The ancient healing practice looks nothing like Western medicine
By Deborah Quilter for Next Avenue
Credit: The Raj
I love Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old medicine of India. Its crown jewel is panchakarma (“five actions”), a deep rejuvenation protocol performed in a serene place, where you receive bliss-inducing spa treatments, not unpleasant Western regimens.
Instead of needle sticks in fluorescent-lit rooms, you receive luxurious oil massage from two people at once. Instead of a battery of computer-driven tests, a wise, kind person takes your pulses. Instead of pounding at the gym, you practice yoga and meditate. This gentle regimen, alleged to help with even serious maladies, can leave you glowing with vibrant health.
I’ve always wanted to experience panchakarma, so I booked a three-day package at the Raj, a spa specializing in traditional Ayurvedic treatments. (Packages range in price from $2,200 to $6,800, depending on duration.)
To prepare for my stay, I must adhere to a two-week dietary plan plus a castor oil cleanse. In Ayurveda, digestion is king. That which is not digested turns into ama, a substance that Ayurveda practitioners believe clogs the channels that our energy runs through and wreaks havoc with health.
Therefore, great attention is paid to cuisine. Food must be freshly prepared for each meal; leftovers and anything that has been refrigerated is verboten. So, for the days before my visit, my diet consisted of well-cooked vegetables, rice and dal. No raw foods were allowed.
The food part of the diet was fairly easy; giving up tea was not.
I drank fewer cups in the morning, none in the afternoon, then decaf, and finally herbal teas.
After landing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and taking a long ride over country roads, the car makes a left turn onto the tree-lined drive, and the majestic Raj appears. I am ushered to a serene room. Vedic chanting fills the air from the radio. (That was designed to get my circadian rhythms back in tune, I learned later.)
They serve an elegant vegetarian meal in the dining room. Then, to bed.
I feel completely underwater my first morning at the Raj. A headache looms. Maybe I didn’t stop the tea for long enough.
First, I visit with guest services manager Keli Dean, who orients me to the program. She explains how Ayurvedic massages would work to loosen toxins. There would be a thermos of hot water in my room. “Drink one and a half to twice the amount of water you usually drink,” she advises.
The treatments and oils are also designed to loosen toxins; bastis (oil enemas, which are optional) pull the toxins out so they don’t stay in the body. Ayurveda works on emotions, too, she explains, so in my desk I would find an “In Silence” pin that I could wear if desired. “That will help us respect your wishes — and also offer additional support if you need it,” she says.
Next comes a meeting with Mark Toomey, Ph.D, the Vedic health expert. He looks at my tongue, eyes, and fingernails and takes my pulses.
“Are you having trouble with your eyes?” he asks. Yes, I was. Mark reachs for a bottle of rosewater and dazzles my face with fragrant mist. How refreshing! “Keep this by your computer,” he advises.
He writes my instructions: a ginger decoction before meals, teas during the day and some herbal tablets at night. He also recommended treatments according to my dosha, or constitutional type. There are three doshas: Vata (which governs movement), Pitta (heat and metabolism) and Kapha (physical structure). Everyone has all three, but one or two can predominate, and any can be out of balance.
Mark emphasizes that the technicians’ job was to make me happy and that I shouldn’t hesitate to ask for anything. “The treatments are for quieting that busy mind of yours so you feel more blissful,” Mark declares.
My first day of panchakarma (universally called “PK” at the Raj) has been rough. A headache has dogged me all day, and detracted from the experience. The four-handed oil massage (abhyanga) administered by two technicians is skillfully done, but I feel heavy and sluggish afterward. Perhaps the massage, said to facilitate the release of toxins from the tissues, actually worked and my discomfort is the result. We were told transient symptoms could occur.
A technician brings me an Ayurvedic remedy, a black salt drink. If my discomfort is not gone tomorrow, I may drink green tea, as one person suggested. Meantime I’m fairly miserable; hoping to be sung back to health by the Vedic voice on the radio.
At dinner I wear an “In Silence” pin. I am too wiped out to chat. Besides, Mark said I needed to eat mindfully. Silence would help.
I’m entranced by the glowering Iowa sky — a hugely pregnant cloud slowly descends. Any moment I expect thunder. I struggle to stay awake, then give up and go to bed at 8:30 p.m. I sleep soundly until 6 a.m.
The headache has receded but still haunts the outskirts of my brain.
Ayurveda speaks to all the senses. I shower with vanilla-scented soap, dress, walk onto the veranda and allow the wind to dry my hair. Birds flutter. A curious bumblebee visits; a fountain burbles to the left. Fluffy cirrus replaces the glowering sacks of gloom from last night. (We were told to close the windows of our room if we leave because the weather can change in an instant.)
