I recently just returned from 2 weeks in Kerala, India for some much needed Ayurveda R&R. After all, you have to practice what you preach! For those of you that have never heard of Panchakarma treatment, it is an iconic treatment in Ayurveda based upon five therapies. Below is my story and experience going through Panchakarma in the birthplace of Ayurveda!
Day 1 Pancharkarma Treatment - Peeling the Onion
I have no idea what to expect in my treatments at Manaltheerum, my Ayurveda retreat. I have been told by all those well wishers before I came not to expect a spa like experience, and to expect a rough time of it, and so here on Day 1 of treatments, I am curious and a little anxious about the next 3 hours.
I am met by my therapist; a round roly poly woman who smiles and links arms with me. It seems oddly comforting - this stranger who shows such a caring gesture. As we round a corner and there is not enough room for her and me - she drops her arm to hold my hand. Perhaps she fears I may bolt, maybe she is just reassuring me, I think it starts building the closeness we will experience together. It is amazing at how intimate it feels to hold someone's hand. How would I feel if a massage therapist in the US would take my hand? Would it be considered inappropriate? Yet, these people who have made it a profession to work on our bodies get to know us in a very intimate way. I decide I like the hand-holding!
She takes me to a long low brick building with a thatched roof. As I enter, I am immediately assaulted with the sounds of slapping and pounding and wonder again about the treatments I am about to receive. The building reminds me of a stable and I am taken to my very own stall. Inside, is a large wooden bed, and next to it - a three legged wooden stool.
My therapist whom her name once given, completely escaped me, gestures for me to take off my clothes. I start with the outer layers wondering how far to strip off. My t-shirt is easy, my pants are next, and then the therapist gestures at my underwear too. I gingerly step out of my underpants and bra and stand illuminated, fully bare, before her. She throws me a pair of very large cotton underpants that look more like a diaper and suggests with hand gestures that I can use them - or not! Shall I use them? What do others do? I politely refuse and then wonder if it’s the right things to do. My therapist has no expression and she doesn’t seem to realize the struggle in my mind.
She gestures for me to sit on the three-legged stool in all my natural glory and I feel oddly vulnerable sitting naked, brilliantly lit, on my stool in my brick stall.
She takes a cotton cloth and wipes my face, arms, legs and feet as if she is wiping the dust off me. She then takes some oil from a small cup and with her thumbs, presses upon my forehead and then starts singing. First off, I wonder if she is just singing a local tune - maybe a bollywood tune for therapists; and then quickly realize that it is a blessing before we start our treatment. I listen to the sing-song of her voice and wish I knew what she was singing. Is she asking for guidance? Maybe appealing to Dhanwantari - the father of Ayurveda? Is it the same song for everyone? Or do I get my own special song? Will it be the same one each day?
With the song finished, my therapist with some more warmed oil rubs it over my hands and feet. She rubs my belly seemingly out of nowhere and I flinch as I haven’t had time to suck it all in. She rubs the oil into the folds of my belly and I think to myself, is it vain to wish there were no folds. But then, isn’t that why I am here because part of my imbalance is that I have put on some weight around the middle? I remind myself that as a therapist - she has probably seen all kinds of bodies. And when did I get to be so prudish about my own body anyway? After all, growing up in the UK, I was used to sunbathing topless, and exposing lots of skin. But, maybe my years in America have changed me. And then I laugh internally at my own ego - of course I exposed more when I was younger, it is not the years in America that have changed me - it’s the years that have changed me. As a 20 year old - there were no folds of fat around my middle. Maybe that is what is bothering me more - the passing of time and the subsequent changes in my body.
The oil on my scalp brings me to the present as my therapist rubs oil on my head and gently massages it in. She lovingly soothes all my hair back from my face and I am instantly, reminded of my mother's touch. She is the only one who ever stroked my hair back in quite this way. The touch reminds me of touches received long ago and I find myself achingly miss my mother. I no longer see her face vividly in my mind, but I have a sense of her and once more, I wish - as I have through so many times, that I could share this experience with her too.
My therapist then moves behind me and thankfully dims the lights as a tear escapes me as a tribute to my mother. She returns to massage my scalp with warmed herbal oil and I wonder if I will always feel so exposed sitting on the three legged stool, naked in my stall.
Day 2 Panchakarma Treatment - Giving up Modesty
Today I have a new therapist and I wonder why. I like my old one - she touched me like my mum did. I don’t want a new one. I of course do not express any of this and smile blandly as I am introduced to the new therapist whose name I immediately forget again. It seems that Indian names just don’t stay in my memory - I must work on that.
Once more, I am led into the low thatched building and shown to my stall. I disrobe - after all, I know the drill now and sit on the stool of vulnerability as I have termed the three- legged stool. I am completely naked again as this therapist goes through the same ritual as yesterday. She starts massaging my head and it’s not the same. She didn’t stroke my hair back from my face like my mum did! And, she’s scratchy, she’s rubbing my head in a scratchy irritating way. She is quick, efficient and sparse in her movements. I smile at her and she does not smile back. I decide at this point I don’t like her! I want my old therapist back.
She quickly applies warmed oil and moves up and down my back with long practiced strokes. She reaches my fleshy bum and starts slapping it. That accounts for the slapping noises I hear each time I enter the stable. I look down upon myself, sitting on the three-legged stool, fully naked with this stranger slapping my buttocks. Could it get any sillier - really!
