In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, high above the Ganges, I’m sitting with yogi Sandeep Agarwalla. We both have our fingers in our ears and are making the sound of a bee – a practice called brahmari. Around us, butterflies and birds are flitting from tree to tree in the warm winter sunshine. It’s just us, with our yoga mats rolled out on one of the artificial greens of the golf course of the world’s greatest destination spa.
People come to Ananda for many reasons: the classical yoga, Ayurvedic doctors, spa treatments, weight loss programmes, stress management, meditation and spirituality. Oprah Winfrey and Heidi Klum have stayed, as do couples from Delhi up for the weekend, or international guests on a three-week life overhaul, or simply to decompress and eat healthily. Generally (given the price of admission) those who come here are the mega-rich in search of self-improvement. For me it was a week-long yogic detox off the back of my first successful dry January, and the next step on my journey of yoga and meditation. I didn’t know then that this morning’s moment of bliss on the golf course (Ananda means bliss in Sanskrit) would be the calm before the storm.
Ananda was built in 2000 in the 100-acre grounds of a maharaja’s palace, an hour’s flight north of Delhi, and conceived as a destination retreat based on the principles of classical yoga (the art and science of living well), Ayurveda (the ancient Indian holistic wellness system) and Vedanta (a philosophy of life). Over a few days I was taught how yoga works as a system, balancing the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of ourselves, and how this works alongside meditation. The twice daily Vedanta classes, presented by visiting scholars of the Vedanta Academy near Puna, had introduced me to this ancient wisdom. We had been discussing how our mind is the seat of our desires, always craving this and that, behaving like a fidgeting monkey; and that the counterpoint, our intellect, is very much the underdeveloped partner in this dance. They say that to strengthen the intellect we need to use it, and using it takes consistent practice. I wrote a book of notes and wanted to know more.
A detoxing salt water purge was scheduled for day five. I’d watched the online video about this aspect of the programme, and I was dreading it. Head yogi Sandeep took me to a room where I would be drinking as much warm salt water as I could stomach and then throwing it up, in a practice called kunjal kriya (empty stomach). I hate being sick – I get all worked up. But I’d put myself in the hands of Ananda for a week, come what may.
Naturally I’d skipped breakfast. I’d become used to being on the edge of hungry but not starving, as my programme’s detox calorie-controlled menu was satisfying and regular (I lost 2kg and the Christmas bulge, which felt wonderful). An Ayurvedic menu was prescribed for my constitution (or dosha type), which Dr Chandan had assessed at my wellness consultation on arrival. Three-course menus consisted of lots of soup and tea with delicious warming (and very small) chef’s plates, such as carrot and green pea risotto, crumbled feta and basil oil (302 calories) followed by vegan walnut tart, lemon cream and bitter chocolate spread (110 calories; the sweetness comes from the sativa plant grown in the chef’s garden). I had to ignore a few corks popping at other tables, and simply enjoy instead dining on the terrace in the sunshine, with the clinking of china and the chattering of monkeys in the trees.
Sandeep told me to drink the saline water as fast as I could. This turned out to be not very fast, as I gulped down each mouthful between grimaces. He urged me to drink quickly, explaining that I needed to fill up so that when it came to sticking my fingers down my throat, the gag reflex would have plenty to bring up. If it didn’t come up soon enough, he added, it would pass through the wall of the stomach and into the colon – and there was only one direction after that, necessitating an unpleasant time in the loo. This was rather alarming, and added to the anxiety of the situation. The more I tensed as I tried to be sick, the less I was able. Red faced and bleary-eyed I drank and wretched and drank some more, but nothing came out. Sandeep got me to jump up and down waving my arms around to try to activate a reaction. Nothing. I had failed in my first attempt, and he called a halt. The only thing now was to expect nature’s call.
Meanwhile, there was more salt-water body cleansing to do. Sandeep produced what looked like a little white ceramic teapot. This self-administered treatment is called jal neti and cleans the sinuses. I leant over the basin and drizzled water into one nostril with my head tilted so that it dribbled out of the other. Now this I liked. I had no trouble doing this to both sides. Sandeep then showed me how to forcefully blow my nose, and a breathing technique to dry it. It was all over very quickly and the feeling of having a completely clear head and clean nose was astonishing. It was even euphoric. This could be addictive, but like most things addicts crave, it didn’t last long. “How often do you yogis do all this body cleansing,” I asked, thinking maybe twice a year. “About twice a month,” Sandeep replied.
I headed back to my suite for my date with the porcelain.
The unpleasant business over with, I showered and changed into one of my freshly laundered sets of Ananda kurta pyjamas. I returned to Sandeep for my scheduled hour of one-to-one yoga, starving and shaken by the purging, but still functioning.
We sat in a meditation room facing each other on the floor. I preferred just to talk. We discussed meditation and the mind. The constant chatter in our heads. “We cannot control the mind,” Sandeep said. “So simply observe it. Make friends with the mind.” I said to Sandeep that life can seem overwhelming at times. “Actually life is very simple,” he replied. This wisdom got to the heart of what yoga is all about – not the stretching activity we call yoga in the west, although that is a small part of it, but being on a journey towards self-sustaining peace and happiness.
Every person’s experience of Ananda will be different. I expected some kind of lasting benefit, dove headfirst into everything that was offered and came away satisfied, refreshed, motivated and curious to know more. I hung out and swapped notes with an American couple (a high-flying gastroenterologist and owners of a world-class winery in Napa), and we all agreed we needed to find an extra hour in the morning to put all of this new knowledge into practice.
Two months later, I have. I’m not perfect but I no longer castigate myself for that. I’ve “made friends with the mind”. And I’m working on consistency. As Jonelle Lewis, one of my UK yoga teachers, says: “With practice all is coming.”
At Ananda, one of the sayings is: “To cultivate a beautiful soul is to live in defiance of all that is drab in life. It involves the need to know oneself and one’s surroundings.” The journey continues.