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Home Sweet Home

My long-anticipated moment finally arrived – I spent the first night in my new home last night. Construction has been slow but steady for many, many (MANY!) months now, and while there is still much work to be done (yes, that is an old water heater out front), I felt a nearly seismic shift as I lay my head down on my pillow under my own roof last night. My body and spirit is so very ready to rest, to land, to put down something akin to roots at long last.

As I type here now, I see four blue jays gathered in the juniper next to the deck, their brilliant blue twitches sending slivers of the setting sun’s light into the adjacent trees. I can’t remember the last time I sat still and watched birds. I expect I will continue to feel after-shocks in the days ahead, as I settle in to this place I gratefully call home. May my vata finally be grounded!

The Viewing Deck

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Here I sit, propped up with pillows on my room’s private porch with a cup of tea, looking out at the storm clouds gathering over Anemalay in the distance, the elephant-shaped mountain that greeted me upon my arrival at Vaidyagrama five months ago. I never had much time to just sit and watch her and the movement of the clouds around her back then. I asked for this room during pancha karma treatment particularly for this view. I will have 35 days of treatment to soak it in.

Pancha karma is an intensive method of ridding the body and the mind of the crud that builds up over time in the little crevices that are so prevalent in a human. Theoretically, with a perfect diet and optimal digestion (about which Ayurveda provides lots of guidance) there would be no crud. However, most of us end up with some cobwebs in the corners, which eventually lead to those nagging little symptoms that tell us something’s not quite right – in my case, some stiffness and pain in my finger joints, and recently in my ankle and hip. Left alone, even the smallest detritus can lead to more disruptive symptoms that scream for attention, like the Parkinsonian tremors of a fellow patient here right now. So, either to address manifest disease or as a preventive measure, Ayurveda recommends regular “deep cleaning,” namely pancha karma.

There are many aspects of pancha karma treatment. A variety of herbal medicines do some of the heavy lifting, along with daily hands-on therapies, but the real stars of pancha karma are the “five actions” to which the Sanskrit term alludes. These are the rather rigorous cleansing treatments that the doctors prescribe based on each patient’s unique symptoms and conditions: therapeutic vomiting, laxative purging, medicated enemas, blood-letting, and nasal administration of medicine. Blood-letting is rarely done these days (although leaches are still employed for this purpose when called for), and the most commonly prescribed actions are purging and medicated enemas. Each treatment plan involves preparing the body for one or possibly two of these primary treatments, and then recuperating from it, building the patient back up with rejuvenative medicines and therapies. Many of the daily therapies are quite lovely, involving some form of oil massage.

Vaidyagrama was created with the intention of providing authentic Ayurvedic treatment, sticking very closely to the ancient texts and the traditional ways of designing treatment, and doing so within a natural setting. We’ve been taught that an ideal pancha karma requires at least 21 days, and more is usually better. While some places offer it on an outpatient basis, a retreat setting allows a more complete process physically and mentally since all of your needs (like food, clean bed linens, etc.) are provided and you are not disturbed (or tempted) by your usual routines, responsibilities or stresses. Dr. Ramdas has said that a peaceful, compassionate environment may be responsible for up to 80% of the healing effect. From my vantage point here on the porch, I can see what he’s talking about.

My daily routine now looks like this:

5am        Wake, do some gentle yoga, meditate.

6am        Someone brings me my first medicine (taken on an empty stomach), an herbal decoction (which one of the therapists prepared the day before, boiling the required herbs for about 45 minutes to reduce the decoction to the appropriate strength – now that I have done it for myself, I am even more appreciative of the work that goes into one patient’s care here.)

6:15am   Morning prayers – held in the courtyard of one of the patient buildings, rotating location each week. It’s been in our block this week, so I simply roll out of my room and sit down right outside the door.

7:15am   The most delicious herbal tea is brought to my room, made of ginger, cinnamon and jaggery and some other mystery ingredients – I gotta get the recipe.

