As the founder and owner of Raison d’Etre, vice president of spa and wellness at Six Senses, and a founding board member of the Global Wellness Summit, Anna Bjurstam has been redefining wellness for the past two decades. Beginning her wellness journey in sports and fitness, Anna has since delved into the world of energy medicine and holistic healing, combining her passions of physical and mental wellness in the various world-renowned wellness brands she works. Compare Retreats’ founder Dervla Louli sits down with Anna to talk about why energy healing is the next frontier or wellness, how purpose has defined the Six Senses brand and what trends she’s looking at for 2020.
You have been opening and operating spas for companies like Aman, Four Seasons, and Six Senses for the last 20 years. Are there essential components you look to include in every project? The formula is to look at the whole person and not just the parts. Twenty years ago, you would look at the face, the feet, the hands, the nails, but it’s really about looking at the whole person and how you provide services to not only do the hands or the feet, but help the whole person. That means you have to think differently, when you create spas, and that’s why we’ve created a brand of spas that are different. Its how you put the parts together. I think science has come to that today: we’re seeing that if you separate everything and look at it in isolation, it doesn’t really make sense. So when we build spas, we look at not just the physical aspects—the treatments and the workouts and the products to be healthy—but also the mind. Our formula has always been to look at it as a whole, and then people feel more whole when they leave one of our locations.
Your roles at Raison d’Etre and Six Senses offer you an incomparable insight into wellness hospitality and spa trends. What will wellness-centric guests be looking for in 2020? In 2020, brain, heart and gut health is going to be a huge focus, and how you get these systems to support the rest of your body. When it comes to the gut, it’s going to be a lot of microbes and superfoods and fermenting. When it comes to the heart there will be a lot of focus on meditation, love and mindfulness, and with the brain, there’s going to be a lot of science because there’s a lot of technology to do with neurofeedback, light, sound and frequencies.
People are looking for quick fixes: they want to know what bio-hacks will work, what foods can cure us, what supplements we need and what face cream can make us look better. In our spa in Dubai, we use biohacking before each treatment to help the brain enter a beta state before a client gets on the table. Normally, a client only fully relaxes about two-thirds of the way through a treatment, so this way, we get them into space mentally prepared ahead of time.
Regeneration was a key focus at the Global Wellness Summit. Are there any new health-tech companies, doctors, or experts that you are excited about to help take care of our bodies and minds in the future? Dr Chris Renna from Lifespan is someone I’m super excited about. He and his team are at the forefront of not only stopping but reversing ageing. They kind of peel the onion of a person—looking deep into the layers—so they can offer complementary and medical technology and healing that can really change peoples’ lives. Right now, things are very fragmented but practices like Lifespan offer a one-stop solution.
Exosomes are also very exciting, in terms of how you take things from your body and decode them before putting them back in. This means programming yourself to stay as healthy and young as you are. I had a face cream where my blood was taken out and the plasma was separated, and I then used that as a face cream. I was a sceptic but I tested it on one hand for a month and there was such a significant difference.
On the flip-side though, one of the issues right now is that while there’s a lot of experts out there who really know what they’re doing—they get it, they understand, they go deep, and the understand the complexity—there are also a lot of ‘gurus’ who don’t know what they’re doing and they’re giving a lot of false or bad advice. That’s the scare right now with the whole wellness craze: people are looking for solutions, they’re desperate, and then they come up with all kinds of snake oil.
The recently introduced ‘Grow a New Body’ programme at Six Senses fuses neo-shamanism from the Amazon with state-of-the-art neuroscience and biology. What is ‘energy medicine’ and what role does it play in wellness? Every healing modality has a respected and worked with energy medicine. Energy medicine is the field around us or the electromagnetic field which informs us. Just as we store stress in our backs and shoulders, emotions are stored in an energy field. What’s interesting with the ‘Grow a New Body’ programme is that you work both on the physical body, but you also work on a spirit and energetic level. It’s kind of like what Einstein said, you can’t solve the problem with the same thinking that caused it. You have to programme your mind to make choices for your body. To solve the mind, you have to go one level up—to the soul and spiritual level.
When you work in shamanism, neo-shamanism or energy medicine, you tap into that energy field and you’re able to release knots in your energy field, just as a chiropractor can release knots in your body. We’re physical mental and electrical beings and it’s looking at how we can use that to become healthier people.
Why are sustainability, community and wellness so pivotal for a hospitality company to thrive? How does Six Senses tie these elements into its properties? When I started at Six Senses seven years ago, there was a spark and spirit in all our staff. We believe in doing good for the community, earth and for other people. That sparked our vision to reconnect people to others and the world around them. The people who work with us and that lead are passionate about doing things. We help the communities get access to good water, learn English, and it becomes an upward spiral because when our staff are rewarded—mainly with gratefulness from people—it becomes a seamless experience across our locations.
