I thought I had tried everything to treat my migraines, until I stepped into the Chiva-Som.

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The Chiva-Som main pool at sunset

As headaches go, mine probably rank among the most common (it’s stress- and lifestyle-induced), most debilitating (nausea-causing) and most 'beyond-hope' cases. From acupuncture to chiropractic, TCM to yoga, massage to medication and even seeing a neurologist and physiotherapist of late, I’ve tried everything I could think of to manage the migraines that strike me every few days.

Some methods have been more effective than others—and my recent physiotherapy visits have also helped alleviate the pain. But beyond managing the symptoms, what I’ve always wanted was to get to the root of the cause so that I can practise prevention.

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Then two weeks ago, I decided to check into the Chiva-Som in Hua Hin. Three words on their website made me do it: Cranial Relief Therapy.

For the uninitiated, Chiva-Som is a world-renowned health and wellness resort that calls itself a “Haven of Life”. The 22-year-old resort is popular with international celebrities such as Kate Moss and Elizabeth Hurley who, like its hundreds of loyal fans, flock to the seaside town of Hua Hin in Thailand for its revered treatments that deal with everything from post-cancer care to weight loss, detox and of course, stress management.

In between treatments ranging from water and facial to body and massage therapies, clients can also be prescribed physiotherapy, wellness assessments, and holistic health services such as acupuncture and nutritional consultations during their minimum 3-night stays. Cranial Relief Therapy is one of their most popular treatments, and is a programme that lasts 10 days.

I was invited to review a few “special highlights” of the therapies in this treatment, over a three-night stay.

My verdict: along with lifestyle correctors such as proper breathing techniques, switching off electronic devices an hour before bedtime for good sleep quality, daily stretches and exercises around my neck and shoulder areas, and a nutrient-rich diet—regular massages with the right therapists are a must. Chiva-Som is successful because it doggedly enforces its rules, and provides the right environment, treatments, schedule and diet to help its clients nurse themselves back to health.

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Here’s what I surrendered myself to, during my visit.

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The bedroom of and terrace of the Juniper Suite, where I stayed

Chiva-Som Juniper Suite

Perhaps what most sets Chiva-Som apart from other health retreats, is its strict ban on the use of digital devices anywhere on the resort, except in the privacy of your own room. Not a single television set is anywhere in sight in the common areas of the property, and all reading material provided are in print form.

Surprise, surprise—this proved to be one of the factors that improved my headaches, during the length of my three-night stay. We’ve all heard of how we should spend less time on our mobile phones, computers and tablets (and I do get the irony of how you’re probably reading this article on your mobile or desktop right now), but how hard is it to really distance yourself from your devices? You get the picture.

At first, it was very disconcerting to not have my mobile phone playing at the end of my fingers throughout the day. I found myself wondering where to look and what to do with my hands while I was waiting for my treatments or dining by myself in the restaurants. But I surprised myself by getting used to the no-device rule after just half a day.

Perhaps it was the relief my eyes got from the light emitted by the digital devices, or the relief my shoulders got from not hunching over the mobile phone—I was physically more relaxed and mentally more alert. Above all, the therapists and the treatments tailored for me under their Cranial Relief Therapy treatment absolutely worked wonders.

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Consultations for the Bio-Feedback Rebalance are done with a therapist with the help of computer software

Chiva-Som Bio-Feedback Rebalance

The 50-minute Bio-feedback Rebalance session was the first treatment I was prescribed after my first consultation with Dr. Ann. It involved the use of computer aided analysis, together with a detailed series of questions, to help the doctor understand my lifestyle and help me see where my stress triggers were.

A sensor was clipped to my right earlobe and another on the clothing near my chest, and I was asked to breathe normally while the computer tracked my breaths for a few minutes. This was recorded on a graph, which showed me how shallowly I breathed and that my heart beats indicated how I was in a “fight or flight” mode most of the time, with no “rest stops” in-between. “This is probably why you feel stressed and tired. Your muscles tend to tense up unconsciously,” she said. She then guided me through breathing techniques and told me to practice them in the morning and also whenever I felt stressed.

Practicing the deep breathing, where I had to learn to breathe from my diaphragm and not my chest, made me rather sleepy. “You are already experiencing the effects of being relaxed just by breathing correctly,” she smiled.

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A massage using unbelievably gentle pressure to aid relief

Chiva-Som Craniosacral Therapy

My therapist for this highly popular therapy, Kathy Chattanan, has worked at Chiva-Som for 15 years and is one of the most sought-after staff by returning clients. She is also trained in crystal therapy massages. For the Craniosacral Therapy session, I had an unenviable task for her: to work out my stiff right shoulder and relieve the neck tension that had gripped me in a headache since that morning. She smiled and began. I fell into a deep sleep just a few minutes into the treatment, during which I was lying face-up.

When I woke up, I was extraordinarily refreshed and felt light-headed, and my shoulder tension was miraculously gone. I learned that she used gentle pressure of no more than 5 grams, to cradle my head in her hands and work on the muscles behind the neck. She had also used a gently vibrating tool on the membranes behind my neck, to relax and release “blockages” in the craniosacral system and improve the functioning of the central nervous system. Unlike traditional massages where deep pressure is applied to ease the muscular tension, this therapy was surprisingly effective and I could not believe how its gentle touch could have such profound effects.

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 A combination of tools and hand massages aids in the relaxing Back, Neck and Shoulder massage

Chiva-Som Back, Neck & Shoulder Massage

This massage is described as “an especially effective massage for those who are stressed, work at the computer too much and don’t relax well”. I was scheduled for this massage right after a yoga stretch class in the morning so I thought I went into it pretty relaxed, but the therapist still managed to hit some alarmingly tense spots in my lower back, which activated an aching nerve down my thighs when she worked on easing them out.

This time, I laid face-down, and a light hammering tool was also used on my “very tense” back and shoulders to “loosen” them before the masseuse worked on them by hand. This tool was very similar to the activator used by a chiropractor, except that it delivers continuous targeted “shots” into my muscles instead of the single shots administered by the chiropractor. Again, I managed to fall asleep, first lulled by the dull hammering of the tool and then by the gentle strokes of the masseuse. Perhaps I had learnt to relax well by then.

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I felt almost mothing during the Shirobhyanga treatment, but it provided immense relief from muscle tension 

Chiva-Som Shirobhyanga Treatment

This was the last therapy I did before my return and, like the Craniosacral Therapy, it provided one of the highest success rates for the relief of my headaches. My petite Japanese masseuse for this ancient Ayurvedic scalp massage was Mariko, whom I wanted to kidnap and bring back home—she is attentive, effective and highly skilled.

I was first offered a choice between two oils for relaxation, before I laid down on my back. Mariko got to work on my scalp first, using a blend of Dosha herbal oils. Within a few minutes—you guessed it—I fell asleep. I vaguely recalled her slipping her hands behind my back and working lightly on my right shoulder blade, and light massages around my neck, shoulders and décolletage, but I could only query her on her methods only after I was gently awakened after 50 minutes. The result of her pressure-point work left me completely relaxed, with my shoulders and back feeling more pliant.

I did not suffer any headaches while there, and I had just begun to nurse my aching body back to health when I came to the end of my brief stay at Chiva-Som. I could only imagine how much more benefit I could reap from a 10-night therapy if I had made the time.

As for the million-dollar question—would I come back? You bet.

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