Note to Self: True Wellness Does Not Equate Deprivation — Lessons I Learned at Ananda | Savoir Flair
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Note to Self: True Wellness Does Not Equate Deprivation — Lessons I Learned at Ananda
article JANA SHAKHASHIR
by Jana Shakhashir 10-minute read March 25, 2024

What if genuine wellbeing was rooted not in restriction, but in enjoyment?

article JANA SHAKHASHIR

Going on wellness retreats sometimes feels like Goldilocks' quest for the perfect porridge — some are so depriving that you start to actually regret making your reservation, and some are so laid-back that you question why you’re getting seven massages a day. After enough experiences, you start to believe that you’ll never find one that's just right. For me, “just right” entails a place where I’m not only healing my body, but I’m also learning, understanding, and transforming from the inside out.

There’s a common misconception that all wellness retreats are the same — filled with middle-aged rich people who want to “detox,” (a.k.a. lose weight), spending a couple of weeks in some gorgeous, secluded resort, basically being starved, only to head back home and dive right back into their usual over-the-top lifestyles. But having experienced quite a few of these retreats, I've seen the spectrum. Some lean heavily on the pillars of Western medicine, with its clinical precision and evidence-based treatments, while others embrace the holistic essence of Eastern practices, guiding guests through non-conventional treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, or Traditional Arabic Islamic Medicine. However, there is truly nowhere like Ananda in the Himalayas. After a seven-night stay, I can confidently say Goldilocks found her perfect bowl of porridge. 

I arrived at Ananda during a phase of my life that was, to put it mildly, pretty toxic. “Monitoring my blood sugar” was my stage name for extreme food restriction, work was my drug of choice, and my daily routine lacked any form of emotional or stress regulation. In truth, I was a textbook example of modern-day burnout, blissfully unaware of the havoc I was wreaking on my body and mind because on paper, I was thriving. Work was going amazingly well, the number on the scale was getting lower and lower every day, and I was being consistent in a “healthy” routine for the first time in my life — morning walks, regular workouts, a cocktail of daily supplements, and a golden eight hours of sleep every night. But as much as I thought that I was sticking to this ritual for my health and wellness, it was actually all about looking good, not feeling good. Underneath the “girlbossing,” “skinny legend,” “wellness queen” I thought I was, my body was practically begging for a time-out. And for food.

breaker_image JANA SHAKHASHIR
breaker_image JANA SHAKHASHIR
breaker_image JANA SHAKHASHIR
article JANA SHAKHASHIR

Ananda is more than just a retreat, it’s a journey back to oneself — and Ayurveda is the heartbeat of the entire experience. From the cuisine and food philosophy to wellness treatments and practices, everything is designed to rejuvenate you from the outside in, touching every layer of your existence — physical, mental, and emotional, to reach the ultimate purpose of Ayurveda: enlightenment. The best way I can explain it is through the four goals of Ayurveda: to keep the body in a state of health and free from disease, to free us from suffering, to show us how to use health as a basis for our true purpose in life, and finally, when we are living by choosing things that support our true purpose in life, we are on the path of enlightenment. This was the most astonishing thing for me to grasp: the purpose of my stay at this picturesque, pristine luxury wellness retreat is spiritual awakening. It’s not just that people come here to get a million massages and relax; they are signing on for a much deeper journey of inner healing. 

What truly distinguishes Ananda is its understanding that lasting change can only occur when the mind is addressed alongside the body. The retreat’s philosophy is that you can’t sustain the benefits of the therapies and changes unless you correct the patterns causing disturbance in the physical body. This realization hit home for me, especially when I went in for my check-up halfway through my stay, and Senior Ayurvedic Physician Dr. Sreelal identified that my stress levels were still high. “Your symptoms will not improve while you’re still stressed,” he put it plainly. 

