Archive for the ‘Vaidyagrama’ Category

Several weeks ago, I had one of those conversations with my brother – you know those conversations in which you feel entirely alive and inspired, one idea leading to the next, spinning off of each other into a beautiful new place you couldn’t have gotten to on your own. It is one of the reasons I moved to Austin – the chance to have more of those conversations with him. Proximity is often necessary to make those exchanges happen, like late-night dorm conversations.

"Red Shift" by Ian Ingram

I have continued to reflect on one concept we discussed that was informing Ian’s latest piece, which was the relative strength of different methods to “get things done.” One method is the NASA model, as Ian called it. You establish a clear goal, the “mission,” and then commit to it. No need to identify at the outset the steps it will take to get there. The commitment to the end point is what matters; the details work themselves out. NASA decided they would put a man on the moon and then spent the next ten years figuring out how to do it. There obviously was no precedent for such an accomplishment, no road map for how to get there, but after choosing their mission, it was simply a matter of taking one step after the next until the mission was accomplished. The method is all about the end point, not the process.

This brought to mind a phenomenon explained by my teacher Claudia Welch: “Wherever your attention goes, prana follows. And where prana goes, your cells follow.” By focusing our mind’s attention, we create a flow of prana or life energy in a certain direction. Our intention is manifested on this subtle level first, the most powerful force we can marshal. In time, the path established by prana materializes physically, even in physical tissue. If our attention is perpetually focused on a pending disaster at work, and consequently our breath is shallow and prana is restricted, the muscle cells in our shoulders (or stomach, or neck…) will follow suit and form knots.

It occurred to me that this is the same phenomenon revealed by the NASA model. The NASA engineer starts every day envisioning a man walking on the moon. While she may not know what it’s going to take to get there, she focuses her attention on that reality. That vision is alive in every moment of her day. What’s even more powerful is the shared vision, the fact that thousands of NASA employees woke up every morning for ten years and stepped into that vision, concretely directing their prana towards that future. Where attention went, prana followed, until those intentions crystalized in a man standing on the moon.

The prize-winning question then becomes, how do we control what we pay attention to? There are countless things vying for our attention these days – pending deadlines, the needs of family members, long to-do lists, endless advertisements – indeed, entire professions are built around how to hold the “consumer’s” attention. A New York Times article I read recently described decision fatigue, a unique malady of our modern choice-filled culture. From the rows of tantalizing items at the checkout counter, to the multiple holiday-season invitations, to the tempting “two for one” offers…. Deciding takes work. It requires weighing factors, comparing and contrasting, revisiting original intentions, consulting budgets and time commitments, and then landing on one side or the other – over and over again in a single day! Each act of consideration fatigues us just a bit more. It’s no wonder we’re tired at the end of the day. It is a war of attrition to direct our own attention rather than live at the mercy of the myriad attractions moving around us.

So how do we keep control of our attention stream?  How do we keep the conversations that feed and inspire us alive? It takes more than will power, or even good company – it takes strategy.

One thing I so valued at Vaidyagrama was having enough uncluttered mental space to examine an idea from multiple viewpoints, to allow it to simmer in the back of my mind until it was adequately cooked and rose to the surface again. To do so requires maintaining contact with an idea over a span of time in which you can consider it, put it aside, and pick it up again later when something reminds you of it from a new angle. My life before India never allowed for the “luxury” of such contemplation, and in India I realized its immense value – its necessity even, considering where I want to go, what I want my life to be about.

So I’ve been thinking, how do people do it? How are those creative, powerful, accomplished people keeping themselves focused on the important issues in life? My brother funnels his focus into his art. His highly-conceptualized pieces are a visual reflection of ideas he actively and intentionally percolates while he draws in his windowless studio. One way I am working with my attention is to set aside a regularly scheduled time for contemplation of the Big Pictures in my life. One can contemplate in meditation, or through journaling, or while doing a “mindless” activity like knitting. For me, writing is it – in fact, writing with YOU in mind. Preparing (or paring) my thoughts for a reader forces the digestion of ideas in a way that journaling doesn’t.

The missing key, which I have been discovering over the last few (post-less) weeks, is the regularity of the Big Picture contemplation, the non-negotiableness of its place in my schedule. It needs to be a firm part of my week for which I stop other activities, not something I do when I “find” the time – time is too easy to lose. If I wish it to serve the function of keeping my north star in sight, writing must be a regular part of my practice. And I expect you will see the evidence of this new regularity right here!

