Danielle Copperman, author of Well Being: Recipes and Rituals to Realign the Body and Mind, shares her experience staying at a wellness retreat in India.
Last month I had the last minute pleasure of visiting India, somewhere I had always dreamed of visiting but just never quite gotten around to planning. It always seemed a bit daunting and something that would require a lot of meticulous organisation and prior preparations. So, when I was invited to visit one of India’s “most magical wellness destinations” Shillim Estate Retreat and Spa, I jumped at the chance of experiencing India by following someone else’s lead and itinerary.
Tucked almost untouchably high up in the serene mountains of the Western Ghats, Shillim Retreat Estate and Spa is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is recognised as one of the world’s top biological diversity hotspots. Just a few hours from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, arriving the other side of the hectic traffic and manic energy of the city, Shillim is a majestic paradise that feels like another world. Surrounded by forests, valleys, rice fields, bamboo plantations and nature like you’ve never seen before (especially during monsoon season), I felt immediately grounded and centred by the surroundings even before exploring the retreat’s amenities or wellness packages.
Ahead of my visit, I was asked to fill out an in-depth questionnaire by the team behind the retreat’s life science wellness program, known as Dharana. The questionnaire explored a range of physical, mental and emotional topics, and I felt instantly more connected to myself and aware of how I was feeling and what I wanted to get out of my visit. Aside from that, the questionnaire is a chance for the Dharana team to decipher each guest’s unique current state of wellbeing ahead of their arrival, ensuring they can put together an appropriate and entirely personalised programme tailored to each guest.
Upon arrival I was greeted by the entire Dharana team and introduced to everyone who would be taking care of me throughout the week, from my dieticians and doctors, to the chefs and therapists. Our arrival ceremony then commenced, with a selection of welcome rituals, starting with energy clearing (using burning sage and a Tibetan singing bowl), followed by a detoxifying footbath of lemongrass, ginger and Himalayan pink salt. The entire experience was incredibly grounding and really helped me to ‘arrive’ and feel settled and present after the long journey, transitioning into a much slower and calmer state of mind and pace of living.
During my stay
Visiting Shillim, guests have the chance to decide exactly what kind of experience they want, or need. The retreat is separated, with the Dharana wellness programme and accommodation sitting slightly apart from the main retreat where the majority of the villas, spas and restaurants are located for guests not enrolled in Dharana programs. This gives a sense of ease to the retreat, in a way that health and wellness is not imposed upon anyone. But for those who are keen to heal, cleanse and detox, to work on self-development or to achieve weightloss goals, there are plenty of options for everyone. The main pillars of their programmes are preventative medicine, exercise physiology, nutrition and dietetics, conflict resolution and spiritual wellbeing.
I was on a more wellness-oriented journey, which started with some incredibly interesting and insightful tests and assessments looking at my physical and mental health, including traditional Ayurvedic and naturopathic analysis combined with advanced diagnostics technology, such as gene testing and Oligo scanning which help to establish what’s going on internally on a physiological level (for example, revealing nutrient, mineral and vitamin levels, as well as levels of metals and plastics found in the body). After these tests, the team curated a more detailed program specific to my needs and requirements, and the week’s activities were focused around getting me physically and mentally back into balance with my natural state, whilst using preventative medicine and other natural remedies to cleanse and detoxify.
During my stay at Shillim, my schedule was quite back-to-back but not at all overwhelming. The days began with gentle movement, something like yoga, pilates, natural movement workshops or forest and stream walks. There is no gym or fitness suite at Shillim, which I really admired as they focus on natural movement and getting out in nature as a means for exercise with added benefits beyond just the physical. The approach to wellness is not intense or rigid, and the lack of gym helped me to understand how much we can do with our own bodies by using more natural and experimental methods that are just as challenging, if not more so.
