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Posts Tagged ‘pancha karma’

Sunrise over Vaidyagrama

This morning as I watched the sun rise over New Mexico, I marveled anew at the wonder of this globe. We spin on our little axis through space, pulled in endless scheduled circles around a ball of fire amongst countless other rotating spheres passing in their own exact orbits. The celestial bodies that I gazed up at from Vaidyagrama are visible to me now, in their turn, from here on the other side of the planet. Watching them keeps me aware of the true scale of things.

Door to door, my trip home from India took a total of 44 hours: an hour-long tear-stained taxi ride, followed by four flights interspersed with 14 land-bound hours of layovers, capped off by a beautiful sunset drive through the deserts of New Mexico. I am already missing my dear friends at Vaidyagrama – AND it is a joy to be home.

My typical pancha karma attire - oily hair in a towel and at least three patterns below the neck.

My last week of pancha karma was dedicated to recuperation. All of the intensive treatments were over so now my body just got to soak in the strengthening herbal medicines, fresh foods, natural surroundings, and daily oil massages while it got strong again. My focus shifted from my body’s cleansing and re-balancing to that of my mind. There was almost no explicit guidance from the doctors on that aspect of pancha karma, but the very structure of Vaidyagrama itself points you towards reflection and increasing mental quiet. With all of my physical needs taken care of, I took it as a rare opportunity to reduce as much mental input as possible. Just as eating more food before the previous meal is digested results in a backlog and poor digestion, I realized I am constantly putting in more information before the previous installment is processed. My mental digestion would benefit from some fasting.

So for my last week at Vaidyagrama, I gave up the internet entirely, and – even more challenging for me – I abandoned all reading. No studying the ancient texts, no yoga books, no poetry, not even a “just for fun” novel. No input. Honestly, the prospect was more than a little unnerving.

When you sit with yourself for so long in this intense practice of stripping away, you can discover what you’re leaning on, what’s keeping you comfortable but not really vibrant. My brain is always working; even my mental “neutral” is pretty active. Those shifting gears create a certain amount of background noise that is somehow reassuring, the white noise of my brain. It was a shock to have nothing to take in, nothing new to process – no white noise. Suddenly other “noises” could be heard. It felt odd, but never boring, to go out to the porch with nothing in my hands to read. I watched the rain or the birds, or closed my eyes and watched my thoughts go by, wandering through the stacks of my memories and dreams.

At first, I expected that this would provoke an internal revolution. I kept watching for the revelations, a breakthrough to rock my perspective. Before long I realized that even that baited-breath watchfulness revealed a drive to accomplish something, to have some proof of time well spent. It is an insidious pressure. What I longed for, I realized, was to have NO expectations, nothing to defend or prove. Just to sit, and have that be enough. So I sat. And I have nothing to report. No analysis, no tidy landing place…. Just a quiet, humble relief.

How do you say good-bye to a community of teachers, caregivers and friends who have come to feel like family? The best solution I have come up with is not to – to start planning your reunion as soon as possible. As the taxi pulled away down the dirt drive, I waved to Dr. Ramdas, Lima, Rtu, Dr. Om, Dr. Aruna and the rest of the crowd until the bend in the road hid them from sight, and I began picturing my return.

I’ve now been here in my parents’ home in Santa Fe for one week, with several unscheduled weeks still in front of me. As my body continues to get stronger, the wealth of experiences of the last six months are percolating in the periphery of my awareness. It is said that the true effect of pancha karma is not felt until three months later, as the cells turn over in the course of their natural life cycles and the body is literally renewed. I am certain the same could be said about the effect of living  in a foreign land for six months. The seeds sown in this season will bear fruit in their own time.

At the Ooty Botanical Garden

In the meantime, I fully recognize the great luxury I am experiencing right now – no job to report to, no family to take care of, few bills to pay – and I am relishing my diminished interactions with the world for a bit longer. I know it will soon take effort and intention to gracefully navigate the demands that will resume. I have faith that my experience of life at Vaidyagrama will give me discrimination in choosing which strands I weave back into the fabric of my daily life.

What happens next for me? I will stay in Santa Fe for the rest of July and then make my way to my new home: Austin, Texas. Some of you may know my brother Ian and his wife Jeri Lynn, two of the most inspiring artists (and blog writers, incidentally) that I know. Their roots are deep in Austin, and I get more and more excited about joining them in creating our own village, right there up the road from Barton Springs.