So I’m wondering, how do you keep focused on the important things in your life? What is your strategy?

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The Children of Vaidyagrama

All my life I’ve heard the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but I’ve never seen it actually happening before now. Vaidyagrama means “healing village,” and it acts like one. With the ebb and flow of patients adding an element of constant evolution, the sense of community here is strong nonetheless. Many of the staff live right here on the property, while the rest live nearby. In time, Vaidyagrama will be entirely self-supporting, and already it hosts its own power source, cows, vegetable gardens, herb gardens, and a variety of staff who seem able to resolve most problems that arise.

For those staff who live here, there is no separation between home life and work life so their children simply walk in and out of their work routines. Every child here always has an adult’s watchful eye on him or her, regardless of where the child is – and as often as not, it is not a parent’s eye. It was a great blessing to feel we had become some of those watchful adults for these children during our class time, taking our place within the web of protection and love that holds them safe.

Alvin and his mother, Lavanya

At age one-and-a-half, Alvin is the youngest child we’ve known here. His mother was here for a month training as a therapist, and she moved back to Bangalore recently. I miss seeing his perpetually grinning face. He may have been the most consistently happy child I’ve ever seen.

Afreena, around age 4, is almost all arms and legs, and we never see her wear the same outfit twice. We often saw her during meal time, coming in to our classroom when her mother would help bring in the food. She would make the most amazing expressions – her eyes are enormous, and she uses them to good theatric effect. She would roll them around and look at us pointedly out of the corners of her eyes while she turned her body away and then would burst out laughing.


Then there are the two brothers Ponoose and Motoose, who are second-cousins of Afreena. The eyes definitely run in the family. I’m guessing they are about age 4 and 6, and their mother, like Afreena’s, is one of the therapists. They live in a nearby village, so we only see them on occasion when school is on holiday and then they spend the day in our midst.

Now there is another pair of brothers, Vishnu and Keeshor, who moved here with their mother from a nearby village right before we finished classes. They are age 5 and 7. As Dr. Ramdas put it, “Their father is no longer alive, so now they live here and we take care of them.” Their mother is a housekeeper who is training to be a therapist. From the vantage point of my porch, I can see their ramblings throughout the day, as they chase down the wild puppies that were born in a shed a few weeks ago, or playing drums on overturned buckets in the yard, or finding a plastic-covered mound of dirt to slide down.

Vishnu and Keeshor


Rithwick and Rtu-parna

Of course, the children we have gotten to know the best during our time here are Dr. Ramdas’ two kids. Rtu-parna turned 2 in January, and Rithwick just started 10th grade. Their age difference contributes to the charming connection we get to watch between them. Emily was looking through the photos on Rithwick’s camera the other day and she said nearly all were photos of Rtu.

Rtu often spends much of the day with her father, going on patient rounds with him or sitting in his lap during our classes. She is picking up English like a sponge, intoning “Inhale… Exhale…” exactly like her father does in prayers. She also has the daily patient assessment routine down, carefully placing her fingers on your wrist to take your pulse, and then placing her finger below the eye to pull down the lower lid to look at the conjunctiva, and finally sticking out her tongue to encourage you to stick out yours for her examination. It’s no mystery how something like being a doctor gets passed down to the next generation around here.

We joke that Rtu’s feet never touch the ground…

A moment on stage to receive a gift from Madame President.

At one of our cooking lessons with Lima

Shopping for vegetables with Lima and Lynn

At the new car puja outside Guruvayur Temple

Now that I am in treatment, it is a highlight of my day when Rtu comes by for a visit. Sometimes she’ll stay after her father leaves, and we’ll have a good chat. It’s amazing what you can communicate when you don’t speak the same language.


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As part of our education about pancha karma, Ayurveda’s intensive detoxification and rejuvenation process, we have been learning some of the hands-on patient treatments. While some of these may look like spa offerings, they are powerful therapies designed as part of a full treatment plan with specific sequences and preparations.

Therapist Semena preparing a bolus for podi kiri.

