Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Snow days

Who says Ontario's non-skiers can't enjoy a great winter weekend?

I love to ski. And most weekends this time of year, you'll find me in the backcountry or on a cross-country ski trail. But during the worst freezing-rain storm of the season, when ski hills and cross-country trails were closed in Ontario, I discovered how non-skiers in my province enjoy the winter.

I admit I felt a little out of my element at first. "Be careful when you step up. It's slippery," Rebecca said, holding out her arm.

I wasn't on a hill. Rebecca Sperri, an Ayurvedic therapist, was helping me lie down on a wooden table, slick with oil. I've had many massages over the years, but never on a hard surface. Yet between the stiff board and the long, circular strokes -- performed by Sperri and Sudeep Chitnis, an Ayurvedic doctor -- my body became light, soaking in the therapeutic qualities of the herbal oil.

Half an hour later, with meditative Indian ragas playing in the background, the doctor poured warm oil into a brass cauldron above me, letting it trickle onto my forehead and down through my hair. This 60-minute Shirodhara treatment was part of the 5000-year-old Indian science of Ayurveda.

Although many spas in Canada now offer Ayurvedic treatments, Elemental Embrace, near Brighton, Ontario, goes a step further. More than a spa, it's a wellness centre, incorporating meditation sessions, yoga classes and lectures that focus on Ayurveda and overall wellness.

"We don't expect guests to change their lifestyle but to take things that fit," says Jazir Teja, who runs the centre with his mother and brother.

A resident Ayurvedic doctor, accredited with a seven-year university degree and two-year residency in India, also sets Elemental Embrace apart from other wellness centres in Ontario. In addition, wheareas most spas use a single therapist for treatments such as the Abhyanga Mardana Swedana (sweat treatment) or Shirodhara (oil treatment), at Elemental Embrace they are performed by two -- the doctor along with a therapist -- as they would traditionally be.

Even the massage table is directly from India, hewn from a single neem tree known for its healing properties. "If the table isn't oiled regularly, it will crack," says Chitnis. "This way it will last hundreds of years."

My three-night destresser package began with a one-hour consultation with Chitnis. After a body assessment and various lifestyle questions, he determined my dosha, or body constitution, and suggested eating and lifestyle changes. One was to massage sesame seed oil into my skin every morning before taking a shower. Another was to avoid baths or showers three hours after a meal.

Explanations for these recommendations weren't based on Western scientific principles, but rather on the qualities of space (ether), earth, water, air or fire associated with the food needed to balance my body type.

"We may not think about medical or emotional problems in the same terms as the Ayurvedic philosophy," said Fred Kaethler, a Markdale family practitioner who was on a destresser package the same weekend. "But the end result is often the same, in that the whole person rather than just an isolated problem is considered in the treatments."

Even meals at Elemental Embrace were instructional. Lunch started with chopped ginger and a dash of salt and lime to stimulate digestive enzymes. The first course served was dessert, as sugars are harder to digest. A soup or salad came next, and then the main course. This was followed by digestive seeds, like fennel and sesame.

Contrary to some Ayurvedic centres that encourage a vegetarian diet, meals contained fish, dairy and meat. Dishes were modified based on the guest's dosha and recommendations from the doctor. During meals, the chef often came out to answer questions and explain Ayurvedic components of particular dishes.

Although Elemental Embrace offers spa treatments, lifestyle learning is their focus. The Ayurvedic doctor answered questions throughout the day and conversations in the dining room drifted more to wellness than current affairs. By the end of the first day, I already found that the lack of skiable terrain didn't have me stressed in the slightest.

"You can just do the spa component -- we have 45 treatments," said Teja. "But we stay away from the cosmetic; we're more about inner wellness. If you feel good about the inside, there's a glow on the outside."

Niagara Footfalls
A week later, the glow of snow started to call to me out from inside, and I headed to the Scenic Caves Nordic Centre on the Niagara Escarpment. Scenic Caves is perfect if you're a non-skier but still love the snow. It has 10 kilometres of dedicated snowshoeing trails -- a rarity in Ontario. Usually snowshoers share the trails with skiiers or snowmobilers.


