Rishikesh: The Ananda Spa Experience

Trip Start Mar 29, 2007
Trip End Sep 30, 2009

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Flag of India  , Uttarakhand,
Sunday, October 26, 2008

So, so tired...up at 4AM this morning to catch a 6AM flight to Delhi then continuing on to Rishikesh.  But it's fine...because we've saved the best destination for last...Rishikesh and the Ananda Spa.  You can google it and read it for yourself, but Ananda has been voted as the #1 destination spa for the past three years by Conde Nast along with a bunch of other magazines and awards.  It's one of those places that attract celebrities, rock stars and people who have way, way too much money.  The good news...is that because I'm technically an Indian resident (and have a residency certificate to prove it), we get to pay local rates which are still pricey...but less than half of what you'd pay if you were a foreigner coming to India as a tourist...so I bit the bullet, and booked a 5 night "yoga package" for myself and Tanya which includes all meals, a bunch of spa treatments, personalized yoga sessions and a bunch of other "free" stuff that they do on a daily basis at the resort (i.e. group yoga, meditation-funny story there, golf, gym, pool, hiking, etc.).

The flight to Rishikesh from Delhi was perhaps the oldest propeller plane in the Kingfisher Airlines inventory.  Stepping off the plane and seeing that you were surrounded by hills and fresh air made you realize that this was indeed a different part of India.  The shuttle ride to the main terminal to collect our luggage was fast and our driver from Ananda was there waiting for us with a brand new Ford Explorer to shuttle us the 45 minute journey to the resort.  On the way we had to pass through the town or Rishikesh which we knew we would be back to sometime during our 5 day trip for one of the evening Ashram ceremonies.  Quick side note about Rishikesh...it's one of the most holiest towns in India and is probably most famous for a visit by the Beatles when they dropped by for a visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram (which is now closed).  Rishikesh is also known as the birthplace of the Ganges river (Ganga) because it's first town from where the Ganges drops out of the mountains.  It's also the "World Capital of Yoga" and you many, many people from all over the world drop in to visit a local Ashram...which is basically just a place where one can go to escape the day-to-day grind for a bit of spiritual refreshing (or whatever).  As we exited Rishikesh we took a winding mountain road up towards the Ananda resort and on the way we passed two things that cracked me up...1) lot's of monkeys just hanging out as if they were waiting for a ride and 2) signs on the side of the road to encourage safe driving.  Some examples of the signs include "Whiskey is Risky", "Rum is the Bomb", "Mountains are pleasure, if you drive at your leisure," "Be gentle on my curves", "If you drink bourbon, you'll lose your turban,", "Drive like hell and you'll be there"...and given how high we were and how dangerous the roads were..."License to drive - not fly!".  The entrance to Ananda was like entering a palace (because it is a palace) complete with a guard with a crazy big mustache.  The check-in was full of pleasantries including tea, a mala for each of us and lot's of bowing and people being nice to us.  Given that we had a yoga package with lot's of spa and yoga treatments, the staff had already arranged our schedule for the next 5 days which we immediately didn't like.  Not to worry...they said we could change it around.  We got to go for a tour of the property in a golf cart including the spa, the pool, the restaurant, the yoga venue's, the private villas, etc., etc., etc.  Our room was a Valley View which means we overlooked the valley where Rishikesh was located...definitely beautiful.  The room was nice...but not ultra-nice (I think we were spoiled by our room in Agra).  The resort dress code is casual...but the majority of the guests we saw walking in were in white tops and bottoms...turns out white pajamas are provided by the hotel to all guests and that's the preferred attire during your stay at Ananda.  It's sort of refreshing to not have to pick a set of clothes each morning to wear.  So we donned our PJ's and went to the restaurant for lunch.  We ate three meals/day at the restaurant and the service was impeccable...really, really good.  They had pretty much anything you could ask for and my mushroom quesadillas with guacamole were damn tasty.  During lunch Tanya and I tried to rework the schedule they had created for us to squeeze in all the "free" stuff there is to do at the hotel, plus the stuff we got as part of our yoga package (3 personalized yoga sessions, 5 spa treatments each), plus a couple add-on things we knew we wanted to do as well (trip to Rishikesh and a mountain hike).  Reworking the schedule and trying to fit everything in was a pain...but we made it work.  The remainder of the day was spent getting our first spa treatment which was amazing, having a yoga consultation with Sushil who would be our yoga instructor for our personalized yoga sessions and one last thing...attending one of the "free" things in that Ananda provides all guests...a guided meditation session.  Turns out it was exactly what I needed...and here's why. So we go to a small room in the palace and it was me, Tanya and one Russian dude.  We all sit on mats and the instructors starts to put us in a relaxed state of mind thru various breathing techniques.  During this time some other guests show up and get settled in behind us.  The instructors tells everyone to lie down on their mat and that's pretty much the last thing I remember...because I immediately fell asleep. :)  Forty minutes later I was awoken by Tanya who said I slept thru the entire class and even started snoring which I'm sure make for a relaxing meditation experience for the 10 people who were in the class.  Nice way to start my Ananda experience...next time I can't sleep...I'm meditating!  Dinner at the restaurant was more good stuff as it was for every single meal we had there.

