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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Rakel

Vana: The Indian retreat that changed my life

From being doused in oil while lying on a wooden massage table in my birthday suit, to lessons on expectations, here’s how a trip to an Indian retreat was the turning point in my life.

I sat crossed-legged in front of the yoga master – we’ll call him Dr. Dan. I’d done a yoga lesson once before, but this was far from what I thought the lesson would entail. Dr. Dan sat with a perfectly straight back, his limbs folded neatly under him. I, however, was squirming. I have many things to appreciate in life, but having flexible limbs is not one of them. Much to my surprise, my one-hour yoga lesson with Dr. Dan, was not going to be about contorting into a pretzel, it was about the mind and exploring alternative thought processes. I didn’t know at the time, but you can go to university and study yoga. It is so much more than a class full of people bending over and backwards; it is a philosophy and a lifestyle.

In this particular moment, I found myself back on the premises of the Ayurvedic retreat called Vana, located in the hills of Dehradun, India. I had ventured into this serene holistic environment for the first time in November 2016 and now, two years later, I was back. Vana is a place where you get to slow down and adopt another mindset. I had a professor during my masters who urged students to borrow other people’s brains, and this is a place where you commit to that mind, body and soul.

Deciding to go to Vana

I was irritated by the clinical mindset to health in Europe and wanted to experience something that looked at your existence holistically. My mother’s friend told us about Vana and shortly after, I was on my way to India. When you leave Dehradun airport, you drive through the most spectacular scenery. There are bending rivers where monkeys sit, cows roam the streets (they are holy in India) and lush rice fields expand across vast territories surrounded by mountains. Your journey starts by being exposed to remoteness and life that adopts a slow pace. For many of us, this is the bi-polar to our daily lives.

Dehradun is a bustling city, but one sharp left-turn off the main road and you enter into the oasis known as Vana. At Vana, there is a no-electronics policy in the common areas, meaning your screen activity is contained to your bedroom or their IT room. You barely spend any time in your room, so you essentially get a digital detox while you are there. While you are free to wear your own clothes, every guest is given white linen pyjamas (called a Kurta) to wear throughout the stay. Unless you’re just arriving, about to depart, or going for a gym session, everyone wears them. Most guests also use the canvas bags that are in the room, to carry around their belongings. It is a fascinating experience watching those, who have been around for the majority of your trip, depart, because it’s usually the first time you’ll see them in “normal” clothes. Once you see someone leave, you are reminded of how much we rely on appearance to decipher someone’s personality and status.

Vana is designed to be easy on the eye. You won’t find harsh architectural lines or loud colours. The interior design is all in muted earth tones and soft shapes. They have their own garden where they grow many of their own vegetables, and the premises is dotted with garden swings for you to sit and enjoy the nature and wildlife activity around. While walking around you’ll see massive black and yellow spiders that have woven impressive webs in the bushes, come across wild flowers that you pay handsomely for in flower shops in Europe and occasionally come across groups of monkeys. As you walk along the paths, the scent of flowers fills the air, and whenever you pass a member of staff, you both take the time to bow your heads, have your hands in prayer and say “namaste”. There are even small signs in the flower beds reminding you to walk mindfully; there is no rush.

The stay

Your stay at Vana starts off with a consultation with your doctor. In order to craft a program for you, your doctor needs to evaluate which dosha sign you are: Pitta (fire), Vata (wind) or Kapha (water). The doshas “refer to your unique physical and mental constitution” and are made up of the natural elements. (Here’s a good explanation of what the doshas are )

The doctor determines your dominant dosha by examining your pulse. The two times I’ve been at Vana, both the doctors placed their fingers on my wrists, bow their heads, close their eyes and for about a minute we sit in silence as they feel my pulse. At first I was sceptical how a pulse could show them anything, but remarkably their evaluation after examining it, has always been correct. Spooky. After this, they create a program for you where you meet various holistic practitioners. Vana has three “hubs” – the wellness center where you’ll find your classic spa treatments but also home to the acupuncturists, natural realignment and the stomach masseuse (oddest treatment I had, but also very interesting). Then there is the Ayurvedic center, where all Ayurvedic treatments are done and last but not least the Tibetan center where Tibetan treatments take place. The Tibetan center also has its own prayer room, which has been blessed by the Dalai Lama. Furthermore, there’s pool facilities, a gym and a pool for treatments where water therapy takes place (probably the most relaxing thing I have ever tried in my life). If your doctor wants to you to take supplements from the apothecary they’ll send word to the staff. You won’t find any pills in their apothecary, it is all-natural supplements you are given. When you go for your meals, the staff will simply bring you your supplements; they’re so attentive and always know what each guest needs and simply bring it. My programs have consisted of treatments from each center. Marry all the different treatments together and your body goes into insane detox mode. There are also activities throughout the week everyone is welcome to partake in like yoga, om chanting, hiking, visiting Rishikesh, learning the kitchen’s recipes etc.

