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Go for a working wellness retreat, not digital detox

If the pandemic has changed the rules of work, it is also making the wellness industry pivot to newer sabbatical models

Ananda in the Himalayas is headquartered in Uttarakhand.
Ananda in the Himalayas is headquartered in Uttarakhand. (Ananda)

For the last four years, Protima Tiwary, an influencer and entrepreneur, has embraced the life of a digital nomad. Whether she is at a yoga retreat or wellness hub, work never stops for her. As a freelancer keeping her own hours, she cannot disconnect entirely, but she can punctuate her schedule with phases of rest and relaxation as she recharges herself with a change of air and scene. Now, with the possibility of remote work becoming a reality, such a lifestyle has become accessible to far more people. “It doesn’t matter if you are logged in from your home in Mumbai or villa in Alibaug,” Tiwary says. “You can be productive from anywhere.”

It’s an idea the wellness industry worldwide is slowly getting used to. The Global Wellness Trends Report 2020 predicts that “wellness sabbaticals” will be the next big trend. Long gone are the days when you could afford to switch off from work and enjoy a tech-free weeks-long sabbatical. Now an ever-increasing number of people suffer from nomophobia—the fear of being separated from their mobile phones—and separation anxiety from email. Digital detox seems at most a feasible idea for a weekend getaway, if that. Any longer and the entire purpose of digital detox can backfire.

To avoid such stressors, new-age wellness sabbaticals—such as Kamalaya in Thailand, Rancho La Puerta in Mexico, among a handful of others—are being specially redesigned to help you get the best of both worlds. In such places, you work as you reboot and reset; respond to your call of duty while you rejuvenate, usually for two-three weeks at least.

In India, Vana and Ananda, both headquartered in Uttarakhand, offer such wellness sabbaticals, while a few other retreats have options for “workations” (working vacations), smaller, informal affairs without the paraphernalia of wellness routines. “A sabbatical needs structure and mentoring,” says Mahesh Natarajan, senior vice-president at Ananda. “It is not enough to come to a wellness retreat, participate in a few sessions, take therapies for two-three weeks, and then forget all about it and go back to square one as soon as you are back home.”

Thai massage at Ananda, where experts design a holistic programme for each client.
Thai massage at Ananda, where experts design a holistic programme for each client. (Ananda)

The experts at Ananda design a holistic programme for each client, depending on their goals and complaints. Using a combination of yoga and meditation, suitable diets and treatments, they aim to bring about long-term lifestyle changes. At Vana, the wellness sabbaticals last for a minimum of 30 nights and include “all the elements of a traditional retreat programme”, says Jaspreet Singh, executive director of the retreat, their specialities being Ayurveda, Sowa-Rigpa (Tibetan healing) and yoga. “The main difference is the set-aside ‘work time’ in your room or at the Sketchbook, our communal technology friendly space, located within the retreat premises,” he adds.

A similar system exists at Ananda, where most of the clientele consists of corporate leaders with extremely demanding work schedules. There is high-speed internet in designated areas of the retreat and careful arrangement of pockets of time, when clients are able to catch up on their daily business dealings, returning to enjoy the lofty beauty of the Himalaya once they have done so. “We came up with this model through consultations with our clients,” Natarajan says. “It’s important for us not to make them feel like they are in a digital boot camp.”

Although the pandemic has been tough on the wellness industry overall, especially high-end luxury players like Vana and Ananda, it has also brought in new learnings. The suspension of international flights made a dent in the client base of both retreats, since the bulk of patrons used to come from abroad. After the lockdown was eased, it was the locals—people from the National Capital Region—who mostly drove up the hills to get away from the coronavirus and the crowds.

At Ananda, where 30% of the visitors are repeat customers, there has been a noticeable shift in people wanting to spend longer durations instead of the hasty two-day breaks they used to come for earlier. The profile of the “vanavasis”—that’s what the residents of Vana are called—has also become much more heterogenous. Earlier, their typical client would be in the 40s, but since the pandemic, millennials have begun to feature more regularly.

“The interesting aspect about wellness is that it is a must for all,” says Singh. As the world moves into the second year of the pandemic, bruised and battered by the trauma and terror of disease, it is a statement that’s going to resonate with ever more people.

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