It was a balmy weekend in August.
I was home at my apartment in Los Angeles, reading in bed, when my inbox pinged to inform me that the medical lab reports I had been anticipating had arrived. I had hit my late thirties and was not in the best of health, to put it mildly. I was overweight, smoked too much, ate whatever I could get my hands on and had developed a painful gout in my toes that flared up every few months. I had been aware for some time that I was in trouble and this confirmed my suspicions.
The report showed a cholesterol count that was off the charts: high blood pressure, inordinately high uric acid levels and indications of borderline diabetes.
According to the medics, a heart attack was only one of several possibilities if I didn’t take drastic measures soon. I was sliding down a slippery slope and would have to take things into account or face the consequences. I realized I would have to get far away from my embedded routine and go somewhere with no moorings to my familiar habitat.
Having read up on numerous class action lawsuits initiated against major pharmaceutical companies for egregious violations of public safety and consumer trust, I had developed an aversion to Big Pharma, and wary of the side effects of hard prescription drugs—particularly liver damaging anti-inflammatory medication and cholesterol lowering Statins. They are invasive short-term remedies that extract a heavy price for the benefits they offer.
I had long been fascinated by indigenous and traditional systems of medicine, and after considerable research took what seemed like a leap of faith at the time and had myself admitted into an intense Ayurvedic regimen in the south Indian coastal state of Kerala.
Ayurveda means ‘Science of Life’ in Sanskrit. It was the holistic healing science of ancient India that had been practiced for at least five thousand years and down the ages had spread to the Far East, Arabia and Europe.
In late October of this year, after a long flight from Los Angeles and a two hour drive from Cochin airport, I arrived at Athreya Ayurvedic center, on the outskirts of Kottayam town at approximately 4 pm.
As I was driven into the grounds, the first thing to hit my eyes was an imposing statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman facing the entrance. Upon arriving, I was greeted by a smiling attendant and shown to a cottage facing a vast expanse of paddy fields that was to be my home for the next three weeks.
Soon after unpacking I was taken to meet Dr. Srijit, the head physician, for initial consultation. Without much ado he began to ask various probing questions while taking my pulse and peering into my mouth. This is the traditional method of Ayurvedic diagnosis that enables Vaidyas or ayurvedic physicians to identify the patients core issues and design a tailored program for their specific needs based on Tridosha readings.
According to Ayurveda every living organism is controlled and governed by three major life forces known as the Tridoshas. The Tridoshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha—all physical and mental disorders occur when these three Doshas lose their innate balance in the body.
Vata is attributed with qualities reflecting the elements of Space and Air. It governs movement in the body, activities of the nervous system and the process of elimination. Vata influences the other doshas.
Pitta contains the qualities of Fire and Water. It governs the body’s internal functions—digestion, metabolism and energy production. The primary function of Pitta is transformation.
Kapha connotes the Water and Earth elements. It governs structure and is the principle that holds cells together and forms the muscle, fat, bone and sinew as well as influencing the secretion and formation of body fluids.
When the levels of these Doshas become either excessive or deficient, disorders begin to occur.
Broadly similar to other holistic systems of classical antiquity, Ayurveda classifies bodily substances in the context of the five classical elements (Sanskrit ‘Panchamahabhuta’):
- Earth (Prithvi)
- Water (Jala)
- Divine Fire (Tej)
- Air (Vayu)
- Ether (Akasha)
Divine Fire (Tej) is the primordial essence from which pitta emerges and pitta in turn manifests as Agni in the human body. Agni plays a vital role in the creation and maintenance of the seven basic tissues or vital substances that constitute the human body called Dhatus, which in Sanskrit means ‘that which binds together.’ Ayurveda postulates that there are seven dhatus in all.
- life sap or Plasma (rasa)
- blood (rakta)
- muscles (mamsa)
- fatty tissue (meda)
- bones (asthi)
- bone marrow and nervous tissue (majja)
- semen (shukra
Daily food intake is converted into life sap or Rasa, which in turn transforms into blood or rakta; rakta transmutes into muscle or mamsa; mamsa is further transformed into fat or meda; meda is the precursor to bones or asthi; asthi forms bone marrow or majja and majja produces the ultimate dhatu i.e. semen or shukra.