My niece, Koruna, whose brother is due in August

I will set up shop as an Ayurveda consultant and yoga instructor, offering workshops and individual consultations to help clients find their unique sources of health and contentment in life. And I will remain open to the guiding spirit that led me so effortlessly through India, watching for my right path to emerge, the path with the true sense of calling and a sense of ease.

One unexpected joy I found in India was connecting with all of you here. I plan to continue writing here and sharing inspirations rooted in the rich earth of Ayurveda – ideas about community, nature, delicious food, healing, the gifts of yoga, the importance of beauty, and other roadside attractions. I hope you will continue to keep me company on this path. Good company, I have seen, is often the very best medicine.

The full moon over Vaidyagrama

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The view from my porch

It was as if Nature was watching a calendar. On June 1st, the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. We had been hearing that it was raining in Kerala to our west, and since this is the time of year for the southwest monsoon, we knew it was coming our way. (In October, the bigger monsoon starts from the Bay of Bengal to the east and sweeps up the country in a similarly predictable wave.) Overnight, the entire climate changed. The temperature dropped dramatically (I’d guess it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night now), the wind picked up, the usual dryness in the air disappeared, and clouds took up permanent residence over the mountains. Every day, there are at least two or three hard showers, usually more. The rain is broken up by spells of bright surprising sunshine – in fact last week we had several solid days of sun – but the mist returns, inviting introspection and long periods of gazing out the window.

Somehow, three whole weeks have passed with me just sitting, mostly quite still, inside these four walls. Ras returned to the States last week, and Lynn left a few days ago. Emily is still here, right across the hall with her mother who came from New Mexico a few weeks ago to do pancha karma with her. The flavor of the days changes partly due to which treatment I have, and partly no doubt due to what I’m processing physically and mentally (and if we need more evidence of the intertwined nature of these two aspects of our being, I am definitely feeling it). Being alone and still is not generally difficult for me – the bigger challenge is not getting entirely ensconced in my head by virtue of being alone and still. I have been trying to maintain a balance of attention and presence in my heart and body here. It supports my efforts (and adds to the challenge of my natural tendencies) that they discourage reading or using the computer for long stretches of time. They say it’s to avoid straining the eyes – and they also purposely put in dim light bulbs. There is a certain design and intention at work here.

One of the cows checking out Dr. Ramdas's new car parked outside my porch.

Why is it such a challenge to simply sit still, without doing anything, beyond a few minutes? Everything in me revolts. Not at the theory – I am all for sitting still theoretically. But after a few minutes of sitting and watching the sights outside my porch, my mind drifts towards action. My intrinsic focus on accomplishment leaves me almost cringing each evening: “What have I done today? What can I strike off my ‘Pancha Karma Projects’ list?” (That’s not a figure of speech – of course I arrived with such a list.) While I recognize that my prioritization of achievement is wholly conditioned, that doesn’t change its remarkable power over me and the seemingly organic sense of “wrongness” that bubbles up after I’ve been unproductive for some time. The culture of pancha karma counteracts this sense of wrongness, gently asserting, “You must also make time for not doing, for contemplation.”

So I must regularly remind myself to stop what I’m doing (usually reading or writing) and go sit on the porch for awhile. I watch the lizard who appears on the fence at the same time every day (unless it is raining) to do his push-up routine. He has a magnificent prehistoric head with a crest and wattles under his chin. Sometimes he’s a dark lizardly green, and sometimes he’s dull yellow with orange along the crest and stark black legs. At first I thought there were two different lizards, but now I’m pretty sure he’s the same guy because I’ve never seen the two together, and he takes up the same position on the fence regardless of his color and does the same push-ups.

When my imposing presence is not on the porch, four soft brown birds fly in, one at a time, and announce their arrival with exceedingly loud song. They take advantage of the reflective window glass to fluff themselves up and shake furiously and contort into wild little bird positions, stretching one wing out at a time and bending their necks at odd angles. They preen themselves and each other for up to ten or fifteen minutes at a time, several times a day. Apparently, all this rain can really do a number on a set of bird feathers.

Around 11am and again at 4pm, a chai wallah arrives on his motorbike and parks down at the entrance of the driveway to bring outlawed caffeinated chai and fried samosas to the staff here (you can’t find such indulgences in our kitchens). The high-pitched drone of his horn wafts over the palms, and the staff slowly emerge from various corners of the property, coming out from the gardens or behind the cowshed or from inside the patient buildings. They gather in small groups to enjoy their contraband snacks. Slowing down has provided me access to a whole series of activities that have been going on unseen right under my nose for the five months I’ve been here. I know that is true all the time, that life is unfolding in countless layers and variety while we’re looking the other way.