While Ananda embraces a philosophy deeply anchored in Ayurveda, it’s the incorporation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), yoga, meditation, spiritual psychology, Vedanta lectures, and its “friend from the West,” physiotherapy, that makes it a holistic healing journey. Its approach didn't just acknowledge the intertwined nature of physical and emotional well-being but placed them on equal footing. For example, Ananda’s physiotherapist Dr. Palak explained the purpose of physiotherapy perfectly, saying, “You can’t focus on your meditation if you’re in physical pain.” I was the poster child for this: 25 years of chronic slouching and three years at a desk job made it near impossible for me to meditate sitting up straight for half an hour. I actually ended up pulling a muscle in my back because of this, and yes, I am embarrassed about it. But on the bright side, understanding that I was neglecting a key aspect of my path to enlightenment now fuels my desire to strengthen my back muscles far beyond the pursuit of good posture alone (though that's crucial for longevity, too).

I began experiencing intense back pain on the day I was supposed to visit the nearby town, Rishikesh, for the Ganga Aarti — a powerful evening ritual Ananda guests are invited to experience. Standing at the reception, I was determined to push through the discomfort, but the pain became unbearable. In tears, I called Geetika, the Director of Wellness Strategy, to apologize and explain why I couldn't leave the resort. Her comforting response was to rest and not worry about missing the outing. Back in my room, I received an immediate call from Dr. Uniyal, the TCM doctor overseeing my daily acupuncture and cupping treatments. He promptly came to my room to demonstrate some stretches for pain relief and informed me he'd arranged for tablets and a warm compress to be delivered by room service. However, to my surprise and relief, he personally appeared at my doorstep a few minutes later with the tablets and pain gel. His decision to deliver these items in person, stepping away from his undoubtedly busy schedule, spoke volumes of his dedication and care. His genuine concern for my well-being, especially knowing I was there on my own, was deeply touching. As he left, he reassured me, "You are not alone," ensuring me that I’m being cared for by the team. And I wholeheartedly believed him.

It felt PERSONAL, as if they weren’t merely doing their jobs but nurturing me with the SAME affection and detail someone who TRULY cares about me would offer.

article JANA SHAKHASHIR

That’s the other incredible thing about Ananda. You don’t feel like you’re at a *luxury resort* while you’re there; you feel like you’re at your parents’ house. Not your house, your parents’ house – everything from the design to the decor exudes warmth and familiarity, echoing the comfort of your childhood home. At your parents’ house, everything feels right; it's the epitome of coziness, offering a level of comfort unmatched even by your own space, and the care you receive is effortless and attentive, anticipating your needs before you even articulate them. That was the essence of my stay at Ananda. This sense of being cared for extended to every facet, notably through the meticulous efforts of the housekeeping team. Their thoughtful gestures, like placing a hot water bottle in my bed during turn-down service for those chilly winter nights, or leaving a shoe dust bag “with our compliments” after noticing I brought multiple pairs of shoes (shoutout to Vikash), were heartwarming. The fact that they even wiped my laptop screen and keyboard while I was in treatments wasn’t just about cleanliness; it felt personal, as if they weren’t merely doing their jobs but nurturing me with the same affection and detail someone who truly cares about me would offer.

While I was at one of Ananda’s community dinners (an absolute must-try, with two happening each week where you get to mingle with other guests and staff), another guest made this spot-on observation: being at Ananda feels like the whole resort is exclusively yours, and the other guests are like extras in a TV show. While at some resorts, it might feel like one staff member juggling ten guests, at Ananda, it’s as if ten staff members are there just for you, dedicated to making your stay as flawless as possible. Now, keep in mind, Ananda isn’t exactly small. We’re talking 75 rooms, four suites, three villas complete with their own pools, plus an extra suite tucked away in the palace. So, theoretically, you could be sharing the space with around 100 other guests. But during my whole week there, dipping in and out of the spa countless times a day, I barely bumped into anyone else in the changing room. Maybe once or twice, tops, and even then, it was just a fleeting encounter with a single other guest. It's kind of incredible how Ananda makes you feel like the main character, with the entire place seemingly orchestrated just for your wellbeing.