The most well-known Ayurveda treatments are probably abhyanga, a gentle oil massage (much milder than deep tissue massage), and shiro dhara, a steady stream of oil or other liquid medicine poured over the eyebrow center and forehead for up to sixty minutes. We have also helped administer pirichil, pouring warm medicated oil over the whole body, podi kiri, a dry powder treatment consisting of pressing herbal boluses over the body, and akshi tarpana, bathing the eyes in a pool of liquid medicine such as melted herbal ghee (blink… blink… blink). Our teachers here emphasized the importance of appropriate preparatory and recovery procedures for each therapy, cautioning that a shiro dhara (often offered as a one-time spa treatment) can actually lead to strong adverse effects if undertaken inappropriately.

Abhyanga is the most involved protocol we have learned and one we feel competent doing (but not doing commercially back home without a massage license…). Literally translated, the word means “all body parts” and it refers to the application of oil to every inch of the body. The patient is guided through seven different positions on the table so every part of the body can be reached. While there is gentle pressure, according to Ayurveda it is the oil itself, not the depth of the massage, that carries the primary therapeutic action. By applying medicated oil, allowing it to soak in for some time and then bathing the body, we quiet the mind and build a cocoon against stress and over-stimulation. Being embraced in a thin layer of oil soothes frayed nerves and brings the body back to earth from mental preoccupations. I dare say it’s the best medicine for an information-overloaded day of multi-tasking, and while doing it to yourself is truly wonderful, having it done to you is transporting.

Working in the treatment rooms alongside the therapists gave us an entirely new perspective on Vaidyagrama, yet again. Although we have been going on rounds with the doctors every morning and meeting patients in their rooms, stepping into a treatment room in an apron and assisting gives a visceral connection with the patients that is completely different. They are vulnerable and exposed in a concrete way since most treatments are done with the patient nearly naked, wearing just a loin cloth (which usually gets taken off or moved around significantly by the end of the treatment anyway).

A droni, the traditional table used for treatments, made of neem wood.

We started learning abhyanga by practicing on each other, but the education really starts when you lay hands on a stranger. Our training shifted to a deeper level when Dr. Ramdas’s mother-in-law came to Vaidyagrama for treatment and Dr. Ramdas and his wife Lima asked us to care for her. We were incredibly honored by their trust – and that she was willing, especially considering none of us speaks a lick of Malayalam, nor she any English. Lynn, Emily and I took the responsibility very seriously.

Her main treatment consisted of ten days of shiro dhara, preceded by an abbreviated abhyanga. Each day, two of us took turns doing her abhyanga together and then doing the dhara, which requires two sets of hands to manage the equipment and replenish the vessel overhead. After the treatment, the therapists are responsible for bathing the patient, which is the sweetest experience you can imagine, watching a grown adult almost shift back into their childhood self to receive the bath. Then they are bundled up and escorted back to their room.

We found out the day before Amma’s treatment commenced that we were to be her therapists, which is probably a good thing – we had limited time to get nervous. However, we discovered the hard way that doing a two-therapist abhyanga is quite different from doing it all yourself, which was the only way we had practiced. When you try to share responsibilities with another therapist, each person taking one side of the body, the usual protocol doesn’t quite flow. And then there is the whole synchronization thing. By the last day, however, we were finally getting the hang of it and refining our treatment.

One day near the end, Emily and I were doing the treatment together and due to some scheduling issues, we started quite late in the day. As the treatment progressed, the sun began to set and it started to get dark in the room. By now, we have gotten used to the frequent electricity outages, so we simply kept going, finishing the treatment in the semi-darkness. Then one of us held a flashlight overhead for the bath, creating what felt like a rather romantic, “authentic” end to an Ayurvedic treatment in rural India with no electricity available and the light dimming around us. We helped her dress by flashlight and prepared to escort her back to her room, only to discover upon exiting the treatment room that the hallway outside was bathed in electric light. The electricity was not off – we simply had not flipped the light switch on. The three of us dissolved in giggles. If nothing else, our adaptability has certainly grown.

The Dhanvantari idol in one of the treatment rooms (the god of healing).

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We’ve been at Vaidyagrama for almost four weeks, and I am settling into my daily routine. My roommate Lynn and I get up at 5:00 and go about our waking up rituals silently, more or less. After tooth-brushing and such, I do a self-massage with coconut oil followed by a brief warm shower to help it soak in. The coconut oil here is unbelievably fragrant, like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. Self-massage is a primary part of health maintenance according to Ayurveda – it nourishes and lubricates all the tissues of the body and gives a very tangible sense of grounding. If you have never tried it, I highly recommend it. Next, I do some yoga postures in the room while Lynn does hers on the patio (I actually find it a bit too cold out there for me in the morning-!). Just after 6:00, the bell calling us to morning prayers rings. The clear piercing clang of it cutting through the night insect songs is a lovely rousing sound in the darkness.