A ceremony at the Ganges river in Rishikesh

Speaking of recipes, their food is absolutely delicious This is not a place where you go hungry: even when I had to do a 3-day detox, I was served plenty of nourishing soups and savoury porridges that were packed with flavour. The Ayurvedic lifestyle encourages you to have food that is savoury, sour and sweet. Every afternoon, there is afternoon tea where bite sized desserts and sandwiches are served. I dare say, this is a highlight of the day for many! If my mum, sister or I had an activity during the time afternoon tea was served, we’d always get one or the other to save a few snacks.

The Program

While my program for both stays were intensive and included many different practices, here are some of the most memorable treatments.

Shirodhara, at the Ayurvedic Center: At the Ayurvedic center, women are treated by women, and men by men. Their treatments involve a lot of oil. I’m pretty sure you’re doused in several liters during one treatment. The oil holds healing elements and the practitioner will massage it into you vigorously and let you marinate in it. You wear a linen cloth, which for the most part, at some point they’ll just ask if you’re comfortable ditching and lie there stark naked. Their hands glide up and down your body at such a pace that the strings on the side get in the way. If you can muster courage to just be in your birthday suit, do it. Unlike traditional massage tables, here you lie on a wooden table where there are grooves in the edges to catch the oil.

Shirodhara, is just one type of Ayurvedic treatment and while there are many ailments the practice treats, I was getting it to help with my anxiety and depression. For about half an hour oil is consistently poured onto the center of your forehead and two women are there for most of the treatment. One of them collects the oil and strokes your hair as the warm oil cascades from your forehead and out over your locks. It feels like being nurtured. I often felt like a lost whale blubbering about in the mass amount of oil, and I was always a little nervous when starting the treatments as I felt very exposed. There’s no covering your chest either as their hands glide between your sternum and under your breast to outline the ribcage. But these practitioners don’t make you feel embarrassed about your body and show such immense care in your well-being that you learn to embrace it.

Ku Nye at the Tibetan Center: This was probably one of my all-time favourite treatments. As the massage starts and when it ends, the practitioner chants a Tibetan prayer and taps a small gong. During the treatment, herb bundles dipped in hot oil are pressed on certain points of the body – temples, palms, soles of your feet. It is an incredibly healing experience.

Acupuncture at the Wellness Centre:

I’ve had acupuncture in Europe, and if I’m honest, I’m not a fan. So, when my doctor ordered acupuncture for me, I sighed heavily. My sigh and scepticism was not warranted, because the acupuncturists at Vana are small miracle workers. On both trips after my first acupuncture sessions, I was so overcome by emotion, I’d just sit sobbing. Don’t ask me why, but they did something, and whatever it was, it was a relief. Both acupuncturists I’ve seen at Vana seem to have a sixth sense. The acupuncturist my mum has seen, seems to as well. I know it sounds very hocus pocus, but these practitioners tune into you like no one you’ve ever met before.

Water therapy: Whenever I’ve been swimming with my mum, she says I should have been born a fish. Of all the elements on Earth, I find water the most healing. I loooovvvee the ocean and I love swimming. Needless to say, I felt incredibly comfortable during the water therapy. The therapist floats you, and then gently glides you through the water, twisting you this way and that while keeping your head above water. I felt like my spine was elongated during the sessions. I remember for many stretches the therapist had two fingers planted at the base of my skull, pulling me through the water, while her other hand took a hold of me knee and bent me around her torso. The stretch was amazing and being weightless in the water, made the move effortless. The key to this therapy is to relax. You really have to let go and trust that the therapist isn’t going to dunk you under water. You’re also given playdough-like ear plugs to keep the water out, so you don’t have to stress about water seeping into your ears – obviously a bit will get in, but you’re not going to be pouring out the pool from them once the session is done. If you ever get an opportunity to do water therapy, I highly recommend it. But remember, let go of your body and trust the therapist.

