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I'm A Plus-Sized Woman: Wellness Travel To India Changed My View On 'Health'

Wellness travel has never been more popular, but what does the experience mean for plus-sized women who all too often have been removed from conversations. CF contributor Priya Raj travelled to India to find out for herself.

Before my trip to The Leela Palace Udaipur in India, I’d heard about Ayurvedic and yoga retreats from friends and colleagues around the world. And what better way to learn about yoga or the Ayurvedic doshas than the land where they were born? But wellness is a term I’ve always struggled with, associating as a plus-sized woman. Instead, words like detox or weight loss felt more fitting, even if that’s not what I felt I wanted. 

Although I was excited at the thought of embarking on a wellness retreat in India, I knew I wanted it to be in an environment where I wasn’t going to be judged, or nudged onto a detox programme. 

I’m lucky to have tried out some of the best wellness retreats in the world, but perhaps what made this particular stay feel more of a spiritual experience was the setting. Resorts in the wellness space often encourage us to detach and disconnect from our stressful lives and jobs but, if you’re anything like me, a few breathing sessions and deep tissue massages aren’t enough. As I found out, The Leela Palace Udaipur offers something more.

The Lowdown

To me, the magic of travelling in India is unmatched: there are few countries which can weave simplicity and luxury in such a beautiful way. The motto at The Leela Palace is Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning Guest is God, and it’s a theme you’ll find running throughout the country.

For a wellness experience like no other, the choice to go back to the roots of wellbeing in India was an easy one, and no one does it quite like The Leela Palace in Udaipur. The property is the crown of the city’s Lake Pichola, whose calm waters stretch well beyond the hotel, making this the perfect oasis for some R&R. It’s accessible either by car (it’s a one-hour drive from the airport) or split between a car and a private boat ride across Lake Pichola, and is as palatial as it gets. Eighty rooms and suites are split across two wings, and although all the rooms are stunning, I can safely say nothing beats a lake view room with an impressive vista to wake up to each morning. 

The wellness programme

The Aujasya programme at The Leela is extremely flexible and can be woven into a guest’s time in a way to suit them. At other retreats, nearly all your free-time activities are based around health and wellness – whether yoga, or a lymphatic drainage massage – whereas here, the goal is not to be obsessing about health 24/7, but rather to allow it to become a way of thinking. Though activities can span a range of slow, intentional activities like yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic therapy, no commitment to partake in these is required if you join the programme. 

If, like me, you’re looking for the complete royal wellness experience and don’t want to lift a finger (or a leg, in the case of yoga), opt for a guided tour of the City Palace during your free time instead, or a tuk-tuk journey around Udaipur to completely detach from your everyday life – all in the name of wellness. You’ll also be occupied with walks around the property viewing the art and artefact collection which have been gifted by the palace – where the royal family still live. Other activities include trips to the spa, pottery classes, henna painting, puppet shows, and a daily folk dance, come evening.

The programme has a focus on food, like many other wellness programmes, but in a unique way. Guests can still enjoy their favourites, like pancakes or pasta; here they are prepared by the team in healthier ways, to promote the message that food is not the enemy and that, in the case of wellness, food is our fuel and friend. In fact, I mentioned how much I love afternoon tea and an excited executive chef presented me with a sundowner high tea, eager to explain that his philosophy is that people shouldn’t feel they have to sacrifice good food and cuisine – because food is to be enjoyed.

The Food

Food is a huge part of any trip to India, a country with an incredibly diverse cuisine, and though the Leela Palace is recognised for its wellness programme first-and-foremost, it’s also home to multiple restaurants with fare ranging from a classic club sandwich, to the must-try laal maas – a mutton curry hailing from Rajasthan. This dish isn’t part of the wellness programme plan, but all things in moderation!

In India, the ingredients used in the dishes of each region really tell the story of its people. For example, the Punjab region is known for agriculture so its cuisine is abundant with vegetable, dairy and grain based dishes – like everyone’s favourite tadka daal, or saag aloo. The Mughal influence on Rajasthan, where The Leela Palace is located, means the fare is rich with aromatic spices, tasted in the aforementioned dish, laal mass.

I’m not ashamed to admit I have actively tried to lose weight for what feels like most of my adult life, but I’ve put so much pressure on being ‘perfect’ – with salads for lunch, and chicken and veg for dinner – that I end up in a constant cycle of “trying again next week.” Perhaps where I’ve gone wrong previously is that I was ashamed to admit that I loved food and enjoy eating.

The Leela was different from other wellness retreats; there was no attempt to force me into a personal training session, and no need to have a serious sit-down conversation with a nutritionist. In all honesty, having these experiences as a plus-sized woman can leave me feeling dejected and reminds me that I’m not fit enough, don’t eat as healthily as I should, and probably won’t be my ideal weight for a while. The programme aims to give guests their power back, helping them make informed choices for a healthier life beyond the resort. 

On The Leela Palace Aujasya programme – created in collaboration with renowned nutritionist Dr. Ankita Jalori – there’s no such thing as skipping breakfast, or having liquids instead of a meal. Instead, the focus is on redefining local culinary experiences with similar yet healthier alternatives. A highlight, and a dish I haven’t stopped talking about since I first tried it, was a tofu scramble on sourdough, which looked and tasted exactly like the creamiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever had. What stood out most to me was there was no mention of calories, carb-free, or ‘this free, that free’ – though a few of the dishes happened to be. 

It enforced a message of being intuitive about our food choices, and fuelling our bodies for our busy lives – which is a message I have carried with me since. I no longer need to feel guilty about wanting to have a takeaway for dinner if I really want it – and that decision doesn’t mean sacrificing my health goals which in any case are lifelong, rather than for the week or month. Taking this long-term approach to personal health took the pressure off trying to reach my goals in the fastest time possible.

The Royal Treatment

I’ve heard people applaud Indian hospitality before, but this was the first time I’ve ever been wowed by the level of service. As soon as I touched down at Udaipur’s Maharana Pratap Airport, my personal butler, Krish, was waiting to greet me and drive me to the hotel, and stayed with me thereafter until I left (to unwillingly return to my regular life, sans-butler). On arriving at the property I was welcomed by Sufi singers and a shower of rose petals.

Though Krish was a young chap, and had been at The Leela for less than two years, he had an answer to every question and a solution for every problem. I queried about finding some time to explore the city and perhaps some time for shopping too, and Krish recommended seeing the City Palace, Jagdish Mandir, and some stores in the local bazaar – and said due to the narrow streets, going by tuk-tuk would be more comfortable. At one point I expressed that I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to my room to wash and dry my own hair, and before I knew it he had arranged for a blow-dry at the hotel’s in-house salon. 

This property is so much more than fancy massages and trips to the salon, though. Staff here have a vested interest in every guest, whether taking the time to teach the influx of American tourists how to say a few words in the local language, or encouraging me and my travel companion to join in on the evening dance performance. It was the warmest, most nurturing retreat I’ve ever attended.

Most importantly, I didn’t leave with a list of empty ‘lifestyle changes’ I needed to make, but rather with the intention to make better decisions for my health.

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