Our prayers consist of chanting and pranayama, and they last just under an hour. I revel in the chanting. In the morning, we chant the Shri Vishnu Sahasranama, or the Thousand Names of Vishnu. I don’t know all of the Sanskrit words but I enjoy following along in the little book we were given and sounding out the words that I can manage to fit in at Dr. Ramdas’s breakneck chanting pace. We then do ten rounds of nadi shodhana, a breathing practice that involves breathing through alternate nostrils in turn, which helps balance the body’s energy and the two hemispheres of the brain, including hormone levels. Our teacher Claudia from the Institute has said that this one breathing practice is the most powerful medicine she knows – it causes the greatest effect of all the things she offers her patients. After prayers, with the sandalwood mark on my forehead spreading coolness through my head, I watch the sun rising over the coconut palms in the distance. This morning there were tiny clouds fringed with pink on the underside.

I then take my turn on our room’s patio and go over a verse of the prayer to practice deciphering the devanagari script (the beautiful curly alphabet that Sanskrit uses). A verse is only two lines, but it takes me about ten minutes to sound out each letter and string them together with the right meter or rhythm. The process is curiously satisfying to me – I don’t know why I love it so. It’s like solving a puzzle mixed with singing, leaving a sweet taste in my mouth. There are 108 verses, so if I work on two a day, I will have at least gone through the whole thing once before our classes end here.

Somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00, the most delicious tea is delivered to our room, made with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, jaggery and some other mystery spices. Jaggery is an unrefined sweetener made from sugar cane or palm sap whose rich dark sweetness really isn’t comparable to anything else. I curl up with my cup to write a bit. Breakfast happens somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00, and class begins at 9:30. We have a few breaks in our full day of class, including a two hour break for lunch in which I often take a short nap. I’ve never been a napper, but it seems to be working for me here – I think I get tired from the sheer weight of input from every sense organ. Class ends around 5:00 and we have an hour before evening prayers. I often do laundry then or filter some water to fill up my water bottle. After dinner, I write a little more or read before an early bed time around 9:00. Sleep comes quickly.

It’s been interesting to watch this routine emerge. When I first arrived, I tried to plan out a daily routine, but it didn’t take – I had to wait and see what called me at different hours of the day. It’s been a process of watching more than planning and, as Dr. Ramkumar suggested, being patient.

There is something to be gained in this process of observing as patterns emerge in their own time. The first several days we were here, I never knew after prayers what Dr. Ramdas would be putting on our forehead – it seemed like sometimes it was one thing, sometimes another. It only took a few days for the pattern to become apparent. Now I know that after morning prayers, it’s always the yellow sandalwood paste followed by kum-kum (a bright red turmeric powder), and in the evening it’s a white powder ash. Other patterns take a bit more time to reveal themselves.

As an exercise to build our pulse-taking skills (a primary diagnostic tool in Ayurveda), we are taking our own pulse up to ten times a day: upon waking, before and after breakfast, before and after lunch, before and after dinner, before and after emptying the bowels, whenever one feels emotional, and just before sleep. With each reading, we are to write down the rate, qualitative speed (fast, medium, slow), strength/volume, character of the movement (like a frog, snake or swan) and regularity. The idea is that by writing these impressions down, we will come to see the patterns that lie hidden in the apparent randomness. Indeed, I now know my pulse rate increases before eating and slows down afterward, that it’s very heavy and slow upon waking and more bouncy and alert mid-day (definitely frog-like), and that it’s frequently irregular but feels like a metronome when I’m hungry. I am eager to have more sensitivity in my fingertips and wish I could just flip a switch and suddenly be able to “see” everything that our teachers can see in the pulse, but there is just no replacement for logging in the time and practice.

This week we have started observing clinical treatments with patients, which we’ve been anticipating excitedly. I got to observe a janu basti treatment, which involves pouring warm medicated oil into a small reservoir built from dough around each knee, in this case used to treat arthritic pain. To maintain a warm temperature for 45 minutes, the oil is frequently replenished with warmer oil. As part of a larger treatment plan, it is very successful in reducing pain over the long term. As students, we were exposed to this treatment first simply because it was being done here today. We are seeing it out of context, which is not insignificant; Dr. Ramdas has referred many times to the importance of the sequence of treatments. Specialized treatments like this for one body part must be done only after more generalized treatments for the whole body, which we don’t yet know a thing about. We’ve just jumped right into the middle of things. However, I am beginning to trust that in its own time, the larger pattern will emerge, just as it will with the pulse. Patience seems to grow here, just like everything else.

