It’s a four-hour, 200-kilometre drive from Mumbai to Mulshi Lake via Pune, and the first three and a half hours are shrouded in pollution. The air is so thick you can see it, the particulate matter so dense I don’t need to wear sunglasses. The air quality is just one reason Atmantan, a spa concept that launched in 2016, is doing so well. For while the air up here in the Western Ghats isn’t always completely clear, it’s miles better than the life-threatening indexes seen in too many parts of India these days.
I'm booked in for a four-day weight-loss retreat – various fitness and detox regimes are also offered – and I'm alongside mostly Indian couples, singles and older family groups. Some are recovering from Diwali and prepping for the wedding season; others are taking a break from hectic lives running businesses and families. Staff tell me that Bollywood types often check in after non-stop filming and travel schedules.
For me, after a fulfilling summer, I’ve shot up a couple of dress sizes since returning to the office, and letting my health and fitness slide. Atmantan Wellness Resort, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Mulshi on a seam of crystals, offers what looks like an ideal scenario: 200 staff for 106 luxurious rooms, state-of-the-art fitness facilities and a weight-loss programme without a starvation diet: just fresh, high-quality food in small portions, targeted exercise and natural spa treatments. Its motto is “be transformed”, but would it work?
Day 1: The analysis
The facts about my lifestyle over the past quarter are confirmed with the results of a Tanita body composition analysis test. I'm 7kg over the preferred weight limit and all of this is fat. Dr Susheela, the young naturopath who designs and oversees my programme, says that the good news is my metabolic rate is good, so all I need to do is eat less and exercise more. I'm also dehydrated and need to increase my water levels from 42.7 per cent to between 45 and 60 per cent of my total body weight. Water, she explains, is better retained by muscle, so building one's muscle density is a good way of staying hydrated. "You just drink at least three litres a day," I'm told. Easier said than done as, when it comes down to it, this equals five 750ml flasks a day, which I find almost impossible.
Meals are generally three courses, with a choice for each, and taken in the pleasant restaurant overlooking the lake (I’m not allowed dessert and I’m supposed to avoid coffee, although if you are desperate, you can get it in another room between 10am and midday, and 3pm and 6pm). For breakfast, I have a small glass of fruit juice, a small glass of fruit with yoghurt and chia seeds, and two small parathas stuffed with sweet potato and a small amount of cottage cheese – delicious and only 391 calories.
I kick off my fitness programme at 10am with a one-on-one aerobics class with Vijay, a dance specialist. Unlike in a group setting, there’s no place to hide, so keep up or look lazy. Half an hour of this is enough to work up a good sweat before a swim in the indoor saltwater pool and a blissful Vedic massage in the spa. Lunch is a tasty, fresh vegetable salad, chicken soup and fettuccine with pesto, and more vegetables – a small portion, but the balance of nutrients ensures I don’t crave anything more (total calories: 343).
Next I have a postural assessment with physio Dr Nitin, who says that despite being mostly deskbound I have good posture and simply need to strengthen the muscles in my back, shoulders and abs. I’m given a couple of basic exercises to practise at home.
My final activity of the day, before a meditation session and health talk, is a one-on-one stretching session similar to those given to athletes. Having someone else help you is not only easier than stretching on your own, but an expert can push you much farther and in more directions. Personal trainer Sagar is an expert at this, and I leave this session feeling energised.
Dinner is a salad with vegetables, minestrone soup and chicken roulade with gravy and mash (total calories: 408).
Day 2: The cleanse
My day starts at 6am when I wander down to the Kriya pavilion for what I think is a yoga class, but is actually a series of traditional Hindu cleansing rituals. The first involves pouring a small teapot full of warm salted water through one nostril and out the other: easier than it sounds after a demonstration. Next comes gargling with salted water and finally a herbal eye bath. Not for the faint-hearted, but worth it for the respiratory advantages.
After a swim and breakfast, it’s time for an “upper body blast” with Sagar – again, luckily or unluckily, it’s just me taking part. A series of squats with dumbbells and kettlebells followed by lunges leaves me feeling suitably blasted but, again, the 35-minute session is manageable even when unfit.
Next there’s a private Pilates session with Dr Nitin – not as painful as I had imagined because the easiest route to target each muscle group is taken, although I do feel weak. After drinking a lot of water, though, I feel surprisingly alert.
After lunch there's a break before a reflexology foot massage with a therapist from Sikkim, who identifies my shoulders and lungs as points of concern. Then it's dinner: a delicious thali including small portions of rice and bread.
Day 3: Yoga and a hike
I start the day with a sunrise hatha yoga session. I’m aching from the day before, but this helps me to loosen up and wake up. After a swim and another private “core building” session with a physio, there’s lunch followed by a meditation session, traditional Thai massage and a two-hour hike up the mountain behind the resort to watch the sun set. It’s steep going and my legs are in agony, but the view is spectacular, and we see small farms and temples along the way.
The trainers who accompany me say a hike like this burns about 1,000 calories, which is about the same as my daily intake of food here. Dinner is a mouth-watering kebab with crunchy vegetables and paneer in a tandoori sauce.
I haven't drunk enough water and my headache requires a few painkillers. When you start using your body again, it feels even heavier and achier the next day, although that proves only that you haven't been using it enough. It's nice to sink into the Eclipse Accolade chiropractically-certified beds – aided by the dark nights and complete silence.
Day 4: Personal training
After yesterday’s hike, I have a lie-in, followed by a quick swim before breakfast, then a personal training session with the ever-smiling Sagar, who pushes me just enough to produce results. We work our way through the gym using the treadmill, hill-climber and various weights before another stretching session. Then it’s reward time, with a brilliant head-and-spine massage followed by 10 minutes in the steam room. After lunch (tomato, raw onion and coriander salad, zucchini, spinach and mint soup, and Moroccan quinoa with marinaded cottage cheese; total calories: 328), I have an hour-long Udwartanam Ayurvedic treatment, which consists of being rubbed vigorously with dry, warm herbal powders by two therapists, who then sprinkle you with water and repeat the procedure.
I'm left feeling fresh and relaxed, which is just as well because we've come to the least-looked-forward to part of my week: colonic hydrotherapy. I'm not convinced that it's
a good idea or that I need it, but Dr Susheela swears by it, and since she promises it won't do any harm and is very popular, I go through with it.
After that it's a light dinner of kedgeree, followed by bed. The next morning, a large group of non-retreat guests have checked in, so the restaurant has laid on a buffet in addition to the usual a la carte offering.
As well as feeling like a newly released prisoner, I feel strangely sickened by the prospect of unlimited food and stay with the menu choices. My main takeaway, if one will pardon the pun, from this trip is the certain fact that eating to the point of being stuffed is self-defeating: it gives you less energy, not more, and will take a lot of time to burn off later.
On check-out day, there’s another weighing session on the Tanita machine, and both I and Dr Susheela are pleased to see that as well as noticeably toning up and slimming down, I’ve lost 2kg of fat and my hydration levels are within the normal range again.
There's still a long way to go but I've broken the back of my disrupted wellness regime and look forward to a healthier future. Given that much of this was possible only with fantastically tasty food meticulously prepared by a whole team of chefs, I will have to take the quinoa, chick peas and other healthy items out of my kitchen cupboards and actually cook them.