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Elisabeth Rushton is soothed, de-stressed and revitalised by a visit to India's leading health resort.

Ananda – bliss and contentment in the Himalayas

Meandering through the swarming, sweaty streets of Old Delhi, it’s hard to believe India is the home of such life-affirming practices as yoga, meditation and Ayurveda. As you weave your way between the ramshackle buildings, narrowly avoiding being run over by cows and countless rickshaws, the last thing on your mind is relaxation and a holistic way of life. Yet just an hour north of Delhi by plane, in the foothills of the Himalayas, there’s the perfect place to do just that.

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Ananda Spa is in the grounds of Maharaja Tehri-Garhwal’s picturesque palace, perched high above the spiritual city and ‘world capital of yoga’ of Rishikesh. In the late 1960s The Beatles came here to seek enlightenment, learn yoga, and meditate – much of The White Album was written at an Ashram in Rishikesh.

Ananda-suite-pavilion-viewThe award-winning Ananda opened its doors in 2000 with a mission to restore balance and harmonise energy. And its location, surrounded by forest in the high-altitude pristine air of the Himalayas makes it the perfect place to start. In Sanskrit, the word Ananda means bliss and contentment, and, like most spa resorts, it’s certainly easy to feel that way here. What makes Ananda different, however, is that it draws on India’s various philosophies and practices to help you chill out, slim down and clean up your body.

The palatial former maharajan residence blends the traditional Indian wellness regimes of Ayurveda, yoga and Vedanta (seeking a higher truth or knowledge through meditation) to holistically treat the mind, body and soul, while the peace and tranquility of Ananda is a real antidote to modern life.

I visited in December to experience Ananda’s Stress Management package, which is especially geared towards frazzled individuals. The vicissitudes of corporate life in London rendered this the obvious choice, but there are over thirteen different packages to choose from, including yogic detox, anti-ageing, Himalayan romance and a ladies spa getaway – each one tailored to a guest’s personal preferences.

Each package contains a unique combination of treatments and activities, but a full body scrub is the inaugural treatment for all the packages. Luis Molina, Ananda’s Spa Manager, explains that the scrub is at once psychologically, as well as physically significant as the initial therapeutic procedure – not only is it the most invigorating remedy after a long journey, but the feeling of sheer spotlessness after having been scoured with essential oil-infused sea salt results additionally in a feeling of mental clarity.

 

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My package included a Wellness Consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor, which involved a diagnosis of my bodily constitution, highlighting how diet and changes in lifestyle could improve my overall quality of life. Ayurveda is a holistic philosophy that matches foods to three different body types, or doshas. I was declared to be ‘vata’ (my husband by contrast was pronounced ‘pitta’). Helpfully, the restaurant offers a menu with optimum suggestions for each of the three body types, in addition to the regular à la carte options. The food, by the way, is absolutely out of this world. Cast aside any preconceptions you might hold about ‘spa food’ – at Ananda deprivation is not on the agenda. Having said that, for those who are conscious of their weight, the good news is that every item on the menu has a calorie count. As well as recommending the foods you should be eating, the doctor will suggest a routine to help improve your health and wellbeing.

Ayurvedic principles are also a salient feature of the spa; the oils and lotions used in the treatments will be specific to your particular dosha. A particular highlight of my host of treatments, which included massages, private yoga classes and an insanely sublime Indian head massage was Sirodhara, or “third eye” – an Ayurvedic treatment that involves a steady stream of oil being poured on to the centre of your forehead. It is said to calm the mind, improve the memory, help insomnia and ward off senile dementia. Well, if that’s what it did, I wanted it.

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To begin with, I was given an abhyanga treatment, which involves two therapists in a synchronised massage using herbal oils. Then I was rolled onto my back and the pouring began. First, the smell – sour and acrid: I wasn’t convinced my nostrils could cope with this for 45 minutes. The next thing I knew, I was being woken up – I had slept through the entire shebang. Exactly the same thing happened the following day – first the smell, then near-coma, much to the amusement of the therapists.

To enhance the sense of calm there were breathing and relaxation classes, not to mention early-morning yoga in the palace’s music pavilion taken by Rishi (otherwise known as Dishy Rishi), the best-looking yoga instructor on any side of the Himalayas.

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Picking a package is the most cost-effective way to visit Ananda, but it is also possible to create your own agenda from the full range of ayurvedic treatments on offer, as well as the usual spa fare from over 40 available treatments such as Thai or Swedish massage, reflexology, body wraps and polishes, facials and pedicures. And should you choose aromatherapy make sure you ask for Poji, who gave me the best aromatherapy massage that I have ever had.

There are a number of group activities available to all guests – two consecutive early morning yoga sessions for beginners and intermediates, a bi-weekly trek to a nearby temple, twice-daily lectures on spiritual topics, a weekly cookery class and a delightful dance show by children from a local orphanage. In fact, pretty much my only grumble is that there were simply not enough hours in the day for me to experience everything that I wanted to during my stay.

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It could have been the altitude – 3,000 feet above sea-level in the foothills of the Himalayas; it might have been the closeness of Haridwar and Rishikesh – sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites – while the Ganges rushed down in the valley; but I have a niggling feeling that my exaggerated sense of wellbeing was actually due to the glorious fusion of massage, good food and daily yoga. I cannot recommend the Ananda experience highly enough.

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