Exotic Spa: Himalayan Bliss
Posted On Aug 17, 2016
A spa-savy emissary from the Western world takes a soulful journey to India to meditate and rejuvenate within the cosseting confines of the mythic Ananda Spa.
BY Inge Theron
PERHAPS IT’S THE slightly elevated company I’ve been keeping of late. Or maybe it really is the result of our collective entry into the “Age of Aquarius” as well as the emergence of a new global consciousness. Either way, it appears that the art of meditation is having a real moment—trending outside of Buddhist monks and cropping up as a daily staple in the “meat and three veg” crowds of the western world.
In an attempt to discover if enlightenment is really all it’s cracked up to be, I embarked upon a pilgrimage to India, to immerse myself in silence at the birthplace of yoga and mediation. If this experiment is to have even an inkling of success, I had best not cut corners.
It’s an arduous trek to Nirvana. Trains, planes, automobiles, and a rickshaw were required to reach my final destination, Ananda Spa (anandaspa.com). Ananda takes its origins from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.” However, after a 10-hour transatlantic flight to Delhi from London and a painstaking eight-hour drive over gravel road (alongside cars and cattle alike) to Narendra Nagar, I’m feeling a bit more like a prickly pear than a devout disciple of the Buddha.
But if ever there were a destination worth such a schlep, it is Ananda. It has consistently been ranked among the top three spas in the world since its 1999 founding, and as I pull up the regal drive, past the uniformed guards, and park outside the Maharaja’s Palace, I can see why. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, the property is a sight to behold, with its panoramic views of abundant ??l (shala tree) forests to one side, the snaking, cloudy-blue Ganges River and twinkling lights of the meditation ashram Rishikesh on the other.
I am checking in for a seven-night meditation retreat run by the London Meditation Center, an offshoot of the Transcendental Meditation school in New York (tm.org). The protocol involves the swapping of my entire arsenal of connectivity—iPad, iPhone, iPod, MacBook, and Blackberry—for a string of Rudraksha prayer beads, flip-flops, and two pairs of kurta pajamas. An even exchange.
HE MANTRA IS LIKE YOUR GOLDEN TICKET. FORGET WILLY WONKA—THIS KEY UNLOCKS UNTOLD POTENTIAL, AND WILL POINT THE WAY TO THE LIFE YOU DESIRE.
HAVING SETTLED IN, I saunter down to the on-site restaurant looking every bit the part in my impossibly chic, all-white pajamas, perfectly accessorized with little Chanel pumps. (Although not obligatory, Ananda recommends that guests wear this garment, the kurta, all day for the duration of their stay. Seriously, where do I sign up? You don’t have to ask me twice to spend a week in my PJs.)
As the guests gather, the friendly staff adorns our necks with beads—the same that have been worn by sages and yogis since Vedic times, imbued with spiritual significance and healing properties. According to ancient texts, or Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge), Shiva, the supreme Hindu god, cried tears of compassion for humanity, which transformed into Rudraksha seeds to assist in healing. I hoped it will work its magic on the looming jet lag, not to mention the killer caffeine-detox headache that has set in.
Following our meet-and-greet, we’re handed a uncluttered schedule with two basic entries: a daily talk and mediation session in the morning and another in the evening. Enter Michael, our guru and teacher, who explains we are to do as little as possible, especially in the early days as we are detoxing (not just from Barolo and Brie but from our WhatsApp-BBM- email- Twitter- and Instagram-filled lives).
“The full benefits of meditation come in the hours following, so be open and quiet so you may receive the answers and clarity you have come to seek through this practice,” he says. In the coming week, we will be learning a Transcendental Meditation technique, the same method used by devotees such as David Lynch and Paul McCartney—a fact I discovered whilst Googling during my airport layover.
Sitting cross-legged, Michael looks saintly as he leads the group discussion. He starts with the tale of his journey from burned-out media executive to blissful guru. He is descended from Thom Knoles, who trained under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—the master who famously taught the Beatles. (Cue up “Within You Without You.”)
