The Living Tradition of Ayurveda:
The Promise of Ancient Treatments and their Fulfillment
The heavens have opened for my arrival in India and the rain descends in noisy torrents, leaving me awash in the wonders of this celestial offering. I have just arrived from the dry gulch asceticism of the desert in the United Arab Emirates for a three week sojourn at an Ayurveda Clinic in South India. At the Cochin airport, a small, lovely, user-friendly place well designed for weary travelers arriving in the pre-dawn hours, I am welcomed by the sight of a taxi booth offering fixed, fair prices, and just beyond the arrivals door lay a group of stalls selling mobile phone chips. There is nothing more that I need but a taxi to get me to my destination and a local phone chip to connect me with my world beyond the borders of this great Sub-Continent.
One of the reasons I went to India at this time of year is to enjoy the torrential downpours that the monsoons promise the parched sensibility of people like me, who have lived in one of the Gulf countries for years without the blessing of periodic rain to drench our days with its luxuriant outpouring. I have now arrived at the well anticipated moment when I would again retreat from the cares and worries of the world and subject myself to the demanding, ritualized treatments that distinguish the Ayurveda philosophy of healing and cure. As the rain came down in glorious sheets of silver, drenching the villages and surrounding countryside with its benevolent blessing, my miniature taxi made its way toward the clinic tucked away in rural India about an hour from the airport. The taxi driver spoke limited English; but enough that led me to understand that he didn’t have any idea where the Vaidyaratnam Nursing Home was situated. I have learned, however, after years of living in the Middle and Far East that ignorance of time and place hardly troubles the locals. There is always a shop or passerby who will gladly guide the expectant traveler to their rightful destination. I have learned after years of travel that even should my chosen guide be nothing more than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way; our destiny comes to us in spite of ourselves and we are never truly lost.
I have already had treatments at the Vaidyaratnam Nursing Home two times before and had a vague idea where it might be. I soon recognized the winding road that leads to the seclusion of this remore clinic, set on the fringe of a majestic palm grove. It is ultimately I, the exotic foreigner already too old for his years, who shouts to the local driver, “take a right here; it’s just down that road.” Of course, he didn’t understand a word I said, but didn’t need to, for suddenly their were signs in Hindi and English, the beloved arch at the entrance of the driveway, the manicured lawns and gardens, and finally the familiar, modern three story building lying in wait to greet me and all those aspirants who come seeking a cure for their ailments with the promise of well being and the welcome of its warm embrace. It was 5:30 in the morning and I was mentally and physically prepared to surrender my body, mind, and spirit to the demands of this ancient, traditional approach to AYUR – VEDA, the science (knowledge) of life.
I have told my colleagues and friends that I am spending three weeks of my summer holiday in a clinic in India to have Ayurveda treatments and they look at me blankly without a clue about the retreat-from-the-world adventure that I am about to embark upon that could just as well be on some other planet. I would not be sun bathing at a resort in the Maldives or wandering through the Khan al-Khalili, the seven century old grand bazaar in Old Cairo, or trekking through the foothills of Katmandu in search of the snow leopard. On the contrary, I was about to embark on a journey of body, mind and spirit through the heartland of traditional treatments and inner disciplines that promised to return to me the balance and well being that is the rightful legacy of a sound body and unencumbered mind, treatments that virtually guarantee a blessedness of spirit whose inner reflection of the outward physical condition becomes a testament to the principle of unity that lies at the heart of the traditional spiritual wisdom.
I must forewarn my previous readers that they may revisit some of my descriptions of the hot oil pummeling, the bundle massage, the nasal oil treatments to clear the head and brain, the bundle massage whose poultice is steeped in hot oils in a wok at the foot of the wooden platform upon which lies the forlorn patient. They may not have forgotten my description of the long and tedious 24-hour days with their relentless monotony, when I had to live with myself in a small but comfortable room overlooking glorious paddy fields and a majestic forest of coconut palms. In compensation, however, they may find a few new treatments that I was able to experience firsthand on my most recent trip back to the clinic.
My first encounter with the ancient and almost mythical approach to disease, cure and overall well-being based on the Hindu Vedas and its metaphysical philosophy of sound and balanced living, was in 2001 when I had been suffering from tendonitis of the shoulder. In near exasperation from nearly a year of Western orthopedic treatments, including electric shock and ultra-sound at a nearby hospital at tremendous expense, I had turned to the promise of cure coming from an Ayurveda doctor I met while living and working in Muscat, Oman. “Their treatments are methodical and slow,” he warned me, “but they are effective and they cure the problem rather than cover up the symptoms. Go to India and you will be amazed at the results.”
The aging, white Ambassador, with its classic, old-world aura and looking distinctively Indian, a vehicle recalling the shape of the classic cars on display in 1940s gangster movies, made its way through the teeming rain and stately palm trees swaying in slow motion in the lingering darkness of the early morning dawn. Yes, I had arrived early; the night was drawing to an end, but morning’s brightness and clarity were still far off. As I approach the front door to unload myself and my luggage for a three week stay, there was the faint whisper of ancient sutra music floating through the palm trees that surround the building and a light breeze emerged from the depths of the night carrying the spicy scents of the local environment. The ethereal, indeed spiritual cadences and harmonious rhythms virtually give shape to the sense of the sacred with the coming of the dawn and defines the moment as quintessentially Indian, along with the chattering of colorful birds flitting in clusters through the tamarind trees and the heavy, burnished scent of dark and mysterious incense that floated out of the building’s entrance to greet me with its smoky and inscrutable charm before making its way heavenward. For a moment, I wished I knew the names of these exotic birds, but have to remain content with endeavoring, as in child’s play, the meaning of their calls and trills and realize it is enough to appreciate and enjoy their early morning antics in the early dawn light. Some of them chirp so sweetly that I imagine their voices to be nothing more than pure honeyed souls giving voice to their hearts contentment through their otherworldly song.
