I hoped that 2017 would mark the beginning of some sort of personal renaissance after writing my Open Letter in December. Since then I have tried to be honest and open concerning the challenges I’ve dealt with, even when it was scary and embarrassing, even when it made me feel vulnerable and exposed. There was a certain rebelliousness and thrill to writing about it so openly after so many years keeping it secret. Whilst there were many moments I doubted myself, thinking it might hurt me to be so open, the unwillingness to hide and be silent about my (and others’) problems overtook any reservations I had about being public about being ‘crazy’ as I’ve often been described.
In my most doubtful moments, I would remind myself that no one would be ashamed of writing about having diabetes, and both diabetes and mental illness are physically determined conditions; mental illness is not a moral failing; it’s not evil and I’m forever thankful for the incredible support I received after writing about it.
To be perfectly frank, I had one of the shittiest starts to the year I could have fathomed. Perhaps it was my soaring high expectations that I would wake up on the morning of 2017 to some sort of epiphany, that my life would all fall into place which caused my sadness and disappointment to be so much more acute. But that was it, cuz enough was damn well enough.
In a whirlwind of google searches and airport transfers, I ended up at Vana, a staggeringly beautiful Ashram located at the foothills of the Himalayas on the Tibetan border. Its hallowed location in the Uttakhadra state of India has long been a place of pilgrimage for sadhus, India’s wandering holy men. Rishikesh and Haridwar, two of India’s holiest cities are just to the south whilst the Dalai Lama lives in Dharamshala about 100km away. Its position is fitting for those who wish to make pilgrimages of their own and I can’t recommend Vana highly enough for anyone – whether sick, overweight or just in need of some prescriptive alone time, their holistic approach to tailored wellness is truly one of a kind.
(The breathtaking view from my bedroom)
Let’s be clear real quick – Vana is a five-star Ashram with you as the object of veneration. Yoga, Ayurverdic medicine and meditation find their roots in India, and whilst there are hundreds of retreats that cater to their devotees, the notion of combining ancient healing with luxury accommodation, banging cuisine and beauty treatments is otherwise unheard of India.
Since opening its doors in 2014, people have been coming to heal, de-stress and in many cases deal with more serious aliments from all over the world. Unlike most spas with massages and the like being additional to the cost of accommodation, everything at Vana is included in the price including all food, treatments and excursions. Guests are assessed by a team of experts before being assigned a minimum week long programme tailored to your goals and dosha (Ayuverdic body type). This is what went down.
Before my arrival, I was asked to identify my goals. Detox – check. Natural healing – sure. De-stress- abso-fucking-loutley. The heavy weight of these programmes is Panchakarma, a horrifying 3 week ordeal of fasting, aggressive Ayurverdic medicine and the nightmarish sounding ‘controlled purging’. It’s meant to revert your body back to its natural state but it sounded fucking terrible. It was a FIRM no from me, thanks.
Vana itself is an off the scale marvel. The architecture alone is a triumph. Polished concrete, shiny wood and bamboo sit against a majestic backdrop of thick forest and Himalayan hills. The sound of Indian flutes and indigenous birds ripple through the stone walkways but otherwise It’s so quiet you can’t help but be alone with your thoughts. At the helm of this splendour is the charming founder and MD, Veer Singh who has furnished the property with both cutting edge detail and spirituality in abundance.
Once in my spacious room overlooking the mountains, I did what anyone would do: check the mini fridge. This is when it dawned on me that I might have signed up for simultaneously the most luxurious, enlightening and least fun trip ever, because in that fridge was nothing but several bottles of slightly chilled water – perfect.
My last supper had been a plate of truffle pasta and it was exactly this kind of Amaro filtered carb on Instagram that would torture me for the next two weeks. It was also these sorts of dietary admissions that raised eyebrows in my first consultation with the doctor. Allegedly grande vanilla lattes, several glasses of wine and eating pasta on the sofa out of a mixing bowl aren’t legit. Apparently, we had ‘a lot of work to do’.
(Finding monkey’s in the garden)
Despite being wedded to my convenient but careless eating habits; I was delighted not to be assigned to a fasting or purging programme. I was free to hit the twice daily buffets at my leisure providing I was mindful of eating according to my dosha. This meant absolutely no raw or cold food, no coffee and nothing dry. All nuts and fruit had to be soaked and I was to start each day with a shot of aloe vera, turmeric and apple cider vinegar. Breakfast would be either eggs and gluten free chapatti or crispy dosa’s with sambar (a spiced lentil sauce) and chopped coconut. Lunch and dinner comprised of vegetable and chicken curries, fish and lentils with the occasional homemade raw chocolate. No snacks, much tea, LOTS of lemon water.
When I moaned to my doctor about not being permitted to eat the biscotti’s they would bring out at tea-time (as these were allegedly too drying for my beef jerky-esque constitution) he simple replied: ‘Lauren, this is for your health and what is more important than that?’
