I am bad at relaxation. On some level, I’m not even sure I believe in it. More than luck or talent, any success I’ve had – in my career, financially, creatively – can be attributed to a constant push forward. A perpetual search for what’s new, what’s better, what’s next. Is there a way to eat lunch more productively? What if I take a break and no one wants to hire me ever again? Should I try CrossFit? It doesn’t stop, even when I’m sleeping. Midway through a recent breakup call, an ex revealed that I’ve started to make little cuts on my body during the night. She’d wake to find me in a sour sweat, muttering to myself and scratching at my sides, her sheets stained with blood. I wondered if it was a sign.
Around the time of the split, I got the opportunity to visit a retreat just outside Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India. Ananda in the Himalayas has a reputation as the world’s best spa, playing host to A-list guests such as Edward Norton, Oprah and the King of England. Their programs combine a mixture of meditation, yoga and energy therapies coupled with customized spa treatments. Even among bucket list destinations, Ananda felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a journey across the world and – maybe – a place where I could actually learn to chill out. For the month leading up to my visit, I felt equal parts excited and anxious, tripping on the contradiction that my never-ending hustle is both the reason I get invited to places like Ananda and the reason I have trouble fully enjoying them.
A week’s stay at the spa costs between US$3,885 and $20,440, depending on the program and choice of room. It’s a price point hard to comprehend as a freelance journalist, an experience decidedly reserved for other people, like good credit or falling in love. By the time I arrived, I could barely believe I was there.
The first morning at Ananda I had an evaluation with Dr. Sreelal Sankar. I was exhausted with jet lag after a 20-hour travel day when the doctor took my pulse, checked my tongue, and had me stand on a scale. Making notes he asked a number of pointed questions. How were my bowel movements? Stress levels? I avoided direct answers, balancing my desire for help with the desire to appear successful to strangers. If I was stressed it was probably because of how busy I am. See, recently I’d been hired to write on a TV Show. The doctor scribbled on his pad and continued.
Sleep quality? Overall energy levels? When I explained my habit of mixing Diet Dr. Pepper and cold brew coffee, Sankar made a face. I decided not to mention the blood or the night terrors. One final question: are you happy? I mean … sure. Yeah, sure. As the evaluation wrapped, I beelined from the office to the outdoor pool, feeling exposed. Sprawling on a lounge chair I turned on a murder podcast and tried to calm down.
What I had to do
The programs at Ananda centre on ayurvedic medicine, a holistic approach dating back thousands of years that focuses on balancing the doshas. Loosely centred around the elements, the doshas dictate various physical and mental characteristics, covering everything from metabolism to mood. A printout explained that while a person usually has a dominant dosha type, my particular case was a mishmash of contradictions and maladies.
I was listed as Pitta/Kapha: the brain was hot and moving too quickly, the frame was sluggish and moving too slow. At the same time my Vata levels were out of wack, creating skin rashes and high anxiety. Over my week stay at Ananda, they’d try to even things out with a packed calendar of massage, yoga sessions and meditation. I’d follow a specialized meal plan devoid of caffeine, fermented foods and intense spice. There’d also be meetings with personal trainers, acupuncturists and a therapist specializing in past-life regeneration.
The treatments were designed to jump-start huge changes in my life. The spa wanted to help with stress. They wanted me to lose about 30 pounds. Too much fat – and surprisingly too much muscle – was sitting heavy on my life. Supposedly the program could also ease my degenerative eye disease, a claim which put me on high guard. Testimonials for Ananda talk about intense spiritual and physical transformations, but there are few scientific studies backing the impacts of ayurvedic practices on overall health.
Ostensibly I had travelled to Ananda to make changes. Still, the program felt like a lot. Here was a potentially life-altering experience usually reserved for the rich and famous, something people travelled across the globe to partake in. And all it asked was to change basically every aspect of my personality and routine.
Relearning how to breathe
One of the first experiences of my program was a private session of yoga nidra. Through guided meditation, yoga nidra creates a hyper-relaxed state between consciousness and sleep. As the session started, my guide greeted me kindly then immediately paused. Was there a reason I was breathing so shallow? I didn’t know that I was. The guide had me lie on my back and put my hand on my stomach. He told me to take a breath through my nose, fill my belly, and push directly into my hand. I did as told.
“No, fill your belly and push into your hand.”
I tried again. Nope. The guide suggested I take a third attempt. A relaxed state needed breath from my core. Breathing is one of the only things in my life I do without overthinking. Apparently, I’d been doing it wrong.
The other treatments went about the same. During a Thai massage, I was contorted into shapes my body had never dreamed of, a submission grappling match where I wasn’t allowed to fight back. A personal training session started with a body evaluation: painting a portrait of my silhouette that looked like Shrek. An aromatic smoke breathing session meant to clear my sinuses left me coughing phlegm for an entire afternoon.
Outside the sessions, I stumbled into my own practice. Each morning just after 6 a concierge brought fresh lemon and ginger tea to my bedroom. On the balcony, I’d sip the drink and watch the sunrise over the valley, feeling small next to the endless mountains. From there I’d jog the winding estate paths, stopping frequently to gawk at the ground’s free-roaming peacocks and mischievous monkeys. During meals, I’d don the property’s kurta pyjama uniform and eavesdrop on other patrons. Guests regularly spoke of breakthroughs, whispering epiphanies in a hushed tone usually reserved for religious institutions. While this was happening I’d pick at my specialized vegan meal and attempt to reverse engineer the mental jiu-jitsu used to make myself anxious at a wellness retreat. In my head, the same phrase repeated like a mantra or skipping record: why can’t you just enjoy things?
Letting go, and going home
Toward the end of my stay, I had a debrief with the doctor. Smiling with my teeth, I talked about how grateful I was to Ananda for bringing me all the way from Canada. I praised the beauty of the grounds and the obvious care they’d put into the programs. As the doctor looked at his notes everything just spilled out. How can a person breathe wrong? Was my body really that misshapen and useless? Why did every part of me feel resistant to what Ananda offered?
At the end of my rant, Sankar asked me to write my name on a piece of paper. He wanted to analyze my handwriting. Looking over my signature the doctor noted my fixation on what comes next, trying to assert dominance over an imagined future outside my control. Things were done with great effort and no sense of ease. The challenges I had with Ananda’s program, while atypical for their guests, weren’t surprising. Making radical changes, even things that are good for us, inevitably comes with a bit of growing pain. But part of getting better is learning to let go of the things that are making us sick. It all seemed like a lot to distill from a couple of scribbles on a piece of paper. There is a cliché about Westerners travelling to India to find themselves. I think in some ways – through entirely missing the plot – I had that experience, too. Leaving the property I felt more like myself than ever before, though I’m not sure I could say it was a good thing. As a parting gift, Ananda gave a printout offering all the different ways I could include the new practices in my everyday life, suggesting that gratitude is the best brain medicine of all. In the airport, I looked over the notes jacked up on four shots of espresso. I noticed how calm I was while scrolling on my phone, excited about a strong WiFi signal and the hundreds of unopened e-mails demanding my attention. And in that moment I did feel grateful.
The writer was a guest of Ananda. It did not review or approve the story before publication.