In conversation with Kishani Gunawardena of Kemara
Sri Lanka and wellness have quite a deep history. Our Ayurvedic tradition and techniques encapsulate just how well we understand holistic healing and natural remedies. Our positioning on the global map also makes us a powerful destination for wellness tourism. However, it’s only in recent years that wellness has really caught on in Sri Lanka to become mainstream.
One of the people first driving the wellness space some 24 years ago was Kishani Gunawardena, who we know today as the force behind the spa and wellness brand Kemara. Kishani’s journey in wellness actually began in 1997 when she formed her first wellness brand Aromystique, which over the years evolved into Kemara.
This week, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Kishani to learn more about Kemara and how it began and how Kishani sees wellness and spa culture developing in Sri Lanka.
The first steps to Kemara
An accountant by formal profession, Kishani worked in the corporate sector for over 15 years, but was stressed to the point of being burned out. She then decided to visit an aunt of hers who was a nurse in the UK, where she got introduced to holistic wellness healing.
“She recommended I come and do this kind of weekend workshop to do with wellness for yourself, how you can use essential oils for relaxation and that sort of thing. I fell so much in love with it that I enrolled to study at Shirley Price Aromatherapy, which was training a lot of nurses in holistic therapy [the UK’s NHS includes alternate forms of healing where practitioners work side-by-side with doctors to produce holistic care]. I learned about essential oils and went on to learn different kinds of therapy, and then to learn about organic cosmetic making,” Kishani explained.
In aromatherapy (physical and emotional therapy using potent aromas), Kishani discovered an inspiring and fruitful way of living. She introduced essential oils to her daily life and her family by extension, for washing, cleaning, medication, and relaxation from the time her now adult kids were babies. Working with her children and family, she saw just how powerful essential oils were in not just keeping her family healthy but also in keeping them calm, productive, and happy.
Her first foray into the wellness market – Aromystique – was something Kishani embarked on as a part-time venture while still balancing her corporate career. About 10 years ago, Kishani decided to take the leap and move into wellness and spas full-time, which was when the brand Kemara as we know it was born.
Kemara as we know it
The name Kemara was not picked lightly and means healing in Sanskrit, because above all this was Kishani’s philosophy – to heal holistically. For her, Kemara is a way of life – a wholesome, complete wellness that permeates your mind, body, and spirit.
Ten years on (officially), Kemara has its own Wellness Centre based out of the Lakpahana property in Colombo 7 and a host of products and packages that are designed to heal people based on their specific needs.
Every customer is given unique, exclusive treatment with each of Kemara’s therapists recommending blends and treatments that are designed to suit individual needs for achieving a holistic lifestyle. All of Kemara’s products are organic, unadulterated, and packaged with special care for the environment, with products and packaging both being tested for biodegradability and toxicity.
“The entire Kemara range is vegan. We have over 100 products that address basically all your day-to-day needs from essential oils for aromatherapy to cleansers, toners, and moisturisers, to a big range of babycare products and other wellness products for anything from a headache to joint pains. We also work closely with homoeopathy doctors to provide more effective treatments for customers with longstanding conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and severe chest colds,” Kishani added.
Kemara’s newest product addition (in a formal sense) is Kemara Cuisine, with Kishani excitedly sharing with Brunch that as of a month ago, the Kemara Wellness Centre also includes a cafe that focuses on organic, vegan, sugar-free, grain-free, and gluten-free meals.
The evolution to Kemara Cuisine was organic and an evolution of the services Kemara already offered its clients. “Diet is a very important aspect of wellbeing,” Kishani explained, noting that part of Kemara’s services was offering meal plans for customers by considering food as medicine, especially for those customers who had dietary issues like lactose and gluten intolerance or who had immune problems that saw them feeling deprived of options when it came to food.
“It got me to look at the health of a client holistically, to look at how we can make food more exciting, and to get clients to look at food as something to enjoy eating rather than feeling deprived,” Kishani said.