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The Grown Ups’ Table

This past weekend, I chose to stay put while my classmates returned to Isha, a temple and meditation center that we all went to last weekend. I enjoyed myself thoroughly the first time we were there, but I didn’t want to leave Vaidyagrama again, at least not for awhile. In so many ways, this place feels like home. Deeply home.

In addition to that gravitational pull, there are other reasons to stay put. We are currently surrounded by the most amazing community of teachers, practitioners and Ayurvedic luminaries who seem to have flocked to Vaidyagrama en masse to receive treatment. Two weeks ago, our very dear teacher from the Institute, Dr. Claudia Welch, arrived with her husband Jim to go through treatment for a month. She was the one who originally recommended Vaidyagrama to all of us, and by a wonderful coincidence, we have ended up here at the same time as her. It is so sweet to see her here and to catch the occasional conversation with her on the pathways. Her very presence is inspirational, and to feel her presence here makes a sweet connection between our lives at the Institute and our education here. It really is all connected anyway.

Dr. Svoboda and Dr. Welch talking with a friend visiting from Brazil after a puja in which Dr. Svoboda played a priestly role (hence the garb).

And if we needed further evidence that this place is exceptional, the renowned American Ayurvedic scholar and teacher Dr. Robert Svoboda arrived shortly after Claudia and has taken up residence here in the very same building as us. We’ve all been to his workshops and lectures and read his books (I am actually reading one right now), so when we pass him on the pathways, it’s like passing a celebrity. We try to play it cool. More than once, though, I wished I had a camera on me when I saw my shoes sitting next to his by the building entrance.

I have also met a patient, Kathleen, who works at Banyan Botanicals, the fantastic Ayurvedic herb importer/supplier based in Albuquerque that was started by graduates of the Institute there. There has been some publicity in recent years about heavy metal contamination of herbs imported from India, as well as some herbs driven close to extinction by unethical harvesting practices here, so having a safe, ethical and sustainability-oriented importer in the U.S. is a tremendous thing. Last week, I was wondering if I could find a particular herb in the States that Dr. Ramdas suggested for my sister-in-law Jeri Lynn’s morning sickness, and it was just too coincidental to be able to simply walk down the path here in Southern India and ask Kathleen if Banyan carries it. (They do). It’s like the epi-center of the Western Ayurveda scene has picked up and moved to Vaidyagrama.

Dr. Svoboda and Claudia have been close friends ever since they met here in India decades ago as two of the few white people studying Ayurveda here. We hear them periodically playing cards in his room and chanting on the roof. Dr. Svoboda recently announced his retirement from public life and gave his last Stateside lecture in Austin in December, which I attended just before leaving for India myself. His last lecture in India will be next week in Rishikesh at a conference that Punarnava Ayurveda (Vaidyagrama’s parent company) has organized. We felt even luckier, therefore, a few days ago when Claudia brought Dr. Svoboda in to our classroom/dining room after dinner to talk with us about jyotisha (vedic astrology) and Barack Obama’s chart. According to Dr. Svoboda, President Obama’s chart is remarkable in a number of ways revealing a propensity for power, good judgment and intelligence. In jyotish, there is an aspect of chart-reading that lays a person’s life against a timeline and allows rather precise prediction of events and states of mind. In July 2012, apparently President Obama will enter a period marked by self-doubt and second-guessing. However, he will come out of it quickly, and it appears that by October – just before the election – he will be in a position of power again. Here’s hoping.

After Dr. Svoboda left the room, we all looked around at each other with stars in our eyes. To have a mini lecture from one of the biggest names in Ayurvedic scholarship while kicking back after dinner…  it’s like somehow we graduated from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and got invited to the grown-ups’ table. In more ways than one, it continues to feel like a Thanksgiving feast around here.

