One writer went on a soul-searching journey to mend her broken heart, but she got so much more.
In early March, five days after yet another romance failed to launch, I found myself in India having an Eat, Pray, Love moment. Before you roll your eyes, let me just say that the "Pray" part of the book is exactly where I stopped reading. No disrespect to Elizabeth Gilbert—it just didn't resonate with me. And now here I was on the brink of my own cheesy soul-searching journey in the spiritual motherland while mending a broken heart.
What saved me from groaning at my own cliché story was knowing that I was really in Delhi for two other assignments, covering the growing feminist movement in India. So checking out the new Holistic Wellness Retreat at the ITC Grand Bharat, a luxury resort in Gurgaon just outside Delhi, was a bonus. What happened during my week stay, however, I never saw coming.
The plan was to fill my days with Ayurvedic treatments (deep, third-eye-cleansing oil massages), a healthy diet (no caffeine or alcohol, lots of fruits, veggies, and lean meats, and minimal sweets), yoga, meditation and spiritual healing rituals. While I was excited to work with the resident Ayurvedic physician, Cheruvally Sreenarayanan, on optimizing my mind-body connection, I was most intrigued to meet Visiting Master, Leela Isani, a spiritual teacher, Reiki master, and holistic healer who was in town for three weeks. I hoped she might help me solve my love problem (falling for the wrong people).
When Leela first stepped out to meet me at the resort's lavish 3,250-square-meter spa, I immediately assumed that she was a guest from the West like me, and not my sage spiritual healer. Dressed in white from head to toe with matching silver-white hair and piercing blue eyes, she was far from what I had imagined. Her German accent confirmed she was not Indian. Born Sylvia, Leela explained she had adopted the Sanskrit name some years ago as India became her second home.
After a gentle hour-long yoga session together, we went for breakfast, where I put on my journalist cap and interrogated Leela. Without hesitation, she opened up about her family, a near-death experience at age 6 (car crash), and the passing of her beloved Italian husband to cancer a decade ago. I was careful not to reveal too much about myself before our afternoon session, though I did admit my desire to find my soulmate as she had one fateful day at the Frankfurt airport.
We returned to the beautiful spa for our first spiritual healing ritual. In a warm, candlelit therapy room (one of 12), she handed me two decks of cards. They looked like the tarot kind without the vivid imagery. Instead, they only featured a German word or phrase written in tiny font at the top. I shuffled the decks separately, and as I did, one card flew facedown on the floor. Leela set it aside and asked me to pick a card from each deck. I drew "great-grandmother" from one and "miracle" from the other. The card that had dropped read "daughter." This fascinated Leela, who informed me that the decks offered few options for familial ties.
From there, she asked me to stand up and jump around while shaking my body. She joined me and explained, "This helps us loosen up and get out of our heads." Then we did a standing sequence while facing each other. After lifting our hands skyward a few times and holding them there, we brought our hands to heart center. We took 12 deep breaths before opening our eyes, staring at each other while linking our fingertips.
"We look at what we call the 'soul view' and the connection of the soul. This is very important," she said. It was hard to look deep into a stranger's bottomless pupils, but I fought the urge to look away and held her bright blue gaze. After 30 seconds, she asked me to lie on my back on the massage table. For the next 45 minutes, Leela rested her hands on various parts of my body—head, hands, arms, feet, stomach, etc.
Occasionally, when she touched me, I felt a zap, like a tiny electric shock. What was this sensation, I wondered. I had never experienced another person's energy like this before and was confused. (Related: What Is Energy Work?) At one point, she began speaking to me about my heart and my body, but by then, I was so deeply relaxed, I was in and out of consciousness. I wasn't asleep but in a meditative state. Still, I was hyperaware of the heat emanating from her hands on my forehead and blazing orange color of my eyelids, as if I were directly under a light bulb. I peeked to see if Leela had, in fact, turned on the overhead lights, but the room remained only candlelit.
When the session ended, we sat down to discuss the experience, and she immediately asked if something was wrong with my kidneys. I couldn't believe the question. I was born with a kidney impairment and hadn't disclosed this information to her. How did she know?
"Kidneys symbolize partnership. They come as a pair. In Germany, we have a saying, 'This affects my kidneys,' which means that an emotion is touching you very deeply," Leela said. She assured me that my body was healthy though not working in harmony and that it needed self-love to heal some emotional baggage that I might be carrying from my female lineage. We came back to the "great-grandmother" and "daughter" cards and that's when I began connecting the dots.
I opened up to Leela how my mother, who is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic (DR), was orphaned at age 9. She was raised mostly by nuns in a convent or with her aunts before moving to NYC and meeting my father about four decades ago. That's the extent of what I know about my mom's life before me. Though I've been to the DR many times and met several relatives, none of them have talked much about our family's history. My mom's strange secrecy never bothered me until I entered therapy two years ago in search of why I kept choosing the wrong mate. Somehow it came back to my complicated relationship with my mom (no surprise). Her overbearing and critical ways were becoming too much for me in recent years, leading to many misunderstandings and, most of all, a lack of acceptance on both our parts. Despite being close and talking daily, my mom and I just couldn't get on the same page.
Now, here I was with Leela, who was telling me to investigate my ancestors on my mother's side in order to "heal" and restore harmony in my body. It was eerie how quickly she got to the crux of my issues. I couldn't make sense of it, nor did I have the energy to try at the moment. Feeling drained from both jet lag and the intense session, I went through the motions of the rest of my day (lunch, Ayurvedic treatments, dinner), then went to sleep.
The next day, I met with Leela for a heart-opening, boundary-setting meditation. During the 30-minute moving meditation to music, I followed Leela's lead, mimicking her footsteps and hand motions. While this "dance" felt a little hippy-dippy at first, I thought, Well, this is what people come to India to do, right? So I embraced it and committed to the whole nine yards. In no time, we were completely in sync, flowing at the same fast pace and exhaling audibly throughout the high-cardio exercise. With sweat glistening on my forehead, I was relieved when Leela instructed me to stop, sit, and finish the meditation with closed eyes on the mat. After another 15 minutes, we transitioned to Shavasana, which is when I felt a confounding electric zap at the sole of my left foot. I shifted my position to shake it off and somehow missed Leela changing the music and making her way to the top of my mat. She unexpectedly placed her hands near my temples and began speaking. It was her voice, but she seemed different. Transformed.
Leela began talking about my maternal great-aunts, all four of whom passed away years ago. They were in the room with us, she said, and they wanted me to know they were protecting me. They had chosen me as "the one" to heal the family from generations of pain. She also told me about my guardian angel, who has been with me since birth, and the archangel Chamuel, who was looking out for me, too. While all of this was happening, the holiest music was playing in the background (the kind you'd hear at church). Though I grew up going to Catholic school and Sunday mass until I left for college, I hadn't felt connected to my faith in more than a decade. None of this made sense to me, but I kept my eyes closed, and tried to remain open-minded and focused.
When Leela stopped and removed her hands from my head, I opened my eyes, shot up to a sitting position, and asked, "What just happened?!" The look on her face was just like mine: Bewilderment. She couldn't explain what compelled her to change the music and deliver this message to me. I asked her if she was a medium. She nodded, but explained this was a rare occurrence for her.
The next morning, before breakfast, I decided to FaceTime my mom from bed to have a good laugh about my great-aunts' supposed visit. I told her everything, and she just looked at me, not at all in disbelief. A sadness seemed to wash over her, which I didn't expect, and she acknowledged that it must be true: My four great-aunts and grandmother were/are with me. Tia Linda—she singled out—was clairvoyant. What?? I had no idea. Apparently, Tia Linda had received many premonitions throughout her life that were proven true. She even predicted the death of the infamous Dominican dictator, Trujillo, who died not far from her home.
Speechless, I didn't know what to say, so I remained silent, and she continued to divulge family secrets that she had been hiding from me and the world for...who knows how long. The worst of it was a story about my great-grandfather who had asked a prostitute down the street to move because she was a bad influence on his young children. She refused, and in retaliation, he burned down her home. No one was hurt, thankfully, but the woman was so enraged that she sought black magic in nearby Haiti, and returned to my great-grandparents' home to put a curse on our family for five generations. The stories that ensued about my great-aunts and their children implied that the curse must have had some effect (e.g., my mom ending up an orphan).
Quickly doing the math, I discovered that I'm the fourth generation [insert alarmed-face emoji]. Maybe this is what Leela meant about me healing the family? Did the "miracle" card that I pulled on that first day mean that I would end this so-called curse?
I rushed to meet Leela to tell her everything my mom had told me. She was shocked and thrilled to hear about this major breakthrough with my mother. I had been working toward this very moment for years, but for some reason, my mom never came clean. And maybe that was partly my fault? I needed to open my heart and mind completely, while simultaneously setting boundaries to protect myself, so that she could finally open hers. It wasn't so much the information about my family that changed our relationship, but the fact that my mom could unburden herself from this weighty secret. She could finally let it go.
When Leela and I met for our final spiritual healing session, she noted right from the beginning that my eyes had changed. And when she began placing her hands on my body, she instantly felt that my organs were more in tune.
"You knew that your body was okay, but all this worrying had made you not feel good. You have a sensitive body. You are affected when you absorb too much of other people's energy. That's why it's important for you to say 'no' from time to time," Leela said. I took her words to heart and left the resort the next day, feeling lighter, literally from the healthy Ayurveda diet, and figuratively from the healing.
The next eight days flew by like a dream, and before I knew it, I was in a taxi from JFK to my parents' house in Queens, where my older sister met us. We spent the next several hours sitting around the kitchen table with my mom, hearing story after story about mi familia in the DR. I was beyond grateful. Who would have guessed that I had to go all the way to India to get my mom to share intimate details of her past. I'm so glad and relieved that I don't have to wait any longer to really get to know—and accept—one of the most important people in my life. And maybe I can start accepting others, too, like that mate I've been looking for.
ITC Grand Bharat offers five Ayurveda-based wellness packages ranging from 3 to 21 nights. The five-night Holistic Wellness Retreat that I experienced starts at $2,493.27 per person.