By Grace Ma
Mar 5, 2020
I DON’T KNOW MANY PEOPLE who can say their vacation included a transvaginal ultrasound. And even though it was part of my Women 360 program itinerary at Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute, I actually can’t either. The thought of baring all before a stranger, even a qualified female gynecologist, just didn’t quite fit my definition of chilling out. It had been a tumultuous year and I was looking forward to this retreat—my first real wellness jaunt, where I could say hello to languorous days of massages, light exercise and delicious, wholesome food.
Sangha Retreat (sangha means “community” in Sanskrit) seemed to promise all that and then some. Since it quietly opened in 2017, its in-depth approach—integrating ancient Eastern philosophies with modern Western medical practices—had gotten other wellness-resort operators sitting up, and the few guests who had experienced it were gushing. It is not your average luxury health resort, where you flit from feel-good massage to body scrub, say a few ohms and go on your merry way. Its approach is far more disruptive—as you would expect from a well-being project devised by business tycoon Frederick Chavalit Tsao.
Tsao last year co-authored a book called Quantum Leadership: New Consciousness in Business, advocating for leaders to shift their mindsets to build companies that not only create wealth but also serve society. He is the founder of Octave Institute and Aitia Institute, both platforms that promote self-empowerment and thoughtful living. He created Sangha Retreat as “a space for societal healing with the intention of fostering harmonious communities.”
Tsao’s eldest brother Calvin also worked on Sangha Retreat, heading planning and design. His Tsao and McKown architectural firm collaborated with heavyweights Lyndon Neri and Rosanna Hu, and Chinese firm Atelier FCJZ, whose founder Yung Ho Chang is renowned for designs that promote interaction between people and nature. They carried through this philosophy here to bolster well-being.
And so, as my car pulled into the driveway after a nearly two-hour ride from Shanghai Pudong airport (35 minutes if you take the bullet train), I saw the Tsaos’ vision manifest. Built on a man-made island on Suzhou’s Yangcheng Lake, Sangha Retreat is a 47-hectare estate composed of 60 guest suites; eight residential villas; a 6,039-square-meter subterranean spa; the At One medical clinic staffed with experts in specialties from anti-aging to orthopedics; The Village with housing, education and event spaces; and the 2,508-square-meter Thought For Food hall, which includes a café, a bakery and a culinary school.
All of these zones come together in fluid, mindful spaces that meld with the natural world. Upcycled materials can be found throughout the property—wood planks salvaged from shipyards line the corridors, broken concrete tiles form the paving—while rooms sport feng shui elements with their rounded corners and quartz-crystal mandalas under the beds. My Lake View Junior suite invited the resort’s natural serenity indoors with sunset vistas from the second floor.
Before arriving, all Sangha guests must choose their desired program. There are 21 in all, ranging from overnight packages like Welcome to Wellbeing, to longer stays such as the six-night Ayurvedic Healing Journey. Every program includes three meals at Thought For Food, plus a wide array of classes spanning from yoga to cooking. Each guest also receives a thorough wellness assessment at At One Clinic, a 60-minute spa treatment (for stays of three nights or more) and access to the hydrothermal spa circuit, which offers sound vibration, infrared and Finnish saunas and a Himalayan salt cave.
My Women 360 program entailed a top-to-toe medical examination, of which the aforementioned ultrasound was supposed to be part, alongside pelvic-floor muscle training, skin-quality analysis and spinal, shoulder, neck and waist injury assessment. I had dithered between this and a Cleanse and Reset detox program because of my exhausted state and frequent stomach discomfort, but my first meal at Thought for Food assured me I’d made the right choice.
Executive chef Paul Then had just launched a new traditional Chinese medicine–based menu, to alternate throughout the week with a Western menu. A dinner of piping-hot crocodile-meat soup, crunchy stir-fried vegetables, and delicious seafood fried rice in a mini hollowed-out pumpkin made me glad I hadn’t chosen a restrictive dietary program. And while each of my meals averaged a responsible 400 to 500 calories, I was pleased to discover that even Sangha Retreat was not beyond a little gourmet extravagance; one indulgent dinner of pan-seared scallop, butternut squash soup, Mexican chicken leg with haricot beans and mango “cheese” cake (actually made with coconut oil and blended cashews) hit a cheeky 729 calories. To help guests on strict diet regimens avoid “cheating,” there are no minibars in the rooms and no in-room dining service, but for any snack attacks, you can head to the lobby for cold-pressed juices and homemade treats (beware the addictive banana chips).
The spa treatments in my program were likewise a considered mix of health-focused and indulgent. The traditional tuina and wu xin massages, which focused on deep pressure and releasing blocked element channels respectively, did wonders to untie tight knots in my shoulders and back, and the intensely relaxing hydrothermal spa circuit was something I could do on repeat. I also deeply enjoyed the power of my sound-healing session, set in a meditation dome built atop quartz crystals, where I fell into a deep sleep to the sonorous ringing of Tibetan bowls.
What was really strange, given the quality of everything I’d experienced, was that I was the only guest at Sangha Retreat during my early December stay. While the quietness was refreshing and I had undivided attention from the staff—a few sneezes at breakfast one morning had led to a flurry of concern and ginger tea for the rest of my stay—it obviously would have been nice to have had company. Someone to talk to about the things I was learning in my Pilates, stretch and nutrition classes, or a friend to eat with in the dining hall. By contrast, the previous month had seen more than 3,000 people arrive for the At One Festival, a three-day international event featuring talks, performances and lectures on well- being in the 21st century.
I brought up occupancy with Fred Tsao in our phone conversation a week after my stay. Everything seemed in place for a transformative experience, so where were all the guests? Tsao explained that the concept—and the management team—had undergone some refining and that the retreat would launch fully in 2020. He added sagely that Sangha simply isn’t for everyone; it is for “the seeker who is ready.”
“Most travel is about escape,” he said. “We’re about engagement for self-empowerment. You don’t come to Sangha to run away from reality and deal with it from a distance. You come to take up the responsibility of loving yourself, because healthcare starts from self-care.”
Which brings me full circle to that pesky transvaginal ultrasound. The point of difference at Sangha was just as Tsao had intended when he’d said “you can have your spa, but you do mind-work as well.”
Diagnostic sessions raised red flags signaling issues in my intestines (which I had been ignoring) and a uterine polyp. The doctors did not shy away from hard truths. I was berated by the anti-aging doctor for my 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. sleep pattern, and faced quite a bit of insistence from the gynecologist to take the ultrasound.
I had initially gone to Sangha to escape, but found that the expert guidance and the serene and supportive environment made it easy to begin my own pattern of self- care. I have dropped two kilos in the three months following my stay, avoiding sugar as per my nutrition class. I’ve lost my sugar cravings as a result, something I previously thought was impossible given my love of desserts. And I still put into practice the deep-breathing techniques I learned in my Pilates class, helping improve my sleep. Most importantly I have done the “mind-work” needed to make that long-overdue appointment with my gynecologist.
Images courtesy of Sangha Retreats.