In addition, there is only half a kilometre of trail for every four hectares of reserve, so snowshoers can get a sense of seclusion and peace. On the day I visited, I only saw two other people.

From the centre's main lodge, we headed through the open field past the log cabin on a one-kilometre trail that leads to Ontario's longest suspension bridge. If you've walked across this bridge in the summer or fall, you'll find winter offers a unique perspective. Without foliage I could see the creek twisting down the hillside and I felt far higher than 25 metres above the valley floor. Even if you're afraid of heights, the panoramic view across 10,000-square kilometres is worth the 125-metre walk across the narrow bridge. Hold onto the handrail tightly, keep your eyes on the distant view and make your way across slowly.

Whenever a snowshoe route intersects with a Nordic Centre cross-country ski trail, the orientation and remaining trail distance are clearly marked with mini snowshoes on a coloured sign. Each of the loops returns to a small hut where a fire roars in the woodstove and hot snacks and beverages are available. Visitors can also bring their own food and beverages to the lodge.

Returning from the bridge, I climbed to the Lookout, a narrow 1.5-kilometre pathway that wound through hardwood forest and up a steep hill to a rock outcrop. From this vantage point at the top of the escarpment, Georgian Bay edged the shoreline. Looking down through the trees I could see the trail I had just walked.

The Nordic Centre sits 400 metres above Georgian Bay, in the same snow-belt region as Blue Mountain. It can be tempting to stray from the designated pathways into snow-covered hills, but snowshoers should be careful as the escarpment has crevice caves covered by snow.

And the marked trails offer plenty of variety. The three-kilometre Deep Woods route follows the edge of the Niagara Escarpment and then turns into the forest where 200-year-old oaks and maples cast their long shadows along those of younger trees. At a midway point, the four-kilometre Ironman Trail shares the scenery before it veers off to steeper hills.

If you're looking for a small loop, the one-kilometre Nature Trail meanders through a forest of sugar maples, beeches and oaks. I saw deer and rabbit tracks and was told that porcupines had been spotted in trees.

Make sure you arrive early enough to finish your trails. The last admission pass is sold no later than 3pm and the centre closes at 4:30pm. If you have an avid skier in your family, the centre has change rooms, waxing facilities and 16 kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails, including a two-kilometre skate-skiing track. For downhillers, Blue Mountain Resort is also nearby.

Snowy Blankets
Surprisingly, once I'd had my dose of snow, I found myself craving a little more coddling. A winter weekend at the spa was beginning to feel less like a consolation prize and more like a treat.

I booked a stay at the Briars Resort on the shores of Lake Simcoe, an hour and half north of Toronto. The spa offers a variety of treatments, from facials, esthetic services and manicures, to body, hydro and holistic therapies. Accommodation and meals are in the same building so I didn't have to step outside at all if I didn't want to. But when I was tired of lounging by the cosy wood-burning fireplaces, I could go lake skating, join a guided nature walk or do a little cross-country skiing after all (rentals are available on site).

On my first day, I slept in, had breakfast at 10am, then wandered to the spa for the Briar's signature Double the Pleasure treatment. As one therapist massaged my scalp and another performed reflexology, I couldn't imagine casting off the warm towels wrapped around my head for the snow golf scheduled that afternoon.

After my treatment I was led to a linen-covered table on the fourth floor of the historic tower for my lunch -- something only spa guests get to experience. Snuggled in my robe, I stared through the windows at ice-covered Lake Simcoe and the snow-laden trees.

The following morning, the view of this winter scene made my two-hour Lomi 'Oluli treatment (based on Hawaiian temple bodywork) even more inviting. The ocean sounds playing in the distance as hands and forearms flowed over my body made me feel as if waves were washing over me.

Popular treatments such as mud algae wraps, swedish massages or manicure/ pedicures are often booked weeks in advance, so it's a good idea to schedule your spa choices early. The spa is small, but it's that very setting that promotes a personal connection with the friendly staff. Therapists took their time for each treatment and I didn't feel I was being pushed out the door for the next guest. That relaxed feeling lingered throughout an entire weekend of snow. And I didn't miss skiing one bit.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.