were involved).
After the diagnosis, I was led to the kitchen, where an all-organic farmers market lunch—mostly prepared with ingredients from Soffer’s garden—awaited me. As I ate my fragrant and surprisingly filling veggies and grains, I started chatting with some of the other women at the table. One of them had gotten parasites after living in Costa Rica, and came to Soffer after Western doctors had failed her; she swore that she experienced more progress after just one treatment with Soffer than she had with traditional antibiotics.
Another woman said she was afraid she was developing early-onset multiple sclerosis and had been referred to Soffer by a friend; she was on day two of her pre-treatment detox and feeling very optimistic about her progress. Then, there was the mother-daughter pair, who told me they came in for Panchakarma treatments yearly; the daughter said she became a believer when Soffer, after reading her pulse, informed her she had receding gums (an issue she said she had since been able to improve, despite Western notions that there isn’t anything you can do to reverse gum damage).
All of these women seemed so confident in Soffer’s healing abilities, and so optimistic about her ability to bring their bodies to a healthier state, that I couldn’t help but nod along, feeling their enthusiasm pass on to me.
The treatment I received over the course of five hours was… intense. There’s no other way to describe it. First up, was abhyanga. Also known as the four-hand massage, this part of the treatment seemed most akin to a traditional spa massage, albeit less of the actual massaging and more rubbing of herbal oils. Nicole, the clinic director and Ayurvedic therapist, and Kate, another ayurvedic therapist, performed the herbal oil–based massage on me, mirroring each other’s movements for what Soffer calls a “synchronized massage.” Soffer told me afterward that a traditional abhyanga massage takes about an hour, but mine was shorter because they wanted to focus more on the next step…
Ah, when things started getting interesting. Soffer told me that the second treatment involved Amish milk, nishiki rice (a special brown rice) and a special herbal concoction she made especially to cool down my body. She failed to mention that they would all be housed in little sacks and bounced—there’s no other way to describe it—up and down the length of my entire clothes-less body. The feeling of sticky little sacks—or what Soffer calls bolsas—being pressed up and down my body for over 30 minutes was a strange sensation, and I found myself wondering how long this part of the treatment would last.
“The milk is hot, but it has cooling characteristics,” Soffer told me later. “Sometimes the windows get foggy during the treatment like you were in a steam room, like a vapor. It draws out the heat. … Some people feel steam coming out of their head.” Though I did not feel any heat escaping through my head, I did enjoy the cooling sensation the bolsas left. I did not enjoy looking down and seeing my entire body covered in a sticky darkish red goo, but luckily, I was able to rinse off (“Use warm water, not hot!” I was instructed) immediately afterward.
Shirodara was a game changer. When I was told that that fresh coconut water would be repeatedly dripped onto the center of my forehead for 30 minutes straight, I felt something akin to fear. (Isn't this what waterboarding is like? was the crazy thought that immediately came to mind. The answer: no.) Most shirodara treatments are done with oil, but because we were trying to cool down my body, Soffer decided to use fresh coconut water (and I mean fresh—as in, they cracked the coconut open minutes before the treatment) instead.
“It really deeply relaxes the nervous system,” Soffer promised. And sure enough, it did—I was asleep within minutes, with the sound of gentle chanting and atmospheric music flowing through my ears and drops of cool coconut water dripping on my forehead. I awoke feeling like I had just had the best sleep of my life. I wanted more. I wanted to sleep with coconut water dripping on my forehead always. Alas, it was time for the final part of the treatment, which was not nearly as relaxing…
For anyone who doesn’t know what an enema is… I’m not going to be the one to tell you (feel free to google it). I’ll keep this part short, for everyone's sake. Nicole gave me a chlorophyll-filled enema (yes—you guessed it—to balance my pitta and bring down the heat) and promised it would be slightly uncomfortable but that I would feel lighter and “cleansed out” afterward. Soffer said it would “clean out the acidity, toxins, or anything embedded in the intestines.” To be honest, I didn’t feel that immediately different afterward, or a few hours later—perhaps it’s because a serious cleansing would require more than a single round, and I only went through one (which was more than enough for me).
Long touted as Hollywood’s hush-hush little trick for dropping pounds and looking slimmer before events, this last part of the treatment—the final “flushing out,” literally—was my least favorite. Afterward, I showered, rinsing multiple times, then stepped out and looked in the mirror. My skin was glowing, I’ll give it that.
Though I was less than enthused about the last part of my treatment, I still left the dark, soothing room feeling like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Like I mentioned before, my skin was glowing, and my spirits were soaring. I felt like I had just put my body and mind through some sort of spiritual boot camp disguised as a spa treatment, and had emerged victorious. Though most of the time I was lying completely horizontal (and yes, half asleep), I felt a sense of exhaustion—but a good exhaustion, like the kind you get after a particularly grueling run or workout.
Soffer, who has studied alternative medicine and Ayurveda for over 24 years, took the time after my treatment to walk me through the various steps and explain what each was for, as well as prescribe me a post-treatment guide. Clutching a jar of liquid magnesium and a bag of gluten-free edamame & mung bean fettucine (Soffer was adamant in stating all gluten—including whole wheat—causes inflammation in the brain and body), I glided out of the spa and admired the sun setting over the horizon, feeling eons lighter than I had when I arrived.
What’s the most intense spa or detox treatment you’ve ever had? Tell me below! And click here to read another editor’s account of her two-week-long Ayurvedic detox!