Upon arrival, I am remembered from my previous stay three years ago with graciousness and warmth. An attendant escorted me immediately to my room on the top floor in the corner of the well designed building, the very same room I inhabited the last time I was here. The room overlooks the paddy fields and coconut palm plantations; a number of lived-in cottages with thatched roofs break the monotony of the stately palms that are now pregnant with rounded coconuts ready to fall. At first, the room seemed unfamiliar and smaller than what I remembered, like a grownup who returns to a childhood haunt only to realize that everything looks different, squeezed through the sieve of past memories and smaller somehow, giving off an aura of faded autumn leaves and evanescent smoke. I quickly unpacked the few articles of clothing I had brought with me and set aside my little library of books that would serve the idle hours of the coming three weeks. What did I bring with me but compilations of both Tolstoy’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, which hold up very well several centuries later amid the palm groves of Kerala, literature that is truly universal that can withstand not only the test of time, but also whose significance and import still touch the mind and hearts of modern-day readers. I also squirreled away some dried prunes and apricots as a special treat in the evenings that I permitted myself amid the austerities of the moment, not knowing exactly whether these things were permissible amid a regime that was not only well defined and rigid, but truly ascetic.
I knew from previous occasions that there were certain foods I definitely could not eat, such as fresh fruits of any kind, although boiled bananas were permissible for those with a taste for them, nothing fried, processed, denatured or carbonated. Only natural foods were permitted, and while the canteen below provided me the three meals a day that would sustain me through my ordeal, it was strictly vegetarian, cooked with such exotic Indian spices as cumin and coriander; but without the corrupting infusion of any of the routine oils we are accustomed to cooking with in the outside world. In compensation for the denial of such routine fare, I knew I was coming back home to a place where I would be meticulously cared for through treatments that extend back in time through thousands of years, ritual therapies that find their roots in the ancient and traditional philosophy of medicine and life as it is outlined in the sacred Vedic scriptures.
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In entering the confines of the Vaidyaratnam Nursing Home, I was entering the oldest known science of medicine originating in India over 5,000 years ago. Key elements of this ancient science of life have been preserved with the sacred Hindu scriptures of the Vedas, not only as a source of medical knowledge from the ancients; but also as a complete philosophy and way of life. As such, it has been called the “mother of medicine” and has had major influence on the development of medical philosophies and approaches to health among the Arabs, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. It is remarkable, as well as fortuitous, that this knowledge has come down through the ages and is still practiced in certain remote places of the globe as a vital and living tradition. The Ayurveda philosophy comprises a completely holistic approach to health and healing, together with a well-defined and fully comprehensive system of knowledge that traces the fine line that exists between health and illness, that outlines the causes and interactions that take place within the body, and that prescribes a life style and way of living that should form the basis of childhood education in terms of developing a pro-active lifestyle conducive to balanced living and healthy routine in terms of exercise, diet, nutrition, work, waking and sleeping. It is a way of life based on sound traditional practices that we could take into the future of our adulthood as a matter of “second nature”.
The three predominant objectives built into this philosophy and way of life are proactive, preventative and curative: To increase strength, energy, and longevity within the corporeal system, to prevent illnesses from occurring by following a balanced lifestyle that abides by the internal rhythms of life and the outward seasons of nature, both in the human body and within the natural order of the world, and that are in keeping with the particular nature and body type of the individual. We are not all the same, but rather come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, not just in the sense of height, weight, and racial distinction; but also in terms of the particular body type that characterizes the true nature of the individual. To this end, Ayurveda is broken down into eight branches or categories of interest, including internal medicine, the condition of the senses (eye, ear, nose, throat, and skin conditions), general surgery, toxicology, mental health or psychiatry, pediatrics and geriatrics, not to forget procreation, reproduction, and ultimately longevity.
The preparation of the herbal remedies that form the basis of the cure is a complex science involving plants, herbs, roots and minerals; the formulae may even include gems, crystals and metals crushed into fine powers and processed for internal use by the practitioner. The remedies come in many forms, including powders, tablets, pastes, decoctions and infusions, and not to forget the carefully prepared medicinal oils that form the basis of the traditional massages, oils that are boiled in huge vats, infused with the life-giving properties of a multitude of herbs, plants and roots, according to strict recipes and formulae that ultimately become the preparations and medicines that will affect the desired cure, either through internal medicines or through the massage therapies. The body experiences a natural feeling of health and well being when all physical systems and functions are balanced, and the mind and soul are returned to a stable and peaceful condition. The body, in this instance, will have high immunity, strength, and resistance to the corruption of all pervasive diseases. When a component of the internal systems of the body is in an unbalanced state, the environment for disease is established.
According to this ancient philosophy of medicine, the cycle that inhibits the normal functioning of the body and leads to the deterioration of heath commences with the imbalance of one of the tri-dosas, either of vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata represents a predominance of the elements of space and air, and is the most important of the tri-dosas, responsible for all movements in the body and governs the transportation of all fluids and wastes, even the movement of food through the digestive tract. Vata is also responsible for the functioning of body components and is the driving force of the other dosas. Modern lifestyles are particularly vata-aggravating, including activities such as excessive travelling, suffering from jet lag, staying up late at night and other erratic lifestyle routines that are in contra-distinction to the fundamental rhythms of nature and the fluctuations implicit in the changing of the seasons. Pitta represents fire and Kapha represents water and earth. Any imbalance of tri-dosa can serve as the root cause of physical sicknesses and disease.
