Well Q&A: Holistic Healing From the Inside Out at Kamalaya

Last updated April 4, 2024

How can I describe the way a place such as Kamalaya makes you feel? From the moment I drove through the entrance, the feeling of peace, tranquility and calm were palpable—soothing my body and soul from the 36 hours of travel it took to get there. 

I loved my time at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa for everything it was. Most importantly, I loved my time there for everything it was not. The spa treatments and holistic consultations are caring and healing without being overbearing. The food is visually appealing and excellent tasting without any judgment. The surroundings are lush and cocooning without being obvious. The activities are enriching and mind-expanding without being dogmatic. The experience truly unfolded like the petals of a lotus.

Kamalaya is a place that stays with you. Read on to learn more about this special sanctuary from an extraordinary woman, founder and chief wellness officer Karina Stewart.

Sallie: How did Kamalaya come to be?

Koh Samui landscape
Beach Front Villa 1 BR

Karina Stewart: The story of Kamalaya began in 1982, in the far jungles of the Himalayas. This is when my now husband John Stewart and I first met. John was living a monastic life in northern India, where he spent 16 years of his early adult life under the guidance of his mentor in the Himalayas. I had taken a one-year sabbatical from my studies at Princeton University to immerse myself in a meditation retreat under the tutelage of the same spiritual leader.

Conceived more than ten years before its eventual opening, Kamalaya was originally intended for a site in the Himalayas. The idea is inspired by John’s life of service and spiritual studies as well as my commitment to Asian medical and philosophical traditions, including my background as a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But in 2000, John had health problems. We were drawn to Koh Samui by the island’s healing power of nature. We stayed for three months to rest and regain his health under my care and with the help of local herbs. 

A serendipitous event led to the discovery of the very special piece of land on which Kamalaya was eventually built.

In those days, it was a densely forested landscape studded with ancient granite boulders. And while the natural environment appealed to John and reminded him of northern India, it was the monk’s cave that drew him to this land as the ideal place to create Kamalaya. 

John continues to guide the development of Kamalaya’s vision and services in his role as founder and chairman. As for me, founder and chief wellness officer, I am responsible for the development of Kamalaya’s integral health programs. I am also responsible for the overall strategic concept development. 

Sallie: You have shared that the name “Kamalaya” means lotus flower. Why did you choose that name and how does it reflect in what Kamalaya offers to guests?

Kamalaya Reception
Kamalaya leisure pool

Karina Stewart: Kamalaya translates into Lotus Realm. “Lotus (kamal) Realm (alaya)” is an ancient and enduring symbol for the growth and unfolding of the human spirit. And as humans, we are meant to grow toward the light, like a lotus, expressing a richer and fuller, more awakened version of our truest self. 

The lotus is our symbol for transformation and the unfolding of human potential. Considered a sacred flower in many cultures and spiritual traditions, the lotus is the inspiration behind Kamalaya’s name and philosophy.

In the same way that the lotus goes through much of its growth in murky water before emerging as a beautiful blossom basking in the sunlight, so too does the human spirit. The lotus symbolizes the growth of your being. It rises from the murkiness toward the bright sunshine of enlightenment and transforms into the full expression of personal potential.

Since the lotus flower emerges perfectly clean and beautiful, it is also a symbol for purity. Its meaning holds such power because it can offer hope and strength to people struggling in their daily lives. It is a symbol that shows that no matter where you start off in life and no matter what you’re going through, you have the ability to rise above, overcome negativity and darkness and find bliss away from your struggles. 

Throughout the process of the bud pushing through the water, the petals are never touched or affected by the water. And thus the center remains uncontaminated throughout its journey. This is symbolic of the purity of the human soul and how nothing we experience could ever taint it.

Sallie: Tell us three things a guest might discover during a stay with you.

Arjan Cave
yoga in koh samui

Karina Stewart: With its exceptional array of wellness offerings, Kamalaya delivers results that meet a diverse range of needs. Kamalaya is a place where creativity, well-being and self-discovery naturally unfold. 

Our guests experience Kamalaya in intrinsically different ways, often taking away more than what they expected. Beyond the improvements in health and well-being, Kamalaya’s synergistic blend of place, people, inspired cuisine and healing modalities seems to effortlessly and spontaneously take people to unexpected levels of self-discovery and awareness.  

Instead of rules and regulations, Kamalaya offers guidance and choice. Instead of luxury and opulence, you will find understated elegance, comfort and beauty. And instead of avoidance and escape, we help our guests reconnect with themselves and the world around them. 