Well frankly, at twenty-eight years old I’d say eating really tasty food is up there. But with the peace and meditation came nothing but time to think. I eat on the go in London, picking up whatever’s convenient and then I’ll usually go all out at dinner. Bread baskets, chips, my once weekly pork ramen and yes, I’ll start with a negroni, thank you. Sure it’s all delicious and merry going down, but as my Ayurverdic doctor concluded after taking my pulse and analysing my body, I have high levels of cortisol, a Vitamin D and Iron deficiency AND I’m about as hydrated as a toasted Weetabix. Happy New Year, Lauren.
(How my stomach looked for the first week)
No, it’s not fun to hear bad tidings (and that the party’s over) whilst you’re hungry, emotional and breaking out from the sugar and caffeine withdrawal. To add further insult to injury, I looked like the love child of Gandalf and Dumbledore, shuffling around the gardens sobbing in my Indian pyjamas and ghee slicked pony tail. One afternoon I tried to fashion myself as Julie Christie in Heat and Dust by throwing the hotel issued wool poncho at a jaunty angle over my shoulder – except it didn’t work. I even sobbed for an hour on day five after a friend did a slo-motion performance of her eating a Ben’s Cookie. Sure, I was a sleep deprived, hungry, emotional wreck but with each day came more clarity and calm. I even did the unthinkable and began interacting with strangers without wanting to die of social ineptness and mortification. HUGE step, big feels, much confusion.
(NOT Julie Christie)
Speaking of awkward interactions with other humans, walk with me, won’t you, through my so-called ‘lightweight’ treatment programme:
Question: What is more awkward than the most awkward person you know being massaged with garlic oil on a wooden table by two elderly Indian ladies?
Answer: Aforementioned awkward person being massaged with garlic oil by two elderly Indian ladies whilst wearing a poorly tied loin cloth. K cool.
As my dosha (Vata) means that my constitution is drier than a vegan bloggers chat, the programme ruled that I had to have these oleaginous bastings daily. The abayangha (AKA a 90 minute, four hand ayurverdic massage using litres of hot medicated oil) became a dreaded everyday feature of life at Vana. This ancient practice is so intense and detoxifying that I threw up and cried after my first foray and had the perpetual aftertaste of the oil in my throat until day three. If you came for whale music and chill – go home. Don’t come. RUN. This is assertive stuff and definitely not for those looking for a light rub downs and pedicures.
(Garlic oil slicked hair at ALL times)
Fast forward to day 10: I am sleeping better, feeling lighter (although I arrived and departed at 54kg) and all of the puffiness and bloat in my face and body has disappeared. I float out of bed each morning…could this be…natural energy? I notice it takes me ten minutes to eat one plate of food and even gasp when a gorgeous plate of fruit came for dessert, my mouth watering as though I’d bitten into a croissant. No highs, no lows, no dips, no cravings.
I think I had finally ‘got’ the age old mantra ‘you are what you eat’ because I had never felt so energetic. I did the math and realised I had drank alcohol and eaten chocolate every single day since May 2016. If you eat like shit, you feel like shit. Putting dead things into your body like Ben’s Cookies and packaged treats means your body literally can’t do a thing with it…except store it as fat in difficult-to-tone places. You’re not feeding youself, you’re just…eating. I knowwww, eating can be so much fun! But so can feeling more alive and you will never know how terrible you felt until you truly feel healthy.
The thrice weekly hikes I took in the mountains were also incredibly cleaning and possible my favourite part of the trip. I took cooking lessons, went to Rishikesh to put my feet in the Ganges and met some truly special people along the way.
(Having a blast at an Aarti cermony on the River Ganges)
(A Phuang Malai offering for the Ganges)
Whether you’re looking for a complete reset for both body and mind, are interested in learning about the ancient medical traditions of Ayurverda or you want to address a specific health concern (many women struggling to get pregnant come to Vana for help) I cannot recommend the expertise, beauty and peace of the place any more highly. There really is so much more detail I could site but three months after my trip, the above account has been cemented in my mind and I’m still employing the practises to this day.
And so there we have it. I had to travel to another continent to not only learn but actually feel what you’ve been told your whole damn life. To exercise, eat properly and be mindful about what you put into your body. Another huge benefit to my trip was the mindfulness and wisdom I absorbed. One of the most helpful and memorable things someone said to me was ‘take things as they are. Don’t jump for joy, don’t be depressed. Just observe the natural world, the course it has taken and be in the present’. I try and send kindness to thoughts that upset and bother me and then move on with my day whereas before I would regularly whip myself up into a frenzy over things I couldn’t control. I knew previously that I was the only one to be hurt by hyper-analysing things to an unhealthy degree, but this habit has made the practice far easier to employ on a quotidian basis. Eat and live your life mindfully, but don’t be fanatical or unrealistic about maintaining fad diets and unhealthy relationships. I have resolved to leave everything in the past in 2017 including toxic habits, unsavoury relationships and appreciating that whilst life inevitably has it’s up’s and down’s, keeping calm and consistent as best I can is the only way to deal with the shortcomings.
For more information about Vana’s treatments and trips, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I booked my trip through Healing Holidays who will organise your flights, transfers and Vana stay in full.
From £3,600 for 14 nights including flights.