Finding Balance and Peace at Ananda in the Himalayas

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Ananda in the HimalayasAs I wobbled a bit on my right leg, my left leg bent in the tree pose, I sought to find my balance and thought of the irony of my seven-day wellness experience at Ananda in the Himalayas in India. I was here seeking balance, with treatments, lessons and food designed to put the elements of my dosha in line. The natural healing system of Hindu medicine called Ayurveda believes every human being is composed of three energies that determine our characteristics; Vata, Pitta or Kapha, with one being dominant. I’m Vata, the dosha most easily thrown off balance by travel, particularly by air. And I had never been farther away from home.

Just about everything I was doing was foreign to my everyday life. I was ordering items off a menu with no real idea of what would arrive on my plate. I was greeted with Namaskar! with folded hands by everyone in my path, I was wearing pajamas all day, even to dinner. I changed out of them only to put on a robe and be led through a maze of hallways to a treatment room where I had only the vaguest idea of what was to come.

The entire experience was customized for me, with an emphasis on holistic wellness for the mind, body and soul. The setting was ideal: a gorgeously landscaped 100-acre uber-spa on a hilltop in the foothills of the Himalayas, with the quiet broken only by a braying peacock and the nightly sounds of bagpipers as evening fell. The flights across the world were just one leg of this journey; I traveled even farther on the inside at this luxurious, transformative spa.

Accommodations: Lock the balcony to keep the monkeys out.

room, Ananda in the HimalayasAnanda has 70 rooms, three garden suites and two villas where people like Prince Charles and Camilla, Ricky Martin and Oprah stay. (Oprah called it “the most authentic spa experience I’ve ever had.”)

My room was simply, but beautifully, decorated with a view down the mountains to the twinkly lights of Rishikesh below. I loved my huge walk-in closet, where two crisp pairs of white kurta pajamas appeared daily.

One of the best things about Ananda is the morning delivery of ginger tea, delivered at your desired hour. I sat on my balcony each morning to enjoy it, being careful to lock the door behind me as instructed, to prevent any unwanted visitors.

Treatments: The mind is body and the body is mind.

oil treatment, Ananda in the Himalayas
I would enter a treatment room, disrobe, lie down and after two women chanted over me, await whatever mysterious treatment was about to begin.

Packages are available for 5, 7, 14 or 21 nights. Options include stress management, weight loss, renew, yoga and detox. My seven-night rejuvenation program included three meetings with a staff physician. At our first consultation, Dr. Mathew asked several questions to determine my dosha (Vata) then reviewed my extensive treatment schedule.

Ananda embraces the tri-dosha theory, a philosophy of Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that originated in India. The five elements — air, space, fire, water and earth —  all combine in each of us in a unique way. By determining our dosha, we can alter our diet and habits to maintain optimal physical, mental and emotional balance.

Ananda is built on the grounds of the Maharajah Palace. When the wellness center was built, no trees could be cut down, so all the buildings had to follow the existing topography.

All of the treatments and doctor’s appointments took place in the gorgeous 24,000-square-foot spa, which also includes a gift shop and gym.

Upon entering the treatment room, I was seated and my feet slipped into a warm tray of water with stones on the bottom, while two therapists sang a beautiful prayer to me before beginning to work their magic. With treatment names like Choornaswedana, Shirodhar, Abhyanga and Udwarthana, I often only had a vague idea of what I would be treated to.

During various treatments, my entire body had an uber exfoliation treatment with a dry powder massage, was pounded with warmed herbal poultices, worked top to bottom by two therapists at once. I had warm oil poured slowly over my forehead, and also massaged gently into my right knee, and the best facial of my life. There were only two I wouldn’t repeat: nasyam, a nasal cleansing that included breathing in the smoke from burning rags (major ow!) and Pizhichil, an oil treatment during which more than three quarts of oil was poured over my body and gently rubbed in. Way too intimate, although modesty had long ago been tossed aside because, as one guest said, “This may people haven’t seen me naked since college.”

Dining: Just because its wellness food doesnt mean it cant be good.

food, Ananda in the Himalayas
The food was beautifully presented and every meal was delicious. The only time I strayed from the vata menu was the night they served Indian street food. Who could resist?

