a sitting room facing trees outdoors at six senses vana in india

I sneaked a bottle of whisky into my wellness retreat. I’ll admit it. I was flying into New Delhi from Tokyo, and snagged a bottle of Japanese single malt for the road as a break glass in case of emergency tactic should eight days of Ayurveda therapy, meditation, yoga, and clean eating break my will. As a roving, nomadic booze journalist, an intensive wellness immersion was a daunting idea, even if it was at the luxe enclave of the Six Senses Vana, located amid the Himalayan foothills within India’s northern Uttarakhand state.

After an evening landing was compounded by a six-hour car transfer to Dehradun, the following morning provided a jarring introduction. Guests at Vana are encouraged to wear flowy white kurtas — akin to loose-fitting pajama sets, or what I came to think of as this season’s hottest cult wear — across the property, including to meals and activities. We’re all equal here, and don’t you waste any of that precious headspace of yours on the matters of style or wardrobe indecision.

two people laying on the floor at six senses vana in india listening to someone play an instrument
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

While everyone else seemed at ease, channeling their inner yogis and bodhisattvas with perma-smiles plastered on their faces and an almost painfully slow-walking pace taking them across the peaceful, Eden-like environs, to me, it felt like being in an episode of Black Mirror. When was the shocking reveal? Were we being fed an idyllic illusion? Maybe we were being raised for slaughter like so many bipedal, grass-fed cattle roaming their final pastures.

During my first two days at the retreat, while I underwent introductory health screenings and embarked upon a regimen of prescribed therapies and treatments, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being in a convalescent ward. But this was a capital ‘S’ Serious Wellness Retreat, and I dedicated myself to making the most of the experience, perhaps even unearthing a deep-set, hidden well of internal zen and gratitude along the way. Or whatever the hell it was they expected of me.

The Property

outside of six senses vana in india
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

Vana joined the Six Senses family at the start of 2023, and its 82 rooms fit the bill for a brand aiming to deliver luxury alongside a commitment to sustainability. An onsite garden currently grows about 15% of the produce used by the kitchen — the rest is sourced in partnership with local farmers — while a portion of revenue is donated to a sustainability fund and initiatives such as renewable energy production.

The retreat first opened in 2014 after a multi-year construction project that converted a forested 21-acre site into the lush grounds of a high-end hotel. It’s replete with verdant walking paths linking together the property’s main hub — a showy space dubbed the Kila that includes two indoor-outdoor dining venues, library, tea, and art spaces, relaxation areas, and more — and room wings with wellness, fitness, yoga, and Ayurveda centers, sauna facilities, and indoor and outdoor pools. Across the property guests will stumble upon assorted gardens and ponds, as well as numerous nooks and niches for a bit of secluded serenity.

Suites include dedicated meditation rooms equipped with singing bowls and cushions, soaking tubs, and spacious terraces or balconies. Within, there are amenities such as yoga mats, mini bars equipped with fresh, healthy snacks, and yes, those crisp and clean, white kurtas washed daily and provided anew in your closet.

The Program

sitting area at six senses vana in india
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

Guests at Vana opt into different themes, such as an emphasis on sleep, detox, yoga and fitness, or weight loss. Programs generally begin with recommended stays lasting between one and two weeks, while many opt to stay for a month or longer. It’s not unusual to encounter guests amid three-month stints, or long-time returnees pursuing annual month-long renewals.

Regardless of your particular emphasis, you’ll be guided to become attuned to your daily rhythms and to surrender to the experience and the ideals of reflection, contemplation, and mindfulness in the pursuit of balance and harmony. While the property has wifi, and rooms have TVs, the use of phones is prohibited across its public spaces and at meals. As a modern-day food journalist, and a strict adherent to the phone eats first philosophy, each instance I snapped a shot of my dining plate was a flirtation with reprimand. I was occasionally scolded for the phone, but at least they never found out about the whisky. Until now.

