It has such a powerful quotient. Say detox and you have half the world’s attention – ‘tis the panacea to the ills of modern living. Binge for days on end and sign up for days or weeks of detoxification. It is almost like waiting for magic to happen. And the cycle goes on.
I have never been a detox-happy individual, but I chanced upon austere detox retreats during my search for story ideas to present at the newspaper’s edit meets. That is when I was quite taken in by the extremes people let themselves in for, in the bid for the ultimate health and beauty boost.
The first of my experiences left me slightly staggered. On a hot summer’s day, I made my way to an exclusive detox studio that happened to be a few minutes’ walk from my erstwhile home in Jangpura in Delhi. I found myself in the midst of a party. A get-together where there was not a single morsel of cooked dish on the menu. Raw food? You might bite out aghast. I had a similar reaction. Where I come from, in Calcutta, no Bengali can imagine sitting for a meal where everything is uncooked. I can imagine my parents baulking at the thought.
You can imagine, it was nothing less than an adventure for me, willingly walking into a raw food party and expecting a ‘raw deal’ with a portly dose of apprehension.
A petite lady in a chic white ensemble and white turban was the gourmet cook and the hostess of the party. It was Dr Soorya Kaur’s birthday and as a raw food convert, she had laid out a spread. Before I get on with details of the party, I have to put in a word in for my ignorance. I had no idea that Americans do not like to be asked their religion. My partner later pointed out to me the folly of my ways with an exasperated sigh.
I did ask Kaur about her religion because she was clearly a foreigner yet with a turban that I know the Amritdharis wear. To it I got a rejoinder that she might be an American Jew but she would not like to refer to it my story for the newspaper. She was an Amritdhari convert. An Amritdhari refers to a Sikh who has been initiated as a Khalsa by taking ‘amrit’ or ‘nectar water’.
Seated around the table were all women, tucking into Kaur’s raw food dishes which she had put together herself. One of them was a Delhi socialite.
The affair started over a plate of appetizers, filled with an array of onion crackers, non-flour bread, non-dairy cheese, fig tapenade and sundried tomatoes. Next in line were small crunchy sticks of vegetables wrapped in collard greens, mushrooms stuffed with raw falafel and a zuchini apple salad. It was followed up by ravioli, made not of flour but ingredients such as spinach, flax seeds and non-dairy milk (churned out of almonds).
The surprise quotient: I found myself reaching out for more helpings. “Chew on it slowly till it turns into liquid in your mouth. Slow eating is one of the best forms of meditation,” said the hostess.
The denouement lay in the bouquet of desserts that came at the end of a longdrawn (read: three-hour) affair. There were mint cookies that were inspired by American Girl Scout-esque cookies, a parfait of vanilla cream, strawberries and chocolate, macaroons, little roundels of ginger sweets, chocolate hearts and chocolate brownies, and lastly, a non-dairy ice cream made with coconut and non-dairy cream. It was all washed down with soothing lemongrass and ginger tea.
The party was a revelation of sorts, at least to someone like me who had never had a taste of raw food. Consider it your initiation into the well-kenned world of detoxification. Kaur, a seasoned practitioner of raw food detoxification, conducts Detox Cleanse Programmes at her studio in a quiet neighbourhood in South Delhi.
She is strict with the programmes. You are allowed hot cooked coups but just initially to ease up the transition into the realm of raw foods. The basic diet is all about slurping on juices and munching on raw foods.
The concept of serious detox retreats is to detoxify the system, that is, eliminate those unwanted substances called toxins from the body. The peachy bit is that you are spoilt for choice.
“Ashrams, health farms, spas – they have all come up with their versions of detoxification,” pointed out diet management consultant Dr Karun Makhija.
Austere because just like the ancient Kalari Kovilakom in Kerala where they ask you to ‘Leave Your World Behind’ (to the effect they confiscate your shoes while handing out pyjamas and flip flops for the duration of the stay), others send out packs of information to their attendees listing out the must-haves and the must-not haves.