The other night, after the sun had set and my eyes actually were feeling strained and my head was achey, I guiltily closed my book and looked out at the darkness– there was nothing even to watch. I was tired in my body and mind, but it was far too early to go to bed. My mind searched for something to think about, a thinly cloaked attempt to continue doing, to remain in charge. Nothing. It felt like something in me had been worn down, and there really was nothing to do. I lit a candle and turned on some music and took the candle outside. As I absently sang along, the candle flame gathered up my attention and just held it, like one holds a baby, and gently rocked me until the music ran out.

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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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I spent last Friday night standing in Vaidyagrama’s open air kitchen looking out over the wall at the deep green banana tree tops, listening to the grazing cows mooing from inside the grove, and tending a fire stove trying to bring a vessel of Balaguduchyadi herbal decoction to a boil.

Ayurveda offers guidance in lifestyle practices, diet, herbal medicines and treatment options for a wide variety of conditions – outpatient medicine, you could say. In addition, it offers inpatient treatment for acute conditions, as well as an intensive residential detoxification and rejuvenation process called pancha karma (“five actions” in Sanskrit – although I’ve certainly seen more than five here).

You could say pancha karma is the pinnacle of ayurvedic treatment. This rejuvenation process can restore the body’s natural state of balance, which many of us haven’t experienced since we were infants. It is an amazing – and intense – series of treatments and herbal medicines taken over the course of three to six weeks depending on the condition. The patient is encouraged to remain quiet, relatively inactive, and with limited mental stimulation for the entire time, hence the residential setting – it’s just not as effective if you are going back to your usual home routine each night. It can be a very difficult endeavor mentally and physically. At the same time, some of the treatments (like shiro dhara, pouring a steady stream of oil over the forehead) have become known even in the west for their relaxing and calming qualities. For many, the time spent alone in such a simple environment is the biggest challenge.

Vaidyagrama is a pancha karma center, so in addition to learning theory about outpatient care that will be relevant to my own client-based practice when I return to the States, we have the privilege of observing and learning from an amazing group of patients as they go through pancha karma here. The most influential part of my education, I suspect, will be the last month of my time here, when I will go through pancha karma myself.

In the meantime, last week I had an outpatient consultation with Dr. Ramdas and Dr. Harikrishnan (the other senior physician here) to start me on a regimen of herbal medicines. They gave me a restorative and immune boosting prescription to strengthen my body and joints in particular and to support my immune system. The most exciting part is that I now get to make my own medicine.

The kitchen - note the square holes under the stoves where you feed the fires.

Every other day now I must go to the storeroom (or “store” as they call it), pick up my 60 gram packet of dry herbs mixed according to my prescribed formula, add 1200 ml of water, and boil until it’s reduced to one quarter of the volume, or 300 ml. Now, that word “boil” sounds simple enough in the context of our typical kitchen in the States. Here, however, the stoves are powered by fire. While they have gas camping stoves in each of the treatment rooms, the gas supply is very precious and is only used to heat up one dose of medicine, not to cook a decoction. Over a gas stove, it would take about thirty minutes. Over the fire, well, suffice it to say I’m learning!

Palani the chef, a.k.a. "Meshay Ma Ma" (Mustache Uncle)

Last Friday night was my first attempt. Let me tell you, that stove was tough to get going for this fire-building novice. Luckily, Palani, one of the chefs, was very helpful after watching my inadequate attempts. Regardless of the fact that we can’t speak a lick of each other’s languages, communication about basics is relatively easy. He stuffed the right sized palm fronds in first as kindling, lit one frond from an adjacent burner, used a bamboo tube to blow air into the fire, and once the fire was started he added cakes of “bio-fuel” (compressed organic waste bricks kind of like charcoal). After he got the fire going, I just had to maintain it. All in all, it took me about two hours, including fire building and tending time, to reduce the volume of the decoction sufficiently.

I am sure I’ll get more efficient (God willing), but for now, I am just going to assume that the investment of my own energy into my medicine will give it an additional healing effect. Despite its bitterness, it did have a certain sweetness that I am sure comes from my own sweat.

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