Healing with Nature: How Asia’s First Rainforest Retreat Transformed Our Minds & Bodies
Holistic Living

Healing with Nature: How Asia’s First Rainforest Retreat Transformed Our Minds & Bodies


22 July 2019


Today, wellness retreats are an abundant offering, yet very few of them are truly as unique and transformative as Ayus Wellness Experience (AWE). My co-founder, Stephanie, and I were lucky enough to attend Asia’s first rainforest retreat and we walked away revitalised and reinvigorated. Read on to learn more about our experience!

Immersed in the breathtaking beauty of Mulu, Borneo, East Malaysia’s 60-million-year-old primaeval rainforest - a UNESCO World Heritage site which boasts Asia’s longest cave complex with pools fed by the mineralized waters that flow through the caves - Ayus Wellness is dedicated to providing attendees a bespoke holistic wellness experience inspired by Borneo’s indigenous knowledge of nature, nutrition and healing. Many ancient wellness traditions in transformative healing and natural beauty originated in the roots of Southeast Asia and Malay heritage, yet have gotten lost amongst modern society and the new generation. Ayus Wellness sets to revive these ancient wellness traditions with a truly immersive and transformative journey, which my co-founder and business partner, Stephanie Looi, and I were blessed to experience over the six-day retreat back in June.

Founded by wellness advocate and businessman Dato’ Robert Geneid and Harvard-trained public health academic and Chair of the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute, Professor Gerard Bodeker, the Ayus Wellness Experience keys in on nature immersion as a path to maintain mental wellness, even after attendees return to their everyday lives. Each of the five pillars of the Ayus experience - a well mind, wellness nutrition, rejuvenation and skin health, physical wellbeing and vitality and peaceful sleep - have been carefully curated to increase energy levels, enhance the immune system, sharpen focus, improve sleep and repairing the body at a DNA level.

Ayus WellnessOverlooking the Mulu Marriott | Photo credit: Ayus Wellness

The brains behind AWE, Dato’ Robert Geneid and Professor Bodeker, sum up the transformative power of this retreat, stating, “The wilderness brings with it a sense of wonder, of awe at the beauty and majesty of nature and its restorative power. Wonderment has been shown to rewire the brain, to take us out of everyday ways of seeing and thinking, and this is the beginning of deep wellness. As Socrates observed: ‘Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.’”

It’s worthwhile noting that Professor Bodeker is also the lead author on the book Health and Beauty from the Rainforest: Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan, creating awareness of how ulam, the Malay tradition of herbal salads, is a living medicine. Particularly Pegaga (also known as Gotu Kola/Centella Asiatica), a tropical healing herb used for centuries throughout Asia for detoxing, rejuvenating and calming the body, giving us an energy boost and power of focus throughout the day. We received Pegaga juice shots every morning and night, which Steph and I both loved; it really gave us a lot of energy throughout the day - we didn’t even crave coffee!

Pegaga juice for energy and detoxification every morning night copyDaily morning Pegaga juice to help with energy & detoxification

A host of experts conducted the mediation and wellness sessions, including Yoga Master Shilpa Ghatalia, who led an integrative breathwork and spine-centring practice for a “homecoming" connection. Her yoga sessions were uniquely her own, combining elements of yoga, pranayama and meditation, and incorporating kapalbhati breathing and qigong techniques to help clear the mind and cleanse our energy every morning. She also demonstrated a nasal cleansing method with non-iodized salt water in a neti pot, which was very helpful in easing the nasal congestion that followed me to the retreat. All you do is tilt your head sideways over a sink or grassy area and use the spout of the neti pot to pour water or salt water solution into the upper nostril. The water will flow out the lower nostril and treat sinus problems, cold and allergy symptoms -  definitely a practice I will continue at home in the future! We were also well taken care of by the Ayus Wellness Experience leader and seasoned yoga teacher, Samin Pourkhalili, who shared a deep knowledge of the healing effects of nature and meditation during the retreat.