Stringent is the word you are looking for when you head South of India for detox at well-known ashrams synonymous with ayurveda. There’s Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala and then there is the Kottakal Arya Vaidya Sala in the Malappuram district in Kerala.
Equally strict with their programmes is an institute of repute in Bangalore — the Institute of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences that you know better as Jindal’s Health Farm.
Beach lovers, there is the party town of Goa, which apart from sun, sand and a crazy nightlife, offers places to detox like The Beach House, a boutique wellness retreat on the secluded Sernabatim Beach.
There’s also the Ayurvedic Natural Health Centre, an ayurvedic centre specialising in holistic healing in the village of Saligao in North Goa.
If a touch of luxury makes the thought of undergoing a detox programme more comely, there’s hope in the form of retreats like Kalari Kovilakom in Palakkad, Kerala, that surprisingly enough manage to stick to a monastic ethos. Alternatively, head up North to the opulent spa of Ananda in the Himalayas.
Disclaimer: A detox programme is not about weight loss. Though it might end up as a by-product of a restricted calorie intake.
But, it’s rigorous training time. So leave all expectations of a spa holiday behind.
The retreats are serious about their programmes which means that some treatments can be a tad bit uncomfortable. For days on end — they last anything from three days to a fortnight or even a couple of months – the focus is on a strict diet along with treatments and exercise or sessions of yoga.
“You need time on your hands when you book yourself in for detoxifying sessions at any retreat. The body needs to be prepared for the treatments through consuming medicated ghee and through oil massages,” advised Dr Rekha Raman, senior physician at the Kottakal Arya Vaida Sala at its Delhi centre, which offers a minimum of a 7-day stay and a maximum of 28 days.
Ayurveda is the mainstay for the bulk of the detox retreats in the country. Every aspect of the detox treatment is personalized, with a battalion of wellness consultants, doctors and nutritional therapists recommending a programme for the attendee based on his needs. The food is accordingly based on the constitution of the attendee, the treatments and the therapies he has been recommended. Of course there are a host of ayurvedic treatments and massages ranging from Uzhichil, Shirodhara, Sirovasthy to Podikizhi, Elekizhi, Dhanyakizhi, Navarakizhi, Pizhichil and Narangakizhi.
At The Beach House, going by the no-one-size-fits-all belief, a bevy of treatments from ayurveda and homeopathy to nutritional therapy, yoga, hypnotherapy, fitness, spa therapy treatments and meditation are incorporated into the programme.
The detox programme at the Goa-based wellness boutique involves a juice and broth fast. During meals you get fruit juices in various combinations such as pear, apple and lime juice or watermelon and mint. The vegetable juices are churned from the organic vegetables grown at the retreat itself.
“No juice is repeated for 7 days (unless requested). Herbs and spices are added for a flavour-some twist,” said nutritional therapist Francine White.
“The idea is to promote alkalinity in the body. Since the daily routine is only about drinking juices, there is no biting and chewing. The system is allowed to slow down with no solid food to digest,” noted Liesl De Silva, a wellness consultant at the retreat. You can stay at The Beach House for a minimum of three days and stretch it up to 14 days.
A similar juice detox diet can also be availed when you book into the Ayurvedic Natural Health Centre (www.healthandayurveda.com) in Saligao in Goa. “Alternatively you have the choice of asking for a solid food diet,” said Dr Sunita, the CEO of the centre.
The Juice Cleanse is an intricate part of Kaur’s 3, 5 and 7-day programmes at her studio in South Delhi and at a holistic healing centre in Chandigarh that she has a tie-up with. “You receive 10 drinks a day with the time they should be consumed at labelled on them,” she said. The American-Amritdhari conducts 3-7 day detox programmes based entirely on raw foods. And though her base is in Hawaii, she does manage to spend a few months in India every year.