8:30am   Breakfast is brought to my room, along with my second medicine of the day, to be taken on a full stomach – an arishtam (which is one of the most delicious types of medicines; it is prepared by a fermentation process over the course of a month or two, kind of like a sweet herbal wine).

11am      Another cup of herbal tea is brought to my room.

12:30      Lunch is brought to my room, and then the arishtam again.

4pm        Snack time! Tea and steamed bananas… yummy.

6pm        Decoction time (the empty-stomach medicine)

6:15pm   Evening prayers

7:30pm   Dinner, and then the arishtam

9pm        I am usually beat and fall into bed gratefully

Somewhere in between the meals and medicines, the doctors will stop by to assess me, and once a day I’ll have a treatment. Even with those added events, you can see that there is lots of free time for… being still. You’ll notice they bring all the medicines and meals to my room. In fact, they discourage leaving the room, exposing yourself to the elements of sun, wind and social interactions that can sap energy you could use in healing. Some of the treatments are quite tangibly taxing, while others are more subtly so. Hence they encourage remaining as quiet and internally focused as possible.

This is easier for some than others. I happen to have a high tolerance for alone time and reflection – I crave it – so I am loving every minute of it. I have been moving so much, mentally and physically, for the five months we’ve been in India, taking in information and processing various kinds of stimulation. My body, mind and heart are eagerly spreading out into the empty time and space here, slowing down and taking new shapes. I believe this may be when the biggest part of my education takes place.

I am told pancha karma can get boring, and that dealing with that is part of the process…. I’ll let you know.

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The Next Chapter

We finished our classes at Vaidyagrama today. It is amazing the time has passed so effortlessly. We are off tomorrow to Bangalore as the first stop on a few weeks’ tour. Coincidentally, “the President” and his wife completed their treatment here today and leave tomorrow as well, so a farewell gathering with a traditional Indian dance performance by Dr. Harikrishnan’s daughter and chocolate cake was held tonight. Three of us students sang an anthem to Vaidyagrama that we wrote under deadline last night… And now, a few more items to pack, and a chapter has closed. I am even more grateful that I am returning here in just a few weeks. I know months of integration of information and experiences lies ahead….

Dr. Om, Emily, Dr. Ramdas and Ivy

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Since we returned from Ooty over a week ago, Vaidyagrama has been caught up in a whirlwind of activity, the center of which has been a high profile guest and his entourage. He arrived accompanied by a five-car police escort two nights before we left for Ooty. We had never seen so many cars at Vaidyagrama.

The staff had been working at full tilt to prepare for their arrival, including the construction crew that went into hyper speed to finish a new section of the covered pathway that links up different parts of the grounds. Up to half an hour before he arrived, the crew was putting in the last floor tiles at the new path entrance. When the headlights started pouring down our little dirt entry road, the staff, students and other curious guests all gathered there on the freshly placed floor tiles to welcome them. He and his wife disembarked from their vehicle along with the rest of their group and were promptly whisked off to their rooms, leaving us all a bit breathless from our brush with fame.

To honor his confidentiality, I will just say our guest used to be a highly-placed government official, high enough that he has Indian Police protection even though he no longer serves a political post. I’ll call him “the President” for short. It is primarily for his wife’s care that they came to Vaidyagrama, and they brought six other officials and friends with them to receive treatment here as well. She has struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for many years and has received good results from Ayurvedic pancha karma treatment in the past. They live on a small island and sought out Vaidyagrama based on connections and recommendations. It continues to impress me that Vaidyagrama receives all of their patients through word of mouth, as they do not currently advertise at all.

Since the night of the President’s arrival, there remains an air of increased attention around their building. Their group occupies our old block (in fact, the President and his wife are in my old room). We moved so their group could have a block of four rooms entirely to themselves. Aside from the convenience of being together, it makes the job of the police that much easier.