After studying different dietary formats from low-carb, to paleo to keto to autoimmune protocol diets, Kishani looked at ways to replicate the kind of food that people like to eat in a format that is 100% grain, dairy, and sugar-free. The kind of alternative meals that Kemara Cuisine offers varies from its interpretation of rice and curry and lamprais to meals like pizzas and burgers and even desserts like love cake and ginger cake.
“Kemara Cuisine tries to cook food that we’re used to eating but with much more nutritious ingredients, from nut-based flours, to yams, to rotis made with root vegetables. Most people can’t believe we make these meals without using the traditional ingredients and we’re very pleased to now have our standalone cafe open for lunch and dinner,” Kishani shared.
Building a Sri Lankan wellness brand
When Kishani started out in the wellness and spa space in 1997, it was largely uncharted and, not to put too fine a point on it, considered a bit sleazy because of the numerous ‘spas’ around the city that didn’t really offer healing therapeutic wellness services. This was one of her biggest challenges starting out.
“Now, when you say holistic wellness, people do understand, but then, even though Ayurveda was well-known as a respected form of healing, people were just not educated about holistic wellness and didn’t understand it completely as an alternative form of healing to give it much prominence,” Kishani explained. “When I first started out, I did a lot to build awareness. The challenge was that people unfortunately misunderstood because spas are all over Sri Lanka and not properly monitored or streamlined, and you can get a bad name because it can sound pretty sleazy when you say you’re opening a spa. But when people walk into Kemara, they do understand that it’s a very different thing.”
Over the years, through awareness and exemplary service, Kemara has built a solid brand name and also the holistic wellness and spa culture in general, with more and more brands entering the space. The pandemic proved challenging for most spas, but because of Kemara’s approach to holistic wellness and the diverse range of products and services it offered, the pandemic didn’t prove to be as challenging. While physical treatments were no longer an option, it was still able to deliver products to clients and give them direction on treatments and techniques they could do at home to boost both emotional and physical immunity.
“People were very happy when regulations were softened and spas reopened, and at Kemara, we have been very careful to do our part,” Kishani said. “Our therapists wore masks (and still do), we sanitise between every client and use disposable items, and the nature of Kemara’s Wellness Centre is that there are no public areas, only private areas, so that really helped in ensuring our clients felt safe.”
Kemara and the future
Speaking about the future of Sri Lanka’s spa culture, Kishani noted that there was a lot that needed to be done, starting with regulating the spa industry, be it by an organisation or independently.
“It could be by Ayurvedic doctors or people like me who are holistically qualified – the importance of qualifications when it comes to holistic wellness cannot be understated. When I try to recruit staff and begin training, they’re always really surprised because they don’t imagine there is any training. In reality, there’s a six month training period.”
In addition to regulation, Kishani spoke about Sri Lanka’s growing position as a destination for wellness tourism, noting that as a wellness destination we had a huge amount to offer, from our Ayurvedic tradition to our food, to the relaxing nature of Sri Lanka itself. But even here, it’s very important that there is an organisation to regulate and visit businesses offering wellness services, look at what they offer, and make sure it is strictly monitored.
“Another advantage Sri Lanka has as a wellness destination is that our prices are reasonable,” Kishani said, noting that certain types of holistic treatments like manual lymph treatments for those with lymphedema and post-cancer treatments could often cost upwards of £ 300 in the UK, but in Sri Lanka these could be offered for much more reasonable prices.
But here too, she noted that strict monitoring was needed: “People shouldn’t be able to just open up a spa. We need strict regulations and guidelines and if we do this properly, we can see skyrocketing wellness tourism offerings.”
For Kishani herself and Kemara, her next step is to keep building awareness and training people in the art of holistic healing and she hopes to do this by founding a school where this training can take place effectively.
“I’m quite keen that a lot of young people look at studying this, because educating people and having qualified professionals in the field will truly help us change spa culture,” Kishani noted, adding: “What makes me really passionate about the field is that even in our small ways, we are able to contribute to the wellness of our people and that is something that I find really rewarding.”