We work with people in their flow instead of forcing it upon them. It’s there and we do it because we believe in it. We don’t do anything because we ‘should’ do it. We truly believe in these practices, we’ve done them for many years and we do it with high integrity and passion.
The opening of Six Senses New York is on the horizon, making the brand’s signature wellness offerings readily available to busy urbanites. Can you tell us more about the vision for the space?I see Six Senses Place (our first private member’s club) as kind of a beacon in New York. When you’re living in these cities, you need a place for inspiration where you can reset and be open for new impressions in life. We’re going to have a number of shamans and practitioners working, as well as medical doctors. We’re going to have DJ’s, bars, and fun spaces—but we’re also going to offer full diagnostics and health and wellness programmes to get people to have an optimal life.
Why are urban wellness retreats like this so necessary today? Behavioural science shows that big overhauls like New Years’ resolutions don’t really work and aren’t very good for you, but small incremental steps like running or walking—they can be life-changing. You can’t just go away to a Six Senses, Chiva-Som or Canyon Ranch and then go back to your original community. You need to work with the flow that you have in the city. Here, you can go and have a big night out but come back the next day and feel restored. If you’re jet-lagged, we offer grounding mats under the breakfast table and blue lights that reset your circadian rhythm. We’re teaching people small hacks to transform their lives if they want to.
Six Senses sold this year for US$300 million. What raised the valuation of the brand? Generally, hotels are profit first and with Six Senses has been purpose first and that’s what’s given it its aura. The IHG people felt it. I always think of When Harry Met Sally, when the lady in the restaurant says, ‘I want what she got’. We have something that everyone is looking for. The igniting spark of Six Senses is the desire to do good. Science shows us today that we do things for others and are compassionate and grateful, we are so powerful. That’s why we attract the staff that we do and thrive, and that’s why it just increases. The world is yearning for people doing good. Six Senses looks at it from a philosophical but also a commercial view.
Can you share your own wellness journey? I had a near-death experience when I was 14, and I had an unexplainable event follow that. I would say that it changed my outlook on life, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing.
I played basketball on scholarship in the USA, then I went into aerobics and personal training. These were all things that I loved and I found my passion. This was in the eighties, it wasn’t considered a real job, so I went and got a Masters degree in finance, but when I graduated I thought with my heart I wanted to continue in wellness and fitness so I started to open and run large fitness clubs.
When it really changed was in the year 2000, one of my best friends convinced me in 2000 to do a vipassana (silent) meditation retreat for 10 days. That changed my life and I realised that physical fitness is only one part and you need spiritual, mental and medical wellness as well. That led me to healing, meditation, yoga and neuroscience.
What wellness habits you try to include in your daily life? I wake up and try to meditate for 30 minutes in the morning. It programmes the mind for the day to come. I then drink a big cup of tea with ginger, lemon and water and drink a disgusting fermented drink. Every day I do intermediate fasting for at least 16 hours, so I don’t eat until lunch or after lunch. I work out five times a week. This can be dancing, yoga, weightlifting. Other important things that affect my sleep are not drinking coffee after 3pm, not looking at my phone for an hour before bed, and making sure I don’t have a high protein meal in the evening.
I also work with a number of bio-hacks. I have an infrared blanket, I have a vibrational plate to align the physical currents in the body. Every morning when I meditate, I assess where I am and I may microdose (when needed). I use neutropics and I do a lot of supplementation. One of the most important things about wellness is to not take it too seriously. I live by the 80/20 rule and make sure I let my hair down sometimes.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs in the wellness space? It’s a hard job and you have to put in your blood, sweat, tears: you go many months without a salary. You’re not doing it to make a ton of money; you’re doing it because you love what you do. If you have a business, you also have to look at it from a hard business perspective and see if it makes sense. Focus on what makes sense business-wise: I like what Steve Jobs always did with Apple. Every year they met and they put up all the things they wanted to do and then would only choose three to focus on for the next year.
For any entrepreneur, don’t get too attached to it: be prepared to let it go, otherwise, it becomes too personal. If you don’t have that business-centred mind, team up with someone that does. If you don’t like budgets and figures then you can’t be a spa manager or director because it’s just part of it.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? From my first mentor, a Norwegian man: whenever you think that you do not need to learn and you stop learning, then it’s time to stop doing what you’re doing. If you’re not curious and don’t continue to be a learner, you stop succeeding. If I feel like things are going too well and feel on top of the world, I think of this and remember I have so much more to learn. That became apparent again during this year’s Global Wellness Summit. The founder of Ageist said that the most important thing about growing older is to always be curious.