After our morning movement, we sat down to personalised breakfasts, created with our individual Ayurvedic types and dietary requirements in mind. Each morning began with a juice and the food was often a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes, all relatively small portions but with a lot of variety. It felt satisfying and filling but was at the same time light and incredibly nourishing.
Throughout the day, myself and the other guests went about our own schedules, which involved a combination of movement classes, pranayama sessions, meditation sessions, hikes, nature workshops, foraging, crafts, pottery and clay therapy, sound therapy, local village tours, volunteering on local plantations and more – all accompanied by an abundance of on-site spa treatments and therapies everyday. We enjoyed a combination of treatments, from deep tissue massage, Ayurvedic herbal oil massages, synchronised abhyanga massage, Indian third-eye head massage and much more, all carried out using seeds, flowers, roots and oils grown and produced locally. The benefits of each treatment vary, and a combination of several treatments was key to overall wellbeing, to bring the body and mind back into balance.
Lunch and dinner each day was similar to breakfast; a combination of small portions of different dishes with mostly curries, dhals, grains and vegetables. All of the food is made on site using local ingredients, such as rice from neighbouring plantations, to vegetables grown on-site and fish from the forest streams. Everything was incredibly fresh and pure, but without feeling restrictive or too healthy. You won’t find juice cleansing, raw foods or other fads at Shillim, but instead warming, nourishing and grounding foods based on the five elements of Ayurveda (water, air, fire, ether and wind), aimed at bringing the body back into balance. Each menu outlines the nutritional values of each meal, which is helpful and useful to know, but not something they are too fixated on. It is all about the ritual of eating and fuelling the body with functional foods to help it thrive and function fully.
Development and transformation
During my visit, I must say I felt several small transformations, some physically but mostly mentally. During several treatments, for example, I would find deep relaxation and many inspirational ideas began to flood to me. Other times, I felt moments of enlightenment – or realisation – and felt clarity in certain aspects of my life.
Physically, I felt lighter, more energised and deeply cleansed from the food we were eating. My digestion was smoother, and despite early wake up calls, I had consistent energy throughout the day.
Being in nature, especially with non-stop monsoon downpours, was deeply grounding and cleansing. The staff mentioned how monsoon season is one of the most detoxifying times to visit India and I really felt the benefits of this, as if the rain was washing away mental and physical blockages and encouraging flow. The energy and the nutrients of the rainfall also felt incredibly nourishing and powerful, and I believe it helped with things like water retention and dehydration.
Leaving ceremony and departure
On our last day, the team carried out a Shanti Homa and Dhyani ritual ceremony to mark the attainment of mastering the lessons of Dharana and adopting them as a way of life. It was amazing to bring our time to an end, celebrating the week with the staff and other locals. The ceremony is intended to cleanse negative energy and to attract peace and positive energy into ones life, helping to move things along when they seem difficult or stagnant.
For our arrival back home, we were given detailed prescriptions of Ayurvedic tonics and herbal remedies, aimed to pacify our needs and help us reach our goals. We were given a structured daily plan, outlining what to take and when, as well as dietary guidance for life, outlining what we should eat in line with our Ayurvedic types to enhance digestion, energy and overall wellbeing, and to prevent discomfort and disease. Having these remedies and this advice, alongside the daily rituals I had learned throughout my stay, I felt fully equipped to keep the regime up when I arrived home.
The traditional Dharana teachings are not inaccessible, intimidating or unrealistic. The rituals we picked up were simple and short to practice, and the foods and meal plans are focused around everyday essentials and mostly fruits and vegetables that are accessible almost anywhere, and which require minimal cooking and uncomplicated preparation. This kind of retreat is key to overall wellbeing, as you adopt tools and genuinely become educated about yourself and life in general, meaning you leave feeling empowered and inspired to take control of your life and live more fully, using natural resources and remedies and becoming more mindful about yourself and your surroundings in the process. It really is a way of life we should be exploring more and taking inspiration from in order to slowly and consciously adapt our own daily lives.
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