According to the principles of Ayurveda, there are three factors that form the framework and ground of the Ayurveda process of life. They are mental (involving the mind and the intellect), physical (involving the body generally and the use of the senses), and environmental (including seasonal variations and other natural rhythms such as the movement from day to night and back to day again, and the environmental hazards and pollutants that we are all now well familiar with). In addition to excessive thinking in the forms of fear, worry, and undue and chronic preoccupations, the mind—and the body that reflects the condition of that mind—can be affected by excessive talking, reading, surfing the Internet and all the related activities associated with that technology.
Ayurveda also draws a clear and distinct relationship between sickness and negative mental activity. These include habits, such as lying, gossiping, or back-biting and negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, envy, avarice, as well as other factors prominent in today’s world, such as depression, anxiety and stress that have become such hallmarks of today’s lifestyle. Excessive attachment to material possessions, fantasies, and delusions also find a place in the spectrum of influences that can have a negative effect on the physical presence of a person. Needless to say, excessive melancholia and sadness, while they may have their role in instances where there has been a death or other personal tragedy, seriously affect a person’s mind and also have their natural role in the life cycle. These things have a natural shelf life as it were, and should not be allowed to flourish at the expense of one’s overall health and well being in this life.
As for the senses and the body in general, there are any manner of excesses that can satiate these organs and cause harm by overburdening them beyond their natural capacity, including the blatant misuse of the senses, excessive eating and drinking, loud music and sex, as well as other aggravating factors, such as improper diet, life style, irregular routines for exercise and sleeping and the like. Finally, mention should be made of the effect of the environment on the overall health and well being of the body, mind, and spirit of the individual. Without belaboring the point, it is perhaps enough to say that environmental conditions, including pollution of every sort, seriously affect the body with destructive toxins. Ayurveda also considers the negative efforts of extreme variations in temperature, rainfall and wind that also have a bearing on the inner balance and equilibrium of the individual, not to mention the natural disorders that are usually associated with specific phases of life and the aging process. Also, there are external factors that can affect the body and these include bacteria, injury, accidents, fire, poisons, and unusual proximity to animals. Finally, Ayurveda refers to a fourth category that includes natural disorders such as thirst, hunger, tiredness, and old age. This is why emphasis is also laid upon longevity, not as a magic elixir, but as a natural process of balance and rejuvenation in extending the life cycle of the body to its natural capacity.
While Western medicine relies mostly on analytical testing of their patients using the sophisticated technologies that are now universally available, the typical Ayurveda doctor still relies on the age-old practices in examining the symptoms of the patient and arriving at a diagnosis that is not only studied and comprehensive, but based on the condition of the body itself as well as the life style and routine of the individual. As such, the doctor will listen carefully to the patient while he is discussing his or her ailments and the nature and extent of the pain; but will also probe and question the patient in order to get a fuller picture of what ails them, including the intensity of the pain, the extent and length of the experience, and any related aspects that may shed light on the problem. In addition, the doctor will take note of the color, texture, and state of the skin, eyes, hair, nails and tongue of the patient. Physical build, robustness, and age of the patient will be obvious factors to study in the diagnosis. Interestingly enough, the sounds of the body also play a major role in the diagnosis, including respiratory or digestive noises, tone of the voice, and noises made from joint movements or the neck and shoulder muscles. The doctor will take note of the pulse as well as the odor of the tissues and wastes, including perspiration, breath, body odor, and stool, either by observation or through questioning. The entire demeanor of the patient during consultation provides the doctors with additional information. Finally, the doctor will make an assessment of the emotional state, the overall strength and vitality of the patient and will not overlook the attire, posture, body language, breathing patterns and even gait and bearing of the person. Then the Ayurveda doctor will make an assessment of the overall condition of the patient before making a critical judgment call regarding the course of the cure.
The practical therapies provide the keys for the cure. This process is no quick pill that creates an overnight miracle that may perhaps mask the pain or numb the symptoms; but does nothing to cure the original problem at its source. The natural therapies have as their underlying purpose the re-balance of the three dosas of vata, pitta, and kapha; but they also focus on the elimination of toxins from the body and the increase of a person’s vitality and overall immune system. In this philosophy, a healthily functioning corporeal system naturally stands against invading sicknesses and diseases that people in a weakened physical condition are easily prone to. Treatments can also be conducted on healthy people in order to cleanse and rejuvenate the body and to enhance the existing state of health and to increase the lifespan of the person. These treatments are especially helpful to older people, even if they do not complain of a specific ailment, except perhaps the usual symptoms of old age, including tiredness, lack of energy, slowness of movement and perhaps insomnia.
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From previous experience, I had made a point of arriving on a Thursday, knowing full well that treatments commence only on Friday and Tuesday, a tradition that goes back several thousand years and is based on arcane astrological considerations. That evening, I was ceremoniously brought down to the inner sanctum of the nursing home for my initial consultation with the Senior Resident Dr. Mooss, the aging patriarch of the Vaidyaratnam Nursing Home. He was accompanied by a much younger Ayurveda practitioner, named Dr. Nasser, whom I would get to know better in the coming days. I was happy to see Dr. Mooss once again, thinking the last time I was here I might never see him again. He sat behind a desk that dwarfed him in size, carefully reading the document I had written earlier in the day describing in meticulous detail my condition and state of health. As he belabored his way through my hand-writing and descriptive turn of phrase, asking the nurse occasionally for help with the English, he gave nothing away and looked every bit the inscrutable sphinx. I told him that he looked exactly the same as when I first met him, although nine years have now passed since my first encounter with Ayurveda. He smiled impishly, as though he had a secret he would never disclose. After much whispering in rapid-fire Malayalam, the local language of Kerala, he laid out the plan of therapy for the coming week, starting off with the famous and now familiar “bundle massage”, followed by the quirky, oil-in-the-nose treatment called nasyam that I was also familiar with from previous experience. That ought to clear out my sinus passageways and refresh my weary brain, I thought with grim determination.