JANA SHAKHASHIR

The magic of Ananda extends well beyond the feelings of luxury, comfort, and relaxation; it creates an environment that feels so familiar, you naturally let your guard down, allowing for a deeper immersion into your healing journey. This openness also transformed my interactions with staff members and fellow guests, leading to some of the most profound moments during my stay. For instance, I was having a very open and honest conversation over breakfast with Geetika about my struggles with food guilt. She told me, “While you may be eating enough to feel full, you’re denying yourself the pleasure of that extra bite that’s just for enjoyment, not sustenance.” By restricting myself of food, I was ultimately denying myself enjoyment. And what is genuine wellbeing without joy? Ananda’s philosophy underscores that wellness does not require deprivation; pleasure and health are not mutually exclusive. Even something as simple as the lemon ginger tea delivered by housekeeping every morning is not just beneficial for gut health, but it’s so delicious that you’re starting every single day saying “yum.”

This innate sense of comfort at Ananda doesn't just make the luxury wellness retreat stand out; it fosters a unique camaraderie among guests. You're not just at the retreat to unwind or chase after weight-loss goals; there's a shared, deeper quest for something more meaningful, making conversations with fellow travelers feel natural — even necessary. It’s as if you’re all tuned to the same frequency, open and ready to share or listen. One evening, as I walked into the dining area, I passed a group of solo travelers dining together. As I greeted them, they gently asked, "Are you in a social mood?" before inviting me to join their table. In another instance, I extended an invitation to a guest to join Geetika and me for lunch, only to learn she needed solitude to process her recent intense acupuncture session — a reminder of the personal nature of everyone’s journey here.

By restricting myself of food, I was ultimately denying myself of enjoyment. And what is genuine wellbeing without joy?

article JANA SHAKHASHIR

My own experiences were equally profound. Following an intense sound healing session that concluded with the healer pointing out my low chakras, especially my heart chakra, I walked into the dining area feeling pretty low. It was a bit of a gut punch, not just because of the session's intensity, but also the realization that my lifestyle choices might be dimming my inner light. So there I was, not really my usual bubbly self, when a couple I’d gotten friendly with picked up on my energy shift right away. I explained my experience to them, and they were all ears, consoling me and sharing their own vulnerabilities after their sound healing session the next day. The way we all supported each other, especially considering we were complete strangers just days prior, makes you feel like you’re at an adult summer camp. We're all there doing our own thing, each on a personal quest for healing of mind, body, and soul, yet somehow, in it together, supportive of one another in a way that only such a shared, profound experience could inspire. It’s this weird, wonderful blend of solitude and togetherness that makes Ananda feel like more than just a retreat — it’s a shared journey.

This brings me to a solid piece of advice: tap into the wisdom of the other guests. If you’re not the type to be able to spark up a conversation with a stranger, I highly recommend joining the hike to Kunjapuri Temple. Trust me, a three-hour trek without phone service is a fast track to friendship. I met a woman who had been at Ananda for a week longer than me, and she quickly became my unofficial guide. She was practically part of the furniture, floating through the property like she lived there, always ready with recommendations for treatments, the best therapists (Ananda Fusion with Krishna, thank me later), and even tips for special meal requests. She loved Kashmiri Kahwa, a delicious but off-limits tea due to its caffeine content. After discovering that Ananda makes its own tea blends, ingeniously, she asked if they could create a caffeine-free version of Kashmiri Kahwa for her (sans green tea). The staff, ever so accommodating, created just that, and even named it after her. So, whenever we craved something sweet and spicy, we’d just ask for ‘The Claudia.’

