I Traveled 4,000 Miles To Lanai, Hawaii For An Ancient De-Stressing Ritual

I had one goal: to finally unwind.

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Woman walking through the island of Lanai jungle

Miles away from the shiny, tourist-filled streets of Waikiki Beach nestles the quiet island of Lanai — an apostrophe-shaped isle of lush greenery and jagged volcanic rock that flies humbly under-the-radar compared to its flashier nearby cousins, Maui and Oahu. Once known as Pineapple Island for producing 75% of the world’s pineapple cultivation, today, it houses a sleepy town with one school, a community health center, and not a traffic light in sight. Most of the land’s current population is employed by the destination I’ve traveled over 4,000 miles from New York to experience: the Four Seasons Resort Lanai and its Hawanawana Spa.

The FS Lanai feels less like a corporate hotel chain and more like a luxury boutique resort, regally situated on the island’s rocky shore. A short walk up a gravelly path leads you to Sweetheart Rock, a craggy lookout that feels like the edge of the world, or the surface of Mars, if Mars had billowing 10-foot waves crashing on its shores and made for great Instagram fodder. (Legend has it a young warrior captured the princess of Maui and was so stricken by her beauty, he placed her in a cave near this rock so that no other suitor could see her. Extreme? Yes. But a great visual for how secluded this area feels.) Veer slightly to the right, and you’ll find yourself staring into the aquamarine waters of the North Pacific Ocean, where locals surf and children make sandcastles a few steps down the beach. You might think you’d stumbled upon a hidden gem, if not for the fact that this 10,867-square-foot hotel gets voted the best in the U.S. year after year. Yet, there’s no sense of overcrowding throughout the grounds — no pushy people, harried staff, or buzz of energy. Just crashing waves and…serenity. Close your eyes, and it’s like you’re on your own private island.

The airy, marble-lined Hawanawana Spa offers a variety of treatments that promise to melt away tensions both mental and physical, from the cooling Ti Leaf Relief Wrap to the Tai Signature Scrub, which celebrates the island’s history with its use of pineapple-based enzymes. But four days into my vacation, I arrive at the Spa for its signature treatment based in ancient wisdom. Dubbed the Island Serenity Ritual, the unique, one-of-a-kind treatment uses principles of Ayurveda — the 3,000-year-old holistic healing system from India — to recenter and refresh the mind and body, two things I desperately needed as a hunched-over, constantly worried city dweller.

“The treatment leaves you feeling re-birthed, transformed, and enables one to really turn off the outside world, which is really what the island is all about,” says spa director Lindsey Morgan. To which I say: Where do I sign?

Island Serenity Ritual

The treatment started with my practitioner Tomo asking me to smell three different oils and choose my favorite for the treatment. The three oils represent the three doshas, which in Ayurveda are energies that circulate in the body and control your life force. There’s vata, which represents air — when out of balance, it can lead to fear and anxiety. Pitta represents fire and governs your body’s digestive system and temperature. Kapha, the earth and water dosha, has characteristics that include strong bones and joints and a healthy immune system. (You can take a quiz online if you’re curious which dosha you fall under.)

I gravitated towards the pitta oil, which smelled the most soothing. “If one chose the (pitta) oil, they may at that time feel irritable and intense and the selection aids in calming and pacifying,” says Morgan. (I’m sure my partner would agree with that statement.)

The treatment starts with an Abhyanga massage, which is a traditional ayurvedic massage done with warm oil. Instead of the smooth, fluid motion associated with a Swedish massage, the Abhyanga uses brisk, sweeping motions to relax the muscles (and the mind — a study done in 2011 found that it decreased stress levels).

Faith Xue

After I was fully relaxed, Tomo moved onto the foot massage and face massage. For both of these she used something called a kansa wand. Made out of three balancing metals with a curved, rounded top, the alkaline properties of a kansa wand balances your skin’s pH levels, while the shape encourages relaxation and even lymphatic drainage. Kansa wands are best paired with a nourishing oil; for mine, Tomo used a blend of tea tree, olive leaves, and neem. “The Kansa wand facial massage brightens the skin and soothes, tones, and releases stress from the facial muscle, neck and shoulders,” explains Morgan. “It is a deeply relaxing treatment.” Proof: I fully fell asleep during this part.

And finally, the treatment ends with the most unique experience: shirodhara. Made up of two words — shir means head and dhara means pouring in a stream — it’s another ancient ayurvedic treatment that is used to completely relax the spirit. Tomo warmed up a mixture of sesame oil, vitamin E, Gotu Kola oils and delicately poured it onto my forehead as I was laying face up (if this sounds stressful, I promise it is the opposite). “This treatment is deeply calming to the entire nervous system,” says Morgan. “The flowing oil of the shriodara eases stress and melts tension held around the head and neck and quiets the mind.” The feeling of warm oil being poured slowly onto my forehead was indescribably soothing (though I wish they had told me before the treatment that that I would emerge from the spa with oil-soaked strands).

When my treatment ended, I felt like a new person — I was reborn, anew. The honking cabs and city lights of Manhattan felt like a distant memory, as was all of the stressors I had carried in my body. I put my robe on, silenced my phone (well, kept it on Airplane Mode for just a little while longer), and floated away towards the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Studies referenced:

Basler A. J. (2011). Pilot study investigating the effects of Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage on subjective stress experience. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 17(5), 435–440. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21568717/

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