Day 2 was our first morning to get the opportunity to do the group yoga which Ananda offers to all of their guests.  7AM is for beginners yoga, 8AM was for advanced.  Both were easy compared to the yoga I do in Hyderabad.  Anyway, it was a beautiful setting to do yoga and there were peacocks roaming around the yoga amphitheater which make it even more beautiful.  Breakfast was yummy...I had eggs and toast....Tanya had something else.  Funny story...I had the exact same thing for breakfast all 5 mornings we were there, Tanya had something different all 5 days we were there...ok, maybe it's not so funny but it definitely shows our personality differences.  There was a visiting "past lives" expert that Tanya wanted to see so we went to her daily session...I almost fell asleep again, but Tanya enjoyed it.  We had another spa appointment for an aroma therapy massage...we both loved it.  The spa is definitely the center of the the property and it's a big reason on why so many people come.  It's HUGE...with amazing locker rooms and so many different treatment rooms.  We met the spa manager (Mark) who was extremely nice to both of us and helped us rearrange our schedules even more.  After lunch we had our first personalized yoga session with Sushil.  Sushil is a great teacher and despite the fact that Tanya is way, way advanced at yoga...and I am way, way not...he still managed to find time to work with both of us and all of our classes with him were great.  Each day he'd pick a new spot to hold our classes and they were all amazing locations.  He told Tanya that he thought I had the potential to be better than her and that really set her off (jokingly)...but it was fun to hear.

The morning of Day 3 we skipped morning group yoga as we had signed up for an early mountain trek to a nearby temple.  The trek was scheduled to take 3-4 hours...meaning if we left at 7, we'd get back in time for a late breakfast.  A group of about eight of us met at the spa entrance with our tour guide, Sanga and we were off.  Our hike was to a temple called Kunjapuri which is on the highest peak around...around 1645 meters high (or 5400 feet) and about 17 kilometers away.  The temple was  to commemorate Goddess Shakti and Lord Shiva and is a fairly sacred spot in the Rishikesh area...apologies but i can't remember exactly what the temple is about...but you can google it if you like.  The trek started out pretty casually...just us and our fellow hotel guests strolling along, chatting and enjoying the cool mountain breeze.  But then it took a terrible, horrible turn as we went off road...and damn near straight up.  Turns out this is truly a hike...not a stroll.  And we were all soon huffing and puffing straight up a hill...and just when we crested that hill...another hill would be in front of us to conquer. On the way we passed some small villages, cute kids and farms...but the ultimate goal was to reach the highest point around...and finally it was in sight.  The last step involved climbing about 1 billion steps to finally reach the temple and top of the mountain.  We were rewarded with a little puja ceremony, views of the Himalayas and probably the cleanest air in all of India.  It was worth it but we were also all ready for breakfast and fortunately for us the Ananda has organized Ford Explorers to take us back to the resort.  When we arrived back at the main building our guide told us breakfast was closed which almost caused a riot...fortunately he was joking.  We had a huge breakfast and then Tanya went off for some one-on-one mediation.  I took the time to play the 9 hole par 3 mountain golf course which was basically carved into the side of the mountain.  I lost a couple balls, but did surprisingly well.  That evening we met an older couple from New York City during dinner (Bob and his wife Bobby)  and they definitely had some great stories to share with us (it was their third time at Ananda and they are obviously not hurting for money).  The evening dinner was great and we were off to bed exhausted, but happy.

Day 4 started off as we started off each morning.  At 6AM the hotel would bring us a warm ginger/lemon drink to enjoy outside on our terrace.  Around 6:30 the sun would creep over the mountains and we were quickly warmed with a beautiful sunrise.  We enjoyed our lemon drink and sunrise each morning and I think if I ever go back to Ananda I will absolutely insist on a valley facing room so we can enjoy the same.  Morning yoga was the same, breakfast was the same.  Afterward, Brandon went and got this awesome Tibetan massage while Tanya received another one-on-one mediation session.  We had dinner with Bob and Bobby and then off to bed.  Things are starting to get a little too easy here...I'm finding my rhythm and might not be able to leave.