According to Ayurveda, it takes one hundred drops of Rakta (blood) to produce a single drop of Shukra (semen), thus making it the most vital and refined substance created by the body, indeed the ‘essence’ of life.
Ayurvedic treatments are designed to penetrate all seven dhatus for the deepest possible healing to take place.
The doctor described a fairly demanding and rigorous daily schedule which included the five integral Ayurvedic cleansing and detoxing modalities—known as Pancha Karma—combined with medication, a simple but nourishing vegan diet and a regular morning yoga regimen.
Tea, coffee, dairy products, meats, sweets, fried foods, tobacco, alcohol and refined carbohydrates were strictly off limits. He also advised me to be psychologically prepared for mental and physical changes and fluctuations that may occur due to the intensive therapy.
The Athreya Center had been tastefully designed in the traditional Kerala style, utilizing mainly wood and laterite, by Dr. Srijit’s father-in-law, Dr. Girish. The ancient healing science had been practiced and taught by his ancestors for 600 years, a tradition that continues to this day in a seamless progression. Handsome portraits of the family patriarchs going back five generations adorn the walls of the well appointed reception area.
The retreat is nestled in a bucolic hamlet and surrounded by a network of canals flowing into the gorgeous Kerala Backwaters. Floating water hyacinths, vivid green paddy fields and gently swaying coconut palms, Ficus, Pipal, Banana, Papaya, Ashoka and Eleocarpus trees punctuate the Vedic symmetry of the resort. It includes a yoga room, a treatment center, ten residential cottages and a separate chamber for training in ‘Kalaripayattu’—the ancient martial art of Kerala, widely believed to be the source of later disciplines like Kung Fu and Karate.
Treatment started on the first day itself. Pancha Karma (the five actions) is a comprehensive system that facilitates the flushing of toxins from every cell, using the same organs of elimination that the body naturally employs such as sweat glands, blood vessels, the urinary tract and the intestines. It specifically addresses a toxin called Ama, one of the most damaging forces in our bodies.
Poor digestive fire, or weak digestive strength, leads to improper digestion of food. This results in gas, bloating, burning indigestion or constipation. In addition, a residue of this poorly digested food called ‘Ama’, accumulates in the digestive tract, overflowing into all bodily systems, clogging them and damaging tissues.
I was led into a building at the edge of the property and after stripping off all my clothes, made to lay supine on a raised wooden platform. Two male attendants wrapped my groin area with a ‘langot,’ which is a local variant of the jockstrap. They then began pouring a warm medicated solution over my body from head to foot. This process, known as Dhanya Amla Dhara, continued for over an hour.
The liquid is a blend of fermented puffed rice, lemon, tamarind, Amlaki and a few other herbs. Amlaki, commonly known as ‘Amla’ or Indian Gooseberry is one of the ingredients in the ubiquitous Triphala. The continuous and prolonged flow of the astringent solution penetrates to the deepest levels of body tissue, muscle and bone, facilitating the removal of lymphatic blockages and enhancing lymphatic circulation.
No exposition on Ayurveda is complete without talking about Triphala, which was given to me at the retreat three times a day. Tri-phala (Sanskrit ‘three fruits) is made from the dried and ground fruits of three trees that grow in India:
1) Amalaki or Emblica Officinalis, is one of the most commonly used herbs in Ayurveda. It is a powerful antioxidant that contains 20 times more vitamin C than orange juice. It strengthens the immune system and cools the body, balancing the Pitta dosha.
2) Haritaki or Terminalia Chebula is the strongest laxative of the three. The herb also has astringent and antispasmodic properties, balancing the Vata dosha.
3) Bibhitaki or Terminalia Belerica helps remove excess mucous in the body, thus balancing the Kapha dosha. In addition, to being an excellent rejuvenative, astringent and laxative, Bibhitaki is very effective in curing lung conditions like bronchitis and asthma.