The next morning, I saw Dr. Nasser once again and he was able to clarify a number of issues and procedures that I would need to know during the course of my treatment. In a sense, I felt that he was taking me “under his wing”. He was a new doctor and had not been in residence during the previous visits to the nursing home. He spoke impeccable English of course; but in his manner of delivery, he came across as exceedingly formal and very correct. He too wasn’t going to be giving too much away beyond the polite façade of professionalism and concern. He knew that I had written about my previous experiences at the Ayurveda Clinic and was curious to know whether I would be writing about this experience. “Of course,” I immediately replied, “you had better be careful what you say, because as soon as I get back to my room, I will be making notes.” A flicker of alarm swept briefly across his face before breaking out into a broad smile, followed by robust laughter. I could see that I was able to break through the thin façade of respectability and professionalism to reveal a very human person. “You will be having the bundle massage early tomorrow morning at 7:30, so you will have something interesting to describe in your writing,” he suggested. “Indeed,” I replied, “I will be describing the process down to every last drop of medicated oil.”
Each week has its own distinctive treatments and its own unique benefits leading to the ultimate goal of the cure. Appropriate timings are crucial in the course of the treatment. This attention to detail includes the commencement of the treatment itself, which must be either on a Friday or a Tuesday, and lasts for precisely seven days whence a new treatment will commence after consultation with the Chief Resident, the aging Doctor Mooss. Similarly, certain treatments take place in the morning, while others traditionally take place in the late afternoon and vary according to the rhythms of the day. At 7:30 sharp the next morning, I heard a knock on my door and the familiar sight of a masseur, dressed in the distinctive uniform of a deep, sky blue, cotton shirt and pants. Being a veteran to the place, I had donned a simple cotton pullover and a Malay surong, while underneath had trussed myself up with the g-string that the management had fortuitously left in my room, together with four cotton towels to alternatively provide service during the course of my three week treatment.
I was about to make the perfunctory walk, a kind of “green mile”, down to the treatment room with the masseur as protector and guide when I noticed that he was looking at me with an unexpected twinkle in his eye. “Mister John,” he inquired with a smile and a slight nod of the head. Recognition immediately spread like the morning dawn through my subdued brain. “Sugatham,” I cried, “my old masseur.” And he quickly replied with a laugh, “Not so old.” He took me by the hand like a long, lost brother, as though a thousand years, and not merely three, separated us from the last time I had enjoyed the blessing of his treatments.
Once inside the treatment room, I laid aside my earthly garments, except for the protective g-string for the sake of privacy. Feeling every bit as vulnerable as the day I was born, I climbed once again upon the massive treatment board that I reported earlier was carved from a single tree trunk and equipped with all the accoutrements, including a drainage system that was required for some of the treatments. It is true that we carry with us a natural shame that accompanies the feeling of nudity in the company of people who are dressed, a feeling of natural modesty that would be akin to what Adam and Eve felt in the presence of themselves and others after the Fall in the Garden of Eden, so I felt in good company. In fact, there were a number of workers in the room, including a second masseur who would be taking part in this week’s treatment, a third attendant to handle the gas burner and keep the medicated oil in a wok just at the end of the treatment board, already smoking with the burning oil. To them, this is a sacred ritual in which they play a key role and took no note of my nudity any more than they would take note of an old suit of clothes.
I climbed warily but thoughtfully onto the wooden treatment board. As I sat there being oiled down by the two masseurs, I glanced around the room to refresh my memory of all the sights and sounds that went into making up this rarefied atmosphere. Of course, more dramatic than anything else was the magnificent view afforded through the French doors and out beyond the balcony, a vision of flooded paddy fields and ancient palm groves whose venerable antiquity cast a soothing spell across this enchanted setting. I could hear the compelling lull of the Vedic sutras being sung in rhythmic chorus in the background, sacred scriptures that were brought into the treatment room through a speaker system controlled downstairs in the reception area of the building. In one corner of the room, at eye level, there was a little shrine to the god of health; the flickering candle attesting to the transitory nature of health and well being, in addition to making its salutary offering, all the while illuminating the wispy picture of the god. To complete this exotic setting, a soft breeze blew gently through the open doors of the balcony, bringing with it the beloved smells of nature, of cows and cut grass and fresh rain, to lend of their innocence to the incense, smoke and earthy candor of the medicinal oils that infiltrated the room with their musky presence.
In addition to being a form of cure that sinks deep into the pores and sinews, muscles and nerves of virtually the entire body, the so-called “bundle massage” that was to be the essence of my first week’s treatment was also a virtual assault on the human body. For one hour, every limb and extremity was being probed and pounded by, not one but, two masseurs, combining their efforts to instill the medicinal goodness contained with the poultices they had at hand steeped with rice and fresh herbs. Four hands and thus four red hot poultices pounding up and down first the arms, held akimbo in various directions by the two masseurs, up and down the tender flesh and cavity of the chest, stomach and soft underpinnings of lower belly, with their fiery bundles dripping with hot oil. The poultices are kept hot in the smoking wok and used alternatively by the over-zealous youths when they lost their edge of fire and flame. The upper front torso complete for the moment, they moved down in orchestrated symphony to the legs and feet where nooks and crannies of the body I hardly realized existed were exposed to the fiery flames of the hot poultice again and again in pursuit of the ritual ceremony of the cure. The arm or the foot or the tender flesh between the toes, or even the broad shelf of the upper foot, has to bear the insult of the probing massage, wakening pain and inflammation that lingered silently within the body and only needed the catalyst of the bundle massage to reveal their truly evil nature.
