Villa Ananda: A Luxurious Mexican Health Retreat
When I first heard about Villa Ananda, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I mean, from their website I could tell that it was an Ayurveda health spa, and that the grounds were gorgeous. The thought of having a four-handed tandem massage after morning yoga next to the ocean was definitely enticing. I’d also heard that this was the secret go-to place for supermodels and designers to recover after Fashion Week. But I’d never been anywhere that the main focus was on restoring their guests back to a state of balanced and perfect health (or where their primary focus was health – period!) I’d also never been anywhere that sat me down and listened to my long list of relatively minor health complains and followed that with a completely customized week-long (or three-week long) list of daily spa treatments (including, if I wanted, enemas), fresh teas and food made with ingredients specially formulated to treat my body, and a prescription for relaxation and rest. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. In fact, I had one of the most fulfilling and helpful weeks of my life ahead of me.
Ten days before our trip, we were instructed to purchase some Ghee and Indian Triphala pills and start the “Purva Karma” routine. The purpose is to get our bodies into better shape and prepare for the “Pancha Karma” that was to come. It is an “essential” process that loosens up toxins lodged in the tissues for their further elimination from the GI tract. It’s actually something that would be good for everyone to do, regularly, as a mini-detox. The instructions are pretty simple:
1) Internal Oleation: For the last five days, prior to your Pancha Karma, take 2 Tablespoons of warmed ghee preferably early in the morning or late afternoon on an empty stomach. May drink ½ cup of light ginger tea. Wait two hours before taking any food. If ghee is not available, or you’re vegan, you may use flaxseed oil.
2) Diet: Follow a light diet consisting mainly of steamed vegetables, some fruits, and a few grains and seeds. Avoid refined sugars and flours, carbonated drinks, caffeinated beverages, junk foods, red meats and dairy products, except for ghee. Eat in a calm atmosphere and chew the food well. Encourage peaceful and loving sensory stimuli.
3) Triphala: Every night 1 hour before bed take 4 tablets of Triphala with ½ cup of warm water. If taking Triphala powder (it tastes awful, so I don’t recommend it), use ½ to 1 teaspoon dissolved in ½ cup of warm water. This balanced herbal blend helps to cleanse, strengthen and rejuvenate the GI tract. You can purchase Triphala at a health food store or on Amazon.
If you’re doing this at home, you’d follow with a colon cleanse or at-home enema. Yup, you read right.
Our Arrival to Villa Ananda Health & Yoga Retreat
We arrived via a non-stop flight from NYC. We were picked up at the airport, and eagerly hopped into the rugged Jeep that would take us to the resort. Taking in sights in along the way, we cruised through the windy and beautiful roads just north of Puerto Vallarta, finally arriving at the private gated community where Villa Ananda is located. Our first thoughts (besides ‘When can we explore the area?’ and ‘Wow, there are a lot of gorgeous vacation homes around here!’) were that it looked a lot more beautiful in person than photos could ever capture. Our second observation was that the energy of the place was immediately relaxing. And not just because we’d escaped the cold and crazy of New York City, but because for decades this health resort has been restoring even their most stressed and crazed guests back to a sense of calm and serenity.
The first thing we did was take our delicious Hibiscus tea and unpack in our Casita (which is basically a little villa on top of the spa, facing a private terrace, and looking right out over the ocean.) Here, everything smells, looks, and feels like a spa. After dinner, we went for a long walk on the beach. That night, in a bed so comfortable it rivaled the most plush and luxurious 5-star resorts in the world, sleep came easy.
The next morning, instead of the typically constant sound of angry drivers honking with the occasional siren sprinkled in, the ocean was the first thing I heard upon waking. As we ate breakfast, we watched whales and stingrays jumping and paying in the ocean (I kid you not!), amazingly close to the shore. It reminded me how lucky I was to be the only journalist in their long history ever invited to stay at, and write about, Villa Ananda. Until now, everything had been word-of-mouth. This made me feel especially good, because Mindy, the owner, saw something in me that told her I would understand what they were doing here – and why.
