February 26, 2013

The Adventures of Studying Ayurveda in India.

In a country with over a billion people, little infrastructure and a great deal of open sewage, it seems only fitting that I should be writing about shit.

It all began in Savasana early in the morning, on a rooftop in South India…

Floating across the warm breeze, the cheerful ring tone of a cell phone gently drifts to my ears.

“Excuse me?”

At first the doctor’s voice doesn’t register.

“Excuse me ma’am?” I begrudgingly open an eye, squinting against the sunlight and see the doctor, who is also our yoga teacher, hovering over me.

“You have treatment ma’am. Enema.”

This may come as no surprise, but there’s really nothing like hearing the word “enema” to make the rectum clench.

“Thank you?” I respond, and jump up, heading to meet my unexpected fate.

To back up a little, I am studying Ayurveda here at the source, in a wonderful Ayurvedic and integrative medicine hospital in Madurai, down in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In addition to the theory of Ayurvedic treatment, our program involves daily Panchakarma here at the hospital. Meaning “five actions,” Panchakarma is a powerful series of treatments used in Ayurveda to cleanse, detox, heal and prepare for the change of seasons. Often mistaken for simple massage in the West, it actually ranges from head massage and nasal oiling, to vomiting and purgation, steam treatment to induce sweat and the aforementioned enema.

Upon arriving and receiving my consultation with Dr. Rameesh, a third generation Ayurvedic doctor and director of the hospital, it was determined that I should be placed on a nourishing treatment plan, as opposed to the detoxifying measures being undertaken by some of my counterparts. So while my new friends here drank copious amounts of ghee in preparation for their vomiting sessions, I enjoyed nightly massage and wrote gleeful emails to my friends at home. So, in the name of balance, I guess something had to give.

Enema, or vasti in Sanskrit, is often performed using oil, water or milk to release toxins from the body and enhance the general downward flow of energy.

My personal history with enemas involves a sole instance prior to my appendectomy at the age of 10. I remember the nurse explaining that they would administer the enema, and after “a few minutes” I would need to go to the bathroom. I remember the “few minutes” being a misjudgment on the nurse’s part, and getting to the bathroom in time being an unreasonable expectation. So, based on personal experience, things were not looking great.

On the plus side, this experience starts out a bit more glamorously. Back at the ranch, I’m relieved to be handed a pair of Tarzan-like disposable underwear and a hair net which I’ve come to learn here are sure indications I’ll be receiving a full body massage. I troop dutifully into the bathroom to change into this attractive attire. Then, largely naked, I head to the massage table.

Since you’ve read this far, I can only assume you’re dying to hear about the enema! Here’s how it went down:

>>Thirty minutes of full body oil massage (Abhyanga), using medicated sesame oil and performed by two therapists working in rhythm. This helps to move toxins from the periphery of the body towards the center, where they can more easily be released.

>>Thirty minutes of massage using bags filled with rice and herbs that are dipped in hot milk and applied to the body. In Ayurveda, milk is believed to have a nourishing effect on the tissues.

>>I’m instructed to drink two cups of hot rice water, Kanji.

>>A seemingly interminable amount of time in the steam chamber receiving Swedhana, heat therapy, which is at least as hot as it looks. In addition to wondering if there’s any skin left on my shoulders, I attempt some deep breathing and silently beseech my therapist to free me with what I imagine were the most panic-stricken eyes she’d ever seen. She did not comply.

>>Back to the massage table. I lie on my left side, now slippery with oil, milk and sweat. I’m instructed to breath forcefully out my mouth several times (I later learn this is to reduce the pressure in my abdominal cavity to keep me from pooping all over the massage table). Enema. Ouch. Similar to first enema experience in terms of reaction time. Now add excrement to the fluids I am sliding around in.

>>I sit up in a hurry and then shuffle awkwardly to the bathroom. Enjoy the effects of vasti with therapist hovering over me ordering me to drink more Kanji.

>>I thank Krishna for showers.

Purged of toxins, dignity and inhibitions, I can honestly say I’ll do it again! Next week in fact, according to the good doctor.

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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