Review – Juliet Kinsman’s Life Changing Programme at VANA Retreat
“Well, I’ll be, says Juliet Kinsman. I went to north India for a week’s holiday, ate to my heart’s content and spent most of my time supine. And you know what – it was the most life-changing holiday I’ve had.”
Ayurveda, India’s ancient system of medicine, is at the heart of Vana Retreats in North India, a luxury retreat that has state-of the-art facilities and world-class wellness experts. Since opening in 2014 it has been declared Most Life-Changing Retreat at Conde Nast Traveller’s Spa Awards. This first luxury sanctuary in Dehradun cost around $55 million to create – and thankfully for wellness seekers, the aim is to create more, globally.
It’s the creation of Veer Singh, whose father is the country’s most distinguished health-insurance magnate. The Dalai Lama came for an official visit the week after my friend and I were there on retreat. (His Holiness is a personal family friend of the Singhs.) What better endorsement could a retreat have?
Vana’s consistently sandy-toned environment starts from when you’re collected from the airport in a glossy 4×4. And so begins your beige escape. Well, I’ll be, says Juliet Kinsman. I went to north India for a week’s holiday, ate to my heart’s content and spent most of my time supine. And you know what – it was the most life-changing holiday I’ve had. That’s because Vana Retreats is a new breed of destination spa with extraordinary wellbeing cuisine, ideal for anyone who fears abstinence or bootcamps. This salubrious road to wellness is smooth and only gently sloped.
Everything from the thoughtful car-sickness-preventing candied ginger and cooler-box of drinks and fruit snacks and the tablet which gives you access to the music library, are sheathed in unbleached linens or pale woods. It’s as though any shiny or rough reminders of the modern world or life at home would be jarring.
Guests are encouraged to shed all vestiges of ordinary life back home – you’re even encouraged to wear the same loose-fitting organic-cotton pyjamas throughout your time at Vana. Of course electronic devices and photography is strictly forbidden. If this all sounds a little cultish, it’s only because Vana’s way of life soon becomes a little addictive. And I haven’t even got to the chanting part yet.
Vana offers 55 individual private treatment and consultation rooms spread across the Ayurveda centre, Tibetan healing centre, wellness centre, spa and aqua fitness. Vana’s philosophy is unique and this is evident in its wellness offering, each part of which has its own dedicated space.
Guests complete a comprehensive pre-stay questionnaire. On arrival, you’re allocated a doctor who conducts your welcome consultation and runs through any medical conditions and goals and creates a personalised programme to help you achieve what you came hoping to treat, plus any concerns that the doctor picks up on.
Your dosha (body and energy type in Ayurveda) is diagnosed as Vata, Pitta, or Kapha (or a combination); this guides eating throughout your retreat.
A comprehensive report is delivered to your room with your schedule and your tailored itinerary of treatments. If any Ayurvedic supplements or medicines have been prescribed, these all-natural concoctions magically find their way to you at the right time. Daily therapies are included in the rate, with options for extra group activity sessions and hikes or tours beyond what’s planned for you. At the end of your stay, you’re given a final consultation and detailed advice and guidelines to take home.
The programme was less about yoga than I was expecting – at Vana, you find yourself discovering new ways of stretching your body. It feels like a sort of Swiss finishing school for elegance and grace for stiff and stressed bodies. There were elderly guests in the Ai Chi lessons who were even balletic in those Watsu-like pool sessions.
The Dance Flow class managed to swap my elephantine thumping for elegant panther-like moves. Describing a spell in the gym helps highlight how even ordinary moments at Vana are extraordinary. There I am on a Technogym stepper, looking through picture windows at trees with yellow-and-green leaves the size of side plates.
A troupe of sizeable monkeys jumps into frame. They don’t bat an eyelid at this human staring at them, as they pause as a family to chew some greenery. It’s like a widescreen theatre. The scenario certainly beats my usual zombie-like stomp in recycled air to MTV in the gym back home.
The whole execution of Vana is stylish yet comfortable – from the designer kurta clothing, to the architecture and design. Despite the sharp contemporary architectural angles, it’s a warm, welcoming place where joy abounds. I am relieved to assure you this isn’t because of any happy-clappy laughter circles or shamanic entheogenic-brew rituals (far from it) – but from my (greedy) perspective, mostly thanks to the generous eating and drinking available whether you’re vegetarian, vegan a meat or fish eater. It’s all far too discreet and decorous here for any controversial new-age therapies – Vana couldn’t feel more professional, at every touchpoint.
Vana’s bold look from Spanish father-and-son duo Esteva i Esteva Arquitectura is very contemporary for such a spiritual retreat, and the cathedral-height main salon feels more like a national gallery than holistic spa. Rgar pastel palette extends to the Himalayas – the mountains are just visible in shades of violet and blue over the tops of the thin trees when you sit poolside. Most suites also look out at those tall, lanky sal trees which make for meditative viewing.
Ayurveda and diet are inextricably linked: diet and digestion are the cornerstones of good health and for this reason, Vana wants you to eat well, according to exactly what your body might need. Two restaurants serve nutritious meals made from fresh, local, seasonal, organic produce. Refined sugars, grains and oils might be missing, but thanks to the cunning of the chefs, there’s only a parade of flavours – such as pavé of lachi fish, roasted potato, bell-pepper jam, followed by a tian of pumpkin, melon seeds, seasonal vegetables, caramelised onion topped off with apple crumble tart and ice cream.
Best of all, total abstinence is optional. I didn’t feel guilty allowing myself a cappuccino hit in the morning – the brews here are organic and the milk is care of cows that have grazed on the Himalayas. If that isn’t soul uplifting, nothing is.
Time with the nutritionist was a huge highlight of my retreat. As well as measuring my BMI, hydration levels, percentage of fat/muscle and all those tell-tale stats, this straight-talking scientist educated me on what I personally should eat more of or avoid.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice here. My favourite takeaway advice (as in learning, definitely, not as in fast-food order) was to think about what we eat as falling into three categories: ‘intelligent’ food: that which is prepared from scratch with love and care; ‘dumb’ when it’s not cooked properly to preserve nutrients; and ‘dead’, that which is packaged or pre-prepared.
Created to be as valuable as the treatments and private sessions, retreat activities at Vana include yoga, Tibetan meditation (gom), Raag therapy, ai chi, aqua moves, nutritional cuisine lessons, mindful tea, Sufi singing and weekly hikes.
Yogasala offers two private studios and a group studio. Vana also has two tennis courts and paths for walking within the retreat.
Don’t miss a trip to the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve – an initiative in Mussoorie created to support conservation, education and local livelihoods. Each season, the reserve promises interesting variations of sight, smell and sound, making it ideal for photography, bird watching, meditation or simply being.