Post Yoga with SaminPost yoga glow with Samin!

We also enjoyed a medicinal walk through the Mulu National Park with our forest guide, traditional herbal doctor and grandson of one of the indigenous chiefs of Penan, En. Ismail. He possessed a wealth of knowledge, gathered from generations of healers within his family, which he imparted on us. As we walked through the forest, he taught us how to identify local medicinal plants, and educated us on the health benefits along the way. We especially enjoyed this session because it illustrated how these traditional plants can still be used today, not only as a food source but also as a way of healing. 

However, perhaps the most eye-opening, therapeutic session of the entire retreat was a special type of “forest bathing,” known to the Japanese as Shinrin-yoku. During the session, we walked deep into the Mulu rainforest in silent meditation, where we immersed ourselves in nature at a slow speed, taking in the beauty and mystical energy of our surroundings, feeling grateful for the wonder of Mother Nature as we observed every plant, every insect, every life in the forest, feeding our souls and restoring our minds. “I loved learning about Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing. Professor Bodeker went in-depth on the science behind Shinrin-yoku and we explored the many health benefits, including decreased stress, lower blood pressure, improved mood and increased focus and energy,” Stephanie adds.

Each aspect of our experience, from the digital detox the minute we landed at Mulu airport, to magnificent meditative forest immersions and magical caves, to the carefully crafted vegetarian menu of healing foods from ancient tradition, completely captivated us. “When we arrived, we were told to be prepared for silence - silence from the busyness of the cities we came from, silence from technology, silence from the daily grind - so we could truly and fully experience the nature around us. To be honest, I was a little shocked by the digital detox at first. I definitely wasn't prepared to not have connectivity during the retreat, but it was much needed. It is true when they say that you need to disconnect to reconnect and I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity to do so.” remarked my partner, Stephanie, after reflecting on our experience at AWE. “During the retreat, I felt like I was going through a series of healing processes, from my mind to my body. I was encouraged to use all my senses throughout the experience, to see, hear, smell, think clearly. Walking away, my mind was more settled, calm, and I feel much more connected to myself.” 

ayus wellness resortOur beautiful morning journey to the Clearwater Caves

AWE is definitely an experience I would invite everyone to explore. We all need a good reset to truly be our best selves in life, and nature is absolutely the best form of therapy. When you combine nature with a holistic healing programme deeply rooted in ancient Asian wellness traditions, its restorative effects are undeniable. We all left feeling rejuvenated and inspired by the magical surroundings of Mulu - and by each other, experiencing amazing energy levels, positivity, calmness and gratitude. We were able to take home learnings and practices we could easily apply to our daily lives, from traditional beautifying rice water rituals, meditating immersed in nature and ancient breathwork exercises, to consuming more local traditional Asian healing herbs to nurture our overall wellbeing and nourish the mind, body and soul.

Jess and Steph with Dr Bodeker on our last dayMe and Steph with Ayus Wellness co-founder, Dr Gerard Bodecker on our last day of the retreat.

When I asked Steph what she thought of the retreat on the way home, she said, “If I have one word to describe it: magical. I was in AWE (pun intended!). This was the very first time that I felt I was actually living in nature. I had no expectations before attending, but I was swept away with the beautiful, magical rainforest and being able to be present and connect with myself and nature; this is definitely a must-experience journey!” And I couldn’t agree more.

SPECIAL PURELYB OFFER: Experience Ayus Wellness for Yourself!

Do you want to experience the transformative benefits of the Ayus Wellness Experience? PurelyB Members can enjoy an exclusive special discount of 5% off any Ayus Wellness Experience. You can even choose any dates best suited to you! Book your personalised or small group retreat at any time by emailing [email protected] - and don’t forget to use the code PBAYUS.

Want more? Check out the video below and get ready to reset, renew and refresh with your Ayus Wellness experience!