Stressed. Not sleeping well. Carrying a few extra pounds after the holidays and feeling bloated. I craved an experience that would change my health and life for the better. I’m not alone in this thinking. The growing popularity of ‘transformational travel’ has been highlighted by the Global Wellness Summit research team in its annual forecast. In its 2018 Global Wellness Trends Report, the authors describe transformational travel as connected experiences – rather than disconnected programming – that challenges people on a deeply personal level. While it’s wonderful to enjoy a massage, hike up a mountain, eat a healthy meal or make new friends at a retreat, today people are looking for more – including me.
After working in the wellness industry for four decades, visiting more than 1,000 locations around the world designed to help people renew body, mind and spirit, this January, I experienced transformative wellness at Vana, the destination spa retreat created by visionary Veer Singh in north, India. To describe my experience as “astonishing” is not something I do casually. I’ve been to many places – destination retreats and spas in particular – where I had a transformative experience and was a different person when I left than when I came. But I think of my experience at Vana as ‘beyond transformation’ because the dramatic changes lasted.
As I sit typing this article, it’s been two months since I returned and the unique inner feeling of stillness and confidence I discovered is still with me. I’m still drinking warm water before meals. I don’t have a desire for coffee or alcohol and I’m limiting my focused work to shorter time frames. I no longer go to bed with my iPhone next to my pillow, nor look at it first thing. In fact, I’ve reorganised my days and prioritise important projects before I even look at emails. This way I don’t let emails dictate so much of what I do. I’ve maintained most of the 5lb weight loss that resulted from my stay and in general have quieted the ‘monkey mind’ that kept me in an almost constant state of mental stress.
Moreover, the most wonderful thing about this lasting transformation is that it’s been very easy. There’s been very little willpower involved. I’ve learned more about my body and what it needs and wants. By giving it the rest and time it needs, I’ve rediscovered my younger child-like self – a self that was happy, joyful and carefree before the stresses of the world began piling on.
Set at the foothills of the lower Himalayas in its own 21-acre (8.5-hectare) estate, Vana is not opulent or showy. It’s understated and excels in an artistic way. The 80-plus rooms are relaxing and beautiful and views of the surrounding Sal forest are integral to the design. Bedding is luxurious (you can choose your pillows). Even the TV is curated with uplifting viewing options such as Louis Schwartzberg’s nature films, the Disney animal channel and spiritual presentations from the Dalai Lama. Wellness is everywhere. The bathroom is stocked with pink Himalayan bath salts to increase magnesium intake and even the technology is thoughtfully designed. With a click of a button I can control lights, heat/air conditioning, privacy button and a discreet night light from my bed. And they provide all the comfy and stylish clothes I need for my entire stay.
Expertise and personalisation
The outstanding wellness practitioners who practice ayurveda, Tibetan or traditional Chinese medicine in one of 55 treatment rooms are the foundation of Vana’s transformative experience. Vana has done the work of finding them: I simply showed up and enjoyed the benefits of their expertise.
When it comes to affordable, democratic wellness, Vana is actually quite reasonable compared to many other destination type retreat experiences. Prices start at INR30,000 (US$426, €377, £324) a night for a minimum five-night stay.
Those of us in the industry hear a lot about ‘personalisation’. However, in my opinion, Vana’s doctors and practitioners went far beyond the buzz. They applied their expertise via pulse diagnoses, listened to me – my needs, desires and issues – and then designed a personal course, including treatments, programmes, food choices and lifestyle practices. And because this was a nine-day stay, I didn’t just have one reflexology session to help digestion but rather a series of appointments. I was at Vana long enough to see results and that was motivation to commit to a new lifestyle. I feel different, look different, my confidence is stronger and going back to old bad habits isn’t appealing. I can only imagine what I could feel like after 14 days or 21 days – or even longer.
A surprising revelation
I found Vana’s mobile phone policy extremely effective. You can only use your phone in your room and one discreetly private lounge. Period. In addition, guests cannot take any photographs on the property. Wellness is not a frivolous social media opportunity here. In this age of technology bashing, however, I also believe Vana’s programme is transformative in part because the property has an excellent internet connection, making it easy to stay connected with loved ones and to whatever important work you’re doing.
Over the years, I’ve suggested that if people want to truly transform their wellbeing they need more than a week: rather multiple weeks would be my suggestion. But, to be honest, I’ve never found a place where I really wanted to stay for that long. Vana was the exception. I could have easily stayed a month. And one reason this was possible – here’s the surprise – I need to carve out blocks of time to connect to work. Frankly, I think that’s the case for most people these days. No one can check out of their entire life for very long. Even a day or two is a stretch.
Realising that many people work remotely these days, there’s no reason why that can’t happen from a place of body/mind/spirit transformation. I suggested to Singh that he consider offering a wellness sabbatical programme where the guest engages in a deep dive Vana programme for the first few weeks and then adds on extra weeks as desired. And then I thought there’s no reason this couldn’t take place at other destinations such as Lanserhof, Canyon Ranch, Rancho La Puerta, Gwinganna, or Chiva-Som.
The timing could be perfect for people putting together their own wellness sabbaticals of a month or more. And come to think of it, even if Vana doesn’t offer something like this when I visit next year, I just might decide to move my workplace there anyway.