Between rival sets of books on Buddhist meditation and management bibles, Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola sticks out amusingly. I leaf through Mehta’s caustic account of clueless Americans floating from ashram to fake ashram for a cannily marketed stew of Eastern Mysticism and cannabis, all to a sitar soundtrack. That was the 1960s, and I find it most appropriate to find the book where I do, in the reading room of Shreyas Boutique Yoga Retreat near Bangalore, where those with 1960s hankerings for infinity may pursue them in the sanitised comfort of the five-starrish resort.
Pawan Malik, who started Shreyas Yoga retreat three years ago, knows the hankerings. He is a long way off from the disaffected drop-outs who set off to build hippie communes in Kathmandu, and remains part of the international finance world he was part of when he decided to try his hand in the hospitality industry. His stated intention in Shreyas being to provide a space complementary to, not alternative to, the Outside World, he outlines a sensible creed of balancing internal and external growth to deal with modern pressures. If the content of Shreyas is that of the typical ashram, it is couched in the external trappings of the upmarket hotel in Bali. Malik speaks of the real lack in the hotel market of a place that doesn’t swing one way or another — towards the ostentation of the luxury hotel, or towards the rigorous discipline of the ashram. He is well steeped in New Age vocabulary and conducts his business talk in the language of service, humility and self-exploration. He suggests a stay of at least a week for the full experience, though weekend stays are common too.
I can see the balance Malik speaks of in the clean wooden right-angles of its furniture, the uncluttered rooms and quiet dedication to design minimalism. As I walk the winding path through the resort’s 25 acres, I see the advantages of its location, only a couple of hours’ distance from the middle of Bangalore. As main roads give way to highways and highways are replaced by narrower, recently tarred roads, everything changes — the air, the vegetation and the rhythms of living. The campus is full of strange trees you’ll never find in the city, and the fruit orchards, greenhouse and landscaped gardens give off a wonderful ‘healing’ smell. Exotic lizards and large frogs rush to hide at the sound of human footsteps and coucals; woodpeckers and sunbirds flash past. Still, there is a railway crossing not far away, airplanes are always flying overhead and the traffic is distant hum. This is Shreyas’s interesting middle-path between the rejection of civilisation and a whole-hearted acceptance of it.
Malik insists that spiritual practices are compatible with the real world. There aren’t any easy solutions, however, and the most one can do is introduce harassed guests to the rich culture of yoga as a means to cope. My initial scepticism gives way to a grudging concession of his point — the yoga teaching appears to be first-class and carefully designed not to alienate anyone. The instructors, who speak in English, tone down the heavy Sanskrit and lead the (usually neophyte) guest through the ‘Sun Salutation’ and ‘Tree Position’. The typical guest (usually non-Indian), the instructors say, takes yoga very seriously. Yoga, meditation and therapeutic massages often form the bulk of the typical guest’s experience.
However, Shreyas is non-judgmental on those just there for a relaxing weekend and not up to early morning yoga sessions. One imagines there are enough of those unwilling spouses and children who’d much prefer to lounge about the pool. Shreyas avoids the compulsory discipline of the ashram in its accommodation of the Other Sort. Apart from a strict no-alcohol and smoking-only-in-designated areas rule, there is nothing to distinguish the place from a luxury hotel. There are innocuous ‘Oriental’ touches everywhere, inspired by a tasteful, non-denominational Hinduism/Buddhism and the generic ‘spiritual aesthetic’ of rose petals floating in brass basins. The occasional wrong note is struck by the kitschy Krishna calendars and silver Ganeshas that are misplaced on otherwise austere walls.
There is no question Shreyas is a cannily constructed exercise. They admit much of its design was in response to market research. That’s probably how it manages successfully to be all things to all people, this being what makes it semi-distinct in the hospitality market. If there are communal dining rooms and group chanting classes, there’s also the option of sticking to one’s preferred private corner of the campus to read or meditate or access the thoughtfully-provided broadband connections. Among the things I didn’t get to do were to work at the vegetable patch and join the staff and guests in helping out at the village schools nearby. People on longer stays may try both.
I land up, as I always do, spending most of my time in the reading room. It’s a motley collection, with Jeffrey Archer and Salman Rushdie, management ethics and Tibetan Buddhism jostling for space in its anarchic shelves. I pick up my books and no one stops me as I take them to read in one of the little cosy spots near the herb garden. I pass on the chanting sessions; reading in a quiet bamboo enclave with trains passing behind is more or less my idea of the de-stressing weekend.
The staff, all of whom are trained in yoga, clad in properly sattvic all-white kurta pyjamas, are quite terribly attentive. I am invited to use the sauna, the Jacuzzi, the pool, the bowling machine or the private home theatre. The DVD collection is, like the library, more than respectable, around the size of your neighbourhood rental place and a tad more sophisticated.
I leave only when I’m summoned for meals. The food, all vegetarian and mostly organic, is rather creative and the chef conjures a part-Indian part-Continental menu from vegetables grown on-site. My heart is warmed at the taste, with the often liberal sprinkling of salt and spices withheld for a meal where it’s actually possible to taste each individual vegetable.
In the evening, I find I must head off to my room because it’s infested with insects outside, and how I love the room. An odd cross between a tent and a cottage, it offers me a wide selection of herbal teas I can brew in the kettle myself. And the bathroom, securely private but opening out into the open space behind the cottage so I shower, it seems, in the sun.
At night, I sip on cold blueberry tea and read the catalogue of horrors of the nirvana-seekers in Karma Cola. The 21st century has taken the old fascination with all things mystic to a prudent, unexciting compromise. The meticulously identified target of the yoga experience, in India and in the West, is no longer the disgruntled girl of 19 with profound notions of changing the world, but the well-fed executive with the wherewithal to pay for a safe meaning-of-life package. The transformation of post-1960s yoga into the middle-class pastime it is today, in step with the vocabulary of business and psychoanalysis, is depressing, if predictable for everyone who has the vaguest idea of how the system works. I suppose places like Shreyas are what keep it working, and Malik is aware of it when he points out that the world is what it is, and most people just want to get by as well as they can (Shreyas also hosts corporate retreats and workshops on integrating spirituality with business).
I cannot but take a sympathetic view — trudging up the mountains is not for everyone, and some of us would prefer to not be drugged and killed by the Real swami promising the more Authentic Experience. So fish out the cash — the market research is in order. You can pursue a safer path to enlightenment.
Where: Shreyas, Nelamangala, near Bangalore; 9810072838, www.shreyasretreat.com.
Tariff: $240 (Garden/Pool Suite Cottages, single), $350 (double); $550 (Three-bedroom Suite Cottage)
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- The Leela Palace Kempinski, Airport Road; 25211234, www.theleela.com/bangalore. At the Leela’s very well-run luxury spa, a two-day all-inclusive package starts at Rs 18,000.
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