Kaur is not only a detox expert specialising in raw foods, she is a certified Kundalini Yoga practitioner, a hynotherapist and a clinical acupuncturist – all of which she uses in sync with her detox programmes. Along with her young assistant, Kat Young — a Jivananda yoga practitioner from British Columbia – Kaur prepares raw food dishes for her clients in her own kitchen armed with equipments like dehydrators, mandoline slicers and juicer-grinders.
“I dehydrate (the punch line in a raw food party being that cooking food above 92 to 118 degrees F cuts down on its nutrient content) cereals and grains and make items like onion crackers. Processed foods are a big no. I stick to a simple principle – do not use anything on the shelf that doesn’t rot. My dishes are always free of sugar, dairy products, meat and eggs. Honey and dates are preferable as sweeteners while for low-calorie desserts, I use raw cacao,” adds Kaur. In fact, the veggies she uses are usually sourced from the organic farm of one of her clients.
Similarly, within the eco-friendly precincts of the 100-acre Jindal Health Farms, it’s a liquid diet. Expect a host of organic veggie juices from ashgourd to bitter gourd and tulsi to raw beetroot.
“Surprisingly enough I did not crave for food. A typical day at the farm is about bhajans and yogic kriyas of Panchakarma (involves therapies such as vomiting, purgation, enema, blood-letting and nasal therapy depending upon which treatment one needs). It is followed up by laughter and yoga sessions after which one can go for the various massages and mud baths prescribed by the doctor. I also underwent the hydrotherapy whereby I was hosed down with jets of water. During recreational time, physical activities such as swimming and cycling are encouraged,” said Tara Doshi, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, who makes it a point to go for a detox programme once a year.
Or step into the forested surroundings of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, sprawled across 12 acres in the foothills of Kerala’s Western Ghats. The juice programme here lasts two weeks.
Wondering if your body needs a detox, given the fact that it is rigorous in nature? Well, think a change in lifestyle for a certain period of time.
“If you are used to alcohol, meat, rich food and the works, you chuck them out during the detox programme and exercise self-control. Detox retreats work on a physical level by giving you healthy food and exercises. On a psychological level, they relax you through massages, turning into to bed early and a no-mobile-phone-no-television routine,” added Dr Makhija.
The ultimate incentive – with scenic surroundings of these retreats often doubling up as a healing touch — is the one that promises an escape from the trammels of a busy life.
Nestled in the midst of eight acres of green paddy fields and in the backdrop of the hills in Kollengode, Kalari Kovilakom for instance is a beautiful retreat.
The former palace built by a queen, Valiya Thampuratti of Kollengode and restored by Dutch-German architect, Karl Damschen, has a stone pond along with a temple to add to the ambience. Count in the fact that this is no ashram with a spartan atmosphere — instead it brings together the 21st century comfort of a modern resort with the 19th century historical palace.
Within its 14, 21 and 28-day programmes, expect an exotic touch to your everyday routine. A faint scent of lemon oil wafts through the halls while the food at strictly cooked in brass, iron or clay vessels. In its pillar-framed dining area, communal meals are a given with attendees exchanging notes over tumblers of lukewarm, herb-medicated water to begin with. The meals are served in brass thalis lined with banana leaves. The menu? It might read a raw sprout and onion salad along with a dish of the local bitter gourd one day or red rice accompanied by lentils and a dish of dry jackfruit on another.
The plus factor is that they make sure you do not chew your nails with boredom. “There is no time for people to get dull. We keep them busy with sessions of yoga, meditations, the art of ayurvedic cooking and adjusting to the ayurvedic way of life,” says Dr Jouhar Kanhirala, the resident doctor. The ultimate idea at Kalari Kovilakom is to make you feel that you have been reborn.
A warning: You have got to pay the price for rejuvenation. These are expensive treatments but come inclusive of everything from consultations, treatments, massages, oils and meals to yoga, meditation and accommodation.
The other catch apart from sky-high prices: there are no half-measures when you walk in to a detox retreat.The pertinent question is are you in?
(A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph on April 8, 2012)