He explains the premise for newbies like me. Each of us will receive our own secret mantra during a special ceremony, which will be performed up in the palace. The mantra is like a golden ticket. (Forget Willy Wonka—this key unlocks more than a giant chocolate factory.) If practiced regularly, this mantra has the power to unlock untold potential and point the way to the life you truly desire.
I get the sense that my skepticism is showing, as some of the meditation veterans stare at me knowingly, seeming to subliminally communicate a series of existential messages: “You will see… This experience will change your life. You will never see things the same again, and if you keep up your practice you will experience firsthand the remarkable opportunities meditation brings.”
Apparently, every experienced meditator has a story to tell. It seems they’ve all quit a job, broken up with a significant other, or gotten divorced within months of learning how to meditate. Michael nods in acknowledgement of this tendency and advises us not to make any monumental decisions within six weeks of returning home. Because mediation at this level shakes up our inner selves, it is wise to let the dust settle before making the kind of significant alterations that are so often foretold during meditation practice. It’s a lot to ask in this go-go-go world, but apparently quite key.
Our initiation has come to its conclusion, and while Michael’s back is turned, I hightail it over to make spa reservations and book a few private yoga sessions, pranayama breathing classes, a handful of hikes, a white-water rafting safari, and a few indulgent, detoxifying ayurvedic massages. I plead with the concierge not to tattle on me. “You see, I’m just as open to receiving clarity and calm whilst flat on my back, as hot oil pours down my third eye and four firm hands give me a world-class massage. I swear.”
FOR THOSE WHO approach meditation with trepidation, Ananda offers wellness packages that focus on weight and stress management, rejuvenation, yoga, and detox. Those who require a little R&R can take advantage of amazing a la carte treatments—a list as long as your arm.
The property’s spa philosophy is grounded in ayurveda, the alternative healing philosophies native to India. The 24,000-square-foot spa is gorgeous, simple, and serene. You would never guess it boasts 24 treatment rooms and no fewer than 80 beauty treatments. Fear not: Those not interested in learning to levitate or stand on their heads have plenty to do. The spa is also home to a large gym, an outdoor yoga
shala-cum-amphitheater (at which group classes are free for guests), and a stunning pool.
While I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve eaten a curry in the past five years, I find the food here to be spectacular. All meal components at Ananda are organic—grown fresh in the valley—and the unique recipes are an absolute symphony of flavors. Upon arrival, guests can choose to see an ayurvedic doctor who asks you to fill out a questionnaire to determine your dosha type and how best to eat for your type.
A dosha is one of three constitutional energies that circulate within your body and determine your various physiological traits, according to ayurvedic practice. They are linked to five external substances—space, air, fire, water, and earth. Every individual is governed by a specific dosha. Vata is formed by the interaction of space and air; Pitta by fire and water; and Kapha by the structural properties of earth with water. As a Pitta, I am advised to favor bitter, sweet, and astringent tastes over steaming hot foods. The challenge at Ananda, which features a thrice-daily, buffet feast, is portion control. For the meek of will attempting to shed a few kilos, the staff helps by offering calorie counts.
long & dreamy days
MORNINGS AT ANANDA are particularly special. The day starts with a pot of delicious honey and ginger tea, delivered to your room at the exact time requested. When the sliding doors open to reveal the Ganges River, hot and fragrant air carries the prayer calls from the local village into the room. It’s the most magical soundtrack to start any day.
Guru Michael has the group waking up at 7 a.m. to ensure we have enough time for our 22 minutes of mediation each morning. It takes a couple of days for us to get into it, but sure enough—even the most wired among us (a.k.a. me) manages to drop into nothingness and sit quietly with legs crossed and belly extended in the midst of deep pranayama (or controlled) breathing. I’m pretty amazed how quickly I have gone from 100 to zero. As has been promised repeatedly, my sleeping is better than it’s been all year.