Kamalaya represents an unprecedented and life-affirming realm. One where ancient wisdom is enhanced with the latest innovations in alternative and contemporary health care.

Sallie: Tell us more about your study of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and how you practice it.

Tea Sharing At Alchemy Lounge
Kamalaya Wellness Treatment Room

Karina Stewart: I was greatly influenced by Master Ni Hua Ching, a Taoist master from China, whom I met in California. It was his influence that led me to study Traditional Chinese Medicine and Taoist practices and traditions such as Qi Gong and I Ching. 

My academic background includes a Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Yo San University in California, with internships in Japan and China. Prior to Kamalaya, I founded a health center in Kathmandu, Nepal. For seven years, I practiced Oriental Medicine and produced a range of Chinese herbal products.

The training for all staff at Kamalaya’s wellness sanctuary is informed by the principles and techniques of TCM. The knowledge of meridians, acupuncture points and energy flow, and also the principles that bring healing and balance integrate into some of our treatments and therapies. This ancient wisdom is the result of my own background and education as a TCM doctor.

Sallie: What is your personal “wellness regimen” (food, skincare, fitness, sleep, spirituality, etc.) remembering that this is a no-judgement zone! 

Kamalaya Leela Steam Room
Amrita cafe

Karina Stewart: My personal “wellness regimen” is changing mainly because I have not been on a regular schedule. Eight months of continuous travel through too many countries and time zones has been extremely challenging for me. 

Happily, I am now back home at Kamalaya. My routine is once again coming back into focus. Early mornings are a must for me as my body is accustomed to it. I prefer to drink a warm tea (non-caffeinated) such as ginger and tumeric, or chai (decaf) or dandelion. Sometimes I go for decaffeinated black tea followed by warm water. 

During this time, I play with my puppy Don Diego and gently get going. I often—but not always—go for a short walk in my neighborhood. I then follow this up by chanting at Kamalaya. Lately I am enjoying quiet time at home and gentle breathing practices (Pranayama). Throughout the day I take mini breaks for short breathing practices (5 minutes) and gaze out at the ocean. 

After eight months of a packed schedule, I am enjoying creating little moments of “pause” and “being.” My meals are entirely plant-based and I’m enjoying having my meals in a shorter window of time. 

I find myself craving silence and stillness after such a full schedule and find it so soothing and restorative. Throughout the day I pay attention to the little things that I appreciate and am grateful for. 

Some days are better than others. But I always find someone and something I can truly be grateful for. Lastly, re-establishing my bedtime at 9:30 pm most evenings is the greatest luxury of all! It is such a privilege to be back on a sleeping routine that resets my health in such a profound way and regenerates my body, mind and moods.

Sallie: Who or what has had a deep, lasting influence on your life? 

Karina Stewart: My Master teacher in the Himalayas where John and I first met has had the most profound influence on my life. It is with him that I learned that I could listen and trust the innermost voice in my heart. And it is this which has guided me throughout my life.  

It is there with my teacher that I met John and developed the loving life partner that has become the center of my life in all ways. John is my source of immense love, inspiration, passion, friendship and joy. 

My mother and my husband John have each had a profound influence on my life—each in a unique way. My mother’s crisis with cancer when I was a young girl and her commitment to heal and thrive after cancer led her to search for alternatives to chemotherapy and radiation after her surgery. 

This meant I was raised in a family culture and environment of exploration and open mindedness to new possibilities where healing was possible beyond the confines of conventional medicine.  

This allowed me to be curious when exposed to traditional healing traditions from around the world . It broadened my awareness to the idea of using food for healing/food as medicine which has been a passion of mine for my entire life.  

Sallie: Any final words?

John and Karina Stewart

Karina Stewart: Equally and differently, my husband John has been a continuous profound influence in my life. I would never have embarked on the vision and adventure of the scale of Kamalaya had it not been for his courage, perseverance against all odds, vision, generosity and incredible largesse of spirit.  

John encourages me to dream as expansive a vision for Kamalaya’s concept of wellness as I can imagine without any parameters. He has been my friend, my lover, my husband and my partner. Above all, John is the love of my life without whom Kamalaya would not exist.

About Karina Stewart

Karina Stewart

Karina Stewart is a renowned authority on holistic health and well-being. She is also the founder of the award-winning Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa in Thailand. Karina has a Master of Traditional Chinese Medicine from Yo San University in California and has more than 40 years of experience in the study and practice of diverse Asian healing and spiritual traditions.


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