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Posts Tagged ‘abhyanga’

The foundation of my future home

It’s hard to believe that a short two months ago, I was in India – or that one month ago, I was in Santa Fe. The 31-day span of August seemed to expand beyond its margins with more life-passage events than most months can handle. For starters, I picked up my life and relocated it to Austin, Texas; my brother and sister and I convened for our first-ever “sibling only” reunion (i.e., no parents, spouses or children); construction began on my future home behind my brother’s house; one of my dearest sister-friends celebrated her wedding; and last Monday, I witnessed the birth of my nephew, Marvel.

And marvel, I have. He was born at home, slipping into this world noiselessly and stunningly beautiful in a birthing tub in my brother’s home.  Equally beautiful were his parents working in coordinated single-pointed focus to bring him into this world of oxygen and gravity. That sight, the visual imprint of their powerful love for this new life and each other, will never leave my mind’s eye.

Since the time they discovered Jeri Lynn was pregnant right before I left for India, I have been planning to be here to support their family during this tumultuous transition. It seemed like too much of a happy coincidence that their second child would be born precisely when I would have no scheduled commitments and could devote a month to them. It is such a luxury in our culture to have a family member who can move in and help with the logistics of life maintenance for awhile after a child is born. The contrast is dramatic coming from India, where family members converge for weeks on end to help new parents. I honestly don’t know how any parents do it on their own.

In Ayurvedic terms, giving birth is one of the most significant disturbances of vata dosha that can occur in a woman’s body. When the uterus has grown to such an enormous size and then is suddenly vacated, the resulting empty space unsettles the tenuous balance the body has found. Vata dosha is the tangible expression in the body of the elements air and space, and since “like increases like,” this newly empty organ acts as an invitation to vata to move in and wreak havoc. Going through any major life change that disrupts order and predictability also increases vata dosha, so welcoming a new baby upsets vata for the whole family. The results of vata elevation can include digestive difficulties, constipation, pain, anxiety and fear, muscle spasms or tremors, insomnia or mania, and full blown panic. Ayurveda offers many specific recommendations in the days after birth to help comfort and restore balance.

One of the primary treatments for anyone experiencing a vata imbalance is abhyanga, the soothing oil treatment I learned at Vaidyagrama. While abhyanga is often translated as oil massage, a better translation is oil application. In Sanskrit, Abhy means “every” and anga means “limb” or “part,” referring to the application of oil to every body part. Massage is less important than completely covering the body, as oil has a direct calming effect on the tissues. Abhyanga effectively replenishes the buffer between the inside and outside world and quiets the nervous system.

While our plan was for Jeri Lynn to receive a daily abhyanga , we feel pretty accomplished when we fit one in every other day.  We leave the massage table set up right next to the changing table. I love doing it, knowing what an enormous difference it makes during this critical time. Jeri Lynn has said it is already restoring her strength and sense of reserve. We’ve only gotten Ian on the table once, but I hope to increase his time there too.

The second most important tool we’re finding to calm vata is establishing new routines. Jeri Lynn and Ian already swear by the sleep schedule they set for their two-year-old daughter.  When they are off by even fifteen minutes, they can feel it in her behavior and general disgruntlement. Routines communicate directly to the body and mind, creating a structure that helps everyone feel more in control and less anxious. Children are often more sensitive to the subtle movements of the doshas, and we would do well to take cues from them, knowing that our bodies are struggling with the same influences – we’re just more practiced at pushing through a sense of unease or feeling out of rhythm. We are trying to stick to the meal times they have already established, and new routines incorporating Marvel are already emerging.

My third focus in the past week, and my biggest joy, has been cooking. I feel so strongly about the power of food to heal and nurture, it has been incredibly satisfying to cook during this intense time. Food carries energy as well as nutrients, and the meals I’ve been preparing have been such a tangible receptacle in which to pour my love, knowing it would go straight to their cells and hearts. To calm vata, I’ve been cooking primarily warm, soft, moist, easily-digestible food like soups and stews, including the Ayurvedic wonder dish kitchari.

Another important part of our diet these days is ghee, which we put on everything. A form of clarified butter, ghee is an amazing nourisher – it boosts natural immunity, increases digestive power, lubricates all tissues, relieves and prevents constipation, calms vata and pitta dosha, and tastes like heaven. It is easy to make at home (try it!), so I have been keeping a ready supply on hand. Jeri Lynn gets a nightly cup of warm milk with powdered ginger and a spoonful of ghee.

Off to school

Stepping into this part of my sweet family has been an incredible inspiration for me. From my niece, Koruna, I have been learning courage. Not only has she gotten a new brother, she also started pre-school last week, just days after he was born. While her teachers confirm that she is having a good time during the day, each morning she has been anxious and tearful. But each day, she keeps putting one foot in front of the next. Her trust and courage in the face of her apprehension is so tender, it’s almost heart-breaking.

I have also been awed by my brother’s patience. While his wife recuperates, he has taken on the lion’s share of Runa duty – which he loves. It has been so touching to watch their relationship deepen overnight. Runa has been holding herself together incredibly well, but she has dissolved into angry explosions of tears and demands with a greater frequency than usual. My brother greets each outburst with the same steady, quiet patience. While not in the least surprising, it remains incredibly inspiring.

Marvel and his mama

From Jeri Lynn, I have been learning the depth of generosity that is possible even when one is completely spent. She continues to make room in her life (and in her bedroom) for people to come in and share their love with her family in such a physical way. From inviting me to be present at the birth, to inviting her neighbor’s children over hours after Marvel’s arrival, she just keeps opening the door wider. That generosity of self keeps rebounding, creating a loop of giving and receiving that fills a house up with warmth.

And Marvel. He’s teaching me to drop whatever I’m doing that’s so important, to sit still and be present with every fiber of my attention, to dip into the deep well of wonder that I tend to forget is our inborn gift. He is indeed well-named.

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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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