The Grounds & Rooms
Villa Ananda is inside a private, gated community, so seeing someone on the beach is fairly rare. The spa and entire resort reminded me of being on the Greek Islands. Everything is white and airy, and right on the ocean. The pool is gorgeous and clean, and there are plenty of lounging areas where you can hang out and read. Pancha Karma is done with only two casitas filled, which means only four guests at most will be at Villa Ananda at a time. The only exception is yoga retreats, when they fill the other six or so rooms in the main building. The two casitas are atop the spa and separated by a small wooden bridge. They both have private lounging areas and a clear view of the ocean. The beds are comfortable, and the smell of incense relaxing. And if that’s not enough to make you want to stay forever, the constant sound of the ocean will be.
Ayurveda Health Spa
I know, I know—’Ayurvedic‘ massage is featured at most spas nowadays, along with tutti-frutti aromatherapy and Hawaiian hot rocks. As it happens, I’ve had such an “Ayurvedic” massage at a boutique spa in Manhattan: it amounted to a standard Swedish rubdown with scented oil and taped sitar music. No, I am speaking here of the real thing, the authentic therapeutic techniques developed over the five thousand years or so that Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India, and dispensed by trained Ayurvedic physicians from Bombay.
As a system of medicine—probably the world’s oldest, at over 5000 years of practice—Ayurveda offers a full range of treatments for what ails you. The goal of Ayurveda is to restore and maintain our state of balanced health focusing on proper nutrition, use of herbs, adequate lifestyle, right thinking, seasonal detoxification, along with the practice of Yoga and Meditation. Ayurveda enjoys much the same status in India as acupuncture does in China or shiatsu in Japan; In each country these ancient therapies are taught in universities and practiced in hospitals alongside Western medicine. But Ayurveda, the “science of life” in Sanskrit, is more than medicine. It is a roadmap to a “good” life in every sense of the word. Ayurvedic physicians, called vaidyas, go through four years of post-secondary schooling and follow that with a year’s internship, usually in a rural clinic.
Ayurveda, the “science of life” in Sanskrit, is more than medicine. It is a roadmap to a “good” life in every sense of the word.
The goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to achieve a three-way balance, which is the key to good health, serene spirits, and long life. On the basis of their consultation, the doctors can identify which of the elements is out of whack and recommend dietary and lifestyle changes, herbal remedies and massage. And they can tailor your therapy sessions specifically to you, right down to the herbs used in the warmed sesame oil.
Here’s a bit more about Villa Ananda and their approach to Ayurveda:
Detoxification & Health Spa Treatments
If you book a stay at Villa Ananda for the “Pancha Karma” Ayurvedic treatments and a consultation, you can expect to be quizzed about your medical history, living habits, tastes, dreams, food preferences, propensity to perspire, bowel movements, and a hundred other things… information the practitioners need to identify your general dasha, or physiological and mental makeup. Specific therapies, foods, herbs and oils are then selected based on the individual body type constitution. The idea is that everyone has a blend of vata (air and space, representing, roughly, the nervous system), pitta (fire and water—the enzyme system in modern Western terms), and kapha (water and earth, approximating the nutritive/digestive system).
Detoxification is a key concept at Villa Ananda. The detox process aims to rid the body of chemical toxins and cleanse the mind of stress, while re-balancing the dasha. It centers on daily Abhyanga Mardana and Shirodhara massage treatments (I got a four-handed massage treatment on nearly every day I was there) supplemented by other specialized treatments as recommended by the Ayurvedic experts. These extras can include everything from oil-based enemas that you can do in your room, or tea-infused colonic hydrotherapy cleanses, to a dozen specialized massages using dried flowers, herbed ghee (clarified butter), or sesame oil, to herbal steam baths.
If this is beginning to sound too much like a visit to clinic and not enough like a spa experience, don’t be misled. A few days at Villa Ananda would make a great start to a honeymoon. Ayurvedic massage is as hedonistic as it is therapeutic.
The Abhyanga Mardana is done by two therapists working in unison on either side of your body using long, sweeping strokes and precise pressure, and what seems like about a litre of warmed, herbed, sesame oil. Unlike other particularly intense Ayurvedic spas, Villa Ananda does not force you to lie naked on a hard wood table. Instead, you get a luxuriously padded massage bed with sheets. The light is very dim and the music is Indian and hypnotic.
