water-vana-wellness

Mostly, we lead our lives on the clock. Leisure time becomes time leftover from work. Sleep is counted by the hour. We go on a disappointing date and an hour feels like an eternity. But in the slippage, in between, when we dream, or the moments in which we begin falling in love, time pauses. Events do not follow a logical sequence and things are themselves, unburdened by representation or reference.

Nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, there is one such portal that transports you into a realm beyond linear time. Part luxurious Kurhotel, part Ayurvedic retreat, mystical sect and hyper-surveillanced private community, Vana (meaning total silence or bliss) immerses you into an otherworldly experience of precision and playfulness, medicine and magic. This is Vana’s main manifesto: leave the accessories of your “real” life behind, because, as the sufi mystic Kabir says: “You are made up of everyone and everyone is made up of you.” Upon passing its gates, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and habits of the external world disappear. You feel like you have been initiated into a cult that you never knew you always wanted to be a part of.

Vanavasis (the guests) are greeted ceremoniously and guided through the rites of passage that mark their ordainment into this new world. There are no cars on the lush 21-acre estate (electric golf carts are at the disposal of the differently abled). You sign a pledge that limits your use of technology to your private room – no photographs are allowed either. Clothes are to be shed in favour of white organic cotton kurtas and pyjamas (a fresh pair is delivered once daily to the room). The white outfits don’t feel like a uniform; instead, they flatten differences, equalising your relationship with other residents. Undistracted by symbolism, you are intensely aware of another person’s aura, that clarity and mystery of character that pulses around them. Vana is an exercise in mindfulness, but not the kind that is marketed to beat the clock, rather the kind that allows the repetition of the clock to journey along towards brilliant reverie.

Undoubtedly the most important ritual of commencement is the wellness consultation with a doctor, whose findings will determine the treatments to govern your daily rhythm for the following weeks (the retreat requires a minimum stay of one week). This first consultation is an act of intense self-awareness, an invitation to listen to your body’s question. The Ayurvedic doctor checks your pulse and explains how each of us is comprised of three doshas (temperaments) formed from dominant elements within you. Vata is air and ether; Pitta is fire; Kapha is water and earth. You receive your diagnosis. “You are Vata, but your Vata is aggravated. This means your air is a little unruly and its traits are accentuated: dry skin, cold fingertips, sleepless nights.” Vatta is informally deemed the “jet-lag” dosha, since it is characterised by high mobility, flightiness and dispersal. What begins as an assessment of your skin becomes a verdict of existential persuasion.

Your first diagnosis is a perfect microcosm of your stay: though simple, no suggestion is straightforward. As Dr. Unniyal, the traditional Chinese medicine expert explains: “We are made up of three interconnected meridians, so that if I am treating your lungs, I must also treat your heart, your mind and your large intestine.” He is part fortune teller, watching you intensely as you reckon with yourself, reading your tongue, your hands, your eyes and your ears, which are described as a mirror to your embryonic self. He can not only foresee the health concerns you might expect but also gauge your weaknesses at birth. “You are advised to counter your wings and enhance your digestion with the Gom meditation and Om chanting sessions. Frequent travellers like you, commonly imbalanced in Vatta, must find stillness, roots, home.”

Drawing from the ancient healing and wellbeing traditions of Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine, yoga and an array of assorted natural therapies ranging from deep-tissue massage to Chinese acupuncture, every Vanavasi is given a personal schedule of two daily treatments. Every therapist is highly trained in their discipline, inspiring a great deal of trust (many of the Tibetan therapists, for example, are trained at the Dalai Lama’s Men Tsee Kang before joining Vana; the Ku Nye and Hor Gyi Metsa massages use hand-picked herbs and healing oils and are transcendental). Additionally, activities ranging from early-morning yoga and bird-watching to evening lectures and excursions are programmed for the week.

This schedule is framed by and integrated with three meals at one of Vana’s two restaurants. Salana offers a contemporary, global cuisine with à la carte dishes from a small menu that changes daily. Anayu offers food prepared according the principles of Ayurveda. Three different thalis (a platter consisting of four or five dishes) correspond to the three different doshas. Their composition changes with the season and the time of day. The food is largely organic, vegetables are sourced from their network of farmers and herbs, salads are homegrown and meats arrive from nearby farms where happiness is priority. Every waiter knows both the general principles of Vana cuisine as well as your particular requirements. “Your Vata imbalance is countered with warming foods cooked in nut oils, topped with saffron, cardamom and cinnamon.”

From the smear of pumpkin puree on a plate of duck confit to in-room amenities like a comb made from a neem tree, the highly personalised details of Vana are so artful that it seems to set an example for a way of being: if nothing else, then live with attention and intention. In this forest of contemplation, the meditation instructors help you breathe in the past, breathe out anticipation and accept the present, at the nib of your nose, where your eyes focus softly. By bringing all time into a single point: “I realise that I am realisation itself.” If there was ever a time for care, it is now.

Here, the ancient and the contemporary are held together by a string, not too tight, not too loose, like the strings of a lute. Vana’s design is inspired by sacred architecture, with an ethereal flow of light, wood, water and metal. All this is punctuated by the contemporary art and performance residencies commissioned by Vana’s creator, Veer Singh. The clocks, placed very subtly across the space, are objects of beauty. They seem to blend into the background, almost invisible. In a place where routine is encouraged, you watch time pass, accumulate, see it from the outside, bowing to it then humbly withdrawing from it, knowing its unimaginative mathematics, knowing also that intuition has your back. Here, at Vana in the bliss, even if briefly, you are now.

Himali Singh Soin is a writer based between London and Delhi. She is currently working on a book, We Are Opposite Like That, from the polar circles, the coldest, driest, windiest parts of the world.

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