It's Friday and this afternoon we have a Rishikesh tour scheduled and something we're both looking forward to...the evening Aarti ceremony at one of the Ashrams on the Ganga (the Ganges river).  But first it's out standard schedule, morning group yoga, breakfast, personalized yoga with Sushil and a huge lunch.  Tanya wanted to meet with a Swami/Guru down in Rishikesh and she had mentioned to the staff at Ananda that she would appreciate anything they could do to make it happen.  Fortunately Ananda has a good reputation with the Parmarth ashram and they are the group that does the evening Aarti ceremony at the Ganga...so they said they would see what they could do to get Tanya a personal audience with the Parmarth Swami before the Aarti ceremony that evening.  We headed down to town with our Ananda provided guide and visited a couple temples, a couple Ashrams and finally we headed over to the Parmarth Ashram where we hoped to meet with the Swami....or Swamiji as they all call him.  If you've ever watched Jeremy Piven's "Journey of a Lifetime" show on the Travel Channel...it's the same Ashram he visited and the same Swami in Rishikesh.  Anyway...so we get to the Ashram a bit before the Aarti ceremony and are ushered into a waiting room.  Next we were brought into a separate room to chat with a nice American lady (Bagwati) who had worked in the Ashram for over a decade...here Tanya explained a bit more about her charity and why she wanted to meet Swamiji.  Finally we were taken into this amazing room in the center of the Ashram which was obviously the private meditation center for Swamiji and there he was...sitting and waiting for us to join him.  It was a bit surreal...but I sat back and let Tanya and the Swami have their conversation.  Finally he said "why don't the two of you join me for the Aarti" and we said we had planned on it and were looking forward to it.  As we all got up to walk to the river bank, Swamiji's handlers kept pushing us closer and closer to him and once we got to the river bank where hundreds of people (locals and tourists) had gathered for the evening ceremony, we were again ushered to sit next to him.  Little did we know it but we were now part of the evening's ceremony...a participant, not just a spectator.  If meeting the Swami was surreal, this was over the top.  We sat next to the Swami during the entire ceremony and were invited to participate in all aspects.  Some of the other tourists in attendance (including those from Ananda) had to wonder what made us so special.  The ceremony involved a bunch of singing and lasted about 30 minutes.  After which we were escorted back to Swamiji's personal meditation area along with some other tourists where he basically did a question and answer session.  Tanya and I excused ourselves and Swamiji instructed Bagwati to give us his personal telephone number.  The ride back to Ananda was long...but a nice dinner at the restaurant awaited us as did a farewell to Bob and his wife Bobby who were leaving the next morning.

Saturday is our last full day at Ananda and we've got a lot planned.  The morning remains the same...sunrise, hot tea, morning group yoga, big breakfast.  We had our last one-on-one yoga session with Sushil and he gave us our moneys worth.  Each class with him went well beyond the 90 minutes allotted and he was a great instructor.  Our last class with him was at a yoga pavilion on the boundary of the property and we were joined by some wild monkeys who watched us work out.  But fear night...the Ananda has a "monkey patrol" and they were soon out with their slingshots and big sticks to scare the monkeys away.  Our spa appointment that day was a reflexology appointment which was nice.  That evening there was a local orphanage putting on a dance show for us which was very, very good.  We splurged on our last dinner and ordered stuff that wasn't on the standard menu for an additional charge...I had lamb chops...mmm mmm good.  It should be noted at this point that the Ananda spa is the only place in all of Rishikesh that is allowed to serve alcohol to it's guests.  Tanya challenged me to not drink anything alcoholic (beer, wine, nada) for the entire 6 days we were there and I somehow managed to pull it off....I don't think she thought I could do it.

Sunday is departure day and we of course woke up early for our last sunrise over the Rishikesh valley and our final morning group yoga.  We didn't have to leave the hotel until 3PM for our 5PM flight so we arranged a late checkout and had pretty much the entire day to lounge around.  After breakfast I headed out to the heated pool to enjoy some lazy-time while Tanya had her final mediation session.  We met for lunch and then headed to the spa for one final massage.  Afterward we packed and headed back to the main reception on the golf cart.  The entire staff was there to see us off which was a nice touch...or maybe they were really wanting us to leave. :)

If you ever get the chance to experience Ananda...you will not be disappointed.  Enjoy the pics.
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