Saltwater up my nostrils, hair lacquered in oil, I am about to rinse my eyes with herbal water before administering a self-induced enema. It’s not yet 7am and I am at Atmantan Wellness Centre near Pune towards the northwest of India, enveloped in a seven-day Ayurveda Panchakarma medical course. For the uninitiated, Ayurvedic medicine - the word comes from the Sanskrit, Ayur meaning life and Veda, science or knowledge - is a way of life for body and mind with balance at its heart, not to mention with a 3000-year-old tradition. While there are other programs such as Holistic Health, Journey Through Yoga and Master Cleanse, with the Indian government investing heavily in Ayurvedic healthcare, I am intrigued.
After a nine-hour flight, Atmantan - which comes from the Sanskrit words for mind, body and soul - is four hours by car from Mumbai. I arrive puffy, pale and down-in-the-mouth, literally and metaphorically. These last 18 months have been very hard. My father is my biggest champion but now he is in a care home with Alzheimer’s.
He is in the best care home we could have hoped for him and I visit every fortnight and stay over which involves a bus, train and hire car. It takes organisation and it is stressful. Yet I am so grateful we have him still and that when I leave, sometimes upset, I know he is being looked after with dignity and kindness. There are some moments of humour though; he asks what the soup is for lunch. “Parsnip,” I reply evenly. “Arsenic?!” he responds loudly with quite the giggle. But these rare moments are becoming more infrequent.
I have burst into tears on many of my colleagues – luckily journalists are an emotional lot anyway – but I often have no idea when it's going to happen. I have found that not having any control over my emotions quite terrifying. My GP has given me Lorazepam (a benzodiazepine for anxiety). I rarely take it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. However, I really want to be able to cope from within. I really feel like I need this week not only for that but because I have managed to put on a good lot of weight by just not caring what I eat and drink. I'm just focusing on getting through this painful experience and although I do exercise it’s not as regular as it once was. My sleep is fitful, I am distracted and lacking focus. And I do need to earn a living.
Beatrice on arrival
It's ancient panchakarma brought up-to-date
A week of Panchakarma is an enticing proposition. It is an evolved yet ancient way of detoxifying. Pancha means five: the five elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth in Sanskrit, with karma meaning ‘action.’ This is an active week and this I embrace because a week by the beach with a Danielle Steele and a daiquiri might be fun, I find that I am able to relax more if I am busy because my mind will stop whirling as it has been constantly in the two years since dad was diagnosed.
This panchakarma involves the merging of ancient practices with modern fitness. Atmantan's co-founder Nikhal Kapur is an international triathlete with a belief that Ayurveda and contemporary fitness can and should coexist.
On the first morning, I explain the circumstances to my Ayurvedic doctor, Dr Aneesh Manoharan, a gentle soul with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. My previous detoxifying experience at an Austrian spa involved being shamed by a Teutonic Herr Doktor, being weighed, run up mountains and being given only spelt bread and herbal broth what felt like every blue moon at an Austrian spa. The attitude at Atmantan, however, is deliberately positive and therefore encouraging. Sure I could do with losing 8kg but do I need to be humiliated to achieve it? No, and this is an approach I respond to.
Dr Manoharan assesses my ‘dosha’, the mind-body type that expresses physical, emotional and mental characteristics and is made up of vata (air) pita (fire) or kapha (earth). To do this, he takes my pulse and asks me a series of questions, such as which climates I prefer (warm, thank you), what type of exercise I'm drawn to (spinning), my dietary habits (er, not so bad). Alcohol (*coughs*). "Do you sometimes come across as very direct?" he asks. "Yes I do" I reply, surprising myself with my sharpness. Oh. Or rather, "Om!"
He determines I am vata/pita dosha: passionate and driven but sensitive but also someone who can lose focus while physically of average weight – in normal circumstances – with slim hips and er, a lot of hair. All true. Dr Manoharan devises a panchakarma programme based on my dosha. It involves meditation, heavenly treatments, yoga and more modern exercise such as TRX and aqua aerobics. Traditionally, panchakarma is a three-week detox involving a spartan diet of an Indian rice and lentil dish called kitchari and consuming lots of ghee (the idea being that most toxins are fat soluble and like a detergent it the ghee washes them out), internal cleanses and treatments.
The morning cleanse takes on a whole new meaning
Every day starts early with kriyas, cleansing rituals involving the ablutions of extremities. They take place in a specially designed space which is quite clinical with a dozen sinks, that the guests stand over. It's basic compared to the rest of the resort. I am here with other guests – a mix of men and women, many of them Indian, plus a few Brits and a couple of Americans. We use a neti pot, a small tea-pot type affair with a spout to rinse our nostrils, pouring warm slightly salty purified water in one nostril and allowing it to drain of the other. At first, I pour it mostly down my shirt but by day three I feel like a pro, although it frankly feels very strange. However, the effect means I regain a rather alarming but delightful sense of smell. I start to be able to smell the plants too: there are 80 ‘Garden Groves’ in the 42 acres, 24 ‘Lake Groves’ here.
