To escape the harried pace of everyday life, travelers these days aren’t merely looking for a vacation; they’re looking for rejuvenation. Indeed, wellness tourism is on the rise, and with India’s wealth of Ayurveda and yoga retreats, it’s become the go-to destination for those who need to breathe, rebalance and slow the pace way down.
Writer Mira Advani Honeycutt takes us into India’s wellspring of wellness.
ISSUE: Winter 2010
STORY: MIra Advani Honeycutt
The three-and-a-half hour drive from Goa airport in southern India was as picturesque — with glimpses of coconut trees, rice paddies and old Portuguese churches — as it was tedious, with our driver navigating the two-lane highway, dodging cows and trucks. But once we arrived at SwaSwara, an Ayurveda retreat on the shores of the Arabian Sea, I was in paradise. I would be spending five days in a rejuvenation program focusing on Ayurvedic massages, meditation and yoga. Little did I know then that in a few days, I would be gazing at a saffron-hued moon during a meditative full moon celebration, my adventurous drive a distant memory.
Just as yoga is more than a trendy form of exercise, combining postures, breathing techniques and meditation aimed at bringing a harmonious union between body, mind and soul, Ayurveda is more than just a massage option cropping up on spa menus across the U.S. Established in 1500 B.C., the centuries old Indian tradition of wellness is derived from the Sanskrit words ayu (life) and veda (learning). It’s a philosophy that believes in harmony between man and nature, where good health is not only defined on a physical level, but also on a spiritual, emotional and environmental level.
As Ayurvedic lifestyles gain popularity in the U.S., so does wellness tourism. From splashy Club Med-like vacations to spartan mountain retreats, wellness retreats are sprouting up throughout the world. And nowhere is wellness tourism more popular than in India, the origin of the Ayurvedic philosophy. According to P. Rangarajan, assistant director of the India Tourism Office in New York, 800,000 tourists visited India in 2009. Though he did not have specific figures as to how many of those were on wellness or yoga tours, tourism agencies in India are jumping on the wellness bandwagon and adding this component to their travel itineraries. One prime example is the Jaipur, India-based Pioneers Journeys Pvt. Ltd., which created Travel Spiritual India in 2009. The company offers travel pack- ages ranging from a low-cost $400 to a customized $4,000 Ayurveda spa vacation.
Aditi Sharma, director of strategic business units at Travel Spiritual India, says she’s noticed an increase in wellness travel — a whopping 250 percent increase, in fact, since 2002. In fact, India’s wellness service market is estimated at US$2.2 billion, expecting a growth of 30 to 35 percent annually. In 2009, travel and tourism accounted for 6.4 percent of India’s total employment, or one in every 15.6 jobs. By 2019, it is expected to generate more than 40 million jobs, or 7.2 percent of total employment, according to Travel Spiritual India’s statistics. That makes the travel and tourism industry in India the second largest employer in the world by 2019.
While northern India is popular for yoga tourism (the Himalayan town of Rishikesh is dubbed “the world capital of yoga,” and the Iyengar Yoga Institute is a couple hours from Mumbai), for Ayurveda-oriented travel, visitors head to Kerala, a southern state lush with swaying palms, calm backwaters, blue lagoons and scenic hillside tea plantations. In addition, Kerala-style Ayurvedic centers can also be found on the out- skirts of Goa and in Bangalore.
Like the diversity of travelers who come to India — Sharma says 25 countries are represented among her clientele — the Ayurvedic offerings are just as diverse. From spartan spiritual retreats to luxurious Western style spas, India’s well- ness spas have something to cater to every traveler. Located on the outskirts of Bangalore, the Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Centre’s compound is lush with not only swaying palms but also more than 100 herbal plants used for treatments. The center’s Dr. Jayarajan takes guests on walking tours through the garden, describing the healing qualities of the various plants.
Though the center’s Kerala-style cottages are anchored by the 165-year-old Aranmula Palace-turned-visitors’ lobby, Ayurvedagram is a no-nonsense retreat. It is strictly vegetarian and no alcohol or snacking is allowed. Simplicity is the mantra here. You won’t find plush towels or scented candles in the spartan massage rooms. Rather, 7 a.m. yoga classes with Yoga Master Subhash Mohanty are followed by massage treatments and meditation classes. The spa draws 300 to 400 foreign visitors annually, as well as many locals, for their highly effective massage and body treatments. Although some guests come for rejuvenation and Panchakrama (the five-day detox treatment), most of them are here for ailments ranging from hypertension and diabetes to arthritis and sinusitis.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Ananda Spa, which offers authentic Ayurvedic treatments in a luxurious Western-style spa ambiance. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the 24,000 square foot spa is built as a romantic getaway, a wedding venue and an executive retreat. Gourmet meals of non-vegetarian fare with fine wines are served in multiple dining venues ranging from casual treetop to poolside to an elegant restaurant and tearoom. Besides yoga sessions, there are classes in ancient Vedanta philosophy and recreational activities range from billiards to chess.