I’m feeling sprightly and my skin is glowing. Michael says that from all the ‘bindi juice” I’m producing during meditation—like that dewy je-ne-sais-quoi one has when they’re in love. A similar biochemical effect occurs during meditation in which we produce a special, anti-aging glow. To look at Michael’s perfect skin, I’m eager to learn more. When the body is under stress, and the mind is agitated, we age at a faster rate. Consequently, the body’s pH balance becomes more acidic, a state that decreases collagen production and reduces skin elasticity. As stress is alleviated via meditation, the body is brought back into balance.
Michael suggests that we not wash our face for an hour after mediation to allow the magic to work. (I ask you, can this place get any better? You’re asked to stay in your pajamas, not check any emails, keep your phones turned off, talk only when you absolutely feel it’s necessary, and not wash your face. Is this heaven?)
My afternoons are filled with contemplative walking mediations on the grounds, and whenever Michael is not looking I sneak into the spa for an ayurveda treatment. Some of my favorites include the Choornaswedana, or “bundle massage” treatment, designed to increase circulation, speed up toxin elimination, and relieve issues ranging from muscle pain and stiffness to rheumatism, arthritis, and sports injuries. It’s comprised of a deep full-body massage with dosha-specific oils, followed by an application of warm, herbal poultices to induce sweating.
The Abhyanga also is an absolute knockout—a synchronized, full-body massage given by two talented ayurveda therapists (bless them) using herb-infused sesame oil—also known as the “four-handed-massage.” Perhaps the most famous of all treatments here, Abhyanga’s sesame oil pulls out all the toxins from your body and induces relaxation while eliminating impurities. For those not keen on ayurveda, the spa offers a signature Ananda Fusion Massage, combining Thai, reflexology, aromatherapy, deep tissue, Tibetan, and Swedish techniques. Among the most virtuous melanges I’ve ever experienced, the Fusion is customized to an individual’s personal requirements and has a powerful therapeutic effect.
Your muscles are not the only things that will thank you for these delicious onslaughts to your senses. Each ritual begins with a gorgeous blessing sung by the therapists using bells and gongs. The exotic smells of essential oils, peppermint foot lotions, and hot Tibetan poultices will have been selected to match your requirements, and take you on a soulful journey. And, this is all before anyone has laid a finger on your body.
EVEN THE MOST WIRED AMONG US—A.K.A. ME—MANAGES TO DROP INTO A STATE OF NOTHINGNESS AND SIT QUIETLY, IN THE MIDST OF DEEP PRANAYAMA BREATHING.
FOR THOSE WHO wish to augment their relaxation and mediation with a lively dose of sightseeing and time spent out-and-about, look no further than Ananda. There is an abundance of treks deep in the foothills of the Himalayas—at a variety of lengths and levels to choose from—that you can enjoy with a group or a private guide. I strongly recommend the white water-rafting adventure—a tick in the box of things I had hoped to do before I die. A shopping excursion to Rishikesh was perhaps not as high on that list, yet it was very fun. For those not shy in the ways of bartering, there are amazing deals to be had, especially in pashmina and colored gemstones.
All the while, there are daily ceremonies taking place on the riverbanks. Most weeks, traveling gurus and tens of thousands of their disciples descend upon Rishikesh. Anyone can listen in and participate. Or let your curiosity guide you to an ashram for a silent supper. It’s the perfect way to end your day in the village.
The vibrant experiences beyond the Ananda grounds complement the care and beauty experienced within—feasts for the senses and salves for the soul. I feel utterly cared for by the people around me, I can’t help but care for them back and—best of all—I’m learning to be a steward of my own well-being. The lessons I experience are treasures, all.
My time at Ananda was as life-changing as was promised. With streaming tears I bid my farewell to staff and the new friends I made. They became family. As I pen this story, I realize the truth in the lessons that I learned there. Though I physically left, the experience lives on with me every day as I practice my meditation.