Yes, the police. They have moved in as well, since they have the responsibility of protecting this man during his month-long stay here. They have an armed guard posted at both the front and back of his building at all hours of the day and night – and when I say armed, I mean quite visibly so. It is very odd to see military uniforms and enormous guns here in our little hamlet of peace. The police eat with our staff in the kitchen (when they’re off duty) and sleep in a couple of patient rooms in the building next to the President. At times it feels quite comical, passing the police on the way to the cow shed or the garden. I suspect the President couldn’t get further away from public view and any associated need for protection.

One way this has impacted us students is that suddenly there is a bit more work to be done around the place. Regardless of these being high-profile patients, the arrival of any eight guests plus five or so police-guests would mean more work on all fronts – housekeeping, food preparation, medical care, etc. Add to that the understandable desire to make a particularly good impression, and the staff here have definitely been feeling the pressure. We were vocal in our desire to help out in any way, so we were ultimately given the task (and honor) of serving the President, quite literally.

Dr. Ramdass wife, Lima

The staff set up a dining room in the President’s block where they take their meals together. Patients generally take their food alone in their room so there are no staff dedicated to food service. Dr. Ramdas’s wife, Lima (whom we LOVE), and one of the Punarnava office staff, Kavita, are overseeing the food preparation for the President and doing a masterful job. Along with the two of them and the President’s personal servant who traveled here with him, us students are helping to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. While I suspect this is a big step down for this group in terms of luxury, we are enjoying making his dining time as comfortable as possible.

After the novelty wore off, serving the President has become just another piece in the changing rhythm of my day, something that fits between class time, yoga, eating meals, making my medicine, and doing laundry. I am reminded of Dr. Ramkumar’s advice three months ago when we first arrived: Ayurveda is all around us enmeshed in nature and its rhythms, and learning it will require the three P’s – patience, persistence and perseverance. In the idle moments while we wait for the President’s arrival in the dining room, I’ve been able for the most part to remain present, not counting the passing minutes as “wasted time.” I have dusted off my old waitressing skills, including the “hurry up and wait” patience necessary to be at the beck and call of others in this unexpected way.

Indu and Safira, two of the therapists, preparing a treatment for a patient.

What continues to inspire me is seeing this as an opportunity for seva (selfless service) – not by serving the President so much as serving the rest of the staff of Vaidyagrama by helping out in this way. To see all that they have done to step up to this enormous challenge, and all that they continue to do until the wee hours of every night to prepare to do it all again tomorrow, and to imagine I have taken any portion of the heavy load off of their backs in my small actions, gives me joy. One of the beautiful things about doing seva is that it really does bring happiness.

Vaidyagramas typical driveway traffic: the construction crew taking a cricket break.

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A Weekend in Ooty

Last weekend, the four of us students went to a nearby hill station (isn’t that a quaint term?) for a bit of a change in scenery – and temperature. I haven’t been writing about the temperature much, mostly out of denial, but rest assured, it’s gotten HOT here in southern India. I am glad I did not bring a thermometer that reads Fahrenheit, so I can remain uninformed about exactly how hot it is. I am making it a point not to learn the Celsius conversion.

A trip to the mountains was just what the doctor ordered. We spent most of our time in the countryside near a town called Ooty, and we spent one night in Coonoor. Both towns are in the Nilgiri mountains, which entailed a steep ascent through tea plantations and pastel-colored villages. The cooler air was the perfect respite, and the views of the mountain ranges were stunning. Nil means blue, and the mountains did indeed look blue off in the distance.

We spent one night at a working dairy farm/adventure resort. While there, we took a moonlit hike with two guides who acknowledged that they usually don’t have guests who are as interested in nature as we were. We were thrilled by the silent walk in the semi-darkness and the encouragement to feel our surroundings with senses other than our eyes. The smell of the earth was moist and lemon-scented. As we entered a clearing, one of the guides whispered, “We may see some wildlife here,” and as if on cue, a wild boar ambled into view in the silvery dim light. It appeared to be the size of a large St. Bernard dog. When one of us made a small noise, he snorted in surprise and raced off in the other direction. Moments later, we heard a distinct honk like a car horn from the scrubby underbrush and an enormous stag walked into the clearing. Our guide said it was a “barking deer.” It honked again before following the boar away from us.