Dr. Sujit Basu of Ohio State University and his team of researchers recently found that administering Chebulinic acid (the active molecule in Triphala) to cancer-afflicted mice showed significantly reduced growth in cancerous cells. The ayurvedic medicine, as well as its main active constituent, the chebulinic acid, have been shown to block the action of a body chemical called vascular endothelial growth factor (VGEF) that plays a critical role in the formation of malignant tumors.
Evidently, ayurvedic physicians and indigenous healers were aware of these properties thousands of years before the information became available to the West.
The medicated body wash was followed by a vigorous abdominal massage to loosen up stomach toxins. Recent medical findings have shown that the abdominal tract, especially the large intestine, contains as many neurons as the brain itself and therefore plays a vital role in ones overall mental and physical well being. Abdominal massage also helped to flush out the accumulation of Ama in the viscera and various organs.
However, I went to bed that night feeling disoriented and slightly sick. I was not able to sleep very well and stayed up for most of the night tossing and turning in bed, coughing my lungs out. My neck, arms and belly were covered with a reddish rash.
The next day, in a panic, I called Dr. Srijit who allayed my fears by saying it was a natural reaction to the intense detoxification and internal cleansing that had been set in motion by the treatments.
Clearly my smoking habit for the past several years was now paying dividends!
Ayurvedic therapy did not suppress health symptoms but rather brought them out so they could be tackled more effectively. Understandably this was seldom an agreeable process from the perspective of the average city dweller, accustomed to allopathic quick-fix remedies.
The doctor had attendants bring me a glass of bitter green liquid extracted from the medicinal leaves of a bush growing right outside my cottage called Vasaka or Adulsa. I was instructed to take two teaspoonfuls every half hour combined with a heated herbal poultice or ‘kizhi’ applied on my neck and chest region thrice a day. The coughing was rendered bearable by the treatment and eventually subsided after a few days.
The next day I was shown a rather disturbing instructional video of Dr. Srijit undergoing the process of Vamanan or the stomach wash; the first stage of Pancha Karma. Following a vigorous abdominal massage, I had to swallow several tumblers full of a muddy, slightly sweet liquid—Yeshtimadhu or Liquorice—that caused deep heaving, retching and vomiting—expelling all the muck that had attached itself to the stomach walls over time.
It was not a pleasant experience and at one point it literally felt like I was puking my guts out. Post Vamana, I felt strangely euphoric and was rewarded by a Shiatsu massage to the head by Gopu, my experienced therapist.
David Winston and Steven Malmes, in their comprehensive study of the subject titled, ‘Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief,’ have expounded the virtues of Liquorice as an adaptogen which helps regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
The active compound Glycyrrhizic Acid found in liquorice, is in common usage across Japan for the treatment and control of chronic viral hepatitis as well as regenerating damaged cells caused by liver injuries. Recent studies have also shown Glycyrrhizic Acid exhibiting a strong anti-viral effect.
Natasha from Moscow and Luis, a retired film producer from San Sebastian, Spain were my only companions at the resort, it being the low season. On a day off, the three of us decided to explore the Kerala backwaters, the access to which was only twenty minutes away from the center.
Upon arriving at the jetty we were led to a traditional Kerala riverboat and soon began our cruise down one of the most beautiful and pristine bodies of water I had ever seen.
The Backwaters are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes, created by the commingling of sea and freshwater, lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast. The network includes five large lakes linked by a labyrinthine network of canals, almost 900 kilometers long, fed by 38 rivers criss-crossing half the length of Kerala state.
Crabs, frogs, mudskippers, terns, kingfishers, cormorants, otters and turtles are some of the creatures that thrive in the lush habitat generated by the unique eco-system, often compared to the Bayou of the Gulf Coast region in Louisiana.
*Look for Part 2 coming soon.
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Assistant Editor: Dana Gornall/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo credit: Elephant archives