JANA SHAKHASHIR

Ananda’s ethos is that awareness cannot be forced, only suggested, ensuring that guests aren't pressured into anything. But the amazing thing is that most guests, myself included, wholeheartedly embrace every aspect of the experience. No one is ‘too cool’ for 7am yoga or mantra chanting. Before my visit, mantra chanting was completely uncharted territory for me, but the communal enthusiasm made embracing these practices feel entirely natural. One evening, as I was leaving the restaurant, a casual "good night" to fellow guests turned into a "see you at morning yoga!" Ananda's schedule begins with mantra chanting at 7:15, followed by yoga at 7:30, and I couldn’t help but encourage them to make it in time for the chanting session, rather than arriving just in time for yoga. What I quickly learned after a few chanting sessions was that the more of us are chanting, the stronger the vibrations we each get to absorb. It’s powerful. “Don’t deprive me of more vibrations!” I told them, half-jokingly. “Don’t worry,” they assured me, and true to their word, they showed up. I remember a morning when only four of us were chanting, and the experience, while still meaningful, didn’t quite hit the same note as it did the following day when the room was packed. It’s fascinating how the collective energy and vibrations of the group amplify the experience, leaving you feeling almost radiant, like you’re surrounded by this glowing aura. It’s a testament to how being present and participating not only serves your own spiritual journey but also enhances the experience for everyone involved. 

There's a shared, DEEPER quest for something MORE MEANINGFUL, making conversations with fellow travelers feel natural — even necessary

article JANA SHAKHASHIR

Saving the best for last, the most transformative experience I had at Ananda was during my emotional healing sessions. Although your program might initially include just one session, I highly recommend having two or three sessions scheduled during your stay. My sessions were led by Clinical Hypnotherapist, TransPersonal Regression Therapist, Spiritual Between Lives Regression Therapist, Reiki Therapist, and Hatha and Yin Yoga Teacher, Shikha Sud. (Yes, she wears many hats.) During our very first session, I encountered something extraordinary — I met my inner child. This wasn’t just a figurative meeting; I saw and conversed with a younger version of myself. Picture this: a three or four-year-old Jana, wearing a pink sweater that’s immortalized in a photo at my grandparents’ house, grabbing my hand to lead me through memories of my childhood and teenage years. These were the moments that had quietly shaped many of the behaviors I was trying to unlearn. The specifics of this journey are deeply personal (and honestly, I don’t know you like that), but the crux of it revealed a powerful truth: the harshness I directed at myself was also being inflicted on that little girl in the pink sweater. 

It’s a bit like when wellness experts talk about negative self-talk, and ask, if your best friend came to you and told you she’s feeling guilty about overeating or missing her workout, would you tell her that she’s lazy, fat, useless, or any of the other things you probably say to yourself in these situations? Of course not. Yet, here I was, subjecting not just myself but this adorable three-year-old girl to extreme restrictions and deprivation of joy. Exiting the session in tears, I expressed to Shikha the overwhelming guilt I felt for treating her, my inner child, so harshly. Shikha’s response was a gentle reminder that these actions weren't truly mine; they were reactions, echoes of past experiences my inner child had just guided me back to. This emotional awakening was my loudest wake-up call yet, signaling that a lifestyle change wasn’t just necessary; it was imperative.

So thank you, Ananda, for not just being another stop on a wellness journey, but for being the destination where I found balance, understanding, and a deeper connection to myself. The lessons learned and the experiences shared within your serene confines have left an indelible mark on my journey towards wellness. 

To those considering a visit, know that Ananda offers more than a retreat from the everyday; it promises a voyage into the depths of your being, guided by the best in their fields and supported by an environment that breathes tranquility. It's a place where you're invited to explore, heal, and grow amidst the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayas, a place that truly feels like coming home.

To the staff, the healers, the fellow seekers, and the Himalayas themselves: thank you for the vibrations, the chants, the healing, and the unspoken understanding that we're all on this path together. Ananda redefined what a wellness retreat can be, proving that with the right environment and support, profound transformation is not just possible; it's inevitable. Here's to carrying forward the peace, the lessons, and the glow from this unparalleled experience into every day that follows.

These actions weren't TRULY mine; they were REACTIONS, echoes of past experiences my inner child had just guided me back to.

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