We also stayed a night at a bed and breakfast that also was a tea plantation. The patchwork quilt of the tea plants with their multi-colored greens set against the greens of the adjacent untended forest made a stunning backdrop for a hike to the peak behind the house. From the top, we could see three dams creating the series of lakes that surrounded the area. We felt very close to heaven.

We also visited the Ooty botanical garden which was a beautiful sprawling collection of flowers and plants. Crowded with people on a Saturday afternoon, we became quite used to being stopped by people on the paths and answering their questions: “What is your good name?” and “What is your native place?” and “Photo please?” were the most common.

We encountered a group of Sudanese men who were studying pharmacy in Coimbatore and like us were taking a weekend away from the heat. Although we’re getting used to attracting attention, it is still surprising to hear excited squealing coming from down the path in the garden and upon turning to see what the excitement is about, discovering it’s you. One group of girls literally ran towards us like we were celebrities. We hope we can spread even a hint of comparable goodwill in the world.

It plays with the concept of “home” to take a trip inside a trip. We got back to Vaidyagrama last night and although we had a wonderful time, it also was a relief to be on familiar ground again and embraced by our own little community here. We tumbled out of the car and into evening prayers a few moments later.

Shockingly, we have only three weeks of classes remaining. While it is beginning to feel like I’ve been here “a long time,” it doesn’t feel like it’s been three months. When classes stop at the end of April, we will travel for a few weeks before I return to Vaidyagrama to receive pancha karma treatment myself. So my journey is just half over….

Today, I am grateful for all of my versions of home and family. And speaking of family, happy birthday Ian! I feel so lucky that you’re my brother!

A tree far from its home....

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As I described last week, I have started making my own medicine, which I thought would lead me to the development of some new fire-building skills. Instead, I have discovered a wonderful new invention – the gas stove.

I know, the gas stove is not really a new invention; however, this particular gas stove is. It runs on “bio-gas,” a renewable resource that is readily available here, and everywhere else humans gather: human waste gas. Vaidyagrama is way ahead of the curve in harnessing this source of energy. I don’t understand the mechanics of it in the least, but they have some sort of collection system that treats the waste and simultaneously feeds a gas line to an outdoor stove located behind one of the buildings. Every day, the staff and guests of Vaidyagrama produce enough natural gas to power this stove for about three to hour hours, entirely free of charge. It’s brilliant.

The therapists who do the treatments here are also responsible for preparing the decoctions for the patients. I have an entirely new appreciation for the incredible commitment this is. There are currently about 18 patients here, and each one might have a decoction prescribed daily. Each therapist ends up having to make several decoctions a day. It takes me about an hour every other day to do mine, which has opened my eyes to the incredible medicine-making that has been going on quietly around me the whole time I’ve been here. I am in awe.

So, as there is no cost to using the bio-gas stove, it is another acceptable option for decoction preparation. Consequently, there can be a bit of a line waiting to use it (that’s how I started to catch on… the therapists were NOT lining up at the fire stove in the kitchen).

The bio-gas stove is a big step up in the “ease of use” department but not without its own challenges. You have to get there early in the day, as it can run out of gas by evening. And then there’s the wind. The stove is tucked into a notch in the wall which ends up creating a bit of a wind tunnel effect. When a breeze kicks up, the wind can blow out the flame quite easily. Relighting it requires matches, which requires locating a box (not always easy). Then, you must overcome the particular quality of the matches. They seem to be made with a different kind of carbon here and it often flicks off the match stick altogether sending a burning ember to the ground…. Or the striking surface on the box is oddly smooth so it won’t create a spark. (I once watched Dr. Om rub the striking surface against his palm first, “to heat it up,” he explained… I’ve tried that. Doesn’t seem to help.)

Once the gas stove is lit and the decoction is cooking away, I have had some time on my hands – about 40 minutes, in fact – for pondering. I’ve found myself doing a lot of thinking about Indian resourcefulness. Placed around the stove are several scrap boards that at first I thought were left over from construction. As the wind whipped around me the other day, I realized they must have been found by someone in the same predicament as me – they make a very effective wind shield. By the same token, there is a certain stick by the stove that I am sure has been used by more than just me to stir my almost-boiling-over decoction.