A half hour into the ordeal, the well oiled body was then carefully turned over on the slippery board and treated in a reverse manner up and down first the neck and shoulders, world weary from supporting for so many years the shelf and porch of the head crowning the torso, and then the broad field of the upper and lower back, soothing age-worm muscles and lower back tendons that are in desperate need of servicing. The treatment concluded with the body once again lying on its back; the masseurs in unison running great, bold strokes from head to foot, aligning the muscles and nerves back again into their rightful places and forcing all the congestion and accumulated toxicity of the body down into the extremities of the feet, ultimately to work their way out of the corporeal system through sweat, breath and defecation. The session complete and on the command to rise, I lifted myself up like a moth with drooping wings as from a drugged stupor and sat with my legs dangling from the side of the treatment board in tender submission to the ministrations of the masseur. Then begins what I called the towel massage, in which Sugatham toweled me dry, not once but twice to rid the body of the slippery oils. He then escorted me back to my room to complete the sacred ritual, and with a smile and a bow, he graciously took his leave. His parting advice was that I should rest for 20 minutes before having breakfast. Indeed, I merrily made my way through rice dumplings and a thick rich vegetable curry before looking forward to the unfolding of the rest of my day.
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The reader may think that being confined to my room for three weeks, except for ritual visits to the canteen downstairs for my daily meals, might be a lonely experience. It might well have been, if it weren’t for the daily round of visitors in the form of service people who came to my room to check on me like dragon flies hovering over a summer pond. The day began with my early morning wake up call in the form of the rattling coffee cart. The pungent smell of coffee brought me back to earth and lifted me beyond the surreal slumber of my dreams. The nurse stopped by a little later with the astonishing bottles of herbal medicines that I took every morning, noon and night, and each one of her visitations brought with her an enchanting smile. Next, the water carrier came down the corridor wheeling a large apparatus of steaming tub of hot water perched on a metal cart, purified and medicated with rose water that he faithfully poured twice a day into a pitcher in my room. After my early morning treatments, the breakfast waiter brought my curries and chapattis in a silver tiflin that I wolfed down with pleasure and abandon.
At some point in the morning, the laundry woman bashfully entered the room and quickly deposited the laundry from the previous day onto the shelf of my cupboard; She was faithfully followed by another nurse who took my pulse and blood pressure, joking impishly that my blood pressure was far too normal for an old man such as myself. Once every day, a bevy of nurses in their white saris came in to change the sheets of my bed, chattering all the while like birds in a tree, leaving behind their laughter until their return two days later with their contagious mirth. Not to be outdone by the other service workers, the public relations woman and the maintenance man came at separate intervals to inquire about my needs and whether I was comfortable. And I must not forget the regular surveillance of the doctors and their entourage of nurses who came twice a day at mid-morning and mid-afternoon to inquire after my health, my mood and bodily functions. Finally, I must not forget the cleaning women who entered my room like thieves in the night, wary of this exotic foreigner who sat on the bed yoga style, while they swept the room clean of dust and insects and pieces of food that may have accumulated during the day. Their distinctive saris were colored a deep maroon and they too left behind their sense of wonder and respect for the foreigner in their midst. All told, the presence of these individual punctuated my days with their faithful attendance and filled the sometimes lonely hours of my day with their simple banter and sincere good will.
The highlight of the second week of therapies was scheduled to occur in the late afternoon, and was called sirovasthi, siro meaning head and vasthi referring to keeping oil within. The essence of this treatment required the masseur to place a tubular cap on the head, much like a British top hat without the surrounding brim or resembling an elongated Turkish fez, open at the top to allow for the introduction of the medicinal oils. This was a treatment that induced excellent results, according to the doctors and masseurs, and was intended to alleviate the chronic tension and congestion that I had complained about to Dr. Mooss when I first arrived at the clinic.
I was having my mid-
afternoon coffee break, thoroughly absorbed in a fascinating short story of Tolstoy, when I was abruptly interrupted around 3:30 by the masseur who had come to fetch me. This time, I was brought down into a basement treatment room that did not afford the panoramic views of paddy fields and palm groves. I was led into a cubicle enclosed with hanging curtains on three sides with a wall to my back and set down on a hard wooden chair with side arms. Once again and not to be forgotten, I was stripped naked but for the beloved (and protective) g-string as a concession to my privacy. I had a different masseur, a little guy with a strangulated, squeaky voice who looked very young, but who I later found out was in his early 30s. I immediately asked him his name, wanting to firmly establish the connection between masseur and patient and he said it was Manooj.
Manooj turned out to be a capable little fellow with strong hands and an exacting manner, precisely the virtues that were required to set up the elaborate construction that was to take up residence and occupy my head for at least 45 minutes every afternoon for the next seven days. At first, he massaged my head, forehead, face, neck, and shoulders with the medicated hot oil that I had now become well familiar with, and he was ever vigilant to avoid any stray contact with the eyes. Then, he proceeded vigorously with a bundle massage, similar to what I had undergone the previous week; but limited to the areas of the head, face, neck, and shoulders and only for a short period of time. Then, with the aid of another masseur, he began the meticulous procedure of securely placing the conical cap atop the crown of my head. Needless to say, this required some doing in order to ensure no leakage of oil down into the sensitive areas of the face, eyes, and ears.
