Alfredo Bataller (Parietti) had a stomachache for 30 years. His digestive problems were quite a lot more complicated than that, and turned more urgent when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. But the solution proved relatively simple. A friend sent him to a ’naturopath‘ – a skilled practitioner of natural remedies – named Doctor Juan Rubio, who apparently alleviated Bataller’s symptoms in less than three months by prescribing a comprehensive change of diet.
Bataller was so relieved, so thoroughly converted, that he built a temple to good health and nutrition on a mountain above the Mediterranean. Having made a fortune in construction and real estate on the Spanish Costa Blanca, he transformed his family’s summer home into a state-of-the-art therapeutic retreat at El Abir, between the old port town of Altea and the peaks of the Sierra Gelada national park. This is the foundation story of the SHA Wellness Clinic.
En route from Alicante, turning off the motorway and up the winding access road, my transfer driver observes that the SHA complex resembles a cruise ship run aground on a hill, rising overhead in curved white tiers and terraces. To me it looks more like some designer ziggurat. Or a ’pyramid‘, which is how Bataller and sons (Alejandro and Alfredo, CEO and vice-president) have described their top-down model for growth: attract the world’s most influential people, subject them to a methodical fusion of traditional Eastern medicine, ultramodern Western science, and biochemically-sound gastronomy, then send them out to spread the word.
“Health is wealth,” the Batallers like to say, but the reverse tends to be no less true, and even the minumum recommended stay of one week does not come cheap. Even so, this facility has hosted more than 10,000 clients since opening in 2008, up to 50 per cent of them repeat visitors, and SHA itself has become a brand, with two more clinics now in development. SHA Mexico is scheduled to open in 2021, and SHA Emirates in 2023, amid the gulfside palms of Abu Dhabi‘s Al Jurf.
My own sojourn at the original site will be only four nights. Too short to see profound results, I’m told, but long enough to feel at least some of the benefits. Once installed in a sea-view suite and heavy-duty bathrobe, I begin the process by which guests/patients shuffle from one appointment to the next through a vast, cool monochrome interior of reflective surfaces and manicured garden spaces, an environment that splits the atmospheric difference between luxury spa, high-end private hospital and pristine hotel.
The first of many consultations sees a friendly nurse named Amalia evaluate my ’energy health‘ with a PROGNOS machine. As designed by the Russian ex-cosmonaut Waleri Poljakow, that device measures the flow of electrophysiological current at pressure points linked to particular organs. So, it’s a high-tech Space Age doodad that operates on the same ancient principle as acupuncture. The sensor is pressed to my fingertips and the results are cast as coloured spikes on a digital graph, showing suboptimal levels in the lungs, large intestine, kidneys and adrenals. Amalia’s reading suggests circulation issues, hormonal imbalances, insufficient hydration, and perhaps a chronic shortage of deep, restful sleep.
I am not surprised by this last piece of data, being the father of a one-year-old baby. But long before I ever heard my little girl’s nocturnal yowls, I was already a hair-trigger sleeper. I have always been prone to twitch like a dreaming dog, snap awake with valid or imagined worries, sit bolt upright with apnea in the dead of night, gasping like a vampire with a wooden stake through his sternum. SHA’s holistic approach is tailored to the customer’s own specs – their own sense of what the problem is, how their quality of life might be improved.
For some it’s about stress management, for many it’s weight loss, others have aesthetic concerns about their face, or teeth, or hair. For my own part, I’d like this place to be a gateway to the land of nod, a first-class departure lounge for passage to that other dimension, where the moon wears an old-fashioned nightcap and winks as you sail past on a flying bed with feathered wings. My agenda for the next few days is duly filled with activities and expert interventions to guide me in that direction. These include basics like my first ever yoga lesson, a diagnostic workout with a personal trainer, and an ’aqua gym‘ class, which involves childlike attempts to exercise underwater – running, kicking, riding a foam pool noodle like a hobbyhorse.
I am also introduced to watsu, a liquid form of shiatsu massage conducted in a warm flotation chamber under dim, starry lights. I lie there half-submerged while a therapist named Enrique gently cradles and contorts me into quasi-foetal positions, loosening my spine and limbs all the more fluidly in a relative absence of gravity. Enrique used to be a TV cameraman.
“Watsu changed my life,” he says, filling me in on the history of the practice, which began with a California masseur named Harold Dull in the early 1980s. And even while I’m asking Enrique further questions about this, I am also drifting off. This keeps happening throughout my stay.
I’ll be in the middle of an INDIBA body contouring treatment – having my belly rubbed with lubricated paddles attached to a proionic radiofrequency transmitter, which reminds me of my partner’s ultrasound scans before our baby was born – and I will hear a soft rumbling sound beneath the low hum of the machine, which turns out to be my own snoring. Or I’m lying face down for a detox massage, with suction cups drawing pollutants out through my back into some kind of vacuum cleaner, and I find that a 50-minute session has passed in what seems like 50 seconds.