These are just a handful of the therapies that contributed in changing my life. My first trip back from Vana, I was a different person. The trip was the beginning of finding genuine happiness; my body hadn’t just detoxed, so had my psyche. Every practitioner you see, usually has a life lesson or sound words of advice for you. Their thinking is so different from what most of us are used to; it’s kinder, softer and peaceful. Contrary to what you believe, the lack of harsh thinking creates a stronger core; maybe because you decide to become settled in your own being and trust your instincts. Who knows…But one of the biggest mental lessons came from sitting uncomfortably cross-legged in front of a yoga master.

Back to Dr. Dan…

Here I was October 2018, sat in front of Dr. Dan and feeling my spine collapse. Dr. Dan is a long and limber man, with piercing eyes. We’d often sit in a moment of silence as I absorbed his words and I felt intensely watched by him. As he spoke, his calm voice talked about life. His words, meant to infiltrate my brain and give me an “a-ha!” moment, were falling short as I writhed my body to keep myself up-right. Eventually, noticing my sorry state of spinal strength, he told me to switch places with him so that I could lean against the wall. Finally, I could listen. Dr. Dan told me many stories. He told me about a friend who had vitiligo and that it is said you get that if you brought shame to your parents in your past life. Needless to say he also told me about stories of being reborn. He also told me of a man who needed a back operation to alleviate his spine, but instead, the Indian doctors placed weights on his feet as he lay in bed for a month, to stretch the spine. It worked. But there was a particular story that often pops up now and again. We were talking about having expectations and he told me a story, which went like this:

Imagine that a friend asks you to lend them money. Being a friend, you say yes. Now imagine that the very next day you pass your friend on the street, and they completely ignore you. If you’re feeling hurt about being ignored, you have placed expectation on your gesture. You expected, that in return for money, there would be gratitude. Had you simply given the money for the sake of giving and expected nothing in return, you wouldn’t have been hurt. Dr. Dan’s point was, that you cannot place expectations on others, because you cannot control other peoples’ actions.

If you think I have lived my life in a state of zen and have expected nothing of others since, you’d be wrong. Dr. Dan lives in an environment where this mentality is preached and even has a degree in it. While Vana teaches you many new lifestyle tricks, implementing them all into your daily routine once you’re back in reality, would be a bit of a mouthful. So, you look in your treasure box of new ideas and practices and decide which ones will serve you best and are the most realistic for you to mesh into your daily life. Dr. Dan’s words remain one of the golden pieces of advice I gathered at Vana. When I feel hurt, I think of Dr. Dan’s words and I’m more easily able to forgive and let it go.

However, I’m not always like water to a duck’s feathers. I grapple with Dr. Dan’s lesson because at times it works, and at times it does not. Being able to let it go, and act without feeling an entitlement to some sort of social currency, is really freeing. But I find this is easier done if your relationship to the other person is weak or if the act isn’t insidious/catastrophic. During Vana, they often reminded me that the only person I can change is myself. Therefore, I am only in control of my own reaction, not of others’. This is hard to put into practice, but I definitely strive to react mindfully instead of wishing the other person would change.

My conversation with Dr. Dan also made me think of the enormous pressure on everyone to meet certain expectations. How often do we find ourselves in situations, acting a certain way because that is what is expected of us? This doesn’t mean abandoning your care, compassion and love for people, but it does mean listening to yourself. It’s about self-care and honouring your own needs and setting boundaries. I have gone to so many drab social events (my song 2 AM Friends is inspired by them), met with people I don’t want to, and part-taken in activities that make my insides burn. Why didn’t I just say no? Because I felt obliged. Because I felt it was expected. Because I felt there would be a certain type of consequence for saying “no”. Sometimes when I’ve not wanted to do something a voice whispers “you owe them”. Dr. Dan, as well as many of the other doctors and practitioners at Vana, made me realise it’s okay to follow my own path and doing so does not mean you suddenly become selfish and cold.

We become so ingrained in unwritten social rules, that we become locked in them and forget: We have a choice, we have a voice and we have agency. Honouring who you are and allowing others to be who they want to be, is a very peaceful practice. Vana taught me a completely different mindset to the one I was used to back home. Admittedly, I have had a long phase where I let go of my Vana teachings, but I find myself at a point in life where I feel the need to go back to leading a more holistic lifestyle. So, I’ve opened up the treasure chest again, and started sifting through the lessons and practices that will get me back to a state of mindfulness.


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