Firstly, he wrapped a thin strip of gauze cloth, treated with some kind of pasty substance, around and around and around yet again my head and forehead at the point where this elaborate crown would sit. Once done, he massaged the area with his fingers and thumbs, ensuring that it was well sealed and well positioned, to provide the foundation and support for the conical cap. The hat itself, when at rest on the floor, looked like a piece of elongated synthetic material, 2 to 3 feet long and about a foot high. At this point in the procedure, both masseurs positioned themselves to first place, then wrap, this elaborate construction around my head, not once but seemingly two to three times, sealing it shut finally with a gluey paste. Once firmly in place and feeling a tad heavy on the head, like a true crown perhaps, another round of pasty gauze was wrapped multiple times around the base of the cap, in order to place the final, universal seal on the entire procedure. Still, Manooj wasn’t satisfied, but spent several more minutes carefully scrutinizing around the base frame of the cap and massaging the area in order to ensure that the enclosure was shut tight. I sat there as though star-struck, not quite understanding what had happened; but fully aware that there was an elaborate and heavy contraption sitting atop my head and wondering what would happen next.
I had been told that the session would last 45 minutes, and Manooj was quick to inform me that the clock would start ticking once the oil had been poured into the cap, not most notably from the time he started the bundle massage across my head and shoulders. “Are you ready for the oil,” he asked me obligingly. “I guess so,” I bleated meek as a lamb, knowing I had no choice in the matter. He proceeded to pour a liter of warm medical oil on top of my head within the well constructed confines of this conical crown. He went round and round my chair, making a complete inspection of the apparatus to ensure that there was no leakage taking place and that nothing would seep down into my ears or eyes.
At first, I sat there as though stunned into submission and unable to move. Perched on my head was a liter of warm oil enclosed within a make-shift cap. Not only was it heavy; it seemed as though I had all the oceans of the world contained within the crown on my head. At the slightest movement, either of the head, or by shifting my body to accommodate an increasing stiffness, would induce what seemed like tidal waves swooshing and swirling from side to side of the cap and echoing the surging waters of the Pacific within the intimacy of my ears. I could move my eyes from side to side and up and down; but that was slight consolation to the habits of a lifetime. When Manooj bowed down in front of my face and peered up into my eyes, peeking from under the shelf of the cap, to ask me if I was ok, I unconsciously said, “Yes,” not wanting to give away any concern I already harbored this early in the process, even though I felt like I might not be able to pull this off. Already forgetting the precarious nature of my situation, I erringly nodded my head. This set up a wild movement of the oil in surging waves that nipped the brim of the cap and nearly spilled out, reminding me that I needed to pay attention and keep my head still at all cost.
I eventually settled into the routine, knowing full well that I had to sit absolutely still and not move a muscle unless I wanted to unleash the surging oil sitting atop the crown on my head. I simply steeled myself and fell into a kind of remote control, refusing to allow my mind to wander until this ordeal would be finished, refusing to fret to myself about how uncomfortable I felt. Once the apparatus was in placed and filled with a liter of medicated oil, Manooj set about massaging my neck, shoulders, and arms, careful not to move the body or stir up the oils within the cap. From his vantage point, he could see into the cone and knew precisely the extent that he could move me around in order to accommodate the movement of the oils.
In this way, time passed. I managed to slip into a kind of controlled and conscious meditative state, as though frozen in time and completely detached about the passing of the moments in slow motion. After what seemed like a good 45 minutes later, Manooj bent down and looked smilingly into my eyes, and announced: “Finished.” Finished indeed, I thought, and a wave of relaxation flowed through my body like a soothing balm. I only need to do this six more times, I reflected with precision, since the treatment followed weekly cycles and needed to be adhered to religiously.
As with all ordeals successfully endured, its terminal point and release felt like a glorious awakening. I fleetingly wondered how they were going to get the oil out of the cap; but the ever vigilant Manooj quickly placed bundles of cloth into the cap to absorb the oils which he promptly wrung out into a metal container. After a dozen attempts, the cap was finally cleared of all oil. Manooj unraveled the outer cloth sealant, and proceeded to unwind the bulky apparatus of the cap. Finally, the inside cloth sealer was unwrapped from its tightly constricted application and my head was at last liberated into a feeling of sublime accomplishment, having passed through the gates of Thermopylae and arrived at the other side. I had sat through this final procedure completely abandoned to the process and awaiting this final resolve of absolute freedom from the constraints of balancing this open sea of oils on my head. The unwinding of the conical cap felt like the great unraveling of the turmoil of my own inner spirit and an inner calm spread throughout my mind and body at having successfully completed this unusual experience.
Manooj toweled me dry with meticulous care, and in traditional style, he escorted me back to my room, carrying my towels for me and making sure that I arrived safely back into my room. I couldn’t help but marvel at the meticulous planning and attention to people’s sensitivities that were built into the routines of the treatments as a complement to the holistic and spiritual approach that served as the underpinnings of this entire process of therapy and cure. On the way upstairs to the third floor on the elevator, I wanted to ask Manooj a question that I had been concerned about during the treatment and his English was good enough to understand what I was saying. “Why did you keep asking me if I was ok, Manooj; do some people have trouble with the treatment?” “Oh yes,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Some people get headaches or feel dizzy. It is difficult process,” he added with understatement, “and some people not can take the oils into the system. You very strong,” he affirmed with a smile. And I thought, indeed, it was a good thing that I didn’t know that certain negative reactions were possible; but now that I had gone through the process successfully once, I didn’t anticipate a further problem, either physical of psychological, in the days to come.
On the fourth and five day of the treatment, there was a slight variation. I sensed that the time seemed to be getting longer and longer. I noticed that, after what seemed like an extensive period of time, even with my detached attitude and sense of resignation to the treatments, I was beginning to feel a growing ache and gentle throb that showed promise of getting much worse around the band at the base where the head had been tightly bound and where the cap rested in position. Manooj wistfully smiled when I began to mumble uncharacteristically, moving slightly in the hard wooden chair that held up the bare bones of my skeleton. “Time almost finished. Yesterday, we do 50 minutes and today we do full hour!”
