On a show around of Vana, a super-exclusive wellness retreat bordering a forest in Dehradun, I stepped into the balcony of a suite and was shocked to find a massive cobweb, its house-proud owner giving me a nonchalant stare. “We believe in co-existence,” explained Prasoon Kumar Pandey, the property’s general manager.
It’s gestures such as these—and there are several—that define Vana’s offbeat approach, charting a unique course in the world of wellness. For one, rather than succumb to a single system of healing, Vana promotes several—Ayurveda, Sowa Rigpa (Tibetan) and yoga among them—taking the best of each with an open mind. That sort of thing takes a rare passion to pull off. In Vana’s case, its guiding light is its founder, Veer Singh, whose enthusiasm for wellness led him to create this retreat and steer it to a very high standard.
My room—which I fancied as a ‘monastic cell’—was spacious, stylishly subdued in décor, and tech-friendly. There were beautiful views of the mountains under a deep-blue Dehradun sky, but I had to keep the balcony door shut owing to our tailed relatives who love Vana nearly as much as us. Imagined as a forest, guests are referred to as Vanavasis or forest dwellers here. Certainly, we all looked the same, clad in our white Abraham & Thakore kurta-pajamas that are compulsory in the public spaces.
I was welcomed with a Tibetan Kunye massage. Vana is one of the few dedicated centres of Tibetan wellness in the world. The Dalai Lama blessed it at its opening. The therapies, I soon figured, are of the ‘serious’ kind, less ‘indulgent spa’, more ‘healing medicine’.
Any stay here begins with a wellness consultation, after which they draw up a customised programme. You just have to land up for your treatments at the appointed time. For the rest, there are retreat activities through the day and you’re free to join as many—or as few—as you please. As I flitted about my business, I could see other Vanavasis doing the same, moved by some inner compass.
The kunye was an auspicious beginning to my wellness journey and, over the five-day retreat, I watched myself transform. I learnt to relax, became re-energised, was more aware of my surroundings. Mobiles and photography are strictly not permitted in the common areas. With no mobile, there’s no option but to be mindful.
Among the many sessions of Ayurvedic massage, foot reflexology (the proper stuff), even some physiotherapy for my aching joints, two experiences stood out.
One was a consultation with the renowned ‘Naadi Vaidya’ Ajit Singh Yadav. For about 15 minutes, while I reclined on a couch, he felt my pulse and frowned. After that, he effectively told me the story of my life, outlining everything that was ailing me. Like Bollywood, wellness too requires ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’. This flick had a happy ending. In part two of the consultation, Dr Yadav gave me the fix.
The other eureka moment was an acupuncture session, a first for me. Dr Dimple, the acupuncturist par excellence, gave it to me straight. “You’ve downloaded too many files into your system,” she said. “You need to loosen up.” And loosen up I did, to the point of feeling light headed. Over the next few days, there was a spring in my step. Had my energy pathways been unblocked finally? Was the chi flowing properly? And what did it? The needles she deftly jabbed into me? The genuine feeling with which she communicated?
Food is the unspoken healer at Vana. The short but eclectic menu only has superlative dishes, and the restrained portions are plated like works of art. It’s all healthy, with no compromise on taste. Unusually, Vana may well be the only wellness retreat in India that has non-vegetarian food on offer. And you can ask for a glass of wine or sake.
Over the course of five days, I pretty much ran through the entire menu. So I have a few favourites. Poached eggs and pomegranate juice for breakfast, paired with oat and millet waffles. Kung bao prawns and cumin and coriander-crusted sole for lunch. Spinach and lentil galette followed by grilled prawn for dinner. And, always, dessert, chocolate being the best (no anaemic gelatos for me, please).
Set in the grounds of a former fruit orchard, Vana has been landscaped to perfection. From a book in the retreat’s carefully curated library, I learnt about forest bathing. So I went for walks in the 20-acre oasis, resisting the temptation of filching bits of the dwarf mondo grass (aka Kyoto grass) planted in the shade of old- growth trees where nothing else will grow.
Healing and wellness are so thoughtfully woven into the fabric of Vana that it is difficult to unravel the strands. There’s aroma, for instance. Every area in Vana has a distinctive one. There’s beautiful music, from live flute recitals to the urbane jazzy riffs floating down from the restaurant speakers. Nature is alive with bird call and other activity, even the occasional deer. And there’s art. All of Vana is artist Siraj Saxena’s canvas, where he has created the most stimulating artwork out of waste materials.
At Vana, there is a sense of belonging. The best thing is that it’s helmed by a bunch of healers who take the lead in its running. Dr Jaya always checks in on guests at breakfast. Everyone seems genuinely concerned for your well-being—which is healing too. Arrive as a sceptic, leave as a believer.
Quite sensibly, even though Uttarakhand no longer requires it, Vana insists on an RT-PCR test three days before arrival and a rapid antigen one when you check in. This is the new normal. With therapies being conducted with obvious physical proximity, it makes sense. The staff stays on the premises, so it’s a COVID-free bubble, really. When the masks can finally come off, it’s therapeutic, to say the least.