At Vaidyagrama, they are doing an incredible job of finding eco-friendly, renewable resources to support the work done here. While this appeals to the trendy eco-friendly movement that is sweeping Western consciousness, here it has an entirely different feel to it. There is no need to un-train bad habits of wastefulness or to instill a sense of awareness. There is a natural respect for the resources we are using here, because this has been a place of such limited resources. There is no choice but to be ingenious and resourceful here.

Last week, my roommate Lynn and I were moved to a new room and it only had one mosquito net, so we asked for another one. When Sundar came to install it, he was empty-handed. No tools, no twine, just his hands and eyes. He looked at the other net, which was held up by a piece of wire wrapped around a horizontal cable, and he proceeded to take down the net, unwrap the wire, bend it repeatedly in the middle until it broke, and then used one half each to put both nets up.

Two nights ago, we were eating some sweets that Lynn had brought back from a visit to a temple. They were wrapped in wax paper, and Dr. Om commented, “These papers would work great for making gulikas (herbal tablets), since nothing sticks to them.” There is no sense of deprivation in the ingenuity, rather a sense of creativity and a natural tendency to look for ways to re-use things. While an entire cultural revolution is happening in the west to try to get people to recycle, the better goal would be to stop using so much in the first place. It’s kind of a glass half-empty or half-full thing. Here, it seems everyone is resource-full.

The view from the bio-gas stove. Not a bad place to spend some time....

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What can you say in the face of such abrupt destruction and incomprehensible suffering? Everything feels trite and obvious, too repetitive. Perhaps, however, it is the repetition of our shocked sadness, our shared grief spoken aloud around the globe, that is important. If we don’t repeat it, if the size of the trauma seems too large to put words around, or if we assume everyone is feeling the same sorrow so we can just skip the articulation of it, then maybe we miss the simple support we can feel – and give – in sharing it.

It is all too easy, I find, to say, “How sad that this is happening to them.” It’s always “them,” or has been in my fortunate experience. After the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the pictures of the destruction seemed like apocalypse images cooked up in Hollywood,  too terrible to be real – and now the images of the affected areas are equally dramatic. But there is one big difference – Japan’s smoldering nuclear reactors mean suddenly the threat to “their” safety is linked to “my” safety.

No one knows what a nuclear meltdown at the edge of the Pacific Ocean would mean for the well being of the entire globe in terms of atmospheric radiation or a potential economic disaster that could precipitate similarly far-reaching consequences. While people talk about the world being one big family, the recognition of that fact is not usually so pervasive as it is now, when a threat on one side of the planet has implications for all of us. Suddenly none of us is safe – or rather, suddenly we can feel our absolute interdependence.

Over the past few months here, I’ve been considering the positive and negative influences of the internet in my life, as you know. This week, I admit that I’ve actually been grateful for my limited exposure to media and for the ability to choose when I want to expose myself to more images and news. I am embarrassed to say this, considering the unrelenting suffering of so many right now. I have the luxury of choosing not to log on and instead to focus on other things, and then brace myself for an update.

Mostly, though, I’ve been grateful this week for the internet’s up-to-date information, quelling my own questions and fears. The internet is an indisputable blessing for that purpose. It also provides real faces and stories to send my prayers to, giving me heart-wrenching compassion for our brothers and sisters in Japan.

I’ve also been facing the fact that my access to the internet – and thus to communication with so many people I love – is very fragile. It could easily go down (as it does on daily basis here) in a more permanent way in a crisis. So I’ve been feeling how far I am physically from my home. Today I am very grateful for the ability to Skype with my family, to see my niece Koruna eating breakfast in Texas, to say once again, “I love you.” I guess in the face of abrupt destruction and incomprehensible suffering, that’s about the best thing I’ve figured out to say.


“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

~Mother Theresa

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