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Ananda In The Himalayas: my experience

Ananda spa treatment“Ananda may be cleaner but in terms of the philosophy and sheer friendliness of the people, this is India in a nutshell,” Anupam Dashgupta, the destination spa’s general manager, tells me over dinner in Ananda’s Ayurvedic restaurant.

The philosophy of Ananda is Indian, its founder and owner, Ashok Khanna, is Indian and the stunning location in the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the Ganges Valley is unmistakeably Indian. It is so Indian, Anupam points out, that “the Indians who come here feel jolted back to their roots”.

Ananda was my first stop in India and an experience I would find difficult to top. True to Anupam’s word, Ananda’s philosophy and the friendliness of its staff were genuine reflections of the India I later explored. Ananda’s philosophy is to take a firmly holistic approach to life. The destination spa prides itself on introducing guests to a healthier, more balanced lifestyle in the long term, as well as treating them to a thoroughly enjoyable stay. Early starts, healthy eating, moderate exercise and philosophical debates are encouraged – things I soon found to be common across the country. My time at Ananda prepared me nicely for three months travelling in India. (Note: The part about Ananda being cleaner was also true...)

Soon after I arrived I had a consultation with Dr Sreenarayanan, a practitioner of Ayurveda for nearly 30 years. Ayurveda is a millennia-old system of complete health care, theory and practice for the healthy and sick. Nothing is deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, you are advised to moderate those foods and activities unsuited to your body constitution. Body constitutions are based on three ‘doshas’, or types: Kapha, Pitta and Vata. After various questions and assessments, including my speed of talking, type of dreams, whether I have a dry or moist touch, the look of my tongue, family and personal medical history, blood pressure and heart rate, Dr Shree announces that I am Vata dosha, meaning I am quick to learn but also quick to forget, imaginative, slender, constipated, likely to suffer from cracking knee joints (that one I will admit to), anxious, a rapid talker and a bunch of other things I forget.

Ananda spa grounds © Craig FastFollowing the consultation, guests receive a tailor-made Ananda Ayurvedic therapy programme, which advises on daily routines, diet and activities. In addition to the programme, there is a weekly activity schedule for guests to pick and choose from. I took part in a yoga class at 7am (early for me: positively mid-morning for most Indians), learnt to do Full Moon Stretches (something I continue to do), joined a group meditation session in the early afternoon (and promptly fell asleep), and attended two discussions on Vedanta.

Initially I was dubious about the Vedanta talks – at first glance it smacked a little too much of religious cult – but, keeping an open mind, I found out that Vedanta is not a faith. It teaches that “Living is an art, a skill, a technique. You need to learn and practise it as you would a game”. As Riyaz Bharucha, the Vedanta lecturer said, “It’s really about perspective. Vedanta gives you the logical tools to cope with reality.” The talks inspired and unsettled me – it made so much sense but at the same time left me feeling chastised – I really don’t manage my time as well as I could! Ultimately the talks were encouraging, and if I went along feeling broken, I’m fairly sure Vedanta could help me fix myself (alongside a qualified therapist, of course).

I didn’t go to Ananda for spiritual guidance though – that was just a pleasant side effect. I went for luxury and pampering, managing to squeeze two treatments into my two-night stay: Tibetan Massage and Abyhanga. My masseuse for the Tibetan Massage was Lhamo, a second-generation Tibetan in India, who trained at Ananda. The spa trains the majority of their masseuses, ensuring the quality of the spa experience is consistently high across the range of treatments available. The Tibetan Massage, developed specifically for Ananda, is an all-over body massage focusing on lymphatic drainage, acupressure and the meridians, using herb-infused hot Himalayan salt poultices and climaxing with a head massage. If you don’t come out of the Tibetan Massage relaxed to within an inch of unconsciousness you’re either super-human, inhuman or dead.

Abyhanga was unlike any other massage I’ve ever experienced. Known as the ‘four-handed massage’, it helps liquefy toxins, normalise blood pressure, eliminate impurities and induce relaxation. I’m not convinced it did all of that for me, because I was kept too alert by what turned out to be one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt. It was undoubtedly pleasant, but I found the synchronised motion of two strong ladies firmly sweeping their hands up and down the length of my body, from fingertip to toetip, too peculiar to bring on relaxation.

One of the most relaxing experiences of my time at Ananda was the ‘Nourishing and beautifying milk and saffron bath’ I had in my en suite. All of Ananda’s guest rooms feature sunken baths next to large windows with panoramic views of either the Maharaja’s Palace of the Ganges Valley. A member of staff prepared my bath, emptying four cartons of creamy milk into running water, before adding a handful of saffron. The finishing touch was a floating layer of pink rose petals. I lay in my milk, saffron and rose petal concoction admiring the lights of Rishikesh blinking on the Ganges plain below me and had some inkling of what life might have been like for Cleopatra (had she ever visited India…).

Getting into bed afterwards was like exchanging one version of heaven for another. My bed, a downy sea of duvet and off-the-scale thread-count sheets, was the only thing that could tempt me away from the bath. I drifted off, nestled in the pillow I had earlier selected from the Pillow Menu. Yes, you read that right – there is a Pillow Menu.

Ananda puts every effort into helping its guests relax. The atmosphere is very laid back, particularly considering the cheapest double room costs US$490 (plus tax) per night. I found the free kurta pyjamas, provided for every guest, to be a great leveller, meaning those who can afford to do this every weekend looked no different to guests who had saved for years for this once-in-a-lifetime spa experience. And, more importantly, the pyjamas are very comfortable - perfect for yoga, dining in the restaurant or simply drifting around the grounds in a state of bliss.

My over-riding impression of Ananda is one of effortless luxury. The holistic Ayurvedic thread ran smoothly through my stay. Whilst choosing from the Ayurvedic menu in the excellent restaurant, one member of staff subtly advised me on which foods to eat as a Vada dosha: “Ma’am, shall I bring you hot water to drink? It is better for your dosha type.” I hadn’t told him I was Vada but an efficient and tightly run behind-the-scenes team makes sure that every staff member strives to ensure your stay is as memorable and effective as possible. And it works.

Read related features and reviews
Ananda: The Hotel


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