After my first delicious lunch of sea bass and coconut soup, pre-dosha diagnosis, I pretty much stuck to the Vata menu, which was presented at every meal in the restaurant. Although I often didn’t know what to expect from the description, just about every item was truly delicious. I learned to trust the chef after chowing down on every bite of a breakfast item described as spring onion with cabbage chutney. A typical lunch item choice was the delicious spinach, walnut and apricot filled phyllo cup with red pepper coulis, sweet mango chutney and a pineapple ginger shooter. But the option to order something else was always available.

I did have to vacate my Vata a few times: one night I couldn’t resist the delicious-smelling dishes of Indian street food being freshly prepared and one day I just to have the equally enticing lunch buffet.

“As much of the food as possible is organic and sourced locally. Just because it’s wellness food doesn’t mean it can’t be good,” the General Manager said.

Although alcohol is available, I kinda got into the wellness thing, and opted not to drink, with the sole exception of a glass of Indian wine on my last night.

While I doubt the selection of goodies is on any of the wellness menus, High Tea is available daily in the palace from 4:00 to 6:00, and I appreciated not seeing a calorie count for the tea sandwiches and pistachio eclairs I piled on my plate.

A selection of delicious juices are available for breakfast and each meal is served with hot water and a powder matched with your dosha, a habit I vowed to continue at home with the help of the purchase of some from the gift shop.

Classes: Pranayama in our Pajamas

tree pose, Ananda in the Himalayas
Me struggling with my best tree pose. I wore a pair of these white pajamas 24/7 at Ananda.

“Just breathe,” goes the song. But there’s a lot more to it. There are different types of breathing with various uses, such as calming and de-stressing that I learned during a 30-minute Pranayam session. That’s one of the things I learned in the private and group classes I took during my week at Ananda. In addition to stretching the limits of my lungs, I stretched what felt like every ligament and muscle in my body during daily yoga classes.

We were led through a guided meditation in a yogi nidra class, during which I did achieve a deep sense of relaxation.

Other classes available during the week include golf (Ananda has a six-hole golf course), morning stretch, core stability, fab abs and lower body blitz. My schedule, which included 21 sessions in the spa or with the doctor, didn’t allow a lot of extra time. When I felt the need for more cardio, I hit the gym or walked up the steep hill to the flower-lined oval walking track by the palace.

Excursions: Up the Mountain and Down to the River

orphans in Rishikesh
I stopped to pose with the orphans on the way to their nightly river ceremony in the Ganges, one we were privileged to attend.

While there is plenty to keep you busy at Ananda, this was my first trip to India and I eagerly anticipated the two excursions offered. One evening we were driven down to the town of Rishikesh, the home of yoga, for a nightly Ganga aarti Hindu fire-offering ceremony performed by orphan boys in a nearby ashram.

After winding my ways through the narrow streets, busily dodging the zooming scooters and roaming cows, I dipped my toes in the river, then settled down on bleachers to listen to the mystical chanting and singing as the sun set over the river. The ceremony concludes with the lighting and passing around of the lamps and I happily held and circled one when it came my way.

There are only a few public aarti ceremonies in India, and I felt honored to have attended one. 

My second excursion took me on a hike of several hours, up the mountain to Kunjapuri Temple. On the trip up we encountered a few, isolated villages populated by a few families and several cattle.

The fabric-and-flower-festooned temple space is quite small, but a few of us made our way inside where we received a blessing and a kalava, the sacred Hindu thread, wrapped on our wrist — for me the left because I am married.

My Last Namascar: The clouds are crying.

ladies at temple, Himalayas
These colorfully dressed ladies were just hanging outside the small temple we visited in the Himalayas.

“The clouds are crying because you are leaving,” our waiter told me at breakfast on my departure day from Ananda Spa in the Himalayas. I felt a little sad as well to be leaving this safe cocoon where all I had to focus on was balancing my mind, body and soul.

But in addition to my own pair of kurta pajamas and Vata powder, I was taking home something else: breathing techniques to deal with stresses of everyday life, a vow to take up yoga again, and a reminder that the best life comes from a balanced life.

Getting there: It’s a 45-minute flight from New Delhi to Dehradun, then a 50-minute drive to reach Ananda. The closest town is Rishikesh.

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