Tea, tiffin and transforming ayurveda at Ananda in the Himalayas, India

Rosie Walford reviews this cosseting destination spa retreat in India and surrenders to hot herbal oils, brilliant ayurvedic massages and healthy gastronomy

The road into the Himalaya from tiny Dehra Dun airport smelt of the eucalyptus trees around us. After the polluted crush of Delhi this was phenomenally calming – except for the monkeys who hoped to grab food from the car. Many hairpin bends above, Tehri Garhwal palace stood majestically on the first ridge of foothills. It was clearly a place for the privileged long before Ananda started scooping awards as a destination spa.

I was ushered into a lofty panelled room for ginger tea and tiffin as my paperwork was arranged, then whirred downhill to my room in a golf cart. The floor to ceiling glass wall of the bathroom stole my breath. The sacred river Ganges snaked from its source beneath me, across miles of dusty plains, a riveting spectacle that never lost its allure.

After an intense period of overwork, I’d signed up for a five day stay with a focus on Ayurvedic bodywork. So without ado, I hauled my frazzled body to the spa. In the ladies’ hydrotherapy zone, I wobbled barefoot round a wheel of river rocks in four temperatures of water – a reflexology meditation – until it was time for Abhayanga. Candles were lit. Oil warmed on a copper burner. Prayers were sung. Four hands swirling and kneading in unison are too much for the mind to keep track of, and very soon I had melted into submission. There’s really no better way to journey into the senses and out of the mind.

Next day, Choornaswedana worked its magic. Warm bundles of linen stuffed with detoxifying herbs were slapped with remarkable precision and vigour, up and down my entire oiled body. Stiffness and lymphatic puffiness stood no chance; I felt invigorated. I also loved Kati Vasthi where a ring of dough made from chickpea flour was moulded onto my sacrum. For 30 minutes, the girls trickled hot medicated oil onto my tailbone, and removed tepid oil with a featherweight sponge. The ripples of heat on that most sensitive seat of the spinal cord restored me to absolute peace in both body and mind. The cumulative effect of multiple treatments each day was intense.

‘The ripples of heat on the most sensitive seat of my spinal cord restored me to absolute peace in both body and mind’

Between treatments I’d swim in the pool, watch eagles circling overhead or peacocks preening beside me. I found it unusually easy after treatments to drop into stillness and do nothing. And I would eat. For a foodie like me, every meal was an event. Breakfasts – taken on the terrace – involved fresh juices, tropical fruit, salad sprouts, western bakery and egg fare, wonderful homemade buttermilk and fruit yoghurt, but also unforgettable Indian pulse dishes– pancakes, dosa, upma, poha with delicate chutneys. Lunchtimes and evenings, when I stuck to the day’s menu designed for my bodytype, were ultra tasty combinations, imaginatively spiced, small and light. But the full menu of salads (with delicacies like truffle, goat cheese, lotus stems) soups, tarts and fresh pastas, or duck and fish curries, became impossible for me to resist. I found Ananda more conducive to wholesome spoiling than to bootcamp behaviour.

Nonetheless, my wonderful yoga tutor Deepti took me slowly and steadily to work. We practiced on the golfing greens and though I was distracted by crested woodpeckers, she was watching my moves with acuity. Her adjustments gave familiar poses a subtle new dimension which opened my stiffest joints – I’d been cheating to protect these bound-up spots. I left with a revived sense of excitement about yoga, a body memory of true alignment, and an illustrated practice guide to follow at home.

Finally I ventured out to Rishikesh, ‘city of the divine’, about a 40 minute drive from Ananda. From the suspension footbridge Ram Jula I witnessed pilgrim families from all over the country dunking themselves in the sacred Ganges, sadhus smoking pipes in orange and red robes, and prayer rituals being sung. I meandered the atmospheric pedestrian lanes of shops selling blankets, pilgrim supplies, herbal medicine and handicrafts, rubbing shoulders with saints and cows. Sunset on the river, with Ganga Aarti offerings being made up and down the banks, was bursting with spirit and soulfulness.

Ananda, elevated above this colourful commotion, felt a little coolhearted, the deference of the staff a little separating when I returned. But then I had another massage, and realized afterwards that this rarified environment is one where stimulation and productivity junkies like me can finally be seduced and settled into an experience of mind-body stillness that generally eludes.