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Dr. Ramdas

Our first week of class was incredibly affirming. We are now even more aware of what a remarkable gift it is to be at Vaidyagrama at this moment in time. We have landed in a community of authentic physician-teachers and heartfelt staff who are bringing to life an entirely unique vision. When construction is complete, Vaidyagrama will house several clusters of patient treatment buildings and a full staff who will live on-site with their families; they will grow all their own food and medicinal herbs, using solar and wind technology to power the place; there will be a temple, livestock, gardens, everything necessary to sustain life, all on a property designed in accordance with the complex guidelines of vastu (the vedic science of placement, the predecessor of the Chinese feng shui system). Nothing quite like this – with this integrity and grounding in authentic vedic knowledge – is being done anywhere else. And they are just getting off the ground. We have the rest of our lives to grow and learn along with this place.

We have the incredible honor of having Dr. Ramdas, the head physician here, as our teacher. I am increasingly amazed that we get to sit with him for five whole hours every day. The first thing you notice about him is his quiet nature and steady gaze. He exudes a sense of gravity and purpose, so his contagious giggle comes as a surprise the first few times. By now we are more familiar with his easy going attitude and his evident joy at being with others who share his passion. He doesn’t take himself or life too seriously, which is disarming in someone who is clearly due the highest respect.

Born into a family of Ayurvedic practitioners in Kerala, he trained at a traditional Ayurvedic college in Coimbatore and then went on for specialized training in Ayurvedic ophthalmology and pediatrics. He also received a master’s degree in psychotherapy before taking over leadership of his family firm’s treatment center and pharmacy. Along with four partners, he co-founded Punarnava Ayurveda, the parent organization of Vaidyagrama, and he has been here with his wife and two children full time for the last two years. Now in his early 40’s, he has only been outside of India once, when he went to Vietnam for eight months in 2007 to start Punarnava’s first international Ayurvedic center.

As the head physician here, Dr. Ramdas is responsible for up to 24 patients at a time as well as managing four junior physicians. As is often the case in a small organization, he seems to be involved in most decisions. This doesn’t prevent him from finding the time to call our driver when we were out shopping in Coimbatore this past weekend, just to make sure we were doing alright. Aparna, our main administrative contact and den mother, has said laughingly, “All the patients are so jealous that you get to spend so much time with Dr. Ramdas.” He has touched us all with his earnestness and sweet spirit.

His grasp of English is extensive when it comes to medical terminology as well as general conversation, but it’s not always quick. He will often pause to reach for the precise word he wants. I find this creates the perfect pace for learning. As a perpetual note-taker, I have always been focused on trying to capture every concept in a lecture, caught in a flurry of writing. Ayurveda, however, was originally passed on through oral tradition; material was learned through conversation, repetition, and hands-on experience in the context of a student-teacher relationship that would span many years. Much of the information is preserved in shlokas, brief verses that are easily memorized but really need to be explained by a teacher. It is in the discussion of the shlokas that you really learn Ayurveda. The pace of Dr. Ramdas’s speech further encourages discussion and contemplation. Simply stated, it slows us down enough that we can think.

At the end of the first day of class, as I was silently marveling that this accomplished man is willing to teach a group of relative novices – and westerners, to boot – he spoke right to our hearts: “We are so happy you are here, that you came here to learn Ayurveda. You are a very important part of our vision. You will take what you learn here to your home countries and help people.” He looked at each of us. “You will help Ayurveda spread across this world. We are so grateful for you.” Tears came to my eyes. Of course it is not for us that he is spending five hours a day with us. It is for Ayurveda. It is for the wisdom that he loves, this tradition that is threatened with extinction by a tidal wave of materialism and speed and quick fixes that is sweeping over our planet. For Ayurveda to thrive, it must light a fire in the hearts of true students from many cultures – perhaps especially westerners – who can help it spread.

It is a privilege to be here; it is also an inspiring responsibility. We have a lot to do to live up to the gift we are receiving.

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Oh my. Truly, we may be the luckiest people on this earth.

From the moment we stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac in Coimbatore, we could tell everything was different. There was only a small handful of people waiting for passengers to arrive, and our driver clearly didn’t have to guess which people he was picking up – he saw from afar the three white people and didn’t wait for us to identify ourselves as the names on the sign he was holding. He ushered us into the parking lot, and from the quiet sense of calm in the air we knew we were far from Mumbai.

The drive to Vaidyagrama took about an hour through lush green land dotted with palm trees, small houses, and fields. We were surrounded by vegetation, and before long small mountains appeared in the distance. As we drew closer to them, our driver explained that an engineering school was being built at the base of the mountains by Ammachi’s philanthropic organization. When we turned off the main road and onto Vaidyagrama’s dirt entry road, he said we were about 4 kilometers from the border with Kerala (the next state over from our state of Tamil Nadu).

