Ananda in the Himalayas—India’s Best Wellness Retreat
Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal’s former palace, Ananda is inarguably the most luxurious, authentic Ayurvedic wellness destination in India. (There are many legitimate Ayurvedic doctors throughout the country, though most don’t practice in a pristine spa setting.) It hovers above the sacred town of Rishikesh, the birthplace and self-proclaimed “capital of yoga,” which was made famous in the West when the Beattles made a pilgrimage there to do Transcendantal Meditation with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ’60s. (The now-abandoned ashram where they stayed is a small hike up into the mountains, a bit closer to the headwaters of the Ganga, which meanders through Rishikesh below.)
These days, it’s less of a pilgrimage (instead of an 8-hour drive from Delhi, you can hop an hour-long shuttle to Dehradun where a car from Ananda’s fleet will pick you up and ferry you into the hills), but it is still removed—and the journey is long enough that when you roll into the palace, you’ll feel like you’ve actually arrived.
That’s the point, because Ananda is primarily oriented around Panchakarma programs that require a 7-night stay—though some Indians come for long holiday weekends, while other guests linger for as long as a month, particularly for more intensive weight loss. (One fellow guest was staying for a three-week digital and work detox: She had left everything, including her iPhone, behind in Europe for fear that WiFi would be too much of a siren song, though her office had still figured out a way to fax her!)
The accommodations are simple and elegant—with balconies and bathtubs that offer sweeping views of Rishikesh, monkey colonies, and the cloud canopy below—though most of the activity happens in the dining room and the spa, which includes a sizable pool and gym. Upon checking in, you’re given white kurtas, which are replenished daily, and so most guests choose to pad around the grounds from treatments, to meals, to yoga, to bed, in these white pajamas, like inmates of a very fancy mental institute. It’s pretty brilliant, actually, because not only does it mean you can pack light, it’s another way that Ananda engineers the stay to strip out the need for much in the way of choice.
To that end, while you’re on-site, you’re in Ananda’s hands: Once you’ve unpacked, you meet with the Ayurvedic doctor-in-residence (see more on that below), who takes your pulses and asks you a series of questions in order to diagnose your primary dosha (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) which is then relayed to the kitchen and spa. Depending on your program (there’s an Ayurvedic rejuvenation, a basic detox, a yoga detox, along with programs that include Western and Thai modalities), your treatments and meals are customized to your dosha. You will leave the doctor’s office with a schedule: Some treatments are rejuvenating and relaxing—Choornaswedena (a massage using herbal bundles), Pizhichil (an Ayurvedic oil bath), Shirodhara (a continuous stream of oil poured on your third eye, which is transportingly wonderful)—while others are detoxifying (an oil enema, or vasti, that is surprisingly not that bad and a nasal passage detox that is borderline painful, among others). And at every delicious meal, you’re presented with the Indian-inflected “wellness” option that pertains to your dosha—though there’s a stacked menu of traditional Indian fare and international options if you feel like deviating…that said, the kitchen will still surreptitiously temper the dish to work better with your system.
But aside from the treatments and meals, which are prepared and executed on your behalf, the success of the rest of the Ananda program is dependent on your own desire to detoxify yourself.
When Ashok Khanna opened Ananda in 2001, he knew that it needed to be more than just a passive spa experience, and so besides Ayurveda, the two other pillars of a stay revolve around yoga and Vedanta. The yoga practiced here is of the ancient sort: Slow, meaningful Hatha, performed under the watchful eye of the staff yogis (a week stay includes multiple one-on-one sessions, unless you’re doing a yoga detox in which case you’ll do daily privates as well as Kunjal Kriya, a detoxifying ritual that involves drinking salt water until you throw up). There are morning yoga classes at the palace for everyone, as well as evening meditations—the highlight being Yoga Nidra, where you hover in the state right before you drop off to sleep (see more, including a guided meditation, below).
But the most profound part of a stay at Ananda is also the most optional: There are Vedanta lectures offered twice a day, in a small salon off the dining room, and you should try not to miss a single one. More than 50 years ago, Swami A. Parthasarthy left his family’s shipping business and began to study Vedanta, which literally means “the end of knowledge.” As the final section of the four Vedas (on which Ayurveda is also based), it is India’s most ancient philosophy. He ultimately went on to set up the Vedanta Academy in 1988, an Ashram-style school outside of Mumbai where students undertake a three-year, 365-days-a-year course of study to learn the philosophy, which is both subtle and blindingly simple. In short, it posits that human beings cannot find peace and happiness because our intellect (not to be confused with intelligence) cannot control our own minds. The mind is our inner child—it is our wants, our likes and dislikes, our emotions—and because we lack the ability to keep it in check, its vicissitudes mean we are never at peace. Ananda has partnered with the Vedanta Academy to bring graduates of the program on as resident scholars to teach Swamiji’s lectures (Swamiji, who is now nearly 90, still tours the world speaking), and each one will leave you reevaluating your relationships to people, as well as your relationships to both things and outcomes (see more below).
Whether you travel to India just for Ananda—or append a detox to either end of a longer trip through the country—it is one of those experiences that will stay with you. Sure, you will emerge lighter, inestimably more relaxed, and perhaps with a bit of a yoga and meditation addiction—but you will also leave with a toolkit for taking better care of yourself back home. And that’s a pretty great investment.
You will spend at least one night in Delhi, and you should spend it at The Lodhi, which is said to occupy the most valuable stretch of land in the city (it used to be an Aman, but when DLF sold the Aman properties back to Adrian Zecha, they refused to part with this particular piece of property). The rooms are quiet and serene (there are also multi-bedroomed suites) with outdoor mini-pools and incredible views of the city, plus there’s a beautiful Ayurvedic spa, tennis courts, and multiple excellent restaurants. And, you know, there’s a gluten-free bakery.
Besides the main residential quarters, guests can opt to stay in the palace suites, or in two private villas complete with infinity pools.
Above, the valley view from Ananda; a yoga pavilion near the palace.
The supplied white kurta pajamas.
Throughout July, devout Hindus make the pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges, up in the Himalayas.
Carlin Pillay, the resident Vedanta scholar.
An Ayurvedic set-up in the spa.
At left, a typical breakfast.
Nothing—and everything—about this typical bus is special.
The gift shop at Ananda is lined with cashmere shawls, the Ayurvedic beauty line used in the spa (they also sell and use ILA), all of Swami Parthasarthy’s books and DVDs on Vedanta, plus some really exquisite jewelry, care of Jaipur’s iconic Gem Palace.
At one of the ashrams in Rishikesh.
At sundown every night along the river, people in Rishikesh gather to celebrate the Ganga Aarati (similar ceremonies happen in Varanasi and Haridwar). The most moving rendition is at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where the saffron-robed children who are studying the vedas there lead the songs (bhajans) in honor of the goddess of the Ganga. They then light small lamps called diyas, which are passed throughout the crowd, before they’re sent down the river as a symbol of renewal. The ceremony is lovely, and open to the public—Ananda will arrange a guide, including a tour of the nearby ashrams.