An hour and a half of this leaves you feeling totally relaxed, energized and clear-headed all at the same time. Shirodhara involves an initial massage in similar style, followed by forty-five minutes of something that has to be experienced to be appreciated—as you lie on the massage table, your eyes covered with a cotton cloth, warmed, herbed oil is trickled from a large copper urn onto the middle of your forehead (where your “third eye” is located) until you lose track of time and everything else. The treatment ends with a few minutes in a steam cabinet with more herbs and finally a shower. “Blissful” is an overused adjective, but nothing else quite fits here. The one downside: you can expect to have your hair remain saturated with oil for at least a few days after each treatment.
Because I suffer from occasional migraines, I was prescribed a Nasya treatment, in which face, shoulders and chest are massaged with medicated oils before a few drops of an herbal infusion are placed into the nostrils, followed by a more massage around the nose, forehead and chest. I’m normally a little squeamish about things like this, but the atmosphere was so relaxing and the therapist so practiced and gentle that I found it entirely pleasurable. An Ayurvedic facial (called Ananabhyanga) was also recommended. It lasts three-quarters of an hour, and involves, once again, very specialized massage techniques and oils and creams infused with herbs selected for your particular dosha.
I can speak for the toning and rejuvenating effects of the facial, which are remarkable (I was pleasantly shocked when I looked at myself in the mirror), but whether the fact that I wasn’t bothered by headaches for some time afterward can be attributed to the treatments or not, I can’t say for certain based on my one experience. My strong suspicion is that the treatments do help, just as the detox therapies are said to help even cancer patients recovering from chemotherapy. This is real medicine (recognized by the World Health Organization), despite its gentle pleasures and the absence of side-effects.
Another memorable treatment was the Udwartan Herbal Body Glow treatment. This luxurious treatment stimulates, detoxifies and exfoliates the skin. The treatment began with skin brushing (more about the benefits of skin brushing, and how to do it at home), followed by an herbal and essential oil blend of freshly ground lavender, rose petals, cardamom and oatmeal made especially for my Vata skin type. The dried powder was rubbed into my skin, over my entire body, using rhythmic massage strokes. Finally, the herbs were brushed off and I got to enjoy an Aromatherapy body massage, which ended this glowing experience.
10 Things to Bring
One thing to remember when traveling to remote areas is that if you forget something, you can’t easily re-purchase it. This fact is especially true at Villa Ananda, where they don’t want you to leave the property (it apparently interferes with the detox process). While Villa Ananda provides shampoo and conditioner, it’s one of the very few areas where they fall short. The products, in refillable bottles, are (I’m sad to say) very cheap, watered down and smell like harsh chemicals. Further, neither the ‘shampoo’ or the ‘body wash’ come close to getting all that sesame oil out of your hair. I would highly recommend bringing the following:
- Your hair will be drenched in oil. Bring a good oil-fighting shampoo and conditioner — and lots of it! Hair elastics, too.
- Bar soap, as this isn’t provided.
- Mosquito repellant.
- Sunscreen, toothpaste, etc. — all the regular stuff. You won’t be able to get more.
- Sweet snacks (to cheat on your diet).
- DVD’s or ripped movies on your laptop (because there’s no TV!)
- Lots of reading material (because the only books lying around Villa Ananda are Ayurvedic health books).
- Neoprene socks for walking on the beach (there are a lot of little rocks and shells).
- Binoculars (for whale watching, if it’s that season).
- Clothing you don’t care about, because they’ll get oil stains on them.
The first three days of Pancha Karma generally are light fasting with pureed vegetable and herb soup. Breakfast, for the entire trip, was sliced and sautéed pear or apple in ghee with chunks of dates (if I begged), almonds and spices, or quinoa with almonds and spices. Lunch and dinner were either Kitchari (an Indian dish with basmati rice, mung beans and spices), or steamed vegetables with spinach and pine nuts in a coriander coconut sauce with red quinoa.