When it comes to actual bedtime, I am issued with a sleep polygraph machine, a beeper-like box on a belt with plastic tubes to go up my nose and a heart monitor to go over my finger. Like most people, I am only familiar with the term ’polygraph‘ from cop movies, and think of it as synonym for ’lie detector‘, which conjures images of interrogation rooms:
“So, did you sleep well last night?”
“Um … yes?”
“Ha! We know you didn’t, smart guy! We got all the evidence we need!”
But the fact is that I do sleep almost eerily well, even with that awkward apparatus strapped to me. And of course there is nothing confrontational about my meeting with resident specialist Doctor Vicente Mera – who used to work in calcium studies and liver transplants and was headhunted to join fellow world-class medical professionals in this well-appointed corner of the private sector. He talks me through my results on a printout that shows two ’apnea events‘ and 25 ’snoring events‘, both stats falling well within the range of what he calls ’normal‘.
“There is nothing wrong with the architecture of your sleep,” says Mera. I’m pleased to hear this, and intrigued by this way of phrasing it – the idea that slumber has a shape and structure, all affected by internal and external factors that the doctor outlines in a layman-friendly presentation, from the hormonal interplay of cortisol and melatonin to the intrusions of aroma, sound and light. Mera believes that sleep constitutes the biggest undiagnosed health problem in the world. “Even people who think they always get a good night’s rest very often don’t.”
A longer stay would give him time to run more tests, but experience tells him that my problem is emotion-based and/or stress-related, rather than physiological. The mere fact of my being here surely throws off my usual erratic rythms and Mera’s instruments for gauging them, as I am steadily becalmed by healthy exercise, relaxing spa treatments and regular balanced meals.
Nutrition forms the spine of the whole programme, as explained by another counsultant, Maria Romeralo. A trained geneticist who came to resent the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on her field, Romeralo was drafted in to advise SHA’s chefs and clients on achieving the optimum dietary balance by regulating the ’energy level‘ of each ingredient and every complete dish. Again, the latest nutritional science appears to be in sync with ancient
Romeralo shows me a food chart that runs from yin to yang, with caffeine, spicy foods and heavy carbs at one end, and dairy and meats at the other. Both extremes make our bodies acidic, she says, where the ideal is alkaline, as represented by vegetables, grains and pulses, and certain healthy animal proteins like white fish. Another way of putting it: almost everything I eat is wrong, and this too has a bearing on my sleep patterns, not least because I also eat too late, and too quickly. Romeralo suggests putting the fork down between each bite.
This proves to be tricky. Everything served here is ’right‘ in terms of energy-release, with three set menus offered for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the glass-walled SHAmadi restaurant on the upper terrace. The austere Kushi menu is not for me, being geared toward weight loss and detox. The Biolight menu is so much lighter than I’m used to, as regards portion sizes and legume content. Even the more robust SHA menu seems dauntingly healthy, building slight but perfectly-balanced main courses around grilled asparagus, roasted pumpkin and baked cauliflower.
And instead of coffee there is SHA’s own range of medicinal teas, including a blend of organic apple and kuzu brewed just before bedtime to aid digestion and sleep that I come to look forward to all day. Indeed, I arrive at every mealtime super-hungry, what with all the gym sessions, hydro-circuits and morning walks to the nearby clifftop lighthouse, and it is all I can do not to destroy these delicious, nutritious, exquisitely presented dishes like fresh flowers fed into a woodchipper.
Romeralo promises (or warns) me that it takes about three months of applying lessons learned at SHA for them to effect permanent changes in the body. Less and less self-denial is required after that – it’s not a matter of going without sweet or salty foods, but of not even wanting them any more. In her own case, she says, “I used to love cheese, but now when I try a slice it just tastes like fat in my mouth.” For me it seems to work much faster than that.
On my last evening at SHA I take a walk to the old town of Altea, feeling duly energetic and mindful of my deep and even breathing as I pass along the palm-fringed promenade and up the narrow cobbled lanes. The sun drops behind the surrounding peaks and beams the day’s last red rays across the Mediterranean. Outside the walls of the clinic I am free to do as I please, and to be honest I had planned this excursion as a kind of jailbreak that would let me get an ice-cream. But for the first time since childhood, I now find that prospect unappetizing.
On the way back I stop at a café and order an espresso, almost as an experiment. It throws me off balance almost immediately – not a bad coffee, but it makes me feel nauseous. Uh-oh. What does this mean? Without coffee, without gelato, would I still be the same person? And if not, then who? These questions drive me not away from SHA, but back toward it. I’m told that the record stay so far is three months, and that sounded somewhat overzealous before I spent my own few days here. Now I’d like to move in and live by the SHA method forever, or at least to the age of 130, which is what Alfredo Bataller Parietti says we could and should be aiming for.
So give me the works. I’ll take every treatment in the brochure. The Tibetan healing bowls therapy, the laser acupuncture, the electric-lymphatic drainage cryotherapy, the ancient Egyptian psammo hot sand compresses, the photobiomodulation with infrared LED lights. Heal me, improve me, transform me into some new man who will never grow tired, nor sick, nor old.
For more information, visit SHA Wellness Clinic