I groaned inwardly when he added that there were only five more minutes left to endure. That, I thought, I could put up with without further complaint. Meanwhile, the stately Dr. Nasser crept silently into the curtained enclosure of the treatment area, a hallowed area set aside from several other patients being treated to the bundle or body massages; all of us being treated to the rapid-fire chattering of the masseurs speaking their beloved language Malayalam. The doctor’s shadow fell across the floor as he leaned down from the heights to address me. “Are you all right?” he inquired and I once again felt alarmed at the question, wondering what was behind it. “Why?” I mumbled through my teeth, unable to move an inch without setting off a tidal tsunami atop my head. “Some people have reactions to the process. There may be seepage through the eyes or dripping through the nose,” he explained in a deadpan manner. “In these cases, it means that the head has reached a point of saturation and the patient can no longer tolerate the infusion. You tolerate very well,” he concluded with a smile and disappeared as silently at he has arrived, with his shadow following behind him.
In this way, I managed to endure sirovasthi, an Ayurveda therapy that is reported to have excellent benefits for the head, neck, and shoulders in treating the aggravation of muscle and nerve problems that arise particularly in this day and age where people spend endless hours hovering over computer terminals.
* * *
By the commencement of the third week, I was well accustomed to my routines and adjusted to the limited environment of the building, with its rooftop panorama of the surrounding countryside and its canteen on the ground floor that serviced the gastronomic needs of the patients. The rooms themselves were well appointed, with comfortable beds, overhead fans, and full bathroom. Some of the rooms have balconies and those facing west offer the bucolic setting of sub-continental India with its flowing palm trees, thatch-roofed cottages, and paddy fields populated with bullocks and buffalos and the occasional cows. I sometimes sat on the balcony for hours on end, alternatively reading or simply watching the pastoral life of the local villages beyond the confines of my little room. I could see across the palms groves clear to the horizon, staring into the dark green mist that accompanied the monsoon rains, as if penetrating the emptiness of time and space from the confines of my little porch. At night, before retiring to well-earned slumber, I sat on the balcony in order to absorb the serenity of the night sky and the brilliance of the stars. The pastoral scene that during the day kept my imagination alive with images of cows and cranes and flowing palms became at night a sheer wall of darkness. The balcony itself was a passageway to silence, an entrance to solitude, a trapdoor to the beauty of the Milky Way. Every night I sat there in the dark, in awe at the unexpected pleasures that life has to offer.
My leisurely days drank in the serenity of my environment as one of the treatments of the cure, a kind of parenthetical pause from life’s troubles and turmoil, far away from the mega-cities we are all familiar with, the noise and pollution that we have grown accustomed to and accept as a way of life, oblivious to the extent that it is injurious to our health and well-being and habituated to the presence of its evil by-products. With nothing else to do but watch the rhythms of the day from dawn to morning to noon to dusk, you feel lulled into a cloud-like trance by the natural rhythms of the passing hours. In these rhythms there arises a reflective image of the inward self that we normally have little time for and less inclination to explore, unfolding the secret messages that may be lying in wait for the reflective soul. The changes in the weather, the torrential rain followed by a sultry sun, the movement from the light of day to the darkness of the night awakens a new awareness to the natural order around us; but that also lies within us as a subterranean well, haboring a consciousness that we can draw upon in times of need. The passing of the days in this serene environment provided its own therapeutic blessing to the mind and heart. I noticed one rainy morning well into my stay that I had finally given up a lifetime habit of nibbling at my fingernails. An unconscious ritual that I have lived with for years had finally taken its leave on the stealthy ship it had originally arrived on in childhood, a profound tribute to the deep-seated and pervasive effect the Ayurveda treatments have on the total person, affecting everything from breath to pulse to the sound of the voice.
A strict regulation of the nursing home for patients undergoing the Ayurveda therapies was that they could not leave the building and expose themselves to the elements of the weather. The initial process of the cure breaks the patient down, particularly through the bundle massage, driving out the undue toxins of the body and awakening the latent inflammations that lie within the tissues and nerves, setting in motion a process of rebalancing within the corporeal system. As such, the doctors didn’t want the patients to be exposing themselves to the sun and rain, or roaming around the local villages where they might be exposed to alien bacteria or viruses that could lead to undue sickness that might interrupt the course of the treatment. I had heard from other patients that they considered their extended stay in the nursing home like being in prison. I remember that the first and second time I came here, I also felt confined within the limits of my small room and had to get used to being with myself. This time, however, I welcomed the serenity of my days, the extended time in this sublime setting without the perpetual stress and rat race that we have grown accustomed to in our regular, working world. The process of inner healing could take its natural course without the intrusion of the modern world.
For the third and final week of my stay at the nursing home, Dr. Mooss prescribed the full body massage with warm medicated oil and the treatment called nasyam, or what I referred to earlier as the oil-down-the-nose treatment. Every morning, I was taken to the treatment room by the masseur on duty for the full body massage. I had complained of stiff neck and shoulders from long hours sitting in front of the computer at work, and special attention was given to these aggravated areas. As the masseur worked his way systematically down the body, from the head and neck to the legs and feet, first on the front side, then the back of the body, he produced long sweeping strokes up and down the body meridians, working out the congestion in the muscles and moving the body’s nerves back into alignment. As I underwent this massage, I noticed that there were many areas of inflammation within the body in places I didn’t even know existed, on the back of the hands and the tops of the feet, for example, or along the inside of the legs, producing unbelievable pain, as the masseur worked his way through the pain threshold in order to release the toxic congestion that had accumulated over the years. By the end of the massage, I felt truly exhausted, as though I had done a days work, and for several days after the release of the toxins into the corporeal system, I felt a little sick until the toxins had a chance to work their way out of the body through the natural channels of sweating, breath, and bodily movements.