Each vegan meal is prefaced with ginger, digestive tea and customized herbs based on your dosha. The herbs definitely don’t taste good — in fact, it’s pretty hard to choke them down most of the time — but they’re good for you, and it’s an essential part of the detox process. At Villa Ananda, you should expect healthy, but very repetitive meals. And I mean very, very repetitive and very, very simple. No sweets are allowed, for the most part. That includes fruit. So if you have a sweet tooth (they are gong to kill me for saying this), I recommend you bring some sweets with you — and hide them well! Meals are savory, and you can pretty much guess what you’ll be getting tomorrow — the same as today!
The woman who was staying in the other casita works at the New York Times. She said that the last time she visited, she lost about 20 pounds. Amazingly, I didn’t lose any weight that week, but I could see how a person easily could. Just make sure to keep up the healthy vegan diet when you get home — that’s the trick in it. She followed shortly after by letting us know that Thanksgiving did her in and she gained it all back. Sounds like an excuse to come back if I ever heard one!
The upside of this is that, in my case, I had been dealing with a food allergy that was causing a rash on my legs. Because my diet was so minimal in terms of what went into it, my rash went away by the time I left, eight days later. Of course, once I left Villa Ananda and started eating normally again it returned. However, because of the simple diet at Villa Ananda, I was able to narrow down the cause (I knew I hadn’t had soy or corn all week, for example) and finally pinpoint my allergy.
Oh yes; lest I forget: alcohol and sex were officially off the menu, as they are both too draining. (Ok, ok, so that last one I may have cheated on with my hubby. At least now I can say ‘I cheated with my hubby’! Ok, that was cheesy.)
10 Ayurveda Tips I Learned
Everyone who works at Villa Ananda has studied Pancha Karma in India (the hardcore way), for years. They are die-hard and know their stuff inside and out. Here are a few of the principles they taught me during my stay:
- Ginger is a natural antibiotic. It also helps with digestion if you eat a few slices of fresh ginger about 10 minutes before your meal. This helps fuel the “fire” in your belly, which can then more easily digest your food.
- Don’t drink liquid during your meal, as it puts out the digestive “fire”.
- Some foods should not be mixed, as it’s harder to digest, such as sweet and savory, or raw and cooked. These should be eaten at least an hour apart.
- Everything in health begins with digestion.
- Cilantro will help with skin and acne.
- Helichrysum is good for getting rid of scars. It’s a common medicine used in Mexico, and it’s effective.
- Turmeric pills will help with digestion and overall health.
- Drink a jug of water every day. You can sweeten it with honey or maple syrup (yes, I added that last part).
- Rose Geranium balances hormones.
- When foods are as close to their state in nature as possible, that’s when they deliver the most potent nutrition.
The Yoga & Ayurveda Health Spa Experience
If you’re coming to detox, the process can involve anything from a day visit to a three-week-long stay in one of the spa’s two oceanfront casitas, each decorated simply in a serene palate and natural fibres reminiscent of the Greek Islands. On casita has a Queen size bed, and the other has two double beds, each with a small but beautiful bathroom with an open shower and windows.
Each day begins with herbal tea and Yoga Meditation practice in a sunny yoga room overlooking the ocean, with easy stretching poses demonstrated by one of the therapists. Treatments that follow may include herbal colon cleansing, aromatherapy steam, skin brushing, tandem Ayurveda massage, Chakra balancing and Shirodhara. The day begins at 8:00 am and finishes around 3:00 PM with afternoons free to rest, relax, swim, read, journal, whale-watch or walk on the beach.
Ayurveda can be a lifetime study, and frequently is in India, and a review like this one can do no more than provide the merest glimpse into what, for most Westerners, is another world of physical and spiritual experience. And speaking of Westerners, if you prefer more conventional treatments in combination with Ayurveda, or on their own, Villa Ananda offers a full spa menu from mud wraps to aromatherapy massages and organic facials. As it was explained to us, the intent is to provide “wellness in a spa atmosphere.”
The concept of authentic Ayurvedic wellness in a spa atmosphere with Indian-trained and qualified therapists is one that seems sure to catch on. Then again, judging by the fact that the “Olsen Twins” were occupying our casita up until we arrived, maybe it already has.