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At India's lauded Ananda spa, a restless vata dosha learns to relaxAt Ananda spa, in the Himalayan foothills of India, guests can clear a gentle path to inner stillness.

November 03, 2013|By Amanda Jones

NARENDRA NAGAR, India — I am a dharma disaster, a chakra calamity.

I cannot meditate. My inner hamster is a maniac, and my legs refuse to cross for that long. So when the saried woman with the serene kohled eyes tells me that I have a private meditation session scheduled, I inform her that I would prefer another herbal bundle massage — my third for the week. She laughs.

"You are a vata dosha," she says in her lilting Indian accent. "We know you do not like sitting still. This is a lying-down meditation. Your job is only to be guided by the instructor's voice and remain in the state between sleep and wakefulness." This I think I can do.

I am in the foothills of the Himalayas in India's northern Uttarakhand state at the remote Ananda Spa. Ananda is a retreat based on ayurvedic medicine, therapies and cuisine, as well as various styles of meditation and yoga. It has been voted the world's best destination spa several times by readers of Condé Nast Traveler and won favor with the celeb set the world over.

But I'm the least likely person to come here, which is why I need it, according to my friend Susan Burks, who decades ago lived in ashrams and consulted gurus and has accompanied me here.

Ananda is perched 11 miles above the holy town of Rishikesh, apparently the birthplace of yoga and the town in which the Beatles famously spent time dressed in kurta pajamas studying transcendental meditation and writing music. After a 45-minute plane ride from Delhi and a one-hour drive from the Dehradun airport, through Rishikesh, over the rushing waters of the Ganges River and up through the forests, we arrived at the 4,500-foot elevation and Ananda in the Himalayas. Outside, a phalanx of beautifully turbaned staff greeted us with namaskar.

I'll admit to a flash of disappointment when we pulled into the driveway. The Narendra Palace, the grounds of which host the spa, looked dilapidated and abandoned. The spa's reception area, in the viceroy's mansion behind the palace, was a throwback to 1930s Raj, almost shabby when my expectation was the wow of the world's best spa.

My room in the guest building down the hill, although comfortable and elegant with a 180-degree view of the Ganges, was simple by design. (There are, however, five luxury suites and three private multiroom villas available.)

A week later I was ashamed of my superficial original impressions. Ananda is not about materialism. It is a spiritual and physical retreat, a place to be nurtured and reminded that balance, gratitude and wellness are tantamount. It's not about the design of the sofa but about how at peace you are while sitting on it.

Ananda has some sort of crazy magic like no other place I've been.

Before arriving, I received a questionnaire with program options: ayurvedic rejuvenation, weight management, detox, yogic or stress management. I chose the ayurvedic, imagining it would involve prone positions and warm oil treatments. Before the warm oil flowed, however, I was required to consult the resident ayurvedic doctor, trained in the many-thousand-year-old art of Indian natural medicine using herbal compounds, oils, special diets, meditation and exercise suited specifically to a body type.

Half an hour later, I left with my world rocked, categorized as a vata dosha, which dictated my physical and behavioral self. Reading the vata characteristics was uncanny — typically thin, not much muscle, dry skin, creative, cold hands and feet, restless, active, quick learner but forgets easily, insomniac tendencies, variable appetite, thrives on irregular routines, speaks quickly and gesticulates, becomes "spaced-out" frequently — and on it went, describing, well, me.

Finally, somebody understood.

Drifting through the marigold-decorated hallways of the calming 24,000-square-foot Ananda Spa, I was greeted by a glowing woman who handed me my daily schedule of treatments, sessions and optional classes. One of the beautiful things about Ananda is that the price (less than most American high-end spas) includes at least three treatments a day, and you can always add from the menu of more than 80 Eastern- and Western-style healings. They put together a spa program that they think is best for you and your dosha — vata, pitta or kapha — and recommend you stick to it, although you can switch.

This is not a place of privation or austerity. If you really must eat the dessert, OK, eat it. If you really need that glass of wine, you can order it (go ahead, pollute your body, no judgment), and if you really don't want liquid ghee poured in your eyes, well, they won't make you.

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