Then comes the herbal water eye-rinsing, which I love. I wear strong contact lenses and need to stick to glasses for the next half hour after to give my eyes a rest. I muse that although we brush our teeth, clean our face and body we don’t ablute our organs of smell and sight so much. Here it's all part of the five sense experience of Panchakarma. It’s the perfect way to wake up the body and I feel refreshed and ready to go. An hour of gentle hatha yoga follows at 7.30am outside looking over the mountains. When Atmantan was being built three years ago, it was found that the mountain on which it sits was full of healing crystals. These are placed all around the resort and in bedrooms too.
You don't think about food all the time
Atmantan feels like the undiscovered jewel in India’s health-wave crown. Accommodation and the scene-stealing plush king-size bed cost thousands of pounds. If I could afford one I would as I sleep better than I have in years without having to resort to melatonin , which I buy in the US and take every night at home. Lack of alcohol and caffeine is certainly helping, but I don’t miss either. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, perfect at sunset, but also with blackout blinds, a huge deep bathtub as well as a shower in the marble bathroom with organic Ayurvedic toiletries. One night after dinner, I come back to find a bath drawn with the bubbles decorated with rose leaves, a bath menu is all part of the service.
After yoga, it’s time for breakfast and I cannot highlight the role that this food plays in the week I am there. Thanks to my job, I’ve eaten at more Michelin-starred restaurants than I have fingers - which may explain the tummy – and this organic homegrown food is sumptuous.
There are four courses if you want them, all calorie controlled and according to my dosha, I am advised not to eat raw vegetables nor chicken or fish which could overstimulate my digestive system. But I feel far from deprived and it’s delightful to eat outside. Everyone agrees they aren't hungry here. After being at health spas, when all I could do was think about food, Atmantan is very different. I also meet hugely interesting people which is a bonus.
I am prescribed two Ayurvedic treatments a day, all different and in a specific order: abhyanga is massage with oil specific to my dosha and shirodhara - where oil is dripped onto the ‘third eye’ in the middle of my forehead. I had this years ago and found irritating, but today it's comforting. Then another stand out treatment, a strong massage with a poultice of herbs and rice impregnated with milk to release subcutaneous fat.
We have ways of making you 'go'
The days roll into one in a blissful panoply of pampering. However, my body seems by day three to be noticing the lack of caffeine, in other words, my bowels have gone to sleep. Hence the self-administered enema which is led by Seema, an energetic yoga teacher, pranic healer - a specialist at balancing energy - and meditation expert who leads me to one of the most peculiar hours of my life. I drink three litres of salted water, stopping to carry put specific yoga moves with a lot of twisting and turning, to increase circulation in the bowel area. She tells me to go back to my room and ‘hang on’ as long as possible. It works, quel relief.
I also have two Ayurvedic oil enemas because as my doctor explains, our skin is full of lipids, our organs need them and so does our intestine. I’m quite relaxed about it - sure it feels somewhat odd but I worry about the practitioner having to do the job rather than myself.
Halfway through the week, three of my companions tell me that I have a sparkle in my eye that that hadn’t been there when we arrived. My before and after selfies are telling.
My last day: I have a consultation with Dr Manoharan and have lost seven pounds with no hunger pains or excessive exercise. I've also read three novels – none by Ms Steele – that I've had by my bed for six months as well as enjoying the most divine treatments.
Beatrice rejuvenated at the end of her stay
Back home, I'm managing better
As for keeping it up? I am now all about adventures in Ayurveda. I leave vowing to start meditating rather than self-medicating. Several million if not billions of people over the years have discovered, Ayurveda works. Atmantan has shown that to me and that the practice is sustainable at home as well. The lasting memory is not to be too hard on myself. In the last 18 months I have been full of guilt that I am not visiting my father enough and although it sounds simple, not being too hard on myself has taught me a different mindset. As for my dosha? I never liked salad anyway - cooked food has been a calming friend since.
Now, when I visit my father I have not developed coping mechanisms per se, but I am not getting so emotional and I have not touched any of my doctor's prescription medication. This is a huge change. I also have stopped bursting into tears on an unsuspecting colleague. And I am exercising four times a week which helps.
No, I don’t sleep perfectly still and despite what the experts say about technology in the bedroom, for me having my phone on vibrate by my bed - just in case - is not the end of the world, in fact, it’s reassuring. What I have learned after Atmantan is a much-needed lesson: just be kind and even more so, to be kind to myself.
Find out more at Atmantan.com. All wellness packages are priced based on length of stay, starting from 3 nights: £1291 up to 14 nights £6027