My first treatment today: pizzichilli, aka the “King/Queen/Royal treatment.”
Gallons of warm oil would be poured over my body ceaselessly for 36 minutes. That sounds like sheer heaven. In the changing room I don a cotton loincloth with elastic bands, and am ushered into the treatment room, where I sit on a chair. The technicians lift my feet to wash them and put a hot water bottle underneath. Then someone pours oil on my head, swirling my hair around gently. They knead my shoulders and neck, then ask me to lean forward while they massage my shoulder blades and upper back.
Then I am told to lie on the table on my back. Warm oil is hosed over my body starting at my feet. It’s hard to explain the kind of bliss that brings.
“Who thinks of these things?” I wonder. What genius came up with this idea?
Somewhere in the middle I am told to sit up and they take a cube of iced coconut oil, massage it on my forehead and then tie it to the top of my head with a strip of muslin cloth. The cooling coconut was a wonderful counterpoint to the warm oil. Occasionally they take the coconut and rub it across my forehead.
Rest, then lunch — a crêpe filled with vegetables. I sprinkle the vata churna (a delicious mixture of spices to help digest food) on it. Mark gives me a sheet on how to eat mindfully. Take a bite, chew well. Layer the food with sips of warm water, then wait and check in with your stomach and see if you still need more.
The real test comes at desert; there is delicious fruit compote. The old me would’ve eaten the whole thing because it tasted so good. But I wind up taking a few bites and leaving the remainder because I know I have had enough.
After lunch, I return to my room and realize how driven I am to do. I ignore my cell phone, the link to the outer world.
Next up: Gem light therapy.
This treatment “promotes higher states of consciousness,” according to the Raj, beaming light through 13 precious gemstones. Higher states of consciousness sound pretty good to me right now; maybe it will calm my Worry Mind.
The technician takes an instrument resembling a small flashlight tipped with different gems, shines them on my left palm and asks me what I feel. All the sensations are unique: a dancing butterfly, a needle, a Ferris wheel, a downward spiral. The gems, mounted on a flat, pronged apparatus, are poised above my body as I lie on the table. Maybe I would feel nothing, she warns. “It’s very subtle.”
I sink into sensation. At first I feel very heavy, but an hour or so later, I am infused with energy. My headache is gone.
I’ve finally arrived at a point where I feel better. Now a treat: marma massage. I’ve always wanted to do this: it’s supposed to clear blockages.
There had been a mix-up with the technicians; so the manager moves heaven and earth to make this treatment happen for me. It begins with lying on the stomach with arms resting overhead. Then my two technicians — Lynn and Mary — begin to trace geometric patterns on my back from head to toe. They go very fast — four hands strumming my ribs as they sail up and down my limbs. At times they cross over so that the technician on my right is reaching over to my left side and vice versa.
Then onto my back. Starting at my fingers, they sweep down my arms, circle my navel twice, change hands to the opposite side, and go down to my toes. How could they go so fast and yet stay in such perfect sync? Yet they did.
Afterward, they said it was a real workout for them. Both of them enjoy giving this treatment.
At dinner, guests (many come yearly) compare notes. Some wear turbans over their oil-anointed heads to let the benefits continue. No one wears makeup. Everybody’s skin glows.
A woman talks about her massage and shirodhara, where warm oil is drizzled across your forehead for 20 minutes. “I kept thinking: Can this get any better?” she says. “And then they put on another hot towel.”
In the evenings, there are lectures in an upper room filled with cozy couches. Warm milk and a slumber tea are served.
I awake at 6 a.m., flip on the radio for the final dose of Vedic chanting, and gaze outside. There’s a large hole in a hazy gray cloud. I open the window to get one last shot of grass-scented air. Birds chirp to each other madly. Do I hear distant thunder? Yes, it had to be — I was awakened by some lightning piercing the night sky.
How can I leave this beautiful place?
I see Mark for my home instructions.
My prescription? I am to take herbs (Stress-Free Emotions, Stress-Free Mind, Vital Lady and Digest Tone); massage myself with Goddess Massage Oil; drink Vata tea; use a special nasal oil; and infuse the air with Blissful Heart, the aroma of roses. (Rose scent apparently does wonderful things for the brain.) Last, deep relaxation, breathing and walks in nature.
I like this medicine.
The benefits are supposed to continue after panchakarma is complete. For me, they did: I had more energy, slept soundly and my mind was focused. My blood pressure, which had been creeping slightly upward, went down to normal.
Next time, I’m staying longer than three days.
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