I look at the situation ayurvedically. Okay - so she’s slapping those fat cells to break them down because it's our fat cells that store our toxins. So the slapping is a good thing - right? The heat of the room and the smell of the warmed oil seems to make my jet-lag headache worse. It has not helped that I couldn’t sleep the previous night due to a combination of jet-lag and sinus pain. I wonder at the red pills the Ayurveda Doctor gave me for my headache. Were they some kind of special herb that will magically cure my growing headache that was threatening to become a full blown migraine - or were they in fact simple aspirin?
My therapist has finished slapping my buttocks and I’m asked to climb onto the wooden bed and lay down - face down. The bed is uncomfortable, the wooden table presses on my hips and knees and they start protesting as the pressure on those joints starts building. I feel the sensation of warmed oil being poured all over my body and it’s quite - well quite luxurious. It feels like somebody is wrapping me into the warmest moist blanket there is. I feel my whole body just surrender to the warmth and the bed no longer feels uncomfortable. Two pairs of efficient hands, as the therapist assistant joins in, synchronously pour and rub the oil in. My body exhales a relaxing sigh and I wonder about the oil. Is it sesame oil, it doesn’t smell like it, maybe it’s a herbalized oil, made just for me? Like the medicated ghee that was given to me on the stool. It’s all personalized. The ghee had a bitter taste, warm, oily and bitter, Bitter herbs - to detox.
I know the principles they are using for me. They are going to treat me with oils, snehena its called and is one of the therapies of Panchakarma which is a Sanskrit word that means ‘five actions’ or ‘five treatments’. It’s a process used to clean the body of toxic materials left by disease and poor nutrition. In Ayurveda, imbalanced doshas create waste matter called ama. Ama is a foul smelling sticky, noxious substance that needs to be evacuated from the body thoroughly. And, here is where Panchakarma comes in, It helps eliminate the excess doshas or imbalances along with ama out of the system by means of the bodies waste evacuation channels such as sweat glands, the urinary tract, intestines etc. Panchakarma is a balancing treatment and is also used to transition from one season to the next and for fine-tuning the body, mind and soul. It’s being used for me to detoxify and then rejuvenate.
Ultimately I am going to get oiled, I am being given oil baths, I am ingesting medicated oils and it is the oils that will attach tot he toxins. Once I am saturated with the oils, I will purge. Medicinal herbs will be given to me to clean through the whole system. Then will come about five days of rejuvenation. So, for right now it is the oiling and I can still taste the after-taste of the bitter ghee that was given to me on the three-legged stool of vulnerability.
Day 3 Panchakarma Treatment - Pounding Me To Death!
I complain to my doctor about my therapist. I try and tell him that she is not gentle, and kind and soft. He tells me that I have to have her again today but he will try and see if he can get someone else after the weekend. I am okay with this but inwardly chastise myself for making a fuss. I see the Doctor talking with my therapist and then to my utmost horror, she looks back at me and scowls. Oh, no...he told her what I thought...how could he? I didn't actually want her to know that I preferred another therapist! Will she take it out on me?
My therapist comes over, and instead of holding my hand gestures for me to follow. As we pass some other therapists she talks to them in Hindi in a cross voice. They all look at me...and at this point, I want to head back to the safety of my hut. Why didn't I just keep my big mouth shut, why did I have to complain. I bet she spits in my oil now!
We go through the routine of me sitting on the three-legged stool of vulnerability and she starts her oiling of my scalp. I am trying to ascertain if she is treating me differently, is she rougher, harder...she still seems cross and I wonder just what the Doctor said. I decide, that at this point, I am just going to go with the flow and try and enjoy my treatments.
After the inevitable bum slapping, she asks me to lay on the wooden table again. Warm herbalized oil is poured all over me and I feel my mind drift. My whole body feels warm and loose, and then comes the next treatment. A pounding of hot poultices starting at my feet and working up my legs. Every so often, the poultices are dipped in hot oil and then the pounding of my body continues. In some places, the poultices feel excruciatingly hot and I realize its where I am sunburned.
I enjoy the feeling of the pounding, it's warm and the rhythm of the pounding is comforting. I wonder what herbs are in the poultices and what they are designed to do. I am pounded all over except for my face and I wonder if the heaviness of the pounding has a direct correlation to how my therapist feels about me.
A cooling cream is applied to my face and my therapist gently massages and soothes my face. I feel the wrinkles lapping up the nourishing cream and my parched skin feels less tight. I ask her what this special cream is, and am told - coconut. Really...simple coconut cream? Yeah, I can do that at home.
As I am drifting off to that place that is not quite sleep and not quite awake, she asks me to tilt my head back and drips something disgusting into my nose. It drips to the back of my throat and is incredibly bitter. I splutter a bit and she passes me a tissue to blow my nose. This, I do not like and I know its Nasya oil and will probably help my headache...but as my sinuses are inflamed, this treatment just threatens to aggravate.
Back to the vulnerability stool as my therapist wipes the excess oil off my body. She tuts at my sunburn and reaches into her chest of salves and herbs and pulls out some aloe-vera. She gently rubs it onto my sore spots and then with great tenderness holds my face - for just a minute. I am a little taken a aback, but what I see in her eyes is just a kind person doing the best job she can. I smile back and hold her hands - it is a truce of sorts. She is clearly meant to be my therapist.
There were so many more moments that I may still write about. However, at the end of my 10 days I leave Kerala feeling incredibly rejuvenated in both mind, body and spirit. It is a phenomenal experience and if you get the chance, try it! Or if you want to discuss other ways Ayurveda can transform your health, feel free to set up a
- Kerry Harling
CEO, The Holistic Highway