One final treatment worth mentioning was the aforementioned nasyam or oil-in-the-nose treatment. Whenever I describe this treatment to people, they always recoil in horror at the thought of warm oil being poured down the nose; but in point of fact, it isn’t half as bad as it sounds and its benefits verge on the miraculous. I had been through this treatment before on previous visits to the clinic and knew what to expect. In the late afternoon, the doctor and his attendant came into my room and asked me to lie down on my back with my head raised on pillows. Hovering over me like a dragon-fly, the doctor the poured warm, medicated oil down first the right nostril and then the left. I was expecting a stinging pain akin to what you feel if you ingest water into the nose while swimming; but with the warm oil, this was not the case. The soothing oil trickled down the inner sanctum of the nose cavity and ultimately landed on the shelf of the throat, at which point I had been told to expectorate the accumulated phlegm and mucus from within the passageways and pockets of the skull.
Just after depositing the warm oil into the both sides of the nose, the doctor vigorously massaged the face, nose, and forehead, thereby activating the sinus and other pockets within the head and skull that tend to have phlegm and mucus embedded within those regions, sometimes for years, liquid that is full of bacteria and disease, with the potential for untold damage to the body. Small wonder, then, that people often come down with colds in winter or at the change of the seasons at the slightest provocation. I had three treatments on consecutive afternoons, and during this time, I noted that considerable mucus and other forms of congestion has been expectorated from the inner confines of my sinuses and skull. This treatment resulted in the incredible feeling of what I call “clarity of mind”, amounting to a feeling of conscious presence, as though soothing waves had washed away the clutter of my mind, leaving behind the serene calm of a glacial pond as the true representation of my inner consciousness, free at last from the polluted fluids that are the physical counterpart to the worried and ever restless coloration of the human mind.
As with other visits to the nursing home, I had the opportunity of meeting some interesting people that might not otherwise have crossed my path in this life. In the first week, I had the place to myself, the only foreigner amid a full complement of Indian patients. I met Urs in the second week, a Swiss national who was suffering from psoriasis, a chronic condition of the skin and joints that affects some people. He had been successfully treated a few years ago at another Ayurveda clinic in the region and was looking for another successful cure, this time a permanent one. By the time I left the clinic several weeks later, he was feeling much better and was showing marked improvement of the unsightly skin condition he was suffering from.
I also met an interesting Indian couple who had settled years ago in Nairobi, Kenya and established a profitable business there. Like myself, these two lively people not only laughed at all my jokes, they were also there for “body maintenance” and “rejuvenation”, just like myself. They both had a youthful bloom in both body and spirit that belied the years they had accumulated in their lifetime. They were encouraging me to come and visit them in Nairobi and would arrange for me to go on safari, a secret dream of mine that has yet to be fulfilled. I hope someday soon to be able to take them up on their offer. Like ships passing in the night, they left soon after we met. Just before taking their leave of the place, they made a point of coming to my room to say goodbye. I joked that they looked brand spanking new, all fresh and alive, like the new dawn, as we bade each other farewell.
By the time I had arrived at the end of my three week stay at the Ayurveda Nursing Home, I didn’t want to leave. I had grown accustomed to the beneficial therapies and I was feeling much stronger, more relaxed, and clear-headed than when I had arrived. It seemed as though I had shed years like a snake sheds its skin. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t feel full of aches and pains that I usually felt when rising from bed. I felt a looseness and flexibility of body that was a wonder to experience, and I moved with a speed and agility that I hadn’t known for years. While I still resembled some grand Methuselah with my patriarchal beard and balding crown, I felt years younger, willing to give up twenty years of memories in return for this compelling feeling of youth and well being.
At departure, the irritation of the world met me at the door. I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 2:00 in the afternoon for a 5:00 pm flight back to the UAE. In true Western fashion, I parked myself down in the lobby with my suitcase to await its coming in naïve innocence that people arrive on time for appointments. I had made the arrangements myself and had spoken with the taxi driver on the phone only an hour before. When 2:00 came and went, I knew I was possibly in for a dangerously long wait. However, true to the unexpected nature of the place, an old cream-colored Ambassador taxi emerged through the monsoon rains to take me to the airport.
As we drove into the torrential rains, I gave one backward, lingering glance at the nursing home in a vain attempt to capture and hold onto the essence of the experience before it drifted back into the sweet dreams of distant memories. There to behold were the paddy fields, palm groves, and tamarind trees with those colorful birds flitting through the shimmering, wet leaves with their frantic chatter. The sound of Vedic sutras floated from afar, the solemn cadences of the music filling the air with their sacred sentiments. Dr. Nasser stood at the window watching the rain in a moment of reflection, while the nurse who took my blood pressure every morning crossed the lobby in her crisp white sari on the way to her daily rounds. The librarian sits patiently in his lending library awaiting this latest installment of the Ayurveda story. These people and many others, who provide the benevolent health services day in and day out, will continue to fulfill their sacred vocation by giving hope and, ultimately, benevolent health to the sick and the weary. As I drive under the welcoming arch and make my way back out into the world, I thank them silently with all my heart for the blessings they have extended and wish them well, in return for their outpouring of sincerity and good will. We live in a finite world; but there have been timeless shadows to this experience that whisper sweet mysteries in our ears about the promise of the Ayurveda treatments and the miracle of their cures.