Doctors tailor treatments for guests based upon the results of high-tech health screenings. There’s a sweeping range of therapies and activities, including Tibetan Ku-nye massages and oil-soaked Ayurvedic Kai Uzhichil sessions, Chinese medicines and Swedish massages, reflexology and acupuncture, meditation, personal training, art workshops, tea ceremonies, and more.

Natural alignment sessions offered me crucial insight into coping with lingering neck and shoulder trouble areas, while private yoga classes provided me with the type of direct instruction that I’ve never had, and hour-long sound baths went by in trippy flashes during which my consciousness floated away into another plane.

close up shot of a food spread at six senses vana in india
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

Guests also receive personalized nutritional plans aligned to a corresponding Ayurvedic bioenergy. For me, on the Vatha palate, doctor’s orders included no red meat, gluten, or garlic… and I even occasionally listened. The thing is you’re not being held captive, and while the retreat follows a SLOW food system — seasonal, local, organic, and wholesome — the range of dishes available proved more satisfying than anticipated.

Breakfast and lunch spreads included diverse assortments and daily specials, with the juices, teas, and salads you’d expect alongside a wider and richer array of cuisine built on a foundation of Indian fare but also including other Asian and Western items. While there was an occasional moment of great alarm, such as the discovery of the nightly 21-calorie broth appetizer, other offerings such as lunchtime bowls of dal became craveable staples.

The Takeaway

spa room at six senses vana in india
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

A switch began to be flipped for me somewhere around day four or five of my stay. I found myself veering from a full skeptic to a coerced adherent, and then, well, while perhaps not a dedicated wellness fiend at least a guy who could be in the moment and appreciate the experience at hand. What Vana does best is provide guests with a rare level of indulgence via the full devotion of days to the pursuit of your personal well-being. Distractions and excuses are eliminated via a routine where your only mission is to sprinkle in healthful activities for the mind, body, and soul throughout the day.

I found further connection amid a conversation with Vana’s wellness director, Dr. Jitendra Varshney, who explained to me a core principle of Ayurveda. “You are not separated from the universe,” he told me. “The way you are, the universe is the same.”

It was an unprompted comment that struck a chord with me, as running down the left forearm of my astronomy-themed tattoo sleeve is a quote from philosopher and author Alan Watts: “You are the universe experiencing itself.”

It was a bit of a Wayne’s World “whoa” moment. Maybe I was in the right place, after all, 21-calorie soups and convalescent pajamas be damned.

aerial shot of someone in a pool at six senses vana in india
Courtesy of Six Senses Vana

After a week at the property, I could see coming back for a longer stay in the future. Decompressing for a month or two, writing a bad novel. While it wasn’t my goal, I did leave feeling a bit leaner and cleaner, lighter in both body and mind; even my blood pressure improved, according to their screenings. Was I a changed man? Maybe not. But I did adapt to the slower pace and a wellness-focused way of life. Maybe I could even bring back some of the tricks I learned regarding the importance of moderation and balance, and guiding the body into more relaxed states during the back half of the day to improve my sleep patterns.

I had to admit that I was actually sad to be leaving at the end of my stay. The retreat offered a rarefied level of relaxation and the ability to focus on yourself in a way that’s just not possible in most of our busy, day-to-day existences. The pursuit of health and wellness in such an extensive and near-complete way is something to cherish, however much or in whichever way you choose to participate. 

Now, you can bet your ass that I was looking forward to the tacos and tequila that were awaiting me in Mexico within 48 hours of my departure from Vana. But I did appreciate the journey. As Alan Watts once wrote — and the tattoo on my opposite arm showcases — “To travel well is better than to arrive.” It’s the journey, not the destination, and at Six Senses Vana, I found an opportunity to reset, one that was much needed given my more typical lifestyle.

It’s something to reflect on. Glass of Japanese whisky in hand, of course.

Featured image courtesy of Six Senses Vana