Several of the staff came out to greet us as we pulled up at the entrance. There was a flurry of introductions and exclamations. I was eager to meet Aparna – she was the main staff person we have been emailing to make arrangements, and she and I had actually been in communication since last summer. She asked, “Which one is Ivy-ji?!” and we hugged hello. They helped us carry our luggage over a rough pathway alongside an evident construction area to our building. All of the buildings here are connected by pathways and courtyards open to the outside air. The four bedrooms in our building will be occupied solely by our group. Lynn and I were led to our room and we entered into a small foyer with a table and a wardrobe adjacent to an ample bathroom. To the right was a large bedroom with two single beds covered by mosquito nets facing double doors that opened on to a private patio. It is amazingly beautiful and cool with tall ceilings and whirring fans overhead.

They told us that we are the first inhabitants in this building, that they had just put the finishing touches on it that day, so to inaugurate the building they were conducting a small ceremony in the back treatment room. We gathered with several of the doctors and therapists around a pot of milk on a small camping-style stove, and they boiled the milk until it ran over the edge of the pot. They poured everyone a cup, added a bit of sugar, and we all drank it down. A sweet welcome indeed.

We arrived here on Wednesday and classes begin tomorrow, Monday; the three of us are so grateful that we got here early and have had these days to settle in and let go of the stress of Mumbai and traveling. The quiet countryside and the simplicity of the buildings and grounds encourage letting go. This place is designed for patients, and for someone receiving treatment here the intention is that they have very little to do, that they unplug from stimulation of every kind (I will write a great deal more about the treatment philosophy in the weeks to come). As students here, we will certainly have a great deal more to do, but for these several days before classes start, life is very simple indeed.

The day begins at 6:15am with optional morning prayers for the patients and students led by Dr. Ramdas. He is the head physician, and he will be our primary teacher. He is a very gentle and warm person, with a perpetual smile on his face, and his chanting is deep and resonant. Prayers are held in one of the patient buildings, all of us sitting together on the ground around the open courtyard, and his voice fills the space with the feeling of a deep, flowing river. We chant eight or nine prayers together  and then Dr. Ramdas chants for about 20-30 minutes. He then leads us in pranayama (breathing practices that improve the flow of energy through the body). After the prayers end, Dr. Ramdas comes to each person and places a few drops of water in our hand (which we drink or place on our crown), then he places a tulsi (holy basil) leaf in our hand (which we eat), and finally he puts a sandalwood paste tilak, or mark of auspiciousness, on the third eye between the eyebrows. It is dark outside when we start morning prayers, and when we are done the sun has risen. It is the most beautiful way to start the day.

The rest of the day is punctuated by meals – breakfast at 8am, lunch at 12:30, tea and steamed banana at 4, evening prayers at 6:15, and dinner at 7. Between those hours, we are on our own. We have been reading, napping, doing yoga, walking a bit, catching up on email (or blogs!) and sitting still.

Each afternoon, the staff come through to fumigate our room – they take two little wooden pots with burning cow dung and pour some kind of herb powder on it which makes an enormous cloud of smoke, which discourages the mosquitoes from coming in. They smoke up the whole room and you can see clouds of smoke emerging from the screened in windows and doors if you’re outside. The smell is strong but not unpleasant. Then a different set of staff come through to do a “turn-down” service in which they remove the bedspread, lay the comforter across the bed, and let down the mosquito net, tucking the edges firmly under the sides of the mattresses. Lynn and I want to sleep in a mosquito net for the rest of our lives – it makes the most secure, cozy cocoon for sleeping.

The weather is perfect. It is cool in the morning and evening, requiring a light shawl or wrap, and while it is certainly warm in the mid-day sun, if you stay under shade or a ceiling fan, it is lovely – especially in the buildings which retain the coolness of the night in the clay brick of the walls. There is usually a breeze, and the mosquitoes only come out at dusk and dawn. While we have all gotten a few bites (except for Ras, ironically the only one taking anti-malarial medication), they are not swarming.

The evening we arrived, as I looked out at the horizon, I could see palm trees surrounding us and the mountains in the distance. From the vantage point of Vaidyagrama, the nearest mountain looks like the silhouette of a now-familiar friend.… It seems we have found a very special new home.

Mount Anamalam

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