Then there is SwaSwara, which means “my own rhythm.” Indeed, the rhythm here is a pleasant middle ground between spartan and luxe. The hillside retreat sits high above Om Beach, on the shores of the Arabian Sea. The 26-acre property, a lush compound of two dozen spacious villas, two yoga centers, rice paddies, and an herb and vegetable garden, is located south of Goa, in the small seaside town of Gokarna, revered for its Shiva temple. The eco-friendly resort, which focuses on yoga and Ayurvedic massage therapy treatments, recycles everything. Shower water is reused in garden sprinklers, food scraps form the compost, cow dung is used for gas cooking and newspapers transform into tote bags. A lake on the property harvests rainwater.
My five-day rejuvenation stay began with a consultation with Dr. Shobha, SwaSwara’s medical practitioner. A four-page questionnaire helped her determine my dosha, one of three energies or body types. These body types are a combination of the basic cosmic elements: Vata constitutes air and space (this body type is light and flexible), Pitta is made up of fire and water (a medium body frame), and Kapha is water and earth (this body type is heavy, muscular). Ayurveda aims to balance these three subtle energies in order to achieve optimum health. Once an Ayurvedic doctor determines one’s dosha, she then prescribes a diet and treatment plan to rebalance the energies.
Dr. Shobha found that I was a combination Kapha Pitta, so she gave me a list of foods to eat and to avoid to balance my digestive system. Contrary to popular belief, Ayurveda practice does allow for non-vegetarian foods and alcohol, according to Dr. Shobha. In addition to herbal drinks, fresh fruit and whole grains, the retreat’s resident chef, Joy Matthews, creates magic with bounty from the sea such as mullet, pomfret and shellfish.
Dr. Shobha also created a regimen that included two daily massage treatments and specific yoga and meditation sessions. According to Ayurvedic principles, ill health is caused by the disturbance of prana, our vital life force that is present in every cell of the body. The physical and emotional stress of daily life upsets the balance of the prana. In addition to diet, herbal tonics and meditation, massage treatments are vital aspects in the restoration of a balanced prana.
There are some 20 different therapeutic massage treat- ments in Ayurveda, each done with medicinal oils and herbal powders. Oil nourishes the tissues, stimulates nerve endings and tones muscles, while therapeutic powders burn excess adipose fat and cleanse the body. These treatments are usually administered in a synchronized manner by two therapists, using a combination of more than 200 preparations made from herbs, most of which are homegrown.
My treatment plan for the next four days included a twice-a-day treatment of three different massages, one of which was the Abhayanga. To experience an Ayurvedic massage is to lapse into an otherworldly zone. A typical Abhayanga body, face and neck massage is administered in a synchronized manner by two therapists. All the massages take place on hard wooden tables — there are no soft towels, pillows or scented candles. The fragrance filling the spartan room wafts in from the adjacent flower garden. In addition to Abhayanga, my massage program included twice daily Patra Panda Sweda, a massage for weight reduction where the body is rubbed with warm boluses filled with medicated herbs, and Chakra Basti, a digestion aid where a medicated ring made of gram flour dough is placed around the navel and filled with warm oil. After four days of nonstop mas- sages, my body felt like a tenderized piece of prized meat.
Between the massages, I participated in meditations and three yoga sessions a day. Meditations were held in SwaSwara’s famous Blue Dome and during quiet moonlit walks in the garden, where we focused on the third eye, the mid-brow point on the forehead believed to be a portal leading to higher consciousness. For special meditations like Trataka meditation, said to aid in eye disorders, one focuses on a fixed object for some time (commonly on a flame), then visualizes that image with eyes closed and projecting it on the third eye.
SwaSwara also prides itself on its yoga, with nine different classes offered daily, including art yoga and laughter yoga. According to Yoga Master Ruchir, laughter yoga may not solve problems, but it helps dissolve problems.
And indeed, time spent at SwaSwara was enough to begin to change one’s perspective. After days of dosha-correcting meals, a regimen of massages interspersed with yoga, and serene walks on the bovine-inhabited Om beach, my prana was rebalanced, my skin felt soft and supple, and any cares I may have brought with me dissolved into the distant horizon.
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