Ever since I arrived here, I’ve heard about the marvels of Ayurveda. Actually, I’d heard about it before I got here, but apparently Kerala is the heart of it, so I decide to sign up and see what it’s all about.
They recommend a minimum of seven Ayurvedic treatments, one per day lasting about 1.5 hours. The first day, you see an Ayurvedic physician (or vaidya) and tell her (mine happens to be a woman) all about your aches and pains. My vaidya doesn’t ask for a medical history and I don’t have to sign a disclaimer or provide any written anything. Even though she speaks very good English, I “visibly demonstrate” my issues. I want to be clear about where I’m broken so I can be sure they will fix me right up!
Day 1: I meet my masseuse (I’m not sure that’s what they’re called here), Dipti (meaning Light) and she takes me to a changing room where I … well, let me just say, there are no robes here ladies, so if you’re shy, you don’t want to do this! I follow her to the chamber (my term) that consists of a rather large, teak table.
I sit on a chair while my head gets massaged with hot oil, followed by my shoulders. Then, she points to the table, I climb up and lay down on my back to receive a massage with lots of hot oil: front, back, face, hands, feet, you name it. I will say that the table gets really slippery and is really hard!
The massage ends and I’m directed to a room for a steam. The steam “room” is actually one of those really old units where you sit on a stool and a piece of wood is inserted around your neck and the “door” is closed; your head is the only thing that’s showing. You remember these, I’m sure, from old movies, right? I’m completely soaked with oil and, well, actually, it reminds me of “cooking a goose.” (I told my friends at work later that I was oiled up and then sent to the broiler! They found this VERY funny!)
I am supposed to be in the steam “room” for 10 minutes, but honestly, when Dipti returns (probably less than five minutes has passed), I say, “I feel faint.” To which she replies, well, actually, she just looks perplexed. Clearly, we have a communication issue. So, I say, “Faint … you know, ahhhhhh” and I close my eyes and drop my head to one side. OK, a little dramatic, I’ll admit, but honestly, it is really hot in here. So, out I come and that ends my first day.
Day 2: Today, I awake with a slight headache that thankfully goes away quickly, but during the night, I had a muscle spasm in my right thigh whenever I rolled over. I have a large bruise on my left thigh and my ribs are sore. I relay my ailments to Dipti, whereupon she presses on my thigh, presumably to make sure it still hurts.
There are two masseuses today and they are so in sync it feels like one person with many hands (like one of those goddesses you see everywhere over here). At the end of the hot oil massage, they do a synchronized kizhi treatment, consisting of small herbal pouches in cloth that they place on a heated plate and tamp on my body to release the healing herbs. They tell me that this will reduce the pain and swelling. And actually, the pain does go away once they stop the pounding. [OK, I’m just kidding here!]
I say to the doctor, “This is a process, right? So, by the end of the seven days, I’ll actually feel good, yes?”
I liken it to getting beaten up with small bags of sand and tell my work friends that yesterday I was oiled up and today I was tenderized with a hint of spice. The herbs smelled of, well, I’m not quite sure, perhaps Cardamom? Garam masala? I assumed I’d be ready for the broiler again, but they skipped that part. I’m hoping that gravy doesn’t make its way to Day 3 or I’ll be in real trouble.
Here’s a photo of the teak table and my healers.
Teak tables and my ‘healers’
Day 3: I am very sore today, with more bruises appearing, maybe because I bruise easily, maybe because I’m so pale you can see them! They do seem to be surprised by the bruises though. So I basically have the same treatment as yesterday, with one exception: when I am face down on the table, they put a pillow roll under my ankles. They clearly understood my whimpering yesterday about the pain in my knee caps as they pressed down on my legs, so I am really thankful for this.
Day 4: I awake with a headache again today, but it goes away quickly. I REALLY don’t want to get up! I feel like I could sleep for another 12 hours! I am feeling really drained … probably because I go through these treatments and then go off to work a 12 hour day. Probably not the best way to do this! I tell Dipti that I need some energy today!!
What I get is another day of hot oil and kizhi, but I realize I am approaching this all wrong.
I decide I need to be one with the table. So, drawing on my brief Tai Chi experience (Judith would be proud … Calen will relate), I visually move the table to a forest (by the lake with five mountains). The table legs push their way through the moss into the soil, growing roots as they do so. Vines form on the legs and rise up to the top of the table. Flowers burst forth as I melt into the table top, drawing on the earth energy and becoming the table. Outside noises disappear and all that can be heard is the song of the birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.
When they begin pressing down on my arms as they lay across the edges of the table, I no longer feel the edges cutting into my skin … there are no edges, only the table, as we are one.
Today is a good day!
Day 5: Hot oil and kizhi! The bruises are getting paler. My ribs are less painful. We may be getting somewhere.
Day 6: As the kizhi treatments continue, I decide to follow the pain to its origins. During the hot oil massage, I reflect on the pain. I look internally to where it’s coming from. I’m afraid I’m not as good at this as I was at becoming one with the table. It seems to be less painful the more I focus though. Maybe I need more practice.
The kizhi seems to be hotter today. The pounding is the same, but the hot cloth feels like it’s on fire when it touches my skin. I decide to become the shaman who can walk over hot coals and not get burned. I envision myself lying on a bed of coals and not feeling the heat of it. It makes it bearable and in the end, there are neither blisters, nor red marks from the kizhi pouch.
Day 7: The last of the treatments starts out the same. The kizhi is equally as hot today, so I encase my body in ice so that when the pouch touches my skin, it cools down immediately. I find myself smiling with the coolness of the touch.
The end of this day’s treatment is a therapy known as Sirodhara. This rejuvenating therapy is specifically designed to eliminate mental exhaustion and toxins. Thick threads are laid over my forehead just above the eye brows and wrapped behind my ears. Cotton is placed in my ears and wet pads across my eyes. Oil is then poured in a stream onto my forehead from a hanging golden urn some distance above me. The stream of oil sweeps slowly back and forth, like a pendulum swinging to the rhythm of some unknown universal music.
It is quite calming and I was given to understand that many people fall asleep during this therapy. I do not. I am whisked away to the outskirts of the universe where I see the planets moving in rhythm to the swinging pendulum. From here, I am pulled back to the top of what appears to be the Himalayas. The sky is crisp and clear and I can see the path before me. I have clarity of vision and feel like many pieces of a complicated puzzle are falling into place.
As I leave with my driver, Shaji, I am very calm and centered. And quite suddenly, as the colors and contrasts fly by, I realize I am looking through the chaos to the beauty beyond.