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A New Mantra

Elle / October 2012

Bending to India’s whims leads to an unexpected discovery.

I should preface this visit-to-India story with a full confession: I hate yoga. I’d like to be a flexible nature goddess, but I can’t touch my toes. And, believe me, back in Toronto, I tried: My poses were clumsy and unnatural, the yogi would shoot me looks of pity and the cold Canadian floor didn’t help one bit. Which is why—even though I know it sounds like blasphemy to the scores of svelte, Lululemon-wearing ladies back at home—I am anxiously avoiding a relaxing Hatha yoga class, at sunset, in actual India.

I’d flown 18 hours through 10 time zones and endured three long days in the sweltering heat of downtown Delhi before I reached the luxe Leela Palace in Udaipur, perhaps India’s most scenic mountain town. When we arrived at the hotel, children threw rose petals at us and—since it was Diwali, the annual festival of lights—fireworks filled the sky. There’s a reason this place is known as the “Venice of the East.”

But instead of eagerly changing into my own Lululemons and heading to the resort’s serene yoga studio overlooking Lake Pichola, I’m seriously considering feigning cramps so I can watch a Kardashian rerun in my roomy suite filled with traditional Rajasthan artwork. The deep, modern tub beckons. Yoga does not.

It’s official: I don’t deserve this opulent Indian getaway, even though the universe has strangely bestowed it on me. I’m a wimp with spices, I’m too nervous to even attempt to pronounce anything in Hindi and I stand out like a sore thumb in my Westernwear. Mostly, I am out of my cultural comfort zone—just like how I felt in Canadian yoga class, only a hundred times more. But much worse than all this, I realize, is the fear of being so wrapped up in my own inauthenticity that I won’t be able to experience anything authentic. I don’t want to tell my hippie friends back home that I missed the spiritual opportunity of a lifetime because Eat, Pray, Love made me cringe.

So, I squeeze into my gear and deliver my cynical self to the farthest corner of the windowed yoga studio nestled beneath an immaculate guava garden—just as the tangerine sun sets over the lake. My mind immediately starts to wander back to my crisp-sheeted king-size bed. I just can’t stay focused.

As soothing music hums, four other vacationers—all yoga aficionados, I can just tell—begin to stretch superhumanly around me: three sporty women and, hey now, a chiseled fellow to leer at. Suddenly, the woman beside me interrupts the peace.

“Can I give you some advice?” she asks sweetly, sensing my discomfort and distraction. “Just stay on your mat, you know?”

Um, no. I am clearly on my mat. I smile and turn away into my warrior pose.

My mind promptly starts wandering again: What was she implying? Do I look like a complete fool? And who am I kidding anyway? I am no yoga warrior; I am an obvious yoga fraud. And then, duh, I get it: I’m not on my mat; I’m not present. Instead, I’m critiquing myself in the mirror, thinking about the trays of sugary treats that are being delivered to my suite and wondering what I’m going to wear tomorrow—my mind is everywhere but on the mat.

It sounds like a simple conclusion. But I finally understand the appeal of yoga. It’s about being there, on my mat, removed from all awkwardness and insecurity. For a solid hour, I shelve my snarky attitude—and my inner critic—and enjoy the sound of my own breath. Despite all the chandeliered maharaja suites, chartered boat rides and even a visit to the breathtaking Taj Mahal, it is this hour of near-nothingness that will be the highlight of this trip. And, unlike the Taj Mahal, I can take yoga—and my new calm, open mind—home with me.

How to get there: It’s a long trek, so travel in style if you can. I flew with Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com)—one of just six five-star airlines across the globe. My flat-bed seat was supercomfy, but before I slipped into a provided set of PJs and a long nap, I dived into a six-course dinner that included goat-cheese tortellini. The 12 hours to our stopover in Doha (on the coast of the Persian Gulf) breezed right by. I explored the airport for a few hours—there’s a glam lounge done in buttery leather, a full spa and a high-end shopping mall that puts North American airports to shame—before getting back on the plane. Just four more hours to Delhi.

Where to stay: They say Delhi is to Washington as Mumbai is to New York, and New Delhi is the colonial creation within the Delhi metropolis. Set amid tree-lined boulevards and embassies, the Leela Palace (theleela.com) in New Delhi opened in 2011. It’s the first built-from-scratch hotel to go up in New Delhi in the past 30 years, and its $370-million price tag also makes it the most expensive. From the Murano-crystal chandeliers to handwoven Turkish rugs to the roomiest suites in the capital, not a single ornate detail has been spared—including iTouch electronics. The property is no stranger to high rollers: The Prince of Morocco and Tom Cruise were recent guests.

Where to eat: The Leela Palace has five restaurants on-site, including traditional fare at Jamavar—tandoori, biryanis and curries from its royal kitchen—and Italian cuisine at Le Cirque, the New York brand’s only Asian location and Delhi’s newest hot spot. If you’re craving sushi instead, the Leela Palace’s newly opened Megu is considered the jewel in the crown of Japanese restaurants, serving exquisite handmade rolls with more than 10 varieties of sake.

What to wear: Unless you’re craving leers and whistles, spring for sleeves and knee-length skirts in modest India. Better yet? Bare your midriff (interestingly, this is just fine) in a sari—which, once you hit the sweltering streets, will make a whole lot of breezy sense. Pick up an original design by Sabyasachi Mukherjee (sabyasachi.com), whose woven fabrics and immaculate tailoring recently stole the spotlight—yet again—at India Fashion Week. Sabyasachi is best known for his pairing of modern styles with sophisticated ornate Indian embroidery. “Even if the silhouette is Western,” he explained to Fashion Week journalists, “through handwork and embroidery [my pieces need] to have our traditional feel.”

Getaway: Relax and rejuvenate in Udaipur
When the hustle and bustle of the Delhi streets gets to you—with nearly 17 million people, Delhi has a greater population density than both Tokyo and Mexico City—hop a quick flight to Udaipur, in the western state of Rajasthan. Just an hour in the air delivers you to a whole other India: wide-open spaces with panoramic views of Lake Pichola set at the foot of the Aravalli Mountains. It’s the perfect backdrop for a massage at the award-winning ESPA spa (espaonline.com) at the Leela Palace Udaipur. Here, the U.K.-based brand fuses its Western practices and modern formulas with ancient Hindu medicine, resulting in a massive menu sure to satisfy spa veterans and neophytes alike.

Craving a classic massage, I scored an Abhyanga—that’s Sanskrit for a full-body oil massage—complete with a Dosha humour analysis and corresponding aromatherapy. Or you could try an ESPA signature treatment: Bhringaraj Abhyanga (a.k.a. “Ruler of the Hair”) is a calming scalp and hair treatment that aims to bring a sense of well-being—plus a good night’s sleep. Posttreatment, take a cleansing dip in your personal therapy suite’s private pool overlooking the lake. It’s literally movie-set gorgeous—Bond fans will recognize the scenery from 1983’s Octopussy.