Elegant, warm, and articulate, Martha Wiedemann is the animating force behind the luxury spa at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, a stylish destination for Ayurveda and more.
Ayurveda is an ancient school of Indian medicine and life philosophy built on the three pillars of nutrition, yoga, and meditation. The name comes from Sanskrit and means “life’s knowledge” (‘ayur’ means life and ‘veda’ is knowledge).
Wiedemann’s parents come from the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala. “I was born in Singapore, where my parents had moved, and was raised according to strict Ayurvedic principles,” she says.
“We went to see a vaidya [Ayurvedic doctor] regularly. He would prescribe herbs if our constitutions were out of balance. Even within the family, we ate differently from one another to suit our individual constitutions. That’s what Ayurveda teaches—each person has their own unique constitution and inner balance of elements. Health is managed through nutrition. When this inner balance is tipped, you need herbal remedies to bring back your balance.”
While the food at home included some seafood and poultry, it was predominantly vegetarian. And there were certainly no cheeseburgers or ice cream. “All that was very foreign,” Wiedemann says with a laugh.
“Occasionally, we got to eat those English biscuits which someone brought home, but most of our food was all made at home. As a result, we never developed the desire for certain foods, and so it was harder for us to sin,” she says.
“For instance, Indian desserts are deep fried, and so full of sugar. I didn’t eat any of that as a child. I actually found Pepsi and Coke extremely sweet and hard to drink. We ate a lot of Asian food and seaweed-type drinks. They weren’t so bad.”
According to Ayurveda, the body is made up of the same five elements the universe is made of—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. When there’s an optimum interbalance between these elements, one experiences a sense of well-being and harmony. An imbalance—which can be brought on by a number of factors, from stress to the weather—causes disorder and disease. This imbalance is treated through nutrition, herbs, yoga, and meditation. Ayurveda’s most important tenet is that each person’s constitution or energy field is unique, and therefore each person needs individualized care and individualized nutrition. This makes Ayurveda one of the most bespoke forms of wellness.
Given her immersive Ayurvedic upbringing, it’s hardly surprising that Wiedemann has had an extraordinarily successful career in the world of wellness. But there was one small bump in her love story with Ayurveda, a rebellious little period called adolescence.
At the age of 14, Martha and her parents moved to Australia, and suddenly, she was exposed to a world of fast food, new friends, and a lifestyle quite different from the frugal one in which she had been raised.
Like a good teenager, she rebelled against the nutritional regimen at home. Anything might have happened after that, except that adolescence brought with it another unwelcome problem that drove her straight back to Ayurveda: pimples.
“I had acne and wanted to cure it,” she says. “That’s what sparked my interest in health and beauty. I realized that good nutrition was vital for my skin to be healthy. It also struck me that, unlike my friends, I didn’t fall ill all the time. When I started my menstruation, other teenagers had problems and pain, and things relating to hormones, while I didn’t. So I must have benefitted from the foundation I had in Ayurveda.”
The health and beauty industry was in its infancy in Australia in the 80s, and Wiedemann was right there at the birth of it. It was in Australia, too, that she met and married Hans Wiedemann, a hotelier from Switzerland who eventually brought her to St Moritz.
She was driven by a hunger to learn more about Ayurveda. “When I asked my parents why I had to take certain herbs, they would say, ‘Oh, because the Vaidya says so.’ But that wasn’t good enough for me. I studied nutrition, reflexology, yoga, vastu shastra [the Indian version of feng shui], herbal remedies, and completed the course from the European Institute of Vedic Studies. I have never stopped studying.”
Renowned for her expertise, Wiedemann has been responsible for popularizing Ayurveda in Switzerland, where it was largely unknown before. One can think of her as the Deepak Chopra of the Alps, albeit in a more low-key way. When Badrutt decided to open an Ayurveda spa, it was only natural for the hotel to turn to her to lead the project.
Obviously, Ayurveda is more than a career for Wiedemann. It’s been a vehicle for personal and spiritual discovery. As a woman of Indian origin living in Switzerland, raised in Singapore and Australia, she often found herself asking the question: “Who am I?”
The answer lay in Ayurveda. She was rooted, she realized, not in any one geographical place but in the rich loam of Ayurveda. That was her élan vital, her life force, the matrix that knitted together her diverse Indian-Singaporean-Australian-Swiss heritage.
Over the years, she has been confronted with skeptics dismissive of alternative medicine. For them, she has a calm but firm answer. “This form of lifestyle was imposed on me as a child, and there was a time when I rejected it as a teenager,” she says. “So I don’t like to ‘sell’ it. I will offer all kinds of information, but I don’t think it should be imposed. If you’re skeptical about it, it’s not for you. There are many other great methods to find wellness; you should find something you can relate to. I’m not looking to convert anybody.”
Nor does she need to. As the pace of life in society becomes increasingly frenetic, the appeal of Ayurveda has only grown. Wiedemann says it’s because people are desperate for something deeper, something with meaning beyond the material.
“We are living this huge gluttony, this addictive lifestyle that never fills or completes you. At some point you think, ‘My goodness, I don’t feel well from it. There must be something that exists beyond all of this.’”
“Ayurveda has a lot to offer those who are looking for answers beyond mere physical well-being. Its centrepiece is self-love and connecting that love to nature, since we are made of the same elements. Wellness cannot be robotic; it has to be based in love. In Ayurveda, that love is what one experiences most deeply.”
5 Top Wellness Retreats
We asked Martha Wiedemann to recommend five leading destinations for Ayurvedic treatment. Here’s what she chose:
Kalari Kovilakom, Kerala, India:
They run an authentic 21-day programme to treat and heal people, including those who are very ill and have tried everything else without success. It’s a hospital, not a spa, and you can’t leave the premises until you complete the programme. They have yoga, meditation, and cookery classes. Time is structured; they discourage you from talking and are focused on healing and maintaining a meditative state. They have nice rooms, and all the food is organic, cooked by chefs, from heritage recipes. Doctors decide your eating programme. It’s a vast property that used to be an old palace, so it doesn’t feel like a hospital. It’s magical because the surroundings are so pure. Most important of all is the staff. You pass by someone tending to the garden and they will lift their heads and greet you with a namaskaram, a sign which says the light within me sees and greets the light within you. It’s so beautiful. This is not advertised in their brochure, it’s just there.
Kalari Rasayana, Kerala, India:
A newer property by the same owners. This one is more modern, and by the sea. The programmes are the same. Once again, the food is delicious. I know that not everyone can eat coconut, but for those who can eat it, the traditional dish called thoran is not to be missed—it’s beans with coconut, so lightly cooked you really taste the veggies. I had an asparagus juice there, while my daughter had a pomegranate juice. Both were exceptional. All the food there is simple and light, but I never felt hungry.
Vana, outside New Delhi, India:
They offer a very good Ayurveda programme and Tibetan, Chinese, and other alternative treatments as well. They’re not as strict as the Kerala places because they’re not a hospital, and not for people with serious health conditions. It’s more like a retreat. They also offer detox programmes.
The Farm at San Benito, Philippines:
Alternative therapies and vegan cuisine. They offer a great menu of alternative therapies, including yoga, tai chi, and other ways to wellness. Very holistic. There’s a great energy about it, so it feels more like a spa holiday. The surrounding nature is magical. I especially recommend it for those who want to cleanse and get away from meat and learn to cook vegan food. I remember their wonderful breakfast buffet, vegan burgers, and Caesar’s salad made with a cashew-nut sauce instead of mayonnaise. Delicious.
Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, St. Moritz, Switzerland:
Encircled by the Alps, this lakeside spa is located in the heart of the magnificent Engadin region, known for its pristine air and beautiful scenery. What better place to take a break to find your balance? The programs and gourmet global cuisine are designed to cleanse, energize, rejuvenate and altogether enhance your state of well-being. A week is recommended, but not everyone has that long to spare, so programs are tailor-made to suit different schedules and states of mind. At Badrutt’s, a spot of fun and a lungful of mountain air are considered central to wellness, so guides are at hand to take you hiking, Nordic walking, mountain-bike riding, sailing, skiing, windsurfing. After a day of hiking, you can head back to the spa to enjoy